Monthly Archives: January 2012

White House Denies Permit for Tar Sands Pipeline

With all this traveling in the East, I forgot to mention some wonderful news from back home.  For many of you, this is now old stuff.  But last Monday – almost a week ago now – the White House and State Department denied TransCanada’s application to build the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
You know the details, recorded on this website, about the Keystone XL and the Alberta tar sands.  Here are a few links to elements of the story we’ve been following for you:
  • Summary of the controversy, inviting you to help us stop the pipeline;
  • Photo essay of the tar sands to provide a simple narrative of the issues at stake;
  • Our arrest at the White House for our protest activities;
  • Images and data recorded by Canadian environmental workers, including graphic video footage;
  • Analysis of specious oil-industry claims about pipeline job creation in the U.S., claims that are still being spread by U.S. politicians;
  • Our testimony at the U.S. State Department on behalf of evangelical Christian organizations;
  • Re-post of the most compelling video footage of the tar sands that we’ve seen;
  • Debunking  the oil industry’s claims that the KXL would provide U.S. energy independence;
  • U.S. Army General’s gripping testimony against the pipeline, on behalf of American soldiers;
  • Photo essay of the November action in which 12,000 protesters surrounded the White House to stop the KXL pipeline; and
  • Sounding  the alarm that Congressional oil addicts were angling to kill a highly popular tax plan unless the President approved the KXL pipeline.

Well, that tax deal got done, and as part of the compromise, the President agreed to decide on the KXL permit in 60 days, an impossible deadline.
So last Monday, the Administration denied the permit, citing inability to complete the environmental and economic assessment in the mandated timeframe.  We all were very excited.  We had really done something important to move our country in a direction more consistent with the demands of stewardship for the creation.  It almost seemed like a fairy-tale ending.
But in the real world, happy endings aren’t quite that easy to come by, are they?  In fact, House Speaker Boehner told Fox News the other night that he would consider holding the tax plan hostage to the Keystone pipeline again.  Here’s a look at what he said:
So for the moment, be happy and proud of your accomplishments on behalf of creation care.  But remember, it isn’t over.   We’re still keeping a vigilant eye on the corrupting power of oil money in American politics.  There’s so much at stake for our Father’s world, and for his creatures at risk from our ongoing oil binge.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
 J. Elwood

In Sympathy for Vegetarians

Funny how hard it is to sympathize with others till life deals you the losing hand.  
For years, I’ve watched my sister-in-law Narges, and my niece Isabelle struggle to honor their vegetarian commitments without appearing to be ungracious guests.  But I didn’t pay much notice.  And at the Chinese New Year’s feast two nights ago, a vegetarian Calvin College student traveling with me ended up with peanut butter and bread: the lavish feast set before us had meat in almost every dish.  Again, I didn’t think too much about it.
But as you may know, Mondays are meatless in our household.  It’s a small accommodation we’ve made in recognition of the value of lifestyle decisions regarding creation care.  Food has a carbon footprint, and meat production and consumption is actually a heavier burden on the ecosystem than many people appreciate.   On many days, our family doesn’t actually eat meat.  But on Mondays, we pretty much never do.
And so this Monday, I found myself wandering alone on Peng Chau, a tiny island in the South China Sea, near Hong Kong.  It’s the Lunar New Year, and most stores and restaurants in the island village were closed.  But it was also rainy and cold; and I was hungry, wet and chilled.  After two failed attempts to squeeze into crowded storefront restaurants, I found a nice place with a table all to myself.
Peng Chau’s main street barely accommodates a bicycle

But then came the challenge:  Finding something to eat without meat.

