Monday, July 3, 2017

What We Love, We Protect

A few months ago at the public library in Evansville, Indiana, 125 people gathered for a program about building backyard bird habitats, complete with hundreds of photos of warblers and other songbirds, all taken in the presenter’s own yard. She emphasized the need for local and migratory birds to find water, food, and shelter at a time of growing sparseness. The program was sponsored by Tri-State Creation Care and Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light, a coalition of people of all faiths dedicated to healing the ruptures humans have created in the environment.
The next morning, hundreds of others gathered at the Indianapolis statehouse 172 miles away to speak against a bill in the Senate Utilities Committee, written by the state’s for-profit utilities, that would destroy Indiana’s small but growing customer-owned renewable energy efforts. With standing-room-only and overflow into the hallways, dozens testified against the bill, citing the importance of the solar panels their families and congregations had invested in, the urgency of building renewable energy, and the lack of credibility of the claims the utilities were making against it. A couple of dozen school superintendents from across the state testified to the savings for education that would be lost if the several million dollars they were saving by generating power were sacrificed to the utilities’ pockets. People of all faiths testified to their responsibility to protect God’s creation by reducing their carbon footprint.
What a contrast -- one meeting in a free public library relishing aesthetically, the other in the halls of governmental power fighting politically. The common thread was defending what we love.
In a programming meeting a few evenings later, five environmental advocates from five different cities and three faiths -- Muslim, Unitarian, and Presbyterian -- preceded their discussion of hard work by reflecting on the things keeping us going. Two had been tapping their maple trees and making syrup in the Indiana cold. One reported on a meal of fresh spinach salad picked from a homemade cold frame the day before, along with quiche made from zucchini shredded and frozen last summer. We were there, late in the evening, making work for ourselves, because one another’s encouragement kept us hopeful.
What we love, we protect: grandchildren that we hope will enjoy the quality of life we have known; lone patches of old growth forest reminding us of time and dignity; churches conserving resources by reducing power; sandhill cranes calling as they migrate overhead, the mighty river ceaselessly flowing beneath bridges, mirroring their colored lights and the red-blue sky of dusk.
"Everybody needs a climate thing," explained columnist David Roberts in 2015. His brilliant article concludes with these words about the things we love:
Climate is everything, which means everyone touches only a tiny piece of it. Let people care about their birds or their pipelines or their mountains or their tech startups or their research clusters or their permaculture farms. Everybody needs a Climate Thing, a close-by proxy through which they can express their climate concern in a way that has local effects and tangible rewards. It is these proxies, these rich anchors in our lived experience of nature and culture, that inspire us. 
What is your proxy? What do you love and fear to lose? What can you do today, this week, to protect it?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In Defense of Clean Air

Last week my spouse Don and I traveled to Washington D.C. with a couple dozen others to petition our U.S. senators and reps to uphold the Clean Air Act.

I was astounded to hear it wasn’t the Clean Power Plan, the Green Climate Fund, or the
Downtown Louisville--
from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet website 
Paris Accords that we were defending, but the 1970 Clean Air Act, that bipartisan plan emerging from the smog of the ‘60s to make air breathable again.

Until recently its provisions were a given—no one wants to fill our lungs with health-compromising particulates, right? But apparently, to hear the U.S. Congress on this, we do indeed enjoy breathing crud. Some public servants, elected to represent us, seem to think we citizens want to kill ourselves with ozone, bronchitis, heart disease, asthma, and cancer. Another right—this time the right to breathe—appears under attack.

According to a 2011 EPA study, the Clean Air Act as it stands will prevent 230,000 premature American deaths by 2020, and 17 million lost work days. For a cost of $65 billion we can get $2 trillion in benefits—that is, $30 to every $1 spent.

But since attacks on clean air are unpopular with citizens, even in 2017, Congress isn’t going about this head-on so much as chipping away at good legislation already achieved, piece by piece.

With the help of Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental law firm that defends healthy communities, clean energy, and nature, seven from Indiana traveled to D.C. specifically to discuss with our legislative aides two unfavorable measures:

·      S. 951, the so-called Regulatory Accountability Act, which is designed to unleash what Earthjustice calls “an avalanche of bureaucratic hurdles and litigations by polluters,” crippling the government’s ability to protect communities and the environment. Far from making government leaner, it creates 53 new barriers to safeguards for food, workplaces, and communities, including not only environmental pollutants but predatory lending. It renders some rules non-reviewable by courts. It favors polluters over scientific and public input, and allows industries to tie up new rules benefit the public in court for years. It weakens the extent that government—even if it wants to—can protect citizens from deep-pocket polluters, and it has already been passed by the House.

·      HR. 806/S. 263, being considered in both houses, is the so-called “Ozone Standards Implementation Act,” but it’s just the opposite of what its name implies. According to Earthjustice and others, a better name is the “Smoggy Skies Act.” It proposes an eight-year delay of ozone standards that were already passed in 2015. A mere 60 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone, or smog, causes health-endangering risks not just of haze but of asthma, heart attacks, low birth weight, and premature deaths. The new standard reduces the acceptable level from 75 to 70 ppb (still too high but an improvement). More than 1/3 of Americans—116.5 million people—live in locations with unsafe ozone levels, many low-income families who cannot afford the health compromises, lost work days, and daily distress of being unable to breathe. So delaying this ten years means that much more health burden on more growing bodies.

