Blog Archives

Willful Ignorance in the face of climate change, drought, and cause-and-effect will not spare us the consequences

Drought1

The debate over climate change and ecological catastrophe is a befuddled one, and leaves many not just baffled, but astounded. Why? Because there actually is science that is certain, conclusive, and overwhelmingly accepted amongst the scientific community – a community mind you, filled with members who thrive on disproving each other. If you know even a fraction of the facts like they do, you know there are no shades of gray – there’s just the impregnable element of timing. In other words, what we know does not help us with the timing of consequence, and therefore, the element of surprise is working against us.

Because we don’t know when or how badly the consequences will be when natural, or unnatural, effects will present themselves, we have to use what we do know and couple it with our imaginations to make good decisions about an uncertain future. So this article is an attempt to share what we do conclusively know about climate change, not what gets argued about it, such as economic impacts or devilish, conspiracy ridden, behind-the-scenes, policy manipulations. We must get beyond the hype, speculation, and sheer spin to know how to act on what is known and is actually knowable. Then we might just get somewhere with the ethical implications of both policy and personal decisions that do have real consequences.

The past is behind us, or so we would like to believe. And as the saying goes, we may be through with the past, but that does not mean it is through with us. What we know about cycles is that they come back around  – in other words, on a geologic timescale, geological history is cyclical and tends to repeat itself. So when we look at 1,000 years of cyclical data, we can be fairly certain that what has been happening for hundreds of years will happen again, even if we don’t know when. On the other hand, the future is before us, and we are racing toward the effects we cause today, but like the past, we don’t know when we will meet them.

But we do know this: both are going to catch up to us eventually. It is not a matter of if but when. To think that pulling liquid out of the earth and burning it will have no effects is wishful thinking; to think there will be no consequences to burning forests down for development or agribusiness is shortsighted; and to think that we can nutrient load the soil with nitrogen or other fertilizers and chemicals for a mono-farming culture with no negative effects on the ocean is to ignore the basic laws of cause and effect. And last, to think that we can continue to live and grow the way we have been for the last century and outsmart tree ring data showing thousands of years of mega droughts, is gambling.

Here is what scientists conclusively knew about human caused global change 20 years ago according to Dr. Vitousek:

“While ecologists involved in management or policy often are advised to learn to deal with uncertainty, there are a number of components of global environmental change of which we are certain–certain that they are going on, and certain that they are human caused. Some of these are largely ecological changes, and all have important ecological consequences. Three of the well documented global changes are: increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; alterations in the biogeochemistry of the global nitrogen cycle; and ongoing land use/land cover change.”

“Human activity, now primarily fossil fuel combustion, has increased carbon dioxide concentrations from °280 to 355 mL/L since 1800; the increase is unique, at least in the past 160,000 years, and several lines of evidence demonstrate unequivocally that it is human caused. This increase is likely to have climatic consequences–and certainly it has direct effects on biota in all Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems.”

Deforestation

Deforestation

The global nitrogen cycle has been altered by human activity to such an extent that more nitrogen is fixed annually by humanity (primarily for nitrogen fertilizer, also by legume crops and as a by-product of fossil fuel combustion) than by all natural pathways combined. This added nitrogen alters the chemistry of the atmosphere and of aquatic ecosystems, contributes to eutrophiction of the biosphere, and has substantial regional effects on biological diversity in the most affected areas.

Finally, human land use/land cover change has transformed one third to one half of Earth’s ice free surface. This in and of itself probably represents the most important component of global change now and will for some decades to come; it has profound effects on biological diversity on land and on ecosystems downwind and downstream of affected areas.

These three and other equally certain components of global environmental change are the primary causes of anticipated changes in climate, and of ongoing losses of biological diversity. They are caused in turn by the extraordinary growth in size and resource use of the human population. On a broad scale, there is little uncertainty about any of these components of change or their causes (1).”

Add to that what we know from tree ring data regarding drought locally in the southwestern U.S. and globally, and we are getting sandwiched by historically natural cycles and human caused global change. What we know from tree ring data is that the southwest has undergone megadroughts. Megadroughts are droughts that last for decades. These droughts have been linked to the decline or outright extinction of civilizations as well as mass migrations. The closest we have to come to that is the drought of the 1930s Dustbowl of the Midwest etched in the annals of history by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; a drought mind you, that lasted between four to eight years depending on location. If a drought of that length caused a mass exodus, what will a drought that lasts 30 years produce? Scientists say that mega droughts cause lakes to dry up; is it too far-fetched to believe they could dry up reservoirs?

tree ring

Tree rings

In a Deseret News article printed 10 years ago, they revealed the findings of “the most comprehensive reconstruction of Western drought to date, extending previous efforts by 900 years.” As of 10 years ago, the west was in a multi-year drought. We are still in it today. Edward R. Cook of Columbia University, the lead author of a report in the latest edition of the journal Science said, “Things could be much worse, and there’s no reason to argue that it couldn’t happen again (2).”

