Thursday, April 26, 2007


The Challenge of Compassion in a World Ravaged by Global Warming

In a warming world of diminished resources creating tensions over oil and water, encroaching seas producing unprecedented numbers of refugees, and severely compromised farmland leading to widespread famine, compassion is the resource we are going to need to grow most of all, not just for fellow human beings, but extending to the entire web of life. Thus ended my last post. I am interested in hearing from readers about pro-active training programs, as well as personal transformation as compassionate beings, in preparation for the arrival of this wave of disaster, which is already gathering. The tensions are going to elevate – already have with oil wars - long before some of the worst effects like refugees from flooding coastal areas. But if this is the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced, then the level of response will need to be correspondingly huge.

In the midst of my analysis of nuclear power, retooling my thought, I stopped one day to reread some of the touchstones of my personal values, Edwin Goldsmith and Thomas Berry. It was only after integrating with these previous mentors that I proceeded to write the piece on nuclear morality which I posted last week.

Feb 25 Ah, the beauty of Goldsmith's analysis (The Way), speaking to my depths as a human being, to my animal, my Adam. And oh, the sullied world in which we have to embrace nukes to have a chance of getting through. We're certainly not going to just give up carbon-burning and shrivel up and die. We're gonna go down swinging, one way or another. So perhaps his is yet another statement that shows us who we could be, if we hewed close to our type. And I would prefer to write and teach about that. Yes, I feel dirty and compromised, though Lovelock and Karen Street (that “Quaker woman”) would argue otherwise. Coal plants are even dirtier and far more deadly; I've just looked the other way. Those who prefer that we'd destroy ourselves have some sympathy from me when I try to listen deeply to the earth..

How can we hold ourselves to our best selves, as Thomas Berry and Goldsmith do, and continue to build nukes? How can we hold to our best selves and continue to grow a civilization on the scale we now mount it?

How will we hold ourselves to our best while death and destruction rain all around us? When refugees swarm at our borders, our doors? When there's not enough food for our fellow humans, let alone the creatures whose habitats we've robbed? I was hungry and you fed me. That will apply until the end, breaking the last crust of bread with the stranger. But what if it's a group of fifty desperate starving people? What happens when you must measure out compassion so that one in every eight survives? How will we choose?

I remember my fury when I read a memo from Larry Summers, recently resigned as president of Harvard, stating coolly that one of the poorest Latin American countries (Haiti?) should be left to collapse, that it wasn't worth the investment in a world with insufficient resources. But what would you or I do? Lester Brown has answers, and so do I: subsistence farming is a key one. Having overrun the planet and outstripped her resources, subsistence, not sustainability, must be our response until our numbers have been vastly reduced. Aran Island and its potato farmers will be gone, but we will farm the cement crannies as they once did their deep rock crevices, buckets lowered into the darkening loam.

Thich Nat Hanh says that the most important thing for us to do now is to hear the sound of the Earth crying within us. How do we feel both the pain of the earth and the pain of humanity? What does it mean to choose your battles in such a situation, when all of it is necessary and holy? Yet, to avoid the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” even perception requires that we choose. We need to learn how to align our ears and eyes and touch, even as we continue to choose our battles - without shutting down entirely. Our media endlessly lament, and thereby glorify, the slaughter at Virginia Tech. But what of the forgotten Iraquis? And who tolls the bell for the species as they pass behind the infinite black curtain of extinction?

Compassion not only for the earth and others but for ourselves. For if we don’t’ have that, then we have the hatred and anger of the activists who are having a final field day with this, our darkest moment (no wonder nobody will listen!). We can’t love the earth without loving other humans, and we can’t love them without loving ourselves.

Cultivate the compassion of the crucified God deep within all of creation. Dwell in it, rather than in how to escape it and get on with salvation, either through piling up material wealth, doing good works or becoming spirit-beings. Salvation is the temptation in a world where the shadow of capitalist cornucopia from an infinite earth, scarcity, has finally come to deeply shade the final fruits of a system that works by creating infinite desire while colonizing dear, immediate necessity. Even as ecosystems are in the early stages of collapse, the stock market reached new highs this week. Who is singing a requiem to the latest extinctions – both biological and cultural?

We scramble for oil, water, farmland. On the other hand compassion for all who lack that, who are starving, being beaten, tortured and raped, who thirst. Do you share your last glass of water with a roomful of refugees, and all die of thirst? Larry Summers' grim choice looms. Sophie's Choice is minor compared with the triage we will face by the latter third of this century.

