Category Archives: Environment

Eating Earth

Some things are hidden in plain sight. That doesn’t make them any the less insidious. One such hidden truth is that the earth is of a finite size. Another is that, consequently, its resources are limited. Our species is easily led, as are most herd animals. Standing out can be embarrassing. Painful even. This is the recipe, along with a generous dash of greed, that has put us on the brink of worldwide catastrophe. We live in an unsustainable system, and some of the largest culprits are our appetites. As a fan of horror movies, I can honestly say Cowspiracy is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary, not genre fiction. Scientists had generally already thrown up their hands because we’ve passed the tipping point for global warming, and then we elected ourselves the stunning leadership of Donald Trump.

No one can predict exactly what form the collapse will take, but we’ve set the key factors in place. We’ve been warned for years. Cowspiracy demonstrates something we don’t want to admit—the agricultural lobby is extremely powerful and the least sustainable aspect of life on this planet is animal husbandry. In early civilization, where technology did not exist to support large-scale farming, meat was not a staple of the human diet. Families that could afford animals gained more value from their beasts alive than on the plate. And they had only a few. As mechanization increased in the last century, we made livestock valuable commodities. When I was a kid word on the street was you were even poorer than we were if you couldn’t eat meat every day. Humans were the absolute, if blind, masters of their own domain. Now agriculture is the single largest force of degradation of the environment on the planet. And nobody wants to listen.

Cowspiracy is not an easy movie to watch, even for a vegetarian of many years’ standing. So why watch it? Because our reliance on animal-based food is destroying our planet. Not slowly either. If this is true, why haven’t we heard of it? Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn spend an hour-and-a-half exploring that in this important film. While it can’t be fully summarized here, in a word it can be said: money. There’s huge money to be made in a business rightly called animal husbandry. Wedded to profits at the expense of the very soil that gives us life, we eat our way to the grave. And we do it even when technology has already offered viable alternatives. They are also hidden in plain sight.

Not Devil’s Tower

The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.

The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.

“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.

Oil Heritage

I love optical illusions. Apart from the sheer fun of ambiguity, such illusions are really all about perspective. Shifting perspective can be one of the most powerful ways of changing a person’s life. One of my more stalwart perspectives is that those who originate something deserve recognition. If that something is important, they may even deserve acclaim. And sometimes that thing may turn bad, in which case the discoverer may end up being notorious. Originality, the subject of bestsellers and media gurus, is sometimes the result of thinking differently than other people do. It can be cultivated and grown. Sometimes it’s simply fortuitous.

Every time I visit my own place of origins in western Pennsylvania, I think of the oil industry. It’s pretty hard not to around here. “Pumping jacks” still operate in some back yards, and petroleum tanks suddenly appear along beautiful rustic roads. The presence of fossil fuels isn’t as evident as it was when I was a child, for all the big refineries have closed down. Many of them have been dismantled. Still, I can’t drive by the site where a refinery fire glowed beyond the next hill from my childhood home and not wonder about it. Seeing those huge oil tanks melted and crumpled as if they’d been made of wax is an image that doesn’t get easily erased. Today, that’s all gone. Still, the oil industry itself was originally from this region. The auto industry—although increasingly electric—would’ve never started without the obvious boost that petroleum production gave transportation.

In the light, or perhaps dark, of Hurricane Harvey we’re set to see increasing gas prices. They will impact the economy in other ways, and energy giants will continue to degrade the environment in the quest for cheap and abundant crude. I’m not sure if that makes the discovery of oil in this region worthy of acclaim or notoriety. It does seem, from my perspective, that since big oil is so lucrative, a lifeline ought to exist for the struggling communities in my childhood home. Empty storefronts were rare here in my youth. Now they are almost as common as shops that remain open. I know; if people can’t move on, then maybe there’s a reason the economy is sagging. There are ghost towns in this area, and there may be more in the future. I just wonder how all this will looks from another perspective. Will it all be an illusion once electricity makes the past superfluous?

Hurricane Warming

Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?

One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.

Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.

Planet A

Two of the classics of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, and The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, were published by Oxford University Press. In its present-day iteration the press has a Green Committee, on which I’ve sat from very nearly the beginning of my time there. As a committee, we’re reading these classics to see what we might learn some half-century-plus after they were published. I’d never read A Sand County Almanac before. It’s a pity, since I lived in southeast Wisconsin, from which the book takes its genesis, for about a dozen years. The writing is poetical prose, but the ideas are solid science—the land on which we’ve evolved knows how to take care of itself. When one species becomes too greedy, all suffer. Leopold ends his book by suggesting a land ethic should be put in place. Now, a human lifespan later, has it?