“No meat?” asked the incredulous proprietor.  “No meat?”
There were plenty of vegetables, but they all were cooked with meat.  Broccoli?  It’s cooked with scallops.  Fried rice?  It’s got shrimp.  Spring rolls? Sorry: pork.
Finally I noticed fried noodles with pork and mixed vegetables.  “I’ll have this one,” I told my host. “Only, would it be possible to exchange the pork for a few more vegetables? No pork? Okay?”
Brilliant!  And lunch was delicious, with three kinds of mushrooms and baby bok choi.  Better yet, the restaurant was full of families enjoying their inter-generational New Year’s feast, so there was a lovely old grandma at almost every table.  It was a pleasure to see so many young men tending to an elderly and respected relative.
And this being the New Year, I’ve been taught that the holiday greeting is “Gung hei fat choi!” You say it with hands balled together as in prayer, slightly shaking them as though they are nodding.  Well, I hardly know anything in Cantonese, but I wasn’t going to miss my one opportunity to use what I did.  Of course, the Chinese are pretty reserved around strangers, and don’t freely offer or expect a greeting, regardless of the holiday.
But no one told me that, so if you were on Peng Chau today, you got “fat-choyed” by an American tourist, whether you liked it or not.  I think the villagers were suitably amused, because I got a lot of smiles and “Gung hei fat choi!” in return. 
More importantly, I learned how tricky it can be for our vegetarian friends to get a square meal away from home.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you. And today, Gung hei fat choi!
J. Elwood

Air Pollution & Airwaves Pollution

We have a wonderful guide here in Hong Kong: a young mother of two named Donna.  Donna has lived in Hong Kong for many years.  That’s why she doesn’t notice the air pollution the way we visitors do.  We squint through the haze at the dim silhouettes of nearby mountains and buildings. But Donna doesn’t much notice.
Sometimes you need to be away from home to see the obvious.  It makes me wonder: Back home in the States, what do we fail to see because it’s always with us?
Well, it just dawned on me as I was watching Chinese TV the other day.  It’s the ads.  The TV here has lots of ads we’d recognize.  They advertise cosmetics, tinned cookies, pizza and milk products.  They advertise movies, financial services, nutritional supplements and electronics retailers.  They advertise public service matters, like vaccines and public health concerns.  The ads are a bit strange to my American eye, but they’re not fundamentally different from what we do in the U.S.
But then it dawned on me that something’s missing.  It’s what they DON’T have.  There are none of those oil, gas and coal ads that don’t appear to be selling anything at all.  No one is telling the Chinese every day how good a thing it is that they can burn fossil fuels all the time.
“Clean Coal” ad campaign
Now maybe you’re wondering, what fossil fuel ads? Well, any morning or evening, just flip on the cable news station: Fox, CNN, MSNBC, or whatever you like.  Within 30 minutes, you’ll see several ads like these:
Clean Coal; America’s Power: The coal industry incessantly attempting to wed two fundamentally incompatible words, despite the near total abandonment of serious “clean coal” technologies;
Natural gas “could create one million new American jobs”:  The American Natural Gas Association telling how safe, clean and abundant gas from hydro-fracking and shale gas really is;
ExxonMobil telling us how “oil sands” in Canada are as clean as “some other conventional oils,” and promising more American jobs;
Exxon’s fracking guy reassures us
Chevron apparently siding with environmentally-conscious young people in their criticisms of the oil industry, telling us that they’re already way ahead of the curve; and
BP inviting us all back to the Gulf of Mexico, where everything is now just fine.
I can recite some of these ads from memory.  But here’s the thing: What are they spending all the ad money for back in the U.S.?  And why don’t they bother in China?
Well, from a distance, it’s obvious. America establishes its energy policies at the ballot box. China doesn’t.  If the facts freely spoke for themselves, any nation in the world would act quickly to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, as the Chinese are working feverishly to do, despite their enormous industrial growth.
Back home, our political process is awash with oil & coal money.  But much of it doesn’t take the form of political contributions.  The money behind all those ads keeps our news outlets happily dependent on the fossil-fuel industries.  And they hammer into our collective consciousness the soothing message:  Don’t worry about the future; just keep using more oil, gas and coal. You can trust us to take care of you.
ExxonMobil ads feature attractive people working for a better world
But like Donna and the air pollution here in Hong Kong, we hardly notice all this back home. And I think – don’t you? – that that’s pretty much what the oil & coal advertisers are counting on. As I watch the U.S. political process from afar, I think they’re getting good value for their ad money. Burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere is our God-given right; and the barrage of TV ads are making sure it stays that way.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Learning From the Comrades: What the Chinese can Teach America