To hunger and thirst after righteousness. Ecojustice, while we still have a chance this might include the poor and the marginal native peoples of the earth. It is narrowing, and will give way to Gaia's justice. The problem identified in Stephen Jay Gould's essay (“Nonmoral Nature”) comparing morality in the human world and the amoral world of nature. This root problem will be coldly exposed in a world of cascading extinction. Is justice itself the key human intervention, the one we have avoided, and the communist experiment failed to realize? If so, is there really something like ecojustice?

April 15 Celo Friends Meeting. I minister with Joan Baez' song, "Just a Little Rain" and speak of our moving from worries about Strontium 90 rains seeded by atmospheric testing to a shift in the entire Earth climate: what have they done to the rain? And then I wonder aloud at the contradiction between what we have wrought and the statement in Genesis that we are made in G-d's image.

At the end of meeting a young woman reads from Brother Nouwen: once we move into prayer mode, any thought becomes a prayer. Reflecting on my dark thought about our rapacious race, I realize that the infinite depths of compassion, the ability to suffer with our fellow human beings, the Earth with all her critters and plants, is also in the image of God. We have become as gods, and must therefore be God-like in our compassion for what we have brought to pass. From the Garden to the neolithic sweat of our brows to the doomed global industrial machine. And then, as the Earth takes back her due, the garden again, farming the paved cracks in the ghosts of cities. The inner city will be one big vacant lot waiting to be redeemed. And the broken and wounded will be everywhere, desperate for healing. Redemption is mine, sayeth the Earth. May the wave of destruction seed a whole tribe of Mother Theresas, flinging them into those same failed cities.

NEXT: Justice and Ecojustice in the Shadow of the Fearsome Wave

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Thursday, April 19, 2007


The Myth of Sustainable Development and the Great Die-Off

James Lovelock, in his haunting The Revenge of Gaia, points out the obvious when he says that “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. What we need, he says, is a “dignified retreat,” or in more contemporary language, negative development. Along with the deep ecologists, Lovelock argues that negative development would provide habitat for earth’s ongoing evolutionary project beyond the overbearing human. The earth passed the threshold of sustainability in 1985, after which the average global eco-footprint has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity. At that point, we numbered 4.85 billion, and used slightly more than half the total energy we use now (with 6.5 billion people who are more “developed”). Since the Kyoto protocols went into effect, not one of the “developed” signatories have reduced their carbon emissions, and the US continues to increase more than the rest of the G8, though at a slightly lower rate than it did ten years ago. Meanwhile, China and to a lesser degree India, with their combined 2.3 billion people, are just getting revved up. In 2004 alone, China built more coal-fired power plants than Britain has its entire history – the home of the industrial revolution. Just yesterday, the UN changed its prediction of when China would overtake the US in carbon emissions from three years to later this year.

In terms of our energy discussion, without fossil fuels or nuclear power, 6.5 to 9 billion people (in 2050) cannot be serviced at a modest level (Costa Rica or Romania, say). Even with a ravaged earth, the one billion on earth at the beginning of the industrial revolution could be sustainable with subsequent technological improvements. I am no expert, but I seriously doubt that 4.5 billion would be. With assured global warming, the amount to which the system is already “committed” as the climate scientists say, added to the reduction in biomass since 1985, I suspect that the number we can sustainably support is from 2.5 to 4 billion – if we increase nuclear power capacity,* work to increase efficiency at all levels, conserve power (again, how much is enough?) and vigorously develop alternative sources of energy . But in order to build increased nuclear capacity as we decommission old coal plants, we will need a lot of capital, and as James Kunstler convincingly argues in The Long Emergency, capital is firmly built upon the platform of cheap oil. As soon as global markets realize that oil extraction has peaked, the markets will plummet, and with them our window of making any significant large-scale, capital-intensive conversion of business as usual. With peak oil immanent, we don’t have much time to achieve a new platform for a steady-state.

If the looming systemic adjustment of human population is going to make room for replenishment of biodiversity, then the number is probably going to be on the low side, perhaps in the long run closer to the number we supported at the beginning of the industrial era. Along with species extinction of 20% (committed) to 50% or more (probable), a human population collapse inevitable. Gaia will take care that there is a die-back, and the current momentum of pumping carbon from underground reservoirs into the atmosphere is pushing the earth system towards a human die-off of unprecedented magnitude. As significant players in concentrations of atmospheric gases, we are as gods, a “planetary power” (Brian Swimme), which, along with overexpanded terrestrial and oceanic habitat, is on the threshold of being brought firmly back into scale, animals subject like any others to population dynamics. Metaphorically, we are a cancer, but looked at more simply, we’re a population in dangerously overextended bloom due to the “petroleum interval.”

