Monthly Archives: November 2013

Black Friday Bargains

What a wonderful Black Friday I’ve had! You won’t believe the deals I found. I can’t blame you if you didn’t do as well. Take a look.

Picture1First, I enjoyed breakfast and a long walk in nearby Kittatinny State Park with three new friends (from Beijing and Taiwan) plus three old ones: Barbara (not really “old” of course!) and two of our kids, Nathan and Sarah. Who can even begin to value new friendships? They’re among the most precious things we have, don’t you think?

After lunch, I planted five pecan trees, plus a maple, two redbuds and three Carpathian walnuts. I ran the numbers, and my savings are absolutely amazing. I learned that a pecan tree can yield around 100 lbs. of nuts per year, and that pecans wholesale for $5.69/lb. They take around seven years to begin bearing, and call for some TLC in the meantime. But with a purchase price of around $8 per sapling, I figured the annual return on my investment will be around 75%! That’s the value of the nuts – not the shade, beauty, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat and all those other good things that trees offer.

And finally, my son Nathan and I wound things up by hanging a birdhouse he built on a tree facing a meadow near the river. Bluebirds next spring!

So, I end up my day with three new friends, a new investment potentially yielding 75% pretty much forever, and a secure nesting place for one of our most beautiful native birds.

So, how’d you do?

Happy Black Friday!

Wendell Berry, the Christian Soul, and Creation Care

Who cares more about protecting the Creation: evangelical Christians, or secular agnostics?

Courtesy Ruth Wheeler

Courtesy Ruth Wheeler

To most of my friends engaged in conservation or environmental justice, the answer seems obvious. “Don’t you know,” they ask me, “that evangelicals are the main supporters of those working to muzzle the EPA and gut the rules governing the most toxic power plants? Aren’t they the ones always questioning the global consensus on climate change, and cheering on the tar sands, strip miners and frackers?”

Well, I wish I had a better answer, because it’s not so easy to dispute the charges. And yet, I’ve noticed something perplexing. Even though my secular friends are much more likely to accept the findings of environmental science, precious few of them show much interest in the hard lifestyle choices that will be necessary to prevent the collapse of global ecosystems. Granted, they know that exploitation and abuse of the Creation is stupid. But stupid isn’t enough. Sure, stupid will win debates. But knowing what’s stupid hasn’t done much to transform a global culture built upon me-first consumerism.

And it’s here that the gospel offers hope that’s almost certainly beyond the capacity of secular thought. That’s because the Creation desperately needs a community of people who know that abuse of the Creation is much worse than stupid. This is the time for a community with a deep awareness that abuse of what God has made is actual blasphemy – a desecration of the holy gifts of a just and sovereign God, hurling the work of the Creator back into his glorious face. Those are the people with the compelling passion – fueled by numinous awe – to restore the possessions and inheritance of their Redeemer.

But where are they, you ask? Well, unfortunately, you won’t find many in American evangelical churches. Not that this makes much sense. The Bible that we evangelicals presume to embrace affirms God’s love for all of his Creation; it declares that all of it is good; that it belongs to God, not mankind; that God linked himself forever to it by taking on the dust of Earth in the incarnation; and that now, the purpose of his kingdom is the renewal and reconciliation of every single thing.

You’d think that people who embraced that Book would be all over Creation care. But it’s taking us some time to exorcise a particularly corrosive heresy that undermines much of what scripture commands regarding the physical world and the common good. Once again, it’s the corrupting influence of dualism – that insidious notion that we humans are some uncomfortable marriage of “body” and “soul,” each one vying for supremacy, each one offering us a choice between lofty “things above” and contemptible “things on Earth.”

The Christian poet Wendell Berry speaks persuasively into the culture of dualism, in both its religious and secular varieties. In recent weeks, we’ve given you samplings (here, and here) from his collection of essays, The Art of the Commonplace. There’s plenty here for people of every persuasion. But from my perspective, as a devoted member of this particular tribe, it’s evangelicals who have the most to gain from his prophetic voice. And once they do, I suspect the world will never be the same.