We all know that drought means scarcity while the opposite of drought is abundance or plenty. This definition is obviously about water, but it is also about food, standard of living, and life. Through our ingenuity and engineering feats, we have plumbed the west with aqueducts, pipes, and reservoirs and thus have extended the capacity to live and survive here. But the water policies of the west reveal an arrogance built on “tradition, wishful thinking, and poor planning” that could have dire consequences for the millions who live here in the future.

Right now California sits in a D4 exceptional drought, which is the most severe category, according to an article in the Cornell Chronicle about a study suggesting that the southwest may face a megadrought in the next century. “For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” said Toby Ault, Cornell assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and lead author of the paper. “As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought.” Ault goes on to say, “The West and Southwest must look for mitigation strategies to cope with looming long-drought scenarios. This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region (5).”

This does not mean we need to build more reservoirs or pipe more water in, operating under the mentality that if we build it the water will come, what it is means is that we need to start thinking differently. And thinking differently may entail turning 180 degrees from where we have been going.  We should start by diversifying our energy sources. Regardless of your opinion on fossil fuels, relying on one source of energy is foolish, not only because it makes us vulnerable, it means that those with that energy source can manipulate and control us. We have no recourse. Like not having the high ground, it is a vulnerable position to be in.

Petrochemical industry

Petrochemical industry

As Peter Maass, author of Crude World, said in a Harper’s interview when asked if he thought the U.S. could significantly reduce its dependency on petroleum while maintaining its lifestyle, “This lifestyle is going to change, whether we want it to or not, whether Chevron and Exxon want it to or not. The question is whether this lifestyle will change with extreme disruption when the price of oil returns to triple digits and goes beyond the $147-a-barrel record set in 2008, or when global warming means a portion of Manhattan is under water, or–and this is what I hope happens–our society truly recognizes these threats and begins the painful and costly adjustments necessary for radical shifts toward renewable energy as well as conservation and efficiency (3).”

We need to make those painful and costly adjustments now while we have some choice in how we do it. We need to change how we develop, consume, and grow. Growing beyond natural limits is dangerous. Contrary to what politicians may say, there are measures that can be put into place to grow smartly. No one is saying no growth, just smart growth.

We, the citizens of this country, need to demand that policy makers implement better water management practices such as block water rates. Conservation is the easiest and cheapest way to manage water. Piping water in from distant locations is expensive, both in terms of water and in terms of energy. Water districts should cover their management costs and then let use determine the rest of the cost. That way, wasters will pay for their waste. The Irvine Ranch Water District in California was the first water district to implement block water rates. It has made money, saved money for users, has had adequate water for the citizens, and has conserved water. Furthermore, none of the water board members have been un-elected since they implemented this system. Now that the rest of California is withering, more and more water districts are following suit. But even more than that, we need to start saving water and paying the real price for it.

Here and there, water agencies are implementing smart practices. In southern Utah the Washington County Water District and the USGS started an aquifer recharge station with the Sand Hollow Reservoir. They are slowly filling up the roughly 100,000 acre foot holding aquifer underneath the reservoir. The Metropolitan Water District of California’s long-term plan projects that by 2035, 60% of Southern California’s demand will be met through conservation and local sources such as recycling and cleaned-up groundwater basins, compared with about 40% now (6). This is smart and more practices like it should be implemented everywhere. It is like having money in a savings account for emergencies. But banking and conserving water without charging the real price of water is still inadequate.

In the economic section of the New York Times, Eduardo Porter wrote an article titled The Risks of Cheap Water. In it the article says, “The price of water going into Americans’ homes often does not even cover the cost of delivering it, let alone the depreciation of utilities’ infrastructure or their R&D. It certainly doesn’t account for other costs imposed by water use — on, say, fisheries or the environment — caused by taking water out of rivers or lakes (4).”

Consumers have little incentive to conserve. Despite California’s distress, about half of the homes in the capital, Sacramento, still don’t have water meters, and consumers are paying a flat fee no matter how much water they consume.
Some utilities do worse: charging decreasing rates the more water is consumed. Utilities, of course, have little incentive to discourage consumption: The more they do that the more their revenues would decline (4).

Alternative solutions have been proposed, some to the point of absurdity — like towing icebergs from the Arctic or diverting water from the Missouri River to use on the other side of the Rockies. But the standard response to scarcity — grabbing more — cannot work any longer. There isn’t more water to grab (5).

Even without the impacts of man-made global warming, there is still the threat of cyclical crippling megadroughts looming out on the horizon. With roughly 24 million people dependent on the Colorado River, which is over-allocated and stretched to four times its annual yield due to reservoirs, can you imagine if another megadrought occurs along the Colorado River like it did in the 1150s? A recent study done in California modeling what 70 years of drought would do to the state revealed that all lakes and reservoirs would dry up (5).

What would happen to the Western U.S. if all the reservoirs and lakes dried up? Would the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline for the explosive growth in southern Utah, if it gets approved and built, or any other water-made pipe dream, be anything more than a glaring relic of our wishful and willful thinking and arrogance? Will it stand as a testament that we too ignore our prophets (John Wesley Powell was one such prophet who advised against reckless growth in the west due to water scarcity) and have flown too close to the sun? As Tom Ash, the architect of the Irvine Ranch Water District’s water rate structure plan said, “What’s the cost of not changing?”