After an extremely helpful orientation by Earthjustice folks, our group spoke with aides in the offices of Senators Joe Donnelly (very receptive) and Todd Young (at least spoke with us) as well as several House Republicans and Democrats. 

One Hoosier, the Rev. Daryl Emowrey, a young Lutheran pastor serving in Angola, spoke to
All of us but Tara--
because she was meeting with the EPA!
every official about God’s breathing the breath of life into the first human being, bringing the creature to life. Connecting God’s life-giving breath to the life-sustaining air of our atmosphere, he pleaded that our air not continue becoming a source of death instead.

Two Hoosiers, Akeeshea Daniels and Tara Adams from East Chicago in Northwest Indiana—where lead contamination in the soil from a former smelting factory has stricken many children, and industrial air pollution is among the country’s worst—gave heart-rending testimony about watching their own children fall ill from asthma and other respiratory diseases, and needing to use inhalers themselves.

Kathy Watson, an Indianapolis environmental attorney who understands the ins and outs of this legislation better than any of us, outlined the costs of both of these bills to our state, as well as the local benefits of reducing ozone levels.

Andrew Turba, a Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light supporter from South Bend, told what his own church has done to conserve energy, and the economic as well as spiritual benefits this work has brought the congregation.

I talked about how the seven months of treatment I just endured underscored the waste to health, pocketbook, peace, and life that cancer poses. Air pollution is a leading cause of cancer, even compromising the health of unborn babies. My heart breaks, knowing what that purgatory is like even in the most favorable of circumstances, over consigning young mothers and children to the disease just to keep our air dirty. 

Don discussed a toxic industry in Rockwood, Tennessee, where he was pastor, that was turning the townspeople’s clothing and tennis shoes gray. They fought long and hard to get the pollution controlled, and ultimately the industry had to buy out a whole neighborhood. Through the battle, regulators repeatedly told them that citizen protection was only as strong as the laws in place. 

So why we would want to weaken what protects us?

If I were a legislator, I would have been very moved to meet with citizens like us. But were we effective? Aides meet all day long with lobbyists advocating for their causes. Yet it’s amazing how often I’ve heard, “This bill is not on our radar—thanks for bringing it to our attention.” I want to believe that as broken as our system seems today, democracy still functions, and some politicians are still responsive leaders.

It’s shocking that the Clean Air Act, one of the foundational American achievements of my youth, is up for grabs now. But I thank God that Earthjustice and other environmental watchdogs are there to skillfully guide ordinary citizens to know and claim our rights.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Executive Branch Has Left Paris—But Americans Are Still There. Let’s Show How We Stay.

A majority of citizens in all 50 states supports continued U.S. participation in the 2015 Paris climate accord, as this Yale research on American opinion shows. About half of Trump supporters do as well. But not the White House. Last Thursday afternoon President Trump announced that he will begin the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the historic agreement to work with 196 other countries to curb carbon and fight together against the threat of global warming. Read statements from a variety of religious groups here.

Whether we are surprised by this decision or not, those of us who believe it’s our moral duty to act now to help bring humanity to a healthy and sustainable future are being galvanized. Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light is, in one sense, an amazingly small organization, with three part time staff members and eleven board members. But we’re also dozens of very active volunteers and supporters, hundreds of readers, and thousands of Hoosiers who have been touched by H-IPL’s work in Indiana—not to mention the tens of thousands people who have been moved to action by Interfaith Power & Light chapters in forty other states.

The 2012 book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution describes what the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did in 1964 to garner support for civil rights in the American South: instead of bemoaning and berating the racists around them, they decided to activate their passive supporters: students in the north who were sympathetic and only needed an entry point to get moving. So they sent buses to bring people to the south for “Freedom Summer.” The students, coming in droves, saw firsthand what racial hatred looked like, and wrote back to parents about their experiences—galvanizing them—and thus created a profound shift in American culture and law.

So here are your test questions for today:

if you are already an environmental activist—that is, if you go to some trouble to live out your love for creation by organizing, communicating, reducing carbon, or otherwise reflecting your environmental commitments in your daily activities—which “passive allies” in your world can you invite to join you?

If you are a passive supporter—that is, if you agree that someone ought to do something about climate change—what will you do to activate yourself?

Would you like to donate money to an environmental organization, such as one of your state's chapters of Interfaith Power & Light? That will help, and be much appreciated!

Would you like to pick up the phone or pen and communicate with your legislator, and voice your opinion about Paris, the Clean Power Plan, or other environmental matters that are before us now? That, too, will mean a lot!

How about getting over to Home Depot for a dozen or two LEDs and installing them in your home—and your friends’ homes—and then signing up to monitor your utility use?

Or giving a testimony in worship about what creation means to you?

Or asking your local utility to give you a free home energy audit?

Or tending a vegetable garden with your children or your neighbor’s children?

Or starting a book club to read about environmental issues, or a working group to tackle a pressing local problem?

Or taking the time to research which products, from which companies, are sustainably developed—from clothing to food to appliances to travel options—and basing your shopping decisions on what you learn?

… and, having felt that wonderful “acting on your values” whoosh, moving on to larger and greater actions. Let’s show the world how America's citizens stay engaged with the world’s 196 sanest countries!