Wendell Berry on Dualism v. Love of the Creation

We can see how easy it is to fall into the dualism of body and soul when talking about the inescapable worldly dualities of good and evil or time and eternity. And we can see how easy it is when Jesus asks – “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – to assume that he is condemning the world and appreciating the disembodied soul.

Continue reading

Psst! Wanna Join the War on Coal?

We hear lots about war these days. Not just the real, shooting type, although there’s plenty of that here in America – with a whopping 31 separate foreign military ventures since the year 2000 and a Pentagon budget that dwarfs any other country in the world.

No, I’m talking about all those other wars that populate the nightly news. There are the wars that we hear Obama is bent on fighting: the War on Guns, or on Doughnuts, or on Christmas. Change the channel, and we hear of the wars that the GOP is waging: the War on Science, or on Women, or on the Poor, or on Food Stamps. And then there are the bipartisan wars: the War on Terror, or on Poverty, or on Drugs, or on Cancer.

My, my! We Americans sure like to fight our wars!

But there’s a new war that’s appeared in the American lexicon of late. It’s called the War on Coal. It pops up in response to efforts to control mercury pollution, limit mountaintop-removal mining, or to set standards for carbon emissions.

stop-war-on-coal-fire-obamaReports of the War on Coal come with plaintive appeals on behalf of America’s hard-working coal miners and beleaguered mining communities. We are reminded of the elusive goal of “home-grown” energy independence. Regulators and bureaucrats are the sinister forces directing the assault. You wouldn’t want to be associated with them, right?

Well, as of today, I’m unfurling my true colors. If you want, you can buy the war bonds to defeat Crack Cocaine, or Al-Qaeda, or Assault Rifles. I’m enlisting in the War on Coal.

I bet you haven’t heard anyone admit this yet. Am I right?  But then, I’m not running for office. And besides, no one’s talking about attacking coal; this war’s purely defensive. It’s a war aimed at putting an end to massive harm wreaked on all of us by one single industry dominated by a handful of huge companies.

By now, most everyone ought to know about this. Last month, the UN’s global climate science panel told us that the world is now on a strict carbon budget. For the next hundred years or more, we can only dig up and burn fossil fuels that emit a cumulative total of one trillion tons of Earth-warming gases, or else we’ll heat the entire Earth by another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or more. However bad that may sound to us laymen, it’s a risk to Earth’s inhabitants rivaling cataclysms not seen in millions of years. The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half of that budgeted amount since the beginning of the Industrial Age. So we’re left with less than 500 billion tons of fossil-fuel CO2 remaining in our budget.

And here’s an even thornier problem: Proven reserves of coal around the world represent 2.2 trillion more tons of CO2. So if all we do is burn the remaining coal we already know about, then we blow through our carbon limit about four times over – even if we totally forget about oil and gas reserves. This isn’t a case of slowing things down five, ten or even fifty percent. We’ve simply got to stop. Somehow, we’ve got to stop burning coal.

Last Monday, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, addressed coal industry executives who were meeting in Warsaw. Her message was clear: Most of the world’s coal needs to stay in the ground, if the world is to avoid 3.6-degrees Fahrenheit in global warming. “I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake,” she told industry leaders.

And it’s not just the UN demanding the wind-down of coal. In the U.S., we’ve got the National Academy of Sciences. They’ve told us that the coal industry is fundamentally uneconomic, surviving only on a massive subsidy paid by the entire rest of the world. In 2010, the Academy produced a report called The Hidden Costs of Energy, which took a close look at the “external costs” of coal – the costs in public health and climate disruptions associated with coal pollution that are paid by everyone from Texas firefighters to Filipino fishermen.