We had some pretty strong preconceptions before coming to China a few weeks ago.  Scenes of brave but hopeless students staring down tanks on Tiananmen Square; reports of house churches huddled in secret worship; images of thousands of factory workers slaving over electronic boards — Our views were a mix of fact, fiction, and history.
Not all of those notions have been debunked, though some have.  It still is undeniable that the Chinese Communist Party holds onto power with an iron fist.  The state still controls the internet and the press as they wish.  The one-child policy often results in terrible consequences. And local people can’t do much about corrupt city officials who profit from business interests that contaminate the drinking water.
But that doesn’t mean that the state gets everything wrong.  As we say back home:  “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn.” And this squirrel is by no means blind.
So I shouldn’t have been all that surprised to find much to like in China’s “12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development.”  For communist leaders from Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro, the Five Year Plan (FYP) is the cornerstone of national policy.  In China, the plan is a broad blueprint: it sets overall objectives and goals related to social and economic growth and industrial planning in key sectors. And while the blueprint may or may not be carried out fully in practice, it tells you where the country wants to go, and what it’s willing to do to get there.
So what is China’s blueprint for the next five years?
Well, the catch-phrase is “inclusive growth” — generally, restructuring China’s plans so that more people participate in its growing wealth.  And while it has its skeptics, it also has some impressive details.  For us, it’s notable that China has placed “protecting the environment” among its top three priorities. And what might that mean in specifics?  Well, here’s what we see:

The Plan:  Less coal, and increases in cleaner forms of energy
  1. Among the seven “strategic emerging industries” that Beijing will specifically support, four are vital to creation care: sustainable energy, energy conservation, environmental protection and clean-energy vehicles.  The Chinese government will invest US$700 billion in these industries, and the private sector will add a lot more.
  2. Reducing reliance on coal:  The plan calls for capping domestic coal production, and tripling wind, hydro and nuclear power generation.
  3. Cutting CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45%: Specific plans involve electric car battery technology, resulting in annual production of one million electric cars by 2015.
  4. Imposing a carbon tax on fossil fuels and developing a carbon trading system:  Until the “external costs” of fossil fuels – health costs, military costs to protect supply lines, costs of flooding and drought, costs of pollution cleanup – are included in the market price of fossil fuels, all other clean-energy efforts are hampered.  Someone pays them today, and the Chinese are handing the tab to the polluters.
  5. Measuring urban air pollution, and achieving “blue-sky-day” targets. Chinese city air is notoriously bad.  And they’re only now starting to use meaningful measurement devices.  People need to know what they’re breathing.
  6. 15% of energy from non-fossil fuels by 2020:  Beijing plans to invest heavily in new solar, wind, and nuclear technologies.
  7. Smart electric grid:  30% of China’s wind farms aren’t yet grid-connected because of an antiquated grid, much like the U.S. 
  8. Ten-fold return on energy-efficiency investments:  During the 11th FYP, China claims it enjoyed $10 of GDP for every $1 of government investment in the sector. During the 12th FYP, Beijing will invest another US$500 billion in energy efficiency.
Now, the Clothesline is no China expert.  Much may be lost, they say, between the cup and the lip.  But what if our own country had an effective policy to do half of those things?  Check that: What if we did one or two of them?
There’s a serious chance that we’ll find ourselves in 2016 – when we’re reading about the 13th Five-Year Plan – hopelessly behind these global competitors in matters that concern caring for God’s good earth. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  And it starts with people like us breaking our timid silence, and talking honestly about the demands of justice on the environmental policies of our country.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Happy Chinese New Year, and Good Luck!

