Evangelicals and Climate Change

February 21, 2018

Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment, by Mitch Hescox and Paul Douglas (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016)

Paul Douglas describes himself as “a Christian, serial entrepreneur, meteorologist, Eagle Scout, and staunch Republican.” He forecasts the weather on Minneapolis-St. Paul TV. He believes that people “should be open to the facts, even when they make us squirm.”

Mitch Hescox comes from a coal mining family. In college he “encountered the truth, relevance, and mystery of the Bible.” He spent eighteen years pastoring a local church and then entered a national ministry centered on evangelism. He now heads the Evangelical Environmental Council.

These two authors believe that “there’s a place for science and a simultaneous faith in real absolutes, like a sovereign, all-powerful God. We believe in God. Science we test. And careful observations in the real world confirm that our actions are having unintended and profound consequences.” Their goal is “to turn down the volume of rhetoric, antagonism, and name-calling and focus on finding common ground: faith-based solutions that elevate personal responsibility and conservative values to tackle problems that face us” (p. 17).

Ideas discussed in this 169-page book (plus notes) can be summarized under three recommendations.

First, pay attention to what is happening to the weather, our climate, and the well-being of people and creation. They list six trends that got their attention and that readers should keep in mind; 1. Heat Waves, Droughts, and Wildfires; 2. More intense precipitation events; 3. Sea Level Rise; 4. More Intense Hurricanes; 5. Ocean Acidification; and 6. More “Weather Whiplash.”

Second, reaffirm the biblical doctrine of creation by a loving God and recover the God-given responsibility to care for creation.

Third, make creation care a major part of your life, thereby expressing your love of God and doing your part to bequeath the world to generations still to come.

The authors refer positively to Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. These two books have much in common, which means that people whose religious commitments differ significantly can find value in reading both books. The Pope’s analyses and proposals are more comprehensive that those given by Hescox and Douglas, but their book, Caring for Creation, is more focused on environmental challenges in the United States. Both volumes can be recommended as religiously sensitive and complementary studies of the environmental crisis facing the world.

For many readers, the most important chapter is the one entitled “We Can Do It—With God’s Help.” Its thesis is: “By working together with God as our guide, we can rebuild our land with unpolluted air, pure water, healthy kids, and good jobs powered by new energies. All of which can also be shared with all of God’s children around the world. . .Government can’t do it, business can’t go it alone, and we won’t be able to do it by ourselves. But we can do it together” (p. 141).

The chapter abounds with examples of actions now under way that are making the kind of difference that will accomplish the hopes that Hescox and Mitchell recommend. Although the author’s do not include a reading list, their thirteen pages of notes provide leads to a significant number of studies, reports, and statements of opinion.


Saving the Planet: a short list of books with a hopeful point of view

January 30, 2018

It may be that people talk about the environment and climate change even more than about politics. Newspapers and electronic media run feature articles with vivid photography, and new titles show up on book lists, it seems, every day. Which should we read? How can we develop a point of view and course of action that make sense and offer hope? In connection with a seminar on this topic at my church, I developed a short reading list. These books are keyed to what I, along with many others, believe to be one of the most persuasive publications on this subject in recent years, which is the book that tops the list below. The books that follow are happily consistent with the “integral ecology” that is key to Pope Francis’ book.

On Care for Our Common Home: Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality by Pope Francis (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015). Pope Francis describes the crisis now facing creation and outlines a biblical doctrine of creation to point to a new future. He says that wisdom from many sources is needed and he describes the future we should develop as an “integral ecology,” a world in which both people (especially the poor) and the natural world prosper.

 

Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017). An “unrepentant capitalist” and the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club write paired essays on seven topics and a unified conclusion in which they state their belief that a better future can be achieved as people everywhere, and especially in cities, take doable action now.

 

Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes, edited by Susan Charnley, Thomas E. Sheridan, and Gary Nabham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). It includes essays by ranchers, environmentalists, and government officials in the southwest who discuss “community-based collaborative conservation” that protects land and waterways from abuse while making it possible for people to live in these regions and prosper.

 

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, by Steven Solomon (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). The availability, utilization, and control of water has from ancient times until now been one of the most important factors in human life, both of individuals and the larger communities in which they live. Solomon presents a detailed history of this history and of the current state of affairs. He believes that the societies that find the most innovative responses to the crises related to water now facing the world will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fall behind.

Green LivingGreen Living: The E Magazine Handbook for Living Lightly on the Earth, by the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine (New York: Plume, 2005). The book consists of thirteen chapters on topics ranging from “smart food choices, natural-fiber clothing, socially responsible investing, the healthy home, planet-friendly cars, using transit and bikes, and the rewards of reuse and recycling. Each chapter is arranged in short discussions of basic ideas, practical suggestions, and further reading. The book focuses on what people can do rather than on what they should do.