In a recent article in the LA Times, scientists who did the 70 year megadrought modeling to see what would happen in California, said that, “Under that scenario irrigated farm acreage would plunge. Aquatic ecosystems would suffer, with some struggling salmon runs fading out of existence. Urban water rates would climb. The iconic suburban lawn would all but disappear. Coastal Californians would stop dumping most of their treated sewage and urban runoff from rain storms into the Pacific and instead add it to their water supply. As the sector with the greatest water use in California by far, agriculture would sit in the bull’s eye of a mega-drought. The state’s 8 million acres of irrigated cropland could fall by as much as half,” predicted Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center (6).

drought2

Extreme drought

Farmers would largely abandon relatively low-value crops such as cotton and alfalfa and use their reduced water supplies to keep growing the most profitable fruits, nuts and vegetables. They would let fields revert to scrub or dry-farm them with wheat and other crops that predominated before California’s massive federal irrigation project transformed the face of the Central Valley in the mid-20th century. Some farm communities would turn to ghost towns. “For a while, poor people would get a lot poorer throughout the Central Valley,” he said. “Then they’d move (6).”

And it will not just be the cost of water that goes up, the cost of food will go up too. Right now California is the bread basket of the country; will we squabble over water rights when our food sources are in eminent danger? Will the federal government declare a state of emergency and seize all water and divvy it out according to priority? It is not doomsday to consider such a scenario; it is called foresight and we must start using it. Wendell Berry, speaking about the art and importance of farming said this in The Gift of the Good Land, “…agriculture is a an integral part of the structure, both biological and cultural, that sustains human life, and that you cannot disturb one part of that structure without disturbing all of it; that, in short, though there may be specialized causes, there are no specialized effects (7).”

From an article in Science magazine titled, The Drought you can’t see, we see that we are even drying up underground. Because the drought is so bad and because we use so much water, we are sucking up all of the ground water too. “In the western United States, the drought-stricken region spans a vast area responsible for much of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and beef. As the drought’s grip has tightened, water users have turned to tapping groundwater aquifers to make up the deficit for people, crops, livestock, and industry. But even when the rain does return, re-greening the landscape and filling again the streams, lakes, and reservoirs, those aquifers will remain severely depleted. It is this underground drought we can’t see that is enduring, worrisome, and in need of attention (8).”

And it is not just happening in the West, the aquifers all over the country are being drained.

poor kids

Effects of hardship

In other words, agriculture, which sustains life, is dependent on water which “is the most vital resource in every aspect of human endeavor (Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst).” Follow this. If man-made climate change is real, and I believe it is, it will not just affect coastal towns through rising oceans, it will affect all of us through scarcity and that scarcity will drive up the prices of everything. This means all of us will be impacted. Is there another planet we can migrate to? While the poor will be impacted the most by climate change (remember prices), and we should morally and ethically care about that, we too will be negatively impacted.

As Jared Diamond said in Collapse, “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline (9).”

When members of the world’s scientific community gave their warning to humanity in 1992 they posed it this way, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated (10).”

They did not call for solar power, for a green economy, or for an environmental ethic. What they called for was for people to care about the misery we are bringing on ourselves and others. What does it say when scientists leave their world of exactitude, measurements, facts and numbers, and enter the murky world of political science to warn people of what their science reveals? And what does it say of a population that not only ignores the science, but scoffs at the moral implications? And of our politicians who use this science to push their own agendas rather than be statesmen who warn us of what is to come? “An agenda most favorable to industry and consists of a government in which political power has no more force or activity than is necessary to see that useful work is not hindered, is complicit in bringing about our ruin (11).”

Because our politicians are not statesmen, in the manner articulated by Plato, they lack political vision, and no one since Plato has insisted upon the moral urgency and centrality of political vision until scientists stepped in with their warning to humanity. We can argue about the distinctions between “pure” science and “political” science, and whether political science is really a science at all, but we cannot argue the importance of it and the art it takes to do it well.

In Politics and Vision Sheldon S. Wolen says, “Most political thinkers have believed that precisely because political philosophy was political, it was committed to lessening the gap between the possibilities grasped through political imagination and the actualities of political existence. Plato recognized that political action was highly purposive in character, that it was largely conscious and deliberate; to take counsel before acting was seen to be a distinguishing requirement of political activity as characterized by Homeric Kings and Athenian statesmen.

But to act intelligently and nobly demanded a perspective wider than the immediate situation for which the action was intended; intelligence and nobility were not ad hoc qualities, but aspects of a more comprehensive vision of things. This more comprehensive vision was provided by thinking about the political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be. Precisely because political theory pictured society in an exaggerated, unreal way, it was a necessary complement to action. Precisely because action involved intervention into existing affairs, it sorely needed a perspective of tantalizing possibilities.”

Thinking differently requires imagination. “Fancy, exaggeration, even extravagance, sometimes permit us to see things that are not otherwise apparent. Fancy neither proves nor disproves; it seeks, instead, to illuminate, to help us become wiser about political things. Imagination is not only what comprises the foundation of scientific inquiry; it is the theorist’s means for understanding a world he can never know in an intimate way. The impossibility of direct observation compels the theorist to epitomize a society by abstracting certain phenomena and providing interconnections where none can be seen (11).”