One of the first things you learn about foreign languages is that people aren’t speaking your language with different vocabularies.  “There’s no English word for that,” you hear all the time.
Here in South China, that’s what they say about the word “Joss.”  Joss is a Cantonese word, sort of meaning Luck and Fate and God and the Devil combined.  For me, it feels pretty close to Luck; but a much more substantive and present luck than the flimsy thing we think of in the West.  And as luck would have it, we’re here at Chinese New Year, the festival for good Joss – good luck – for the year ahead. 
The Chinese – I’m told – really believe in luck.  A successful businessman plays the Baccarat tables as well, because his joss is good.  The Chinese give each other money at New Year’s, because money is lucky.  People wear red on this holiday, because red is the color of joss.
And they burn “joss sticks” at the local temple, perhaps for many reasons; but I assume joss – or luck – has something to do with it.
Worshipers at Hong Kong’s Wong Tai Sin temple
And so I watched with genuine interest today as throngs of people poured into Wong Tai Sin Temple to close out the last week of the old year.  Most held dozens or hundreds of sweet-burning joss sticks, preparing to offer prayer before their chosen shrine.
The Temple is a shrine to Master Wong Tai Sin, a 4th Century Taoist figure who is believed to have become a celestial being.  But the temple has deities to go around.  Upon entry, I am met by the fierce scowl of Yue Heung, standing in bronze on a dragon-mount with gilded sword raised to strike.  Apparently, this is a deity who doesn’t care all that much if you love him.
Next, after visiting the soothsayer booths, you can pray at the shrines of Caichen, Yao Wong or Fuk Tak, who all look to me like fairly typical village gods.
But as you mount the stairs to the enormous Wong Tai Sin shrine, you see that these deities are all relatively small potatoes.  Here, before the massive and ornate gilded shrine of Wong Tai Sin, hundreds of people mill about preparing their offerings to its namesake.  There are scores of prayer mats.  Many people kneel and bow perfunctorily three or four times, and then get their girlfriend to take their picture.  Grandfathers help toddlers kneel, and snap their picture for some future purpose.  Young daughters will watch their mothers bow, and then repeat the act before running and giggling with their friends.  Businessmen and street sweepers will bow and light joss stick just the same.
Joss sticks offering sweet smoke
Apparently, there’s some serious joss at stake, and this is the time of year to line up your luck for the coming year.
But anywhere in the world, you find people whose prayers come from deep in the heart.  I watched an old woman praying on her mat, face to the floor, faintly rocking as she prayed.  Others came and went, but she prayed.  I thought I’d watch her as she emerged from her prayers, but I couldn’t wait her out.  Eventually I walked on, and left her prostrate and rocking on her knees.
So what did I take away from Wong Tai Sin Temple?  Well, a few interesting things:
  • First, everyone prays.  It doesn’t seem to matter whether your belief is either orthodox or profound.  It doesn’t seem to hurt to pray.
  • Second, people don’t seem to be particularly troubled by contradiction.  In this rather strongly Christian city, maybe it doesn’t hurt to cover your bases.  Who knows? It might help your joss?
  • Third, every kind of person comes here: old and young, people from all ethnic origins and economic strata.
  • Fourth, the community pours resources into the place, with manicured gardens, resplendent shrines and clean toilets.  Dozens of people continuously sweep the walkways.
  • And finally, even in a strange temple amidst swirling incense, you can find people – I think – whose hearts are sincerely drawn to the Creator of the universe.
What does it all mean to an evangelical Christian visiting this part of the world for the first time?  Oh, I couldn’t attempt to answer that on my first visit.  As John Lagerway, a Christian professor and Calvin College alumnus, advised us upon arrival here: “When you first observe Chinese religious practices, it’s best to remind yourself to suspend judgment.”
Thanks for reading, and whatever it might mean, good luck — and good joss — for the New Year!
J. Elwood
The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.  He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.  All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.  Psalm 98:2-3

The River Runs Black

I am back in Hong Kong after visiting the major cities of the Pearl River Delta: Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan, Zhuhai and Macau.  To my great surprise, it was sunny today!  China, to my friend Jan Curry, is mostly black and white, since the smog almost never permits colors to shine through.  But today in Hong Kong it’s pretty clear by local standards.
During my travels, I finished a wonderful book about China, the longing for freedom, and the burden of water pollution on this great country.  I wish you all could read it, but it’s a must for students looking to understand the world’s largest country and the challenges it faces in the next two decades:
“The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future” by Elizabeth C. Economy; Cornell University Press.  Find it here.
To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from the author’s concluding chapter:
The River Runs Black…
China’s leaders face a daunting task. With one-quarter of the world’s population, centuries of grand-scale campaigns to transform the natural environment for man’s benefit, intensive and unfettered economic development, and – most recently – its entry into the global economy, China has laid waste to its resources.
The results are evident everywhere. Water scarcity is an increasingly prevalent problem. Over one-quarter of China’s land is now desert. China has lost twice as much forested land over the centuries as it now possesses. And air quality in many major cities ranks among the worst in the world.