Caring for Creation: Spiritual Wisdom that Can Save the Planet

January 24, 2018

A recent book I can’t set aside is Pope Francis’ on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home, which was published in 2015. In this book, one of the world’s most respected spiritual leaders describes the environmental crisis that threaten people everywhere, explains ways in which human activity contributes to changes in the environment, and casts a vision of the transformed world that people like us can help to create. He declares that many kinds of wisdom are needed, but as a representative of a biblically-based Christian faith community, he offers his guidance from that perspective. His ideas can be summarized under five headings.

God’s design for creation: God’s love has brought creation into existence and every creature is enfolded by God’s love. God has given a special responsibility to humankind, to care for creation. We are to respect its laws and the “delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world (¶ 68). “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our powers” (¶ 78).

The human response: Human beings misunderstand our original assignment to care for the world and its creatures so that each part lives in ways that are consistent with God’s design. Instead, we act as though we are in control, with the right to dominate all things for our own good. Pope Francis talks about the cult of unlimited human power and the “technocratic paradigm.” We master natural processes and do with them as we will.

The results: Some of the results of our technological prowess are good and lead to better lives the world over. Even so, our manipulation of nature also gives us power which often we do not use well. The exercise of this power can lead to suffering, destruction, and death. “When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay” (¶ 122).

Vision for the future: Pope Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to describe his vision of the world we can help to create. “Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop.” Since all aspects of life are interrelated, he continues, the term “integral ecology” describes the world we hope to live in. The Pope discusses environmental, economic, and social ecology; cultural ecology; and the ecology of daily life. He affirms the importance of “the principle of the common good,” and the fact that this principle extends to future generations. If we face these issues courageously, we will be led to a deeper understanding of our purpose in the world and be able to live with greater dignity (¶ 160).

The response by people of faith: One of the strengths of the Pope’s encyclical in his emphasis upon the need for insights from all sources of wisdom: religious, scientific, philosophical, economic, political, artistic, and all the others. He also urges dialogue at all levels—individual, local, national, and international. As is appropriate for a leader of the Christian faith, he concludes his book by discussing “ecological education and spirituality.” He writes that “we have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends,” and encourages people to develop simpler life styles. Doing so, he continues, could have a positive effect upon businesses and lead then to give more consideration to the environmental impact of how they do business. In our faith communities we need to provide education and encouragement to help people live in simpler, gentler, and more peaceful ways.

The Pope concludes the encyclical by reaffirming the value of Christian sacraments in leading to a way of life that is right for us and for the world. He discusses baptism and the live-giving qualities of water; eucharist (the communion service) and the way that food and drink connect us to God and one another; and the Sabbath (weekly day of rest and gladness) that helps us live a slower and more fulfilling life.

Other people also are publishing books that provide solid information and persuasive recommendations for how people in developed countries can live their way into a new future. A later column in this series will give a short list of those that I find especially helpful. The encyclical is published online by the Vatican and also is available in several trade editions from book dealers.


A Biblical Ethic for Using Land and Water

June 14, 2017

Reviewing Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis; Foreword by Wendell Berry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Throughout the Bible references to the natural world abound. Although mountains and deserts, fertile fields, wind and thunder, floods, drought, and fire are mentioned frequently, readers tend to overlook these passages while studying the Bible. We pay more attention to early religious history and teachings about doctrine and social ethics.

Ellen F. Davis’ book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, urges readers to give more serious attention to these texts so that the allusions to the land, agriculture, and water become the primary focus for study.

Davis also recommends that readers revise their method of interpreting the texts they read, especially the prophetic and poetic portions of the Bible. Our normal approach is to figure out what a text meant in its original setting, but our presuppositions often lead us to misunderstand what those original meanings actually were. Before we can even move into exegesis, therefore, we should pay attention to how our own life experience skews our ability to read literature from another time and place.

Davis then proposes that modern agrarianism can serve as a major line of thought about what should be normative in social systems long ago and in our time. Agrarianism, she writes, “is a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures. Often out of step with the prevailing values of wealth, technology, and political and military domination, the mind-set and practices that constitute agrarianism have been marginalized by the powerful within most “history-making” cultures across time, including those of ancient Israel” (p. 1). Read more Davis-Scripture Culture & Agriculture


Climate: unimportant until it matters

March 13, 2017

A review of Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. Edited by Sharon B. Medal, Robert G. Varady, and Susanna Eden (CRC Press/Balkema, 2013).