The West was largely settled and developed on such imagination and it desperately needs that imagination again. We have become too dependent on tradition, on the status quo, and have a sort of tunnel vision with regard to the future. There are always other options, new possibilities, it just takes creative and open-minded people to not only envision them, but to hear them when they are presented.

Progress is not static. It is not, as many politicians would have us believe, an “if we are not growing, we are dying” dilemma, it is an “if we are not thinking, and thinking differently, we are setting ourselves and future generations up for misery” scenario. The very definition of progress prescribes movement. Clinging to the old ways of doing things, the old ways of living, is not progress.

To envision and build a better future we must listen to those with not just vision, but with the knowledge guiding that vision, and be open to the possibilities available to us through a broader scope produced by people who think differently. Denying the impacts of man-made global change, ignoring historical data, and avoiding the moral implications of our behavior betrays a willfully unethical and destructive ignorance. We cannot afford to stick our heads in the proverbial sand. History will catch up to us or we will collide with our future. Either way, if we do not change the way we think, the consequences will be of our own accord. We will have chosen it because we did not choose otherwise.

Sources:

(1) Peter M. Vitousek, Beyond global warming: Ecology and global change (available in PDF format in Google Scholar)

(2) Deseret News, Tree ring data reveals ‘megadrought’: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595097448/Tree-rings-reveal-megadroughts.html

(3) Peter Maas Interview in Harper’s: http://harpers.org/blog/2009/09/six-questions-for-peter-maass-on-the-energy-business-corruption-and-the-future-of-oil/

(4) The New York Times, The Risks of cheap water: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/business/economy/the-price-of-water-is-too-low.html?_r=0

(5) Cornell Chronicle, Study: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/08/study-southwest-may-face-megadrought-within-century

(6) LA Times Mega Drought: http://www.latimes.com/science/la-me-megadrought-20141006-story.html#page=1

(7) Wendell Berry, The Gift of the Good Land.

(8) Science, The Drought you can’t see: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6204/1543.summary

(9) Jared Diamond, Collapse.

(10) World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (1992), http://www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html#.VGktO8nZdJQ

(11) Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision.

Advertisements

The Theology of Climate Change Denial

climate-change

Photo courtesy of Scientific American

Let me say outright that I am not interested in this post in trying to prove climate change to anyone. I frankly find such debates exhausting. If you want to know what I think of climate change, you can find some of my posts here and here. And if you want to read a more serious and academic version of these arguments, you can read an essay I published in Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment. More importantly, if you want a primer on the science from a reputable resource, take twenty minutes and watch this excellent video from the National Academy of Sciences.

What I am interested in, however, is the reasoning, particularly the theological reasoning, I often hear used to support climate change denial. I have heard over the years various arguments made by deniers that appeal to an idea of the universe in which human-caused climate change just can’t exist. The theology goes something like this:

God alone controls the natural world. To imagine that human beings are capable of damaging the environment on a planetary scale is absurd. Sure, we can ruin a stream, pollute the air, and we might even endanger a species now and then, but the very idea that we have the power to influence something as complex and global as the climate and perhaps even endanger all of life as we know it and especially our own livelihoods flies in the face of everything we know about God and his plans for us and this planet. Least of all if what causes this damage are emissions and not sins! Why should we imagine that fossil fuels, which have enabled so much good for so long for so many, are now a scourge? There is nothing quite like climate change in the Bible, for example. In the Bible we see God punishing the wicked by cursing the earth under their feet. Similarly he blesses it for the sake of the righteous. And we might imagine that natural cycles too were part of history. But it is never human action that directly creates environmental problems. Environmental problems are secondary symptoms of such sins as immorality, worship of false gods, and the like, or they might be the natural outgrowth of natural processes, but we never read of instances of human behavior directly compromising the health of the environment. And to imagine that this could happen on a global scale, where millions of people collectively influence and damage a climate and harm millions of others would make individual accountability simply too difficult to trace, so there must be some other explanation for problems we see. Perhaps God is punishing us. Perhaps nature is just being nature, and we just have to accept it. Perhaps it isn’t happening at all. But it simply cannot be something we are directly causing.

If you want to read one version of this theology, you can find an argument here in an Op-Ed in my local paper. What is striking about the author’s argument is that there simply are only two explanations for natural events: they are either caused by God or by natural law. They are never, in other words, unnaturally caused by human interference in ecosystems. And this is despite the fact that she lives in a valley choked by so much pollution that it has caused a dramatic uptick in rates of asthma and heart and lung disease. This is a scientific fact. One of the world’s leaders in understanding the link between pollution and public health is Arden Pope, a professor at BYU, who was able to establish this science because Utah Valley provides an ideal scenario to study the effects of spikes in pollution on an otherwise quite healthy and largely non-smoking population. The elderly, the young, and the pregnant, it turns out, are the primary victims of this pollution. Are we to believe these effects have no human causes or that we bear no responsibility? Maybe pollution is God’s curse for our sinfulness but it isn’t as if he had to create a big brown cloud of bad air and hurl it down upon us. Like all forms of environmental change we have instigated, we brought it on ourselves, and as a result, the innocent and vulnerable are suffering. The fact is, environmental problems have huge collateral damage. If you and I won’t take responsibility for this, who will?

