Friday, April 29, 2005

The Creation as Commodity: A Way Forward for Environmentalism?

The science and technology writers at The Economist give their take in the April issue on how to rescue the environmental movement and the environment itself. Take a look at:

I'm a life-long green. My uncle Charlie took me on many summer camping trips through the American west when I was a kid and I've never gotten over those experiences. Lucky me.

I consider the issue of human stewardship of the environment to be one of the most basic issues for Christians and other people of faith.

Many people call the first 11 chapters of Genesis "The Primeval Prologue." That's just a fancy way of saying that those chapters of the bible are a mythical tale about the most profound human religious experiences that predate recorded history.

From my point of view Genesis teaches that God gave people the earth for our benefit. But I also think it teaches that we gain the greatest benefit from the earth when we act to serve and preserve the earth.

The (literally) multi-trillion dollar question is "How do we do it?"

The environmental movement has always relied on the romantic cult of nature that developed in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. That romantic nature worship shaped Euro-American culture for centuries. Calling on that deep faith helped the green movement to beat back the impressive powers of economic "necessity" and the half-witted "let's dominate the earth" theology of the conservative religious types.

My greens have also taken for granted the shallowness of the various types of evangelical Christianity and the obvious greed of the business community which has allowed them to demonstrate their own intellectual and moral superiority in the debate.

Since the many versions of Christian evangelicalism tend to celebrate ignorance and the business community--despite some good efforts to the contrary--continue to be mostly shortsighted, the environmentalists have mostly had their way for a century and especially for the last 30 years.

But times change and all things pass. At least temporarily.

Less reflective religion and more unbridled greed are back in vogue. This seems to be the default setting for Americans when we get scared and feel overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the environment often takes a real beating during these cyclical periods.

So how does a committed green and Genesis-believing Christian find a way to support the environment in changing times?

The Economist writers argue for an environmentalism rooted in the economic valuation of nature.

They believe that assigning prices and economic values to ecosystems and environmental assets like river systems and forests may present the best chance of protecting those wonders of creation.

They're convinced that if environmental resources are given realistic monetary values they have a much better chance of surviving because people will have to pay to destroy them as they would have to pay to use any other resource.

They argue that environmental science has made such progress that we now understand better than we ever have the specific contributions that particular ecosystems make to human economic well-being and to the health of the earth.

For example, let's say a large swamp in Africa effectively filters out huge amounts of water-born filth and pollutants and creates a whole lot of potable water. If that swamp is destroyed by developers or by agricultural interests, the government of the country in question will have to build extremely expensive filtration plants in order to perfom that same cleansing function.

If that swamp has a realistic economic valuation--based on its filtration services as well as other quantifiable benefits--developers will have to pay those costs as a part of their operating expenses if they want to wipe it out by creating a subdivision for wealthier Africans.

This is a very simple example of an approach that is already gaining steam around the world. More sophisticated versions get a lot more complex.

Some people envision "environmental resource" stock markets where ecosystems and their subsystems are bought and sold.

Environmental credit trading schemes are already becoming pretty popular in a number of places around the world. In these set-ups one company is allowed to use a particular environmental resource by buying a credit from another company that is protecting a comparable economic resource elsewhere. The idea is to balance the use of the environment between exploitation and conservation.

Can we save ecosystems by making them commodities? Would this actually serve to conserve them, or would "monetizing" creation eventually lead people to stop viewing nature as a gift of God or sacred? Can you view nature from a spiritual point of view and still see it as a commodity?

I'm not sure at this point and I'd love to hear other people's point of view.

In the past, most thoughtful Christians believed that the created environment was a gift beyond value and that it was worth protecting because it was a sign of God's creativity and love. In other religious traditions the natural world is often viewed as sacred and even spiritually charged and alive.

The secular "nature romantics" who created the modern green movement simply took on the same sense of awe and humility before nature while at the same time dispensing with God and religious dogma.

No one in any of those religious and spiritual traditions would have believed it possible that whole ecosystems would be bought and sold as commodities in order to save them.