The Colorado River system in the American Southwest and the Jordan River system in the Middle East are much alike. They flow through arid, hot regions with populations that are greater than these rivers can support. Serious efforts are being made in both regions to increase the use of these climatically limited river systems by reclaiming water for repeated use and by desalinization, but with limited success.

Because these river systems are located in regions where highly charged political systems exist side by side, continuing negotiation is needed to resolve conflicts. Challenges now faced by the Middle East and the American Southwest are case studies of what happens when people run out of water. They point to structural, political, and economic changes that should be considered even in regions that now have enough fresh water to meet needs.

Shared Borders, Shared Waters is based on the Arizona, Israeli, and Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop that took place at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2009. Sponsors included UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme and three centers at the University: the Water Resources Research Center, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Financial support came from several sources.

The book contains seventeen chapters arranged into five sections: (1) Water development: Infrastructure and institutions; (2) Political and economic perspectives on water; (3) Learning from comparison; (4) Challenges, new and old; Climate change and wastewater; (5) Expanding water supplies: Promising strategies and technologies.

Thirty contributors from around the world are listed as authors (eight chapters with single writers and nine with two or more). Nine contributors were located at the University of Arizona, Fourteen were based at other universities in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Contributors came from all of the territories discussed in the book and represented several scientific disciplines, political jurisdictions, and management responsibilities.

They reached differing conclusions about the issues discussed. Most of the chapters contain charts, graphs, and photos, many in color. All were written in serious, academic prose, and several chapters challenge readers who are unfamiliar with the technical language that their authors use. Other authors wrote in styles that are more easily understood by general readers.

The book contains 276 pages of exposition, with notes and bibliographical information at the end of each chapter. In the final two pages, the editors offer five insights or “take-away messages.” First, “It is essential to find solutions that meet the needs of neighboring societies.” Second, scientific research and analysis “contribute to a better understanding of the implications of alternative approaches to problem-solving.” They provide the basis for dialogue that can lead to solutions.

Third, the scarcity of water resources is necessarily leading to innovation and “the adoption of emerging technologies.” Fourth, “factors such as geographical setting and scale, climatic conditions, history, social and cultural values, demography, political systems, economic incentives, institutional capacity, legal structure, and civil society” determine “whether a particular technology can succeed” and therefore have to be taken into consideration. Fifth, a multi-disciplinary approach must be taken if we are to resolve the challenges facing us.

The editors chose to offer blandly stated, methodological conclusions, but the book, despite its abstract and technical language, is much more interesting and challenging than these conclusions indicate. My alternative list offers five insights that focus primarily on issues discussed in these chapters and their implications for people everywhere. Read more: Shared Borders-Review


The science and politics of global warming

November 14, 2016

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming by Joshua P. Howe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

howeEveryone knows that the climate is changing and that the effects upon the world we know are unnerving. Sea ice is melting, ocean levels are rising, deserts are increasing in size, plants and animals are finding it difficult to survive in their traditional locations. Long-term effects upon human populations are unsettling.

Even though these changes are widely recognized, many people deny the scientific consensus and even more people resist efforts to counteract climate change? This is the state of affairs in the United States that Joshua P. Howe discusses in his book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. His purpose is to answer the question: “How can our science be so good and our policy response so incommensurate to the scale of the climate threats that scientists have identified?” (ix)

Howe’s purpose is to describe the complex array of political, environmental, and economic powers that are intertwined with scientific knowledge and guidelines concerning environmental pollution, its causes, impacts, and solutions. When we understand these varied, competing forces, we may be able to develop effective programs to save the planet.

The curve in in the book’s title refers to a graphic display of CO2 measurements that Charles David Keeling made at Mauna Loa from 1958­–1971. These measurements show a steady, smooth rise in the amount of this odorless, tasteless gas in the atmosphere. The steady rise showed that an earlier scientific consensus concerning CO2 was incorrect. The oceans and other natural features did not reabsorb this gas, and instead the negative effects were increasing.

Interest in atmospheric conditions became more important with the detonation of atomic weapons and in the complex political tensions of the Cold War. Howe describes these interactions both in the United States and on the international scene. He devotes a chapter to the rise and fall of the SST, the supersonic airliner that finally was set aside both because of its negative effects on the atmosphere and its great cost.

He explains how traditional environmentalists resisted the politicizing of these issues, thus creating a rift with the scientific community. He provides a detailed accounting of international conferences, agreements, and treaties aimed at curbing pollution. He describes the shifting political currents within the United States that have made it difficult for U.S. political leaders to embrace the more demanding international agreements.