Now, everyone knows that many human activities carry external costs borne by others, and some of us regard them as inevitable consequences of life on Earth. But for coal, the numbers are simply staggering. Coal producers receive about 4.5 cents when they sell the amount of coal necessary to generate one kilowatt-hour of electricity – the amount consumed by a 100-Watt light bulb left on overnight. But the National Academy has determined that the external costs of that same amount of coal totals somewhere in the range of 4.2 cents to as much as 13.2 cents – triple the entire value that any coal company receives for delivering the stuff in the first place. The coal companies get four cents; the rest of us bear as much as thirteen additional cents in health and climate pollution costs.

National Academy of Sciences report on coal's staggering cost to the rest of us

National Academy of Sciences report on coal’s cost to the rest of us

At first glance, maybe thirteen cents doesn’t sound like much. But American power companies burn a lot of coal. In a single year (2005) they burned enough so that the 13-cent subsidy totaled more than $200 billion. That’s $200 BILLION in one year – paid by everyone on Earth. And that comes to around $40 apiece for every man, woman and child in the world. All for a few American coal companies.

You might say we’d be better off paying the industry exactly what they’re making today not to produce a single ton of coal. We’d be cutting our losses by about two thirds.

Is there any other industry in the world with such perverse fundamentals? Crack cocaine makes money for drug dealers, but it surely costs addicts, hospitals and law enforcement much more. But is the tiny crack business as globally harmful as coal? Cigarette makers deliver steady profits to corporate owners, but cost smokers and the health system dearly in respiratory diseases. Are they as bad as coal?

Well, I haven’t seen the numbers on crack and cigarettes. But there’s a reason that they are regulated, taxed or banned entirely. The more they sell, the worse off the rest of us are. And if the National Academy is anywhere near to being right, it’s even worse for coal. Every single ton produced puts us all further and further behind.

And so, the next time you hear a politician accuse someone of waging a “War on Coal,” you can be pretty sure you’ll hear a strenuous denial, with vague endorsements of “clean coal technology.” But feel free to call in and tell them you know someone who has actually enlisted.

I’m John Elwood, and I approved this message.

Was That Huge Storm Caused by Climate Change?

“When a ball player doubles his home run output because of steroid use, we don’t have to prove that any single one of those home runs was caused by the steroids.” Dr. Michael Mann

During the last week, we’ve thought of little other than Typhoon Haiyan, the six million displaced people in the Philippines, and Yeb Sano, the Filipino delegate to the Warsaw climate talks whose fast has riveted the attention of people from all over the world. For us, the intensity of our focus has been augmented by our own decision to join the fast in solidarity with delegate Sano and with the millions suffering from the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall.  

The city of Tacloban after Haiyan

The city of Tacloban after Haiyan

But implicit in our reaction to this tragedy is the linkage between the horrible suffering from this record storm and the ever-thicker blanket of earth-warming gases that our species is pumping into the Earth’s atmosphere. In the face of this assumption, we’ve all heard scientists say that it’s almost impossible to link any single local weather event to global climate disruption. Aren’t we just ignoring the science, like climate deniers who pronounce the end of global warming with every winter blizzard?

Well, I don’t think we are, but I’ve had a difficult time figuring out how to frame the response.  Yesterday, however, I came across this short interview with leading climate scientist and Penn State professor Michael Mann. And he nailed it for non-scientists like me. The interviewer asked, in essence: In the wake of the largest hurricane ever to lay waste to the Earth’s surface, can we dare to say that this is the work of manmade climate change?

Here’s Dr. Mann’s response:

This is of course the question on everyone’s mind right now, in the wake of the extreme weather we have seen here in the U.S., and all around the world, over the past few years.

It’s really this simple: we predicted decades ago that we would see more frequent and intense heat waves, more widespread drought, more catastrophic flooding events, etc. And now that we are indeed seeing this come true, as we predicted would be the case if we continued to burn fossil fuels and elevate atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the burden is no longer on those arguing for a connection, but on those arguing for the lack of a connection. The assumption now has to be that the fundamental changes in the atmosphere that we have caused are modifying every weather event, because every weather event takes place in an atmosphere that is now about 1.5-degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and contains about 4 percent more storm-generating moisture.