On the other hand, adjusting to the realities of the times is normally a wise move. Sometimes you have to get the best you can now while hoping and praying for a better and more complete approach down the line.

Lemme hear what you think.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dating and Mating

I've been out of the dating scene for almost 25 years now but I know a mating ritual when I see one.

Yesterday a couple of woodpeckers decided to check each other out in our backyard and they put on one of the oldest shows on earth. Andrew and Janet eventually came out and watched it with me.

The local species of woodpeckers are really beautiful birds.

The male and female circled each other on the green grass looking directly into each other's eyes. As they did their dance they hopped up and down and chirped out their characteristic "laughing" birdsong.

Every couple of minutes or so they simultaneously lept into the air. They looked like a couple of characters out of a magical-realist Kung Fu flick as they rose up three feet high, wings fully extended, then fell back to earth with one leg gracefully pointed down as the other curled up beneath their bodies.

I thought the male did a pretty good job of the whole thing, though I guess I was guilty of rooting for my psychological home team.

The female put him through his paces for about an hour and then decided he had the right stuff. They flew off together to make chicks that will grow up and probably drill holes in my house.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Focus on the Fanatics

A number of years back Coloradans voted for the Tabor Amendment. Tabor is basically a mile high and expanded version of Proposition 13, the anti-government and anti-tax initiative that Californians passed a few decades ago.

Proposition 13 severely limited the amount of property taxes that Californians can pay. Since property taxes are the primary way that public schools in California get their money, Proposition 13 slowly but surely cut off the oxygen from the schools in California.

A recent bi-partisan study demonstrated that Proposition 13 is the primary factor in the dramatic decline in the quality of public education in California. When I was a kid the state had the finest public education system in the entire country. Now it barely makes the cut above Mississippi.

The wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world now has public schools that probably qualify for second world status. The upper middle class and the wealthy aren't too affected because they can afford to send their kids to private schools. The middle class and the poor bear the brunt of the destruction of the public education system there.

That's not what the conservatives who originally proposed Proposition 13 thought would happen. They bought into an ideological hatred of governments and the belief that open-market competition and a bias in favor of the well-off always produces the best social outcomes. In their well meaning and possibly fantastical conceptions, they believed that cutting money off from the struggling public schools would somehow improve them. The fact that educational reform is a far more complicated beast then they thought didn't cause them to hesitate for a second in their crusade.

It's not that their ideas were--or are--crazy. There's a lot to be said for introducing competitive pressures in any area of human endevour and giving a hand to the better off does sometimes end up helping everybody. The problem was--and is--the almost religious fanaticism with which so many of these folks hold these ideas. That attitude makes taking a more experimental, humble approach to policy--i.e., "Hey, these seem like ideas with some promise, let's test them out"--or compromise almost impossible. Being uncompromising and even inflexible about the basics of one's faith can be commendable, but it's out of place and destructive in matters of public policy.

Fortunately, the voters here recently showed more wisdom than Californians did a few decades ago.

Right wing religious conservatives controlled state politics here for about 10 years in spite of the fact that Colorado is pretty diverse.

For a decade they did what they do these days.

People finally got tired of the simplistic ideology and self-righteousness and voted them out of office in the elections this past fall. Moderates along with some reasonable liberal allies now control both the Colorado House of Representatives and the State Senate. I'm hoping that will become a national trend.

These more balanced and reasonable people are trying to restore funding to basic services that everyone--even the right wing ideological types--really want.

Many critical public services, and especially the university and college system here, took severe hits under the reign of the way-too-confidently-godly and under the inflexible Tabor directives.

The good news is that because of the election results--and because so many people get what California did to itself--the right wing ideologues here have been forced to compromise. So a reasonable budgetary alternative will soon come before voters which will probably restore adequate funding to the crumbling higher education system.

But Colorado has even more extreme ideologues who clearly need a lesson in democratic politics and humility.

Most of you have probably heard about the latest political efforts on the part of Focus on the Family, an evangelical/fundamentalist organization based in Colorado Springs.