But this is just a small sample. To believe that only God or nature can cause environmental change, we would have to ignore virtually all of human history which is rife with stories of environmental excess. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that human-caused environmental degradation explains societal collapse. Environmental degradation is surely a symptom of sin. When people consume more than they need, when they are indifferent to the plight of the poor and the most vulnerable, when they are indifferent to their fellow humans and to God’s creations and greedily pursue more and more, the environment loses capacity to support all life.

But for some reason denial simply cannot accommodate such logical and theological possibilities. Now, granted, deniers claim the science is totally bogus, but you won’t hear them citing scientific evidence to establish their claim and that’s because such evidence doesn’t exist. That’s right. There isn’t a single scientific society that purports to have sufficient evidence to overturn climate science. Questions and doubts about the research and aspersions about the integrity and honesty of researchers certainly exist, but they do not constitute evidence. They simply create doubts about findings. And once you become convinced that the very process of research is corrupt, then you don’t have to listen to the science at all. That’s very convenient except for the fact that it is also hypocritical. I don’t see the same level of distrust for, say, good old American government sponsored cancer research or space research. Or, for that matter, what about healthy distrust of the petroleum industry that funds much of these efforts at denial? So what gives?

Photo courtesy of vassaltheking.blogspot

Photo courtesy of vassaltheking.blogspot

It’s theology and bad theology at that. It might be hard to accept, but the fact is that there are many phenomena today for which we have no biblical precedent. I am thinking of human trafficking, acid rain, or environmentally caused cancers, depletion of the ozone layer, contamination of ground water, to name just a few examples. Heck, the list is pretty long. That is not to say that the Bible isn’t relevant. It is highly relevant, precisely because of the principles of respect, integrity, equity, honesty, judgment, and justice that the Bible espouses and that would go a long way in redressing such problems. But it also seems that at least for one segment of our society, climate change offends their very idea of God. I guess I have a hard time believing in the same Bible they do. What I read teaches over and over again that the earth’s capacity to support life is directly connected to human agency. Why else are we commanded to respect the Creation and to be good stewards over it? Why should we be given dominion and responsibility for the whole of the earth if it is true that we are not capable of harming it? Why would God care what we did to the environment if we can never influence it? Why so much attention in the Bible to how we eat, how we dress, how we labor, and how we treat the poor, if it simply doesn’t matter how or when or why we use natural resources?

Let’s just take the Sabbath Day as one example. Honoring the Sabbath Day was instituted as a way of recognizing the creation and the need to give the land a rest from our interference, and to honor and thank and respect the bounty we receive from it. When we observe the Sabbath, we recognize that its bounty are not things we earn but are gifts of God, evidence of his grace. And it seems to have environmental benefits to follow this spirit of humility in the commandment. For Mormons, this should be even more obvious because Section 59 of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it plainly clear that we are promised the bounty of the earth as a gift for which we must show proper gratitude by careful observance of the Sabbath and of fasting. And it warns explicitly about using natural resources “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.”

Granted, these verses don’t prove that climate change is real and human-caused. That’s not my point. But they do demonstrate the Lord’s profound concern for our proper treatment of the earth. It is a moral issue for him and if so, it’s apparently because we are capable of messing it up. I hear deniers admit that they at least believe in stewardship, but then it astounds me how quickly and flippantly they dismiss science or claim their own science. We can’t make up facts and we can’t cherry pick evidence. If we are serious about stewardship, we should be serious about knowing science. To do otherwise is irresponsible. You can’t claim you are a good steward of your own body if you don’t know the first thing about how it works, what it needs, what harms or what helps it. I am not surprised to hear deniers spout theories that don’t reflect even the most superficial understandings of climate science. When Sean Hannity makes fun of a snowstorm in Houston, you can be pretty sure you are listening to ideology, not science. When people claim history is full of climate change so therefore what we are seeing now cannot be human-caused, they aren’t even using good logic, let alone science.

There has never been a generation in the history of the world that has had a better opportunity to understand the causes and depth of our impact on the world. What a crying shame it is to see such knowledge mocked and disparaged, even though our science is also what we rely on everyday to enjoy our American standard of living. To enjoy the fruits of our economy while we disparage the science that built it is unconscionable. Why did Brigham Young teach that scientific discoveries are part of the ongoing restoration of all truth if we are to ignore such findings? Surely we can’t ignore science and then claim, when we do our damage, that we didn’t know any better. Maybe we didn’t want to know, but we certainly had a chance.