Of equal, if not greater, concern than the immediate environmental costs of China’s economic development practices, however, are the mounting social, political, and economic problems that this clash between economic development and environment has engendered.   China’s leaders must also now contend with growing public health problems. Rising rates of cancer, birth defects and other pollution-related illnesses have been documented throughout the country. The public health crisis also contributes to growing numbers of protests, some peaceful and some violent, as the government, either through corruption, incompetence or lack of capacity, proved incapable of taking appropriate action to address the people’s concerns.
Pollution – straining China’s economic boom
The economic costs of China’s environmental degradation are rising sharply. Most immediately, poor air and water quality have direct costs in terms of crop loss, missed days of work from respiratory disease and factory shutdowns from lack of water.
Much of China’s surface water is now hopelessly fouled
Even greater challenges are on the horizon. Several of China’s major river systems are running dry in places, necessitating huge and costly river diversion schemes. Much of China’s north is under increasing threat of desertification, prompting vast afforestation schemes, with only mixed results. 
These depleted land and water resources, coupled with the river diversions will contribute to migration on the scale of tens of millions over the next decades. While this will relieve population pressure on some of China’s most overgrazed and intensively farmed land, it will increase the strain on many urban areas. Chinese officials are greatly concerned about the growing water demand by China’s wealthier, urbanized citizens.


The folly of mass “campaigns”
Already cities such as Shanghai are experiencing significant stress to their sanitation and waste systems, as well as difficulty in gaining access to natural resources, such as water.
At the same time, as the reforms have exacerbated old (as well as introduced new) environmental challenges, they have not managed to break free of other aspects of China’s environmental legacy. Particularly damaging has been Beijing’s continued reliance on campaigns to address vast, often complex environmental problems.
History has demonstrated repeatedly that the challenges of deforestation, pollution and scarcity of natural resources are poorly addressed by grand-scale campaigns that attend little to the complex social, economic and environmental/scientific issues that underpin these challenges.

Moreover, even as China assumes a leadership position in the global economy and the international community, its leaders struggle to move beyond traditional notions of security that contribute to large-scale development programs with potentially highly deleterious environmental consequences, such as the grain self-reliance and “Go West” campaigns.
Weak environmental protection
China’s post-Mao leaders have developed a far more institutional system of governance, with a codified system of laws. This is a critical step forward for environmental protection.
Still, by most measures, the central environmental protection bureaucracy in China remains weak. With roughly five times the population of the United States, China possesses a central environmental protection bureaucracy only one-twentieth as large. 
Central government funding for environmental protection – while increasing steadily over the course of the reform period – is still well under the level that Chinese experts claim is necessary to prevent further deterioration. China’s weak enforcement of its own environmental protection laws also undermines the potential environmental advantages of foreign direct investment.
Pressure to cut costs
Many multinationals complain that despite their best efforts, local officials and enterprise managers prefer not to use the pollution control technologies they provide in order to decrease the costs of operating the plants. Or, in other instances, foreign firms simply cannot compete against domestic firms that do not abide by the country’s environmental regulations.
Fearing broad social change
The Chinese government is wary of the potential for NGOs and the media to move beyond issues of local enforcement to criticize central government policy or potentially serve as a force for broader social change. The environment may serve as a locus for broader political discontent and calls for political reform, as it has in other countries.
End of excerpt.
For Americans, China is hugely important.  Whatever your opinions of this enormous rival, they are our partners — for good or ill — in leading the world’s ecological future.  We might as well get used to it.  The U.S. and China are joined at the hip in the fight to save — or destroy — our Father’s world.  Why not buy the book for yourself? 
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

U.S. and China: The Biggest Climate Losers

Our Chinese hosts have a little joke for their English-speaking friends.
“You’ve heard about the Chinese national bird?” A pregnant pause, and then: “It’s the crane.”