Basically, the Bush administration has proposed about 250 judges for the federal courts during his presidency. The Senate has--to this point--confirmed all but 10 of them for about a 95% confirmation rate. That's pretty much the same ratio that the Senate used to confirm President Clinton's nominations.

The Senate Democrats don't want to confirm the other Bush nominees for various reasons. Mostly they believe these folks are way too conservative and they just don't want em sitting in federal courts.

Since the Dems don't have the votes in the Senate now to defeat those nominations in an up and down vote, they are willing to use the fillibuster, a time-tested tool that the minority party can use to avoid getting steamrolled by the majority.

The Republicans, understandably, aren't too happy about the prospect of a fillibuster and are exploring the option of changing the Senate laws to stop fillbusters in the case of judicial confirmations.

Unlike a lot of folks, I don't necessarily view the fillibuster as a sacrosanct thing. I support it pretty strongly because I'm normally for anything that gives a minority a chance to stop what it considers to be the most extreme abuses of power on the part of the majority. Republicans and Democrats have often used it over the years to do just that.

I think it's healthy to have a discussion about it. The people who want to eliminate the fillibuster make a reasonable case, even though I personally disagree with the argument.

I wonder why the Republicans feel the need to get 100% of their nominees in and why they're willing to change centuries old Senate rules in order to do so. Nobody gets 100% of their nominees in.

But in one way, this is all just a political discussion.

Not so for our friends in Colorado Springs and for many evangelical and fundamentalist leaders. Focus on the Family and other right wing religious groups are now campaigning to change the rules by claiming that those who oppose the changes are "enemies of the people of God" and that they're motivated by hostile anti-Christian sentiment.

Wow. Supposedly reasonable people like Bill Frist, the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, are appearing on TV shows and on radio to implicitly--and in some cases explicitly--endorse these kinds of sentiments.

I'm not surprised that Republican politicians are doing all this to appeal to evangelicals and fundamentalists. That potentially misguided crowd helped put them in office in the last election so I guess the karmic law of tit for tat must be observed.

But the fact that evangelical and fundamentalist leaders not only think this kind of stuff but aggressively proclaim it is disturbing to me.

It's another great example of people who can't tell the difference between committment to their faith on the one hand and political and ideological fanaticism on the other.

The "enemies of the people of God" in this instance are simply Democrats and a few principled Republicans like John McCain who simply don't think changing the Senate rules to make sure President Bush gets 100% of his nominees approved is a good idea. I'm sure some of 'em are hostile to religious faith, but many others are people of faith who just happen to think differently.

If this was just fringe stuff it wouldn't be worth commenting on. But it isn't fringe stuff.

Focus on the Family isn't a bunch of clowns like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority types in the 80's, and the right wing religious republican types aren't a fringe political group. These folks are very influential and in many respects they are helping run the country right now.

They're helping create a hostile political climate where humility and compromise are increasingly difficult, and they're modeling the most destructive things I can imagine for younger religious believers. What could be worse than teaching people to brand political opponents who disagree with you as "the enemies of the people of God?"

I don't normally make calls of my readers to take action in this blog, but let me encourage the more balanced religious people who read this to speak up in your churches and organizations and on your blogs to say no to this kind of thing. Since many evangelical leaders have been cowed into silence about things they know in their consciences are wrong, maybe lay people will have to speak up.

At some point this whole misguided effort has to be challenged by folks who are in house.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Praying for Scandinavians

I checked out the blog of a guy I respect last night. He's trying to find a good way to love poor folks and he's made many sacrifices to do so.

But I wonder if he's lost his way temporarily in the ideological forest.

He cued the blog with an article by an American living in a Scandinavian country who wanted to point out that rich western Europeans aren't as rich as we think.

I was as stunned by this revelation as I'm sure you are.

The American ex-pat who wrote the article went to great lengths to show that the Scandinavian economic and social model isn't all it's cracked up to be. He was scandalized by the fact that some Scandinavians have complaints about their culture and economic system and that some of them actually have to "take their own lunches to work."

