Monthly Archives: November 2013

Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling and Community

The news this morning is bad.

Pretty much like most other mornings.

From NASA, we hear that last month was the hottest September on record. From Berlin, an international science panel warns that it may take “drastic measures” to avoid catastrophic climate change. From China, coal plants catapult smog to levels thirty times worse than the maximum safe level. From California, a new study finds that they simply can’t reach their aggressive emissions goals. And from Geneva, the WMO tells us that 2012 global carbon emissions hit a record high, breaking the records set in 2011, and in 2010 before that.

It’s bad all right. My goodness! I’ve got to do something! Seriously!

But a shipment of chestnut saplings has just arrived in the mail, and I’ve got planting to do. And twenty more raspberry canes are waiting for my attention as well. And the neighbor’s basement insulation is only half finished, with winter on the doorstep.

If you think of yourself as an earthkeeper, you’ve almost certainly been here. Today’s global threats to the Creation are so great. Maybe you just don’t have time for actual earthkeeping yourself. After all, what will planting a dozen chestnut trees – or taking a child for a bird-watching walk – really accomplish in the face of such menacing threats?

This is the world I live in, and – until recently – I hadn’t seen many examples of others who have found a workable way of living in both spheres: deeply moved by global-scale abuse of the Creation, but firmly committed to a sense of place and the renewal of those things under our stewardship.

But into that world steps Leah Kostamo, with her new book – Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling and Community. And finally, I’ve seen someone with a real story – told with insight and humor – about the struggle to live hopefully in a particular place, while caring for an imperiled planet.

planted-by-leah-kostamoAt its core, Planted is a story about connections. Like never before in history, our age suffers from blindness to the complex interconnections among all things in the natural world. And like no other culture on Earth, ours has lost the sense of connectedness to other humans in community. The beauty of these two connections – to the natural world, and to each other – unfolds in Kostamo’s story against the backdrop of a third connection: the Creator’s connection to us and to all that he has made.

This is no lecture, no environmental tract preaching the wonders of an astoundingly beautiful world, and the horrific tale of what we are doing to it. It’s a story of ordinary people — among them Kostamo and her husband Markku – learning to restore life-giving connections, sometimes against impossible odds.

Leah and Markku are conservationists. It comes naturally for them to share the connections between the saltwater shrimp, which becomes part of the migrating salmon, which in turn sustains the hungry grizzly, whose droppings nourish the seedling, which becomes the majestic fir that forms the backdrop for the conservation center that they operate in coastal British Columbia. On page after page, we witness the connections among coyotes and chickens, cows and humans, developers and wetlands – stories told with insight in the voice of an eyewitness. If you’re like me, you’ll want to unplug yourself, get outside and dig for worms with a little child. Or learn to identify the calls of songbirds. And it won’t be because someone has persuaded you that you should. You’ve begun to see the connections you were created for, and you want to be a part of it.   Continue reading

Power Plant Carbon Pollution: Unlimited and Unpriced?

I’m starting to think about my testimony before the EPA later this week. I’ll be speaking about their proposed carbon standards for coal and gas-fired electric plants. What’s at stake is this: How much pollution should utilities be permitted to dump into the atmosphere – for you, me and our children to pay for in health, infrastructure and climate disruption costs?

The answer would seem to be pretty simple, wouldn’t it? It’s clearly wrong for a buyer and seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave part of the cost for everyone else to pick up – what they sometimes call “externalities.”  It’s not even all that controversial – I can’t dump my motor oil in the river; and I can’t toss my garbage in my neighbor’s yard. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Someone else shouldn’t have to pay the cleanup costs, the medical bills or suffer a lower quality of life. If it’s my mess, it’s mine to clean up.

Even my three-year-old granddaughter knows this: Before you play another game, you clean up the mess from your last one. Grandpa and Nana have better things to do.

Picture1 (3)In the case of coal-fired power plants, perhaps we once thought that the atmosphere was a mostly infinite resource. Utilities could burn as much coal as they wanted; we could buy the cheap electricity; and maybe there wouldn’t be too much collateral damage for others to deal with.

But we’ve learned otherwise. An epidemic of respiratory diseases has beset America’s children, especially the poor who often live downwind of power plants. Elevated mercury levels – a byproduct of coal burning – are found in one in eight American women of childbearing age, often resulting in birth defects and neurological disorders. And climate disruptions from unprecedented carbon emissions are coming home to roost in the form of all sorts of extreme weather. Most recently, millions of American coastal dwellers are now getting stuck with the carbon tab in the form of skyrocketing flood insurance premiums associated with rising sea levels and more intense storms.

We know this is wrong. I pay a measly fourteen cents per kilowatt-hour for my electricity; the utility makes a tidy profit; and you lose your home because you can’t afford the flood insurance premiums.

It’s so obviously wrong, that we have to wonder why it’s gone on so long, and how so many can still argue against efforts to redress the injustice. Personally, I think the reason is one of sheer scale and obscure connections: There are so many of us who benefit from this shady deal; and there are so many others who suffer the burdens; and the specific causal links among perpetrators and victims are so hard to prove with specificity – let alone quantify.

But that has begun to change. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has been working on the matter. In 2010, they produced a study that went a long way toward setting the price tag that the public is picking up for the coal companies and the utilities. It’s called The Hidden Cost of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. At 507 pages, I can’t recommend it for your next beach vacation, but you can download it for free.   Continue reading