Throughout the book, Howe often refers to “the forcing function of knowledge,” which holds that “a better scientific understanding of the problem of climate change would force appropriate political action” (9). Howe characterizes this “overweening faith in the power of science to inspire political action” as a top-down approach to establishing new policies.

It is difficult to believe that more science can force environmentally sensitive policy. Howe convincingly shows that with respect to climate change and everything related to it, the top-down approach has and will continue to fail. The reason? Because “the science-first approach has at times actually undermined the kinds of moral and political discussions that many global warming advocates, ironically have relied on science to foster” (203).

At book’s end, however, Howe does offer a glimmer of hope, a bottoms-up approach to solving the climatic challenges facing us. He bases this hope on the “real desire to build better, healthier, and more responsible communities.” He refers to climate action plans that are beginning “to use the mechanisms of municipal, county, and state government to shoot for the middle.” Local initiatives “give communities a chance to reorganize themselves as if the abstract global climatic good mattered to everyone, every day. This is something new” (206).

I wish that Howe had given us one more chapter with representative examples of this bottoms-up approach in action. He could have included examples from his own city (Howe teaches at Reed College in Portland, Oregon), with its emphasis upon public transportation and discouragement of private automobiles in the central city, and with the serious efforts to infill the old city and resist urban sprawl.

Even more important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election, would be suggestions on how the bottoms up approach could work in regions of the United States, such as the coal mining states, whose way of life is in the cross hairs of the conflict between the science and politics of global warming.


A new Grand Coulee Dam every 60 days!

October 14, 2015

Third in a Series of on the Rivers of the West

President Kennedy at Hanford's N Reactor

President Kennedy at Hanford’s N Reactor

On April 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford, Washington, to celebrate the dedication of the N Reactor. The ninth production reactor at Hanford and the only one of its kind in the nation, this new reactor was designed to produce plutonium for the defense industry and also to generate electricity.

President Kennedy praised the way that people along this river had changed “the entire history of the world,” especially during “the closing days of the Second World War,” a veiled reference to the bombs that had incinerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

While asserting that America needed to maintain its “national strength and national vigor,” he also said that “no one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries.”

When people around the world come to realize “that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary…it may be possible for us, step by step, to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law [that] it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world.”

The president then shifted to the primary topic of his address, which was to describe the way that the generation of electricity by atomic power would lead to new prosperity not only for people nearby, but also for people through the entire nation: “a rising tide lifts all the boats, and as the Northwest United States rises, so does the entire country, so we are glad.”

Kennedy’s speech continued themes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed twenty-eight years earlier at the dedication of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead and seven years later at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam.

Roosevelt was convinced that these massive public works were unalloyed contributions to the well being of the entire nation. They constructively linked federal and local initiative, political control, and expenditure of financial resources. They transformed rivers so that they no longer ran wastefully to the ocean, but instead did useful work for the people nearby and around the nation.

President Kennedy continued these themes, displaying much the same hubris as his New Deal predecessor had manifested. Despite the fact that the actual history of western development undercut his political ideology, Kennedy spoke as though the continuation of these public works would certainly lead to a world of peace and prosperity for people everywhere.

This future was a way of life in which air conditioning and all other comforts and benefits of a comfortable life would be universally available. The achieving of these goals, Kennedy declared, would require new generating capacity—the equivalent of a new Grand Coulee dam every sixty days.

Kennedy expanded the definition of conservation. The traditional understanding was the determination to protect and not waste what nature has already given us—to “use it well, not to waste water or land, to set aside land and water, recreation, wilderness, and all the rest now so that it will be available to those who come in the future.”

The “newer part of conservation [was] to use science and technology to achieve significant breakthroughs as we are doing today, and in that way to conserve resources which 10 or 20 or 30 years ago may have been wholly unknown.” To accomplish these goals, Kennedy continued, we had to do five things. (1) We had to “use hydro resources to the fullest. “Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste.” (2) We had to develop techniques for developing power from coal and oil from shale, mining and harvesting resources from the bottom of the ocean, and of using energy from the sun.

(3) Low-cost atomic power had to be developed since experts were saying that by the end of the century “half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.” (4) The electric systems around the country would need to be linked. (5) We must avoid the monopolization of this capacity either by the Federal Government or large combines of private utilities.

The N Reactor generated power for twenty years and now is mothballed. Its successor, the Columbia Generating Station produces one-tenth of the electric produced within the State of Washington.

And who in their right mind can affirm the bankrupt visions that, to use the metaphor provided by Blaine Harden, have killed the Columbia as a river and given it a rebirth as plumbing? [A River Lost, p. 75]