Oh, the suffering humanity of it all!

Seems the Scandinavians are lost in the dark falsehood of a capitalist economic and social system which isn't exactly like the American capitalist economic and social system. Milton Friedman would definitely not approve!

The fact that the Scandinavian countries are at the top of the all the current measures of well being and wealth and economic competitiveness isn't relevant. The fact that they're all highly western and clearly capitalist countries isn't important.

Those blue-eyed blondes are damnable socialists! Their governments invest more in the social well-being of their citizens than the American government does which makes them a long term threat to the well-being of the world. Again, let's pray for those lost economic souls.

One of the readers of the blog commented that the article "drove the last stake into the heart of liberal, socialist economics." He proclaimed himself one of the "real progressives."

Pretty amusing. I'd encourage him to curb his enthusiasm and calm down. Maybe a steam bath or some yoga would help relax his overactive imagination.

I'm all for reasonable takes on capitalism and I'm no supporter of centrally planned economies of any kind, but when bright and well meaning Christian people get this disconnected from reality you normally suspect you're dealing with a case of ideological fixation.

I spend significant time in some of the poorest countries in the world. I'd guess there are more important issues of economic justice to deal with right now than supposed shortcomings of one of the wealthiest regions in the world.

I'd encourage the best and the brightest believers who are concerned about the poor to drop the ideology and get a little more practical.

Entering A New Culture

I'm looking forward to the upcoming NBA playoffs.

Since our move I've made an effort to become a Denver Nuggets fan and temper my lifelong love for the Lakers and all the pro and college and high school hoops teams and traditions of basketball in LA.

I remember going to California Angels games when I was a kid with my dad and seeing large numbers of Yankee and Red Sox fans in the crowd. Sometimes there were more of those folks than there were fans pulling for the home team.

At that point Southern California was full of immigrants from the East Coast who were sick of the bad weather and were looking for better economic opportunities up against the Pacific.

I always thought those people were sort of embarassing and couldn't figure out why they would root for a team from another part of the country.

I understand them better now.

But I'm already three-quarters of the way into my new allegiances. I'm hoping and guessing the Nuggets will make a run deep into the playoffs and I'm just as up to speed on their team stats as I ever was with the teams on the left coast. We're all more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for.

Who wants to enter a new culture by pulling against the home team? Not me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Making Saints by Force?

A thoughtful and inspiring friend asked me a great question today. I thought I'd post his question and my response.

I have a question for you:

From a legal perspective, would you rather America was a society that
valued freedom first, or virtue first? A positive example of a society
that values virtue over freedom might be Singapore (Afghanistan with the
Taliban in charge might be a negative example). I suppose America in the
mid to late 20th century was an example of a society that valued freedom
over virtue. I suspect that we are making a shift towards virtue and I'm
wondering if that's a good thing. Any thoughts?

Great question (you always ask the best questions...).

I'm normally skeptical when virtue begins to trump freedom from a legal standpoint.

Having societies become more virtuous without state coercion or the threat of state sponsored violence is always the best alternative.

Spiritual or ethical revivals and renewals that make profound changes in the general levels of virtue of a society are the best case scenarios. This seems to be the best mix of increasing virtue without threatening freedom. We've had plenty of these kinds of grass roots revivals and renewals in our national history.

I'm convinced that state coercion in legislating and enforcing various forms of virtue, generally speaking, is a lesser good and can actually become oppressive and destructive in some situations.

I say a lesser good because whenever the state coerces people into virtue the quality of the virtue can and should be questioned. If people aren't convinced in their own consciences to follow a particular path of virtue, but are instead forced to follow that path because of threats and inducements on the part of the authorities, the balance between virtue and freedom has tipped too far in the direction of virtue.

State coercion can become oppressive and destructive when some subgroup within a society self-righteously decides to force the whole of the society—-by using the apparatus of the state--to conform to its notions of virtue. From a Christian anarchist perspective, this is a scary situation that can become evil relatively easily.