The Word of Wisdom warns about “conspiring men” in the last days who will presumably wish to distort facts about our health and the health of the earth so lovingly described in the revelation. It has been well documented that the same folks who worked hard to deny links between smoking and cancer have also worked hard to deny climate change. The Word of Wisdom teaches to eat meat sparingly and to remember that the earth is intended to feed all of life, including domestic and wild animals. Does it not interest us to know that such industries as the cattle industry and the petroleum industry are deeply involved in climate change denial and are also responsible for enormous levels of environmental degradation? What does our society tell us? It says:

Eat lots of meat. Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as fast as you want it, at whatever cost, from whatever distance. Drive lots of cars. Build more roads. Buy things. Buy more than you need. Whatever technology allows us to do, you should do. It’s all good for the economy and, in the long run, for the poor, so you can consume with categorical impunity.

According to this accepted logic, there is never anything wrong with being a consumer in the global economy; it’s a virtue to consume more than the next guy. That is what every industry wants you to believe. And these would be interesting ideas to consider as a Christian, except for the inconvenient fact that they have never been supported by biblical ethics, not to mention that we now know these are the very things that are causing us to emit so much carbon into our atmosphere. A Christian economy is a moral economy and it matters what we eat, how we eat, what and how much we consume, and why. And our obligation is to the foreigner, the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable, and to God himself. And to imagine that we can watch while biodiversity collapses on this planet and the earth’s capacity to regulate the climate is compromised to such a degree that millions of the poor are threatened and somehow convince ourselves that these things are not happening, or that they are the will of God, or that they are merely natural and have no relationship whatsoever to our own agency, well, I don’t know how we can call such an attitude even remotely Christian. A denial I could respect would at least be based in a commitment to living up to the highest standards of material modesty, concern for the poor, and respect for all of life that I find everywhere expressed in Christianity. However, if such were the truly cherished values of conservatism, then Christian conservatives couldn’t help but be the most ardent conservationists. Some Christian conservatives get it. But unfortunately they aren’t the ones getting elected or hired or heeded.

To read more by George Handley check out his blog at Patheos, Hosting the conservation on faith: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2014/08/the-theology-of-climate-change-denial.html#ixzz3CFxuMBPH

When Earth and Sky Burn – RIP Robert Sallee

“It is easy for us to assume that as the result of modern science “we have conquered nature,” that nature is now confined to beaches for children and to national parks where the few remaining grizzly bears have been shot with tranquilizers and removed to above the timberline, supposedly for their safety and our own. But we should be prepared for the possibility, even if we are going to accompany modern firefighters into Mann Gulch, that the terror of the universe has not yet fossilized and the universe has not run out of blowups.” ~ Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Photo courtesy of Story of the Day - Climbing Higher

Photo courtesy of Story of the Day – Climbing Higher

Robert Sallee died a week ago at age 82 on Monday, May 26, 2014. Does this mean anything to you? It didn’t to me either until I bumped into his obituary two days ago. In 1949 15 men were dropped into the Gates of the Mountains in Montana to fight the Mann Gulch Fire; Salle was one of only three smokejumpers to survive and was the last surviving member to pass on. The Mann Gulch Fire was one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. It was Sallee’s first and last jump.

Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey after the Mann Gulch Fire, Photo courtesy of Peter Stackpole, Life

Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey after the Mann Gulch Fire, Photo courtesy of Peter Stackpole, Life

Photo Courtesy of Wild Fire Today

Photo Courtesy of Wild Fire Today

As I ran up into BLM land just behind my house today, the scent of juniper thick in the hot desert air, I thought of recent fire blow-ups that cost lives; the most recent being the Yarnell Fire in Arizona in 2013 that took the lives of 19 firefighters. While we can analyze events in hindsight and question decisions and subsequent actions, the truth is, fire is a reality, it is normal and it can be managed, but it is also and always dangerous. Though firefighters love what they do, whether it is the adrenaline rush, out-smarting the fire, problem solving, or traveling around the country rather than sitting in an office, none of them goes into a fire to give their lives. They are all equipped with the training and tools to do their jobs and all expect to be successful and drink a cool beer at the end. As Norman Maclean wrote in Young Men and Fire,

“Jumping (wildland firefighting) is one of the few jobs in the world that leads to just one moment when you must be just highly selected pieces of yourself that fit exactly the pieces of your training, your pieces of equipment having been made with those pieces of yourself and your training in mind.”

But with the effects of global warming and radical or bleak weather, drought, bark beetles, invasive grasses, and low budgets set by Congress, it appears even more daunting a task to be a wildland firefighter these days, even with the right pieces and training. As we on the sidelines watch the evening news and catch glimpses of the battles being fought in our forests and across our lands, we must recognize that our one vote and voice does matter – it matters where it counts most: money allocation.

While Congress cannot control the weather or events that take place on the ground, they do control the purse strings which should provide adequate funding for personnel and resources. Unfortunately, land management agencies routinely get their budgets cut and these agencies have to do more with less – less firefighters, less gear, less equipment. We have a responsibility to turn to our representatives and demand that they fund these agencies accordingly, and if their records show a history of voting for cuts to budgets, to get rid of them.

We all have a stake in our land – whether it reaches the boundaries of our property or not. We also have a stake in providing funding to the men and women who choose this profession. If we can’t control the weather, the wind, or the fire, we can at least control the money flow while we enjoy the great outdoors that so many manage, work on for our enjoyment, and protect.