With hurricanes and typhoons, we know that warmer oceans and more atmospheric moisture leads to potentially stronger and more devastating storms. With tornadoes, we know that a warmer, moister atmosphere leads to a more unstable atmosphere, with greater potential for severe thunderstorms and squall lines, one of the key ingredients for tornadoes.

Now, in both of these cases, there are uncertainties that have to do with certain details about the behavior of the jet stream, etc. in a warmer world. But having witnessed record tropical storms like Superstorm Sandy,  Typhoon Haiyan, and the unprecedented 2005 Atlantic hurricane season over the past decade, there is little doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the “loading” of the random weather dice, with double sixes coming up a whole lot more often than they ought to.

Yes, there are uncertainties when we start talking about individual events, but that really isn’t the point. When a baseball player suddenly doubles the number of home runs he has been hitting through his career or season, and he is discovered to have been taking steroids that season, we don’t have to—nor could we ever hope to—prove that any one of those record season home runs was caused by the steroids. It is the wrong question. The right question is, were the steroids responsible for a good number of those home runs collectively? And the answer is yes.

Too often we let the “confusionists” in the climate change debate wrongly frame this connection so as to blur the connection between climate change and extreme weather. It’s time that we start calling the out the false framing. The answer is, yes—the record heat, drought, devastating wildfires, coastal flooding events, etc. that we are seeing is almost certainly a result of human-caused global warming and climate change. And it will get much worse if we don’t do something to curtail our ever-escalating burning of fossil fuels.

Here at Beloved Planet, we’ve been encouraged at the outpouring of support from Christians reflected on social media on behalf of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. But I would offer this caution: Sincere sympathy — even sympathy demonstrated by generosity — may mean little in the end, unless it is accompanied by action to reduce Earth-warming emissions.

So, yes, get out your credit card and click here to give. But then, click here to petition your government to end the injustice of unlimited, “free” carbon pollution.

Michael Mann is a professor at Penn State University, a founding member of the popular science blog Realclimate. His latest book is titled The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. He is active on Twitter @MichaelEMann.

We’re Joining Yeb Sano’s Fast for Climate Justice

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6

As of today, we at Beloved Planet are joining a fast, declared by the Philippines’ delegate to the global climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. We will be fasting on behalf of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, dedicating ourselves to prayerful witness to the suffering of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people. We join our voices with those demanding that the major powers of the world enact meaningful climate policies.

We are also standing with other faith communities who have joined the fast, including the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network and the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.

typhoonAnd we are encouraging our readers to prayerfully consider fasting with us, and to add their names to the growing list of signatories of the Eco-Justice Network’s commitment to fasting and prayerful witness during the balance of the Warsaw summit, which concludes on November 22.

As delegates from around the world arrived in Poland on November 9 for the international climate negotiations, Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippine island of Leyte, with 195 mph winds, gusting to an unimaginable 235 mph. Now called the world’s strongest tropical cyclone to make a landfall on record, Haiyan was the thirtieth named storm in the Pacific this year, and the second extreme weather event to devastate the Philippines in one year. The death toll currently stands at 3,600, but estimates of the uncounted dead run much, much higher.

In Warsaw the following day, Filipino climate conference delegate Nadarev (Yeb) Sano, made an impassioned plea to delegates representing the world’s people to take real climate action to protect his country, which is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased storm activity associated with global climate change. Mr. Sano has begun a fast for the duration of the conference to call for real action on climate change.

The plight of the Philippines stands as grisly witness to the injustice of climate policies around the world – and most notably in the United States. On average, each American emits more global-warming gases than 22 Filipinos. And yet, as seriously as climate disruption is affecting the U.S., we are far less vulnerable to today’s extreme weather than our Filipino counterparts. Indeed, the ten most climate-vulnerable countries in the world emit on average less than one twentieth the greenhouse gases per capita than their American counterparts. And they are also approximately twenty times poorer.