Of course, some state coercion aimed at encouraging virtue and discouraging less virtuous behavior is always necessary, so I’m really addressing the issue of the balance between virtue and freedom in the way the state functions.

So if the wider US culture becomes more focused on virtue, I believe that’s a very good thing since we’ve tended to over focus on freedom (perhaps licence is a better word) at the expense of virtue. Spiritual renewal of various kinds has had that kind of positive effect on the culture many times in the past. And I think that’s part of what’s happening right now. I applaud that and pray that trend will strengthen.

The part I’m not as excited about is the potential for very conservative Christians--in alliance with the Republican Party--to use the apparatus of the state to coerce various forms of virtue. I don’t have huge fears they will succeed, and I’m pretty confident the Christians in that mix will see their own self-righteousness (where it exists) and make the necessary adjustments in the coming few years. In any case, I don’t have any fears the US will go the way of either Singapore or Afghanistan—too much attachment here to the value of freedom for that to happen.

So overall, I think we have a reasonable balance from a political point of view between virtue and freedom at this point. Many people are freely focusing a bit more on virtue through the influence of spiritual communities and movements while some other folks are trying to jack up levels of state coercion in order to ensure virtue.

I don’t think the latter will succeed, and even if they do succeed in a few instances, they’re unlikely to do any major damage to the balance of freedom and virtue or the authenticity of virtue.

If the conservative Christian/Republican nexus represented 70% of the country, and if we were in a severe economic crisis at the same time, I’d be a lot more worried. Those would be the kinds of conditions where state enforced virtue could begin to overwhelm freedom.

Anyway, those are my four cents.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Compound Interest and Love of Community

I heard some guy interviewing a group of religious people including a Catholic nun yesterday on the radio while I was driving. They were talking about the Pope's death and his model of graceful suffering.

At one point he concluded, "That's the best time to attract people to God. Who cares about God when you're 35 and healthy and have plenty of money in the bank?"

I agree that folks who are suffering have an acute sense of need for God, and that somebody who suffers gracefully can be a powerful witness to those who are suffering.

But I've always thought being 35 and healthy and with plenty of money was the best possible time to know God. It's true that lots of people that age and in that situation don't give a rip about God. What a shame.

I don't think the faith is fundamentally about enduring suffering. It's not about renouncing a love of material possessions or any of the other kinds of sacrifices people make in the pursuit of God either.

It's really about pro-actively loving your neighbor and loving God while putting your future in God's hands.

If that's true, what better time to be a lover of God and neighbor than when you're holding a flush hand. You may never have those kinds of resources at your disposal again.

Lots of folks that age seem to be worried about their careers and even preparing for their retirement when they could be lavishly spending their resources on their neighbors in a unique way that might not come again during their lifetimes.

The love of compound interest usually trumps love of community, even for the best of people.

Many of us imagine that our clever management of money--or the large inheritances which lots of people I know will receive--will somehow make a big difference for the Kingdom of God sometime in the future. I've seen so few examples of that kind of thing that I've begun to lose confidence in that whole line of thinking.

A lavishly generous person in their prime might be very encouraging. Or somebody who gives their entire inheritance away and joins the poor in relying on God for their security.

I'd guess both of those types of folks would be as inspiring as an older saint who meets death gracefully. Come to think of it, maybe all of 'em would qualify as examples of meeting death gracefully. Let 'em all increase.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Pre-emptive Illogic

I noticed a couple of news stories from the last few days here in Denver that illustrate some trends I'm seeing.

You've probably read or heard about one of them already. President Bush was in Denver a few days back as part of his pitch to sell his proposed changes to Social Security. If you've followed Bush's public events for the past 5 years--including his campaign appearances-- you know that only carefully screened folks who already agree with Bush get into these things.

Bush rarely faces anybody who disagrees with him in public. Everything is carefully state-managed and controlled so nothing spontaneous or "off-message" can occur.

Anyway, three folks from Denver showed up at the event. Apparently they pulled up in a van that had a bumper sticker which said "No more blood for oil," which all of us have seen from time to time on lots of cars over the past few years. They were dressed appropriately and behaved well by all accounts and came in and took their seats.