Luckily today the smell of juniper was not a thick blanket of smoke hoping to choke me out or burn up my lungs – it was just the warm, earthy scent that naturally rises off the plants and seemingly out of the ground. It was a beautiful, if not hot, day. But if this fire season turns out the way that many are predicting, it may feel like the world and sky is burning. It is good to learn the names and remember the people who choose to do this job and who face greater risks and more fires in the future. With scarce water and ever mounting CO2 being blown into the air by burning forests, we have a stake in their success. It could not be more appropriate as fire season ramps up that Robert Sallee died on Memorial Day 2014. May he rest in peace.

“For many former Smokejumpers, then, smoke jumping is not closely tied up with their way of life, but is more something that is necessary for them to pass through and not around and, once it is unmistakably done, does not have to be done again. The “it” is within, and is the need to settle some things with the universe and ourselves before taking on the “business of the world,” which isn’t all that special or hard but takes time. This “it” is the something special within that demands we do something specials, and “it” could be within a lot of us.” ~Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Robert Sallee, Photo courtesy of The Spokesman Review

Robert Sallee, Photo courtesy of The Spokesman Review

 

For a look at the South Canyon Fire where another 14 firefighters died in Colorado:

Cliven Bundy’s Legacy: Peace or Rebellion

CivilDisobedience
There is a difference between a common criminal who breaks the law and a conscientious objector who raises awareness to an unjust law. I would make the distinction between selfish gains and the greater good of humanity. History has set aside a special place for some who acted defiantly in the name of a higher moral code such as Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name just a few. Today, some would add Tim DeChristopher, Pussy Riot, and Cliven Bundy to that elite list. But before reaching any conclusions one must understand what civil disobedience is in American tradition and the delicate balance one walks when they engage in it because it is breaking the law.

“Political theorist John Rawls argued that civil disobedience has a constitutional role in a just society. It is an appeal to the shared values of a community, aiming to persuade a majority that it is wrong. Civil disobedience is not an appeal to political expediency or self-interest. It is not a legal right, but an appeal to justice. Citizens have a general duty to obey the law, but in some cases some feel that the law is wrong and must defy it. But they do so first with the aim of changing the law and second, cognizant that they face legal retribution for their defiance. The act of civil disobedience has the potential to change the law because one is willing to go to jail or be punished for one’s act. One of the most basic principles of American democracy is majority rule. Majorities get their way so long as they do not violate the constitutional rights of minorities. Majority rule settles decisions until such time as a majority reaches a different conclusion. Similarly, majority rule is the rule of Congress. At some point votes and elections have settled issues and it is time to move on. (1)”

Tim DeChristopher and Cliven Bundy offer two sides of the coin regarding the difference between breaking the law and civil disobedience. Both men broke the law when dealing with the BLM. Tim DeChristopher upset an oil and gas land lease auction by illegally bidding on land leases, and Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees and allowed his cattle to graze illegally. That is about where the similarities end. When Tim went into the oil and gas auction he knew what he was doing, he knew he was going to disrupt it somehow, and he knew there would be consequences. When he saw acres of land being sold for $8 and $10 dollars he knew what he had to do. He started bidding to raise the prices on those parcels of land. Tim DeChristopher is concerned about global warming, not because of what will happen to the planet, but because of what will happen to people. He said,

“I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people. And even my value of wilderness is about what it brings to people. I have a very anthropocentric worldview.”

He believes that we have a moral obligation to address climate change and mitigate it because of the negative impacts it will have on people. His actions of disrupting the auction were meant to raise awareness and hopefully encourage a change in our laws. He thinks that as a Nation, we are acting immorally. His plea was to our sense of ethics. Tim had nothing to gain from his actions. In fact, he spent two years in federal prison despite the fact that the auction was later found to be an illegal auction and all of the leases were dropped. It seems to me that in that instance, when the BLM was found to be acting illegally, the charges against him would be dropped. But they weren’t, he was still accountable for his crimes. Since the courts often consider the actions of a reasonable man relative to a precise standard of obedience to the law, I personally believe that Tim’s punishment was excessive. That being said, according to the letter of law, the time between his actions and his punishment was swift, and by all rights, just.

In the case of Cliven Bundy, I cannot find a just or moral cause for his act of defiance. He did not like that his permit was changed and stopped paying for it and then continued to graze his cattle illegally. What I see is an unfortunate situation, perhaps unfair for him personally, and yes, sad. But unfair situations happen all the time to people and while I can sympathize with them, I would never succumb to the belief that everyone with a grievance is entitled to break the law. There is a difference between not liking a law and disobeying it on ethical grounds. If everyone decided to disobey any law they did not agree with chaos would follow. So, while many argue that Cliven Bundy is standing against tyranny in an act of civil disobedience, I would argue that he is not. The reason is first and foremost that he does not believe he is breaking any laws. All civil disobedients intentionally and knowingly break the law. But the rest of the reasons are as follows:

• He has a selfish motive
• He broke the law before seeking redress in court
• He does not acknowledge the rights of others
• There is no clear injustice
• He has threatened violence
• He has a disregard for federal law, and has no fidelity to it
• He is not submitting to the penalties of breaking the law