We smile awkwardly. What’s so funny about that? And then it begins to dawn on us, and we laugh uncertainly. Oh, yes. We get the joke. Of course.


Cranes are everywhere. Cranes perched on top of tall buildings; cranes hovering above cleared land; cranes even competing for space with other cranes.
We’re speaking, of course, of construction cranes, not birds. And they’re here because of almost indescribable growth here in the Pearl River Delta, and cities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan.


I wouldn’t have believed the scale myself, before I saw it. Since opening itself to world markets in the 1970’s, China has seen spectacular growth, albeit from a very low starting point. Consider Shenzhen, Hong Kong’s closest neighbor in mainland China. In 1979, there were 300,000 people living here. Only thirty years later, there were 8.9 million – bigger than New York!


And at last count, Shenzhen’s people numbered 10.4 million. How do you even find room for 500,000 new people every year? Well, that explains the cranes, no? In fact, in 2009, the city of Shenzhen opened an unbelievable one-half billion square feet of new building space!

All this growth is desperately important to the Chinese. They are still a comparatively poor country. In the last three decades, they’ve increased their GDP per person forty times over, but it’s still less than one-tenth of the average American income. And with such widespread poverty, the official doctrine of the Chinese regime has been: “Development first; environment later.”


It seems strange from this side of the Pacific, but wealthy America seems to feel the same way. Just look at the presidential primaries. It’s an article of faith that the only thing that matters this year is the economy. Imagine an American candidate hopelessly running on a platform of caring for the creation: Goodbye nomination! It’s jobs now; environment later, or maybe never.


But China and the U.S. share a common problem. From the standpoint of total economic harm to our large coastal cities, we’re the two biggest victims of our own policies. Within a generation, the effects of our common neglect of the environment will cost us more dearly than any other countries on earth.


According to the OECD research we’ve been looking at in recent posts, the world’s large coastal cities will suffer more than $35 TRILLION in losses from rising sea levels by 2070 – more than twice the U.S. national debt. For China, the main victims are Guangzhou (#2), Shanghai (#5), Tianjin (#7), Hong Kong (#9), Ningbo (#11) and Qingdao (#18). For the U.S. it’s Miami (#1), New York (#3), New Orleans (#12) and Virginia Beach (#19).

And why are sea levels rising? Most importantly, because of thermal expansion: as water warms, it expands slightly, and the world’s oceans are warming under increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Secondly, mountain glaciers are rapidly melting, as a visit to almost-glacier-free Glacier National Park will vividly illustrate. But most terrifying of all is the third cause: The earth’s two great ice sheets – Greenland and Antarctica – holding enough water to raise sea levels by 200 feet, are melting at an accelerating pace.


[A fourth climate effect – the record loss of Arctic sea ice – does not, by itself, contribute to rising sea levels. But the loss of white, reflective sea ice in exchange for dark, heat-absorbing sea water exacerbates the other three effects, and further accelerates rising sea levels.]


So if China and the U.S. are the biggest coastal losers from human-caused climate change, you’d think that they’d be leading the charge to cut GHG emissions, wouldn’t you? But in 2011’s global climate conference in Durban, as in Copenhagen and Bali before it, our two countries did more harm than any others in resisting international action to restore the earth’s climate systems.


In China, the apparent problem is the desperate scramble for economic growth in the face of centuries of poverty. In the U.S., it appears to be the corrupting influence of oil and coal money in politics. American people know about climate change. American politicians don’t, or won’t.


So what will it be for the U.S. and China? Economic growth, or care for the creation? Or are we beginning to see this as an entirely false choice?


The relentless onset of rising sea levels due to human-driven climate change has unmasked this narrative for the sham that it is. Disregard for the creation will not create wealth for either country. On the contrary, it will destroy some of our greatest cities and all the economic vitality they bring to our countries.


Unless, of course, we begin speaking up. Even in China, people of goodwill can make a difference if they try. But in the U.S., it’s easy.


Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


J.Elwood