A guy dressed up like a secret service agent then approached them and forced them to leave. Turns out it wasn't a secret service guy but a Bush political worker. He had seen the bumper sticker and ejected them on the basis that they might "cause trouble" at the meeting.

Something so silly was destined to find it's way into the news, and the story broke quickly around the country.

The current White House press secretary defended the action by claiming that it may have stopped potential heckling at the event. Of course, this is the same White House that very recently claimed they don't believe the press has any "balancing" function in our national affairs.

Welcome to "pre-emptive" event management.

These people had done nothing inappropriate or illegal, but were bounced out of what is euphemistically called a "town meeting" simply because they had a bumper sticker on their van that took issue with a Bush policy.

Apparently, the Bush operatives read the minds of the people attending, or maybe they had information from the CIA that these people possessed weapons of mass disruption and an intent to heckle.

I'm heartened by the fact that a few folks--both Republican and Democrat--have obviously found this goofy and somewhat disturbing. But it seems to me that most folks simply accept it as ok given the current cultural climate.

Since when are hecklers ejected from a town hall meeting before they actually heckle? And even if they did eventually heckle Bush, so what? Are our political leaders such whimps that they can't deal with the kind of thing that professional athletes face on a daily basis? Past presidents faced down hecklers all the time.

Since 9-11 this idea of pre-emption--basically, let's take action against anything that might be construed as negative even before it happens--has taken hold in ways that I think are both silly and scary.

Here's another quick example that I think is closely linked to the town hall events. Last week a couple of Latino high schoolers here in Denver got in a fight at some social event off campus. Ten of their fellow classmates witnessed the fight.

All twelve of these high school students-including the 10 kids who just watched the fight--were suspended from school for an entire year.

Many folks here are up in arms about the injustice of the punishment, particularly for the kids who were simply bystanders.

Here's how this is related to the pre-emptive illogic theme. Colorado had its own local 9-11 a number of years back at Columbine High School.

Folks here since that time are hyper-attentive to any hint of school violence. Every school does extensive educational programs warning against violence and also against bullying other kids. Most folks here believe the Columbine shootings happened mostly because the two shooters were bullied and harrassed relentlessly by some classmates which finally led them to snap.

I'd guess it was more complicated and disturbing than that, but their basic point is important.

While the officials who handed down the suspensions haven't explained their reasoning, their implicit logic is pretty clear to everybody in state. Some like the logic and some of us don't.

They believe any altercation, even if it happens off-campus, could lead to violence or repercussions on campus.

In this version of pre-emptive illogic, all measures must be taken--including suspending people who only witnessed the fight for an entire school year--in order to preclude any possibility of fights or altercations which might escalate into a shooting or something really serious on campus.

The school officials here--along with the Bush political operatives--want to avoid any unpleasant outcomes. Even if you have to go to extremes and inflict harsh outcomes on others to do it.

Paranoia is pretty popular at this point. We can thank 9-11 for that. That's probably the main point I want to make, so you can skip the rest of the post if you'd like.

In the case of the town hall meeting, George Bush might have faced--God forbid--people that disagree with him in a public setting.

The high school administrators here in Denver are obviously covering their butts in the current fear-filled environment. Their careers and their committment to support their families are at stake if they aren't seen to be making every effort to stop the potentially violent barbarians who are at the gates. The barbarians always seem to be Mexicans or Arabs or somebody else that doesn't look right.

I understand that some government officials thought it was better to be safe than sorry after 9-11.

But when paranoid thinking leads to the ridiculous (in the case of the Bush town hall meeting) and the unjust (in the case of the suspensions), and when people start accepting those kinds of actions in the name of heading off some vague or highly subjective "negative outcome," it's time to start making some changes in the public mood and the cultural direction.

Hey, I thought this whole Jesus take was about overcoming fear with faith. Christians helped create these embarrassing and unjust cultural currents and we can help change them.