Hardly. Watching the Trump Administration doing everything it can to commodify any aspect of the environment that might make a buck—or at least a buck for the wealthy—is alarming in the extreme. There is no soul in the land, to this way of thinking. They believe that because they themselves lack a functional soul. A soul cannot exist without ethics. What we do to this planet is one of the largest ethical issues imaginable. No species, rational or not, destroys its own habitat. Except our own. Arrogant to the point of supposing ourselves divine, we think we can take what we want and give nothing back. And everything will be just fine. I wonder that we’ve had this inexpensive, readable guidebook this last seven decades and have continued to ignore its sage advice. Maybe we’re too busy making money to read something that sounds suspiciously like poetry.

One of the observations I had about the Almanac was how attuned to the philosophy of nature it is. Philosophy has many enemies these days, from prominent scientists to Republicans. Nobody seems to value the capacity for deep and thorough thinking through of a problem that is unbeholden to any orthodoxy. The philosopher can ask “what if?” without regret. When it comes to the environment, humans aren’t the only philosophers. We’ve convinced ourselves so completely that we’re more advanced than other species that we suppose they can’t teach us anything. One thing they do, however, without our interference, is create balance in nature. It’s an ethic to which even our species might aspire. If only we would listen to the wisdom of those who pay attention to the world that has given them life.

Noah’s Parable

I write a lot about Noah. For those who didn’t know me before this blog, I was once invited to write a book on Noah for a series ironically published by Oxford University Press. I had been researching Noah for years, and I intended to write the book. Then, as the kids are saying these days, life happened. My interest in Noah has never waned, however. And part of the reason is that it is perhaps the most influential story in the entire Bible. I realize I’ll need to explain that, but stop and think about it—Evangelicals seldom talk about Jesus any more. Their concerns are with unborn babies, people making babies outside wedlock, and destroying our environment in the name of capitalism. It is the last of these that brings us back to Noah.

A friend recently sent me a story on Splinter by Brendan O’Connor titled “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” O’Connor is looking at the history of how a pro-environmentalism-inclined evangelical movement decided to shift its base to align with climate-change deniers. Behind the scenes are fundamentalist clergy. Oh, we like to laugh at them and their ways, but they are the power behind the throne and we should really not let them out of our sight. You see, as O’Connor points out, they believe that the God of Noah can protect the world from the worst that we can throw at it. It’s perfectly okay to try to destroy the planet because the magic man upstairs can fix everything right back up if he needs to before sending his son back to town on the final business meeting. Laugh if you will. These people are dead serious and many who hold power in Washington believe every lie they utter.

As a nation—perhaps as an entire western culture—we’ve laughed off religion. Secure that there’s no God up there to rain down, well, rain, we laugh and jeer at Noah. It’s a children’s story, after all, isn’t it? Okay, forget about the part where everyone in the entire world drowns, except eight people. And when he gets drunk and lays naked in his tent after it’s all over. Other than that, it’s a kid’s story, right? The story of the flood is one of the oldest myths in the world. It has been part of human story-telling for millennia. We now have very powerful people with smart phones in their pockets and access to vast hordes of money who believe it literally happened. And since God took care of his own once, he can do it again. The educated smirk. The smart start building arks.

On the Rocks

This universe is indeed a mysterious place. You don’t have to believe in the paranormal anymore to see it. A look at the headlines makes my point. There are those, however, who do look at the genuinely strange, and once in a while this realm crosses paths with that of religion. A friend pointed me to a story on Mysterious Universe about floating rocks. Apparently this story is going to be on the mainstream Travel Channel, so it’s not completely bonkers. It caught my attention because it’s about rocks. While of decidedly poor qualification to be a rock-hound, I have more than a passing interest in geology. Itinerates shouldn’t collect rocks, but I can’t help myself. Anyway, I’ve been known to go to publicly open mines and tap away with my rock hammer hoping to find some not-so-hidden treasure.

According to the story, there is such a publicly open mine in Arkansas. Crystals (I expect quartz) are available for surface excavation, for a fee. Then the owners, the Murphys, noticed the anomalous rocks. Since they are conservative Christians (this is Arkansas after all) they feared what powers might be behind rocks that don’t obey the laws of gravity. The mine didn’t get closed and hushed up because of an unusual source of inspiration. An article by Billy Graham on divine mysteries led them to keep the mine open and to allow for investigation. Once the Travel Channel comes out with its program Crystal Mine is sure to experience an influx of business. Mainstream scientists, one expects, will not be among them.

The universe is vast. We haven’t explored all of our own planet yet (we’re kind of busy destroying it at the moment, so if you don’t mind…) and yet we gleefully claim what’s impossible. I don’t know if there are levitating rocks in Arkansas, but I do think we’ve been a bit hasty about some of our conclusions. We may yet find things that will force the concepts—the laws—to change. Consider gravity, which seems particularly relevant in the case of floating rocks. Sir Isaac Newton (devout theist that he was) ending up having to relinquish the “correct” explanation to Albert Einstein. Some have been so bold as to suggest that maybe even Einstein might not have gotten the whole skinny on gravity. We continue to learn. Levitating rocks are indeed strange. Not so strange, however, as Billy Graham being the one to rescue an anomaly for the world to see.