Small wonder, then, that delegate Sano has begun to fast – perhaps a desperate measure to attract attention to the delay and inaction of the rest of the world.

Whatever his motivation, we are joining with him. Perhaps you would consider joining us? If you’re not used to fasting, then you have a range of options – eat only one meal per day, fast for a shorter period, limit your diet to simple foods like bread and water, or whatever you settle on.

And to signal your solidarity, visit the Eco-Justice website and sign up for the fast. But don’t stop there! There are others who will surely come along once you do. So pass the word!

Last of all, if you’re like me, you probably need a reminder to pray, and to give generously. Once you’ve skipped a meal or two, this reminder comes along about every 15 minutes! And once you’ve prayed, consider giving generously to relief for the people of the Philippines. You can do so by clicking here.

Thanks for caring about your suffering brothers and sisters, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood


Plastic Paradise: Garbage and the Pacific

Today, I saw this great short piece from Chuck Redfern. You’ve got to see it!

Some big stories remain largely untold. For example, one of the bloodiest conflicts is the Congo’s civil war; about 98% of the atmosphere’s lead, which once worried ecologists, is now gone; Australian children must now wear hats to school because of the ozone hole and its consequent skin cancer (the hole is beginning to close due to environmental regulation, thank God). And there’s is a huge swirl of garbage in the Pacific Ocean composed mostly of plastic, which never dissolves. Some of its is swept onto Midway, scene of the great World War 2 naval battle.

See this largely untold story in this video, which is a trailer for a movie directed by Angela Sun:

Actually, there’s a shorter, less “newsy” trailer available here.

Thanks Chuck! (Visit Chuck’s website here.)

Ask the EPA: Who Picks Up the Tab for Coal?

Today, I testified at the Environmental Protection Agency’s listening session on carbon standards for existing power plants. The worst carbon polluters are coal plants, and they account for about half of U.S. generating capacity. So I focused on coal, and the cost borne by the rest of the world:

Testimony at EPA Listening Session, Philadelphia, PA

My name is John Elwood. I live in Andover, New Jersey. I serve on the board of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I edit the website, and am speaking this morning in that capacity.

Elwood at earlier EPA hearing in 2011

Elwood at earlier EPA hearing in 2011

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify in support of the EPA’s efforts to establish meaningful standards on carbon emissions from existing power plants.

The core question confronted by the EPA is this: How much carbon pollution should utilities be permitted to dump into the atmosphere – for others to pay for in health, and in climate disruption costs?

The answer would seem to be pretty simple. It’s clearly wrong for a buyer and seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave a substantial part of the cost for everyone else to pick up – the external costs.

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of these costs. But in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences produced a study called The Hidden Cost of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in “external costs.” That’s billions, with a “B”. And it amounts to a tax of about $30-40 levied on every human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year.

Earlier this year, the Christian Reformed Church sent a delegation of leaders to Kenya to hear firsthand from people who have been affected by these external costs. We met with hundreds of small farmers and community leaders. Everywhere, the story was the same. Two reliable growing seasons in years past have shrunk to a single season. Even that single season is now unreliable. Crop yields have plummeted. Water is more scarce than ever.

We also visited with the General Secretary of the Kenyan Council of Churches, Rev. Peter Karanja. He told us:

“We are very concerned, especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change…. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world…. Long after your life is over, your actions will have consequences on us. Many of them will be harmful consequences.”

On behalf of all people who bear the cost of American carbon pollution – our citizens, our children, the people of Kenya plus many more – I urge the EPA to develop and implement comprehensive standards aimed at reducing these emissions by existing American power plants.

Thank you.

Note: You can provide written comments to the EPA by clicking here. Speak up! We need your voice!