Cliven Bundy, as well as his defenders, are pointing to natural law as their justification for defying the law. They state that the federal government cannot take his “life, liberty, or property.” From what I can see, the only property in danger is his cattle, and that is because they are illegally on public land. As for the land in question, it is not his land and he has no right to it. Furthermore, the 5th Amendment says that no one can “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Mr. Bundy did receive due process. The bigger problem with his argument, however, is that it ignores other principles, such as equal rights under the law (another natural law as well as legal one), and all legal precedent established between the founding of our democracy and now. One cannot make a sound argument by taking a principle and arguing it in a vacuum, it has to be argued in context. That context is the law. “Within a democracy, even the moral right to civil disobedience is hedged with numerous qualifications. First, there is the standard of just and fair behavior. There must be an apparent and socially significant reason for the action taken and it must relate in some way to the law that is to be disregarded (2).” A claim to family tradition and heritage has value, but it does not have legal standing.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” What made Martin Luther King Jr. and others like him so effective was their reasoned appeal to the public to change unjust laws. The use or threat of violence is incompatible with a reasoned and articulate appeal to people’s sense of justice. Like an ad hominem attack, you encourage people to ignore your argument when you invoke violence. But further than that, when you state you will resort to violence, it moves from civil disobedience to civil rebellion. Cliven Bundy said in the Moapa Valley Progress that he was “willing to defend his rights at all costs.” When asked whether the matter might come to violence he said, “Why not? I’ve got to protect my property. I have a right to life, liberty and property.” In the LA Times he said,

“I’ve got to protect my property. If people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.”

While his language has strong emotional appeal, it hurts his cause. There is great debate over whether violence is ever justified and the case can be made on both sides of the argument, but I believe the moral high ground belongs with those who peacefully protest. When asked if violence is ever justified, Tim DeChristopher said,

“Well, it’s justified. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense. I mean, if you’re talking moral justification, yeah—to prevent the collapse of our civilization, and the deaths and suffering of billions of people, it’s morally justified. But violence is the game that the United States government is the best in the world at. That’s their territory.”

In response to Bundy’s threats, the government has shown up prepared for violence. The BLM halted their roundup in 2012 due to his threats because they did not want anyone to get hurt, but this time, they tried to cover all their bases in case Bundy decided to act on his threats. They closed roads and access to the land where the roundup is happening to ensure the safety of the public; they have set up First Amendment areas for people to peacefully protest in order to ensure their rights, but also to ensure their safety. As of yet Bundy has not acted on his threats, but threats are real and must be taken seriously. As Ayn Rand famously asserted, “Words have an exact meaning.”

All that being said, I do not believe that Cliven Bundy has a just or moral case, or one with general appeal, but I do sympathize with him and his family. If I were to make an argument in favor of Cliven Bundy I would appeal to the public on grounds of American tradition and heritage. I would argue that if feral horses and burros are protected as symbols of the west, shouldn’t ranchers also be? Ranchers and farmers are a dying breed and that is not a desirable end. I would argue that due to development and competing interests, ranchers deserve special protection under the law in terms of preserving a living part of American history and heritage. There is immense value in heritage and tradition. Most people see this inherent value and I believe, would support it. There is room in this great country for ranchers, and wild species. It seems to me that a reasonable compromise could have been reached 20 years ago had Cliven worked to that end. It is not too late to get this ball rolling, however, though it may take a long time. Why not leave a lasting legacy of improving the West rather than a legacy of inciting a range war?

Since the law changes with time and adjusts to new social and economic conditions, Cliven Bundy must realize that his family’s tradition of ranching is not a static state guaranteed forever. But he should not lose heart, the government can adapt and adjust to appeals for new laws. Mr. Bundy has shown himself to have great strength and stamina, as well as the ability to rally people to his cause. He could use those traits to do something good and lasting for many people, not just himself. Rather than inciting anarchy and violence, Bundy and his supporters could seek something reasonable and edifying for everyone. He could turn this ugly situation into a good one and leave a lasting legacy that promotes peace and healing. If his threatening language turns to action, or incites others to action, he will be culpable in any injury or harm that takes place, as will anyone else promoting such tactics. While the government is not free from critique and does not always do what is right, we do have ways of addressing it. In the marketplace of ideas, the best ideas rise to the top. Bundy should make a reasoned case and bring it to the people rather than appealing to people’s emotions and baser instincts. So much of how this plays out rests on his shoulders. As George Bernard Shaw said in Maxims for Revolutionists,

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

 

Citations
1. The American Society for Public Administration: http://patimes.org/congressional-refusal-fund-obamacare-act-civil-disobedience/
2. The Legitimacy of Civil Disobedience as a Legal Concept: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1944&context=flr
3. Tim DeChristopher’s Interview in Orion: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6598
4. Should we Ever Disobey the Law: http://www.richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/back_issues/rjp14_grant.pdf
5. Moapa Valley Progress: http://mvprogress.com/2012/04/18/bunkerville-rancher-holds-out-against-federal-officials/
6. LA Times article: http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-vegas-blm-range-war-20140407,0,1480936.story

%d bloggers like this: