Sacred Earth

June 18, 2015

I have not yet read Pope Francis’s new encyclical, but I have no doubt that it will change many people’s minds about the relationship between religious faith and conservation of the planet we call home.

As a Quaker, I have always believed that “earthcare” is as fundamental to faith as care of the soul, the body, and all living things. Pope Francis, whose namesake brought the natural world and the spiritual world together, is a fitting spokesperson for this point of view, not only among Roman Catholics but among Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith.

Religious conservatives have for too long controlled the discourse regarding what most of us consider the signal problem that our society faces in the 21st century: climate change. Deniers, such as the Koch brothers, have poured millions into a campaign that, if successful, will alter the views of the coming generation, who must make the hard choices about cutting greenhouse gas emissions and weaning us from our dependence on fossil fuels. Their Heartland Institute tried to destroy the career of my friend, Peter Gleick, for his work on water conservation.

If the world’s huge Roman Catholic population is awake to the problems of climate change, as many in the developing countries face threats to their livelihoods from its effects, they will heed Francis’s words and begin to change the discourse. I have faith that this new awareness will bear fruit, and thank Pope Francis for his courageous leadership on one of the most contentious political, and religious, issues in history. Pax tecum.

Transition Towns

February 16, 2015

The town of Newton, New Jersey isn’t far from where I live. It is, as far as I know, the only town in my state to have entered a network of towns throughout the world that are part of what is called the Transition Movement. I am going to check it out.

Rob Hopkins, the environmentalist and permaculture expert from the UK, started the movement in 2005 and has written several books about it. According to Hopkins, towns and localities need to make themselves more “resilient” now that the age of Peak Oil is waning. Instead of attacking climate change and energy shortages head on, he and his colleagues advocate locally-based programs that can change our views about what it takes to live in community and have a balanced relationship to the natural world. We Quakers would call this a “Right Relationship” based on the principal of equality for all humans and living things.

It is clear that the current economic system, based upon 5% growth, gross excesses, luxury for the few, and free market capitalism, is leading the world into a social and environmental disaster bigger than anything in history. Transition initiatives offer an alternative to this path, and one in which individuals and groups can directly effect their betterment and happiness.

I would encourage my readers to check out their website: About Transition Network, to learn more about this fascinating alternative strategy for “sustainability.” Maybe you’ll get involved in your community, and something positive will come about.

 

Non-Violence and Transition

February 8, 2015

I spend quite a lot of time on this blog railing against the status quo in so many areas of society and the environment that, like Arianna Huffington, I’ve gotten tired of being negative. Ms. Huffington recently initiated a new program for her Huffington Post website that will document positive developments–things that are working–in the world at large.

I can’t reach as many readers as the Huffington Post, but I, too, think it’s time to talk more about the things that are working and less about the depressing reality we confront every time we open our newspapers, or our doors.

There two developments, not new but flourishing, that beg to be celebrated. One was organized by Quakers in US prisons many years ago. It is called the Alternatives to Violence Project. There are chapters throughout the world, and the folks participating in the movement are doing amazing work. I have many friends who have trained to be coordinators.

A second very exciting grass roots movement shares some of the positive energy that has gone into AVP. It’s called the Transition Movement, and most of the ideas have come from folks in the United Kingdom. I know less about it than about anti-violence and peace work, but I have been struck by the zeal and confidence displayed by the organizers and participants.

Look for more about these excellent, and potentially world-changing, developments in future posts.

On Sunday, September 21, 2014, my family and I joined 311,000 others in New York City for the largest demonstration on the climate crisis in history. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and my children understood that they were witnessing something very important. I noted with some satisfaction that the New York Times and The Nation ran significant articles during the following week about the crisis, but the march did not draw widespread media coverage in the nation as a whole.

That did not surprise the organizers of the march, but it certainly didn’t give progressives and environmentalists much to crow about. On Monday, September 22, John Stewart began “The Daily Show” with a trenchant report contrasting the heady enthusiasm of the marchers with the deafening silence of officials in Washington during the previous week. It seems that the Senate Committee on the Environment grilled the leading climate scientist in the Obama administration for several hours without asking a single pertinent question about climate change or the waning of the fossil fuel supply. The hapless “point man” couldn’t get a single Senator to recognize the urgency of his recommendations or the gravity of the crisis we are facing if greenhouse gas emissions do not drastically decrease during the next 20 years.

The Daily Show made the Senators’ indifference into a biting critique of the government and its “fiddling while Rome burns” attitude. As it often does, the program offered more useful analysis than any legitimate newscast, but the take away was pretty disheartening–very little will come of this massive civil action until the forces that control Washington (Big Oil and Coal) are brought to their knees by a real energy crisis.

Chill winds are blowing in the nation’s capital, while the rest of us burn and sweat in the hothouse that we call home–planet Earth without its SPF50 sunscreen.

Life Is A Beach

November 6, 2012

In his prescient and groundbreaking work, Design With Nature, Ian McHarg called the world’s attention to the protection of wetlands, among which were the spectacular dune ecologies of the New Jersey Shore. One of his first eco-design studios at Penn’s landscape program was a study of the Shore’s complex layers of sand bars, dunes, banks, and flora. As a New Jersey resident, I have always taken particular pride that this marvelous work of nature was a one of McHarg’s subjects for a key study.

Today, as I sit more than 200 miles away from Atlantic City, Long Branch, Cape May, and Long Beach Island, I am saddened by the pictures of abject destruction wrought by hurricane Sandy (aptly named for her power to make beaches disappear).

If one image captures the folly of contemporary society’s attitude toward climate change and its potential effects on our planet, it must be that of a New Jersey beach or boardwalk washed away by Sandy’s furious wind, tides and surging waves. Virtually nothing says that we “design AGAINST nature” better than a picture of this majestic shoreline after such a storm.

I do not know how our government, the Department of Environmental Protection, will deal with reconstituting the towns, natural areas, parks, wildlife habitats, and recreation areas that were obliterated by Sandy, but I do have a message for those authorities. Respect the earth. Care for it. Do not presume to control anything that nature’s systems have maintained for thousands of years. Tread lightly on the dunes, for they are as fragile as down-covered chicks, hatched from an egg.

We Quakers refer to one of our Truth testimonies as Earthcare. When we constructed those flimsy bridges, seawalls, beach bungalows, and resorts, not only were we designing against nature’s considerable forces, we were acting in the most careless way possible. How might we as architects, planners, engineers and government officials show CARE in everything we do from this moment on? This is a question worth pondering, while we mourn this massive loss.

Sandy beach, Newport, Rhode Island, 2012

I have been following, with more than partisan interest, the controversy surrounding Peter Gleick’s supposed pilfering of confidential files from the conservative Heartland Institute. Peter is a fellow Yalie and a comrade among Yale Russian Chorus alumni. His case has been taken up by our group, among many.

 
Though I can’t explain the complex story behind what Peter did, the fact that he had the courage to stand up to rich, powerful and increasingly belligerent nay sayers on climate change is an inspiration to all who care about the breakdown of discourse in America. More important, here was a renowned scientist standing up to bullying by right-wing ideologues who are intent on helping self-serving corporations destroy our environment. What he did was unorthodox and clearly beyond the bounds of journalistic transparency, but the people he was fighting have done much worse without any criticism or scrutiny.

 
Those of us who conserve buildings and hope for enlightened policy on environmental conservation should take heart, and take heed, of this controversy. It may be on our own doorstep before long.