Planning can lessen the impact. Alternatively, an economic crash, which is virtually assured in some form by looming peak oil, would slow the surge in CO2, which correlates directly with economic growth. Either way, the sooner we curb our greenhouse emissions, the less the scale of die-off. But it is inevitably going to mean a lot of suffering for human beings. In a warming world of diminished resources creating tensions over oil and water, encroaching seas producing unprecedented numbers of refugees, and severely compromised farmland leading to widespread famine, compassion is the resource we are going to need to grow most of all, not just for fellow human beings, but extending to the entire web of life.

*When I argue that nuclear power is a necessity, I do not mean for unrestrained development and continued growth of material fulfillment (“development”) for an overpopulated world. With nukes, human beings in equilibrium with the web could still drive vehicles (electricity for plug-ins; hydrogen for fuel cells if that ever becomes viable), repair roads, sail ships, (though not fly). Public transportation and ride-shares in efficient vehicles would be far more necessary than private vehicles, which will become luxuries of the rich. We could maintain a grid, rather than having patchwork of independent distributed electrical generating sources. We could provide supplemental heat to underbuilt buildings, which might be able to maintain indoor plumbing during northern winters, though that is something of questionable value in a sustainable world, both in terms water usage and btu’s for space heating.

NEXT: The Challenge of Compassion in a World Ravaged by Global Warming

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Friday, April 13, 2007



The overall moral issue is not nuclear power per se, but of how we care for the web of Creation. It is stewardship in an era when our numbers are overwhelming Gaia, multiplied by an extravagant lifestyle (look at the freezer and the clothes dryer, air conditioning and electric heat, the car and multiple-car families). We live in a world deeply, perhaps fatally, compromised by our industrial choices. As a human being struggling with moral choice I am deeply embedded in the accumulated world of infrastructure and culture built upon layers of thought, pre-existing decisions, my very perceptions structured by millennia-soaked predetermining gesture, thought, and decision.

Starting with Romanticism, signaled by William Blake’s total horror before the effects of the industrial revolution upon London, a genuine critique has emerged from within this embeddedness, ending with a clear statement that is the antithesis to the presuppositions of modern industrialism. This critique is ecocentric rather than anthropocentric, and it is represented by deep ecology, ecofeminism, and ecotheology: the view of the divine as immanent, the primal creative intelligence spread throughout the universe.

My own moral stance is strongly indebted to the Hebraic sense of justice, including the prophets’ land ethic, the compassion preached by Jesus, and Gandhian non-violence, which I learned primarily in the Hindustani context of my early twenties. Once I settled into life in Appalachia, the Quakers became my moral/spiritual home, uniting all of these strands. John Woolman’s testimonies on slavery and respectful treatment of Native Americans led me upon further study to his positions on whaling and industrial dyes. About the same time, I came upon the ideas of deep ecology.

In the early seventies, Arne Naess articulated deep ecology, a philosophy in counterpoint to the anthropocentric, use-value oriented environmental movement. It is deep ecology which touches me most deeply, connecting me to my Paleolithic forebears and my brethren among the critters (see my very first blogpost from November 2005). This is the ultimate test for any of our technologies: energy use, agricultural and manufacturing practices, and housing. An ever-expanding awareness of intrinsic rights has led from Locke, Jefferson and Paine through Woolman and the suffragette movement to include animal rights, even plant rights (The Secret Life of Plants). Everything has an equal right to exist in the biosphere, and it is all necessary to the web of creation. Today, slavery is that state of misguided human greed in which all of nature is enslaved to our industrial machine and global capitalism.

Aldo Leopold laid the foundation for deep ecology with his land ethic: A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. Nuclear power, and everything other tool of the late industrial era, needs to be judged by this overarching ethic, buttressed by the values of the world’s great religions. As Edwin Goldsmith, editor of the journal Ecology, points out in his magisterial book, The Way, these religions developed in the wake of abandoning a human way of life which intrinsically honored the land ethic. They laid out a pathway to salvation from a world of sorrow in the cities which expressed human “progress” in escaping the Garden. “Revealed” religions provided solace to the individual and the nuclearized family that was torn from the web of Gaia. Their accompanying values, including justice, compassion, and ahimsa (non-violence), now need to be enlisted as we find our torturous way back, not to the Garden, but to a sustainable human lifepath which honors what remains of the web as Gaia embarks once again upon reweaving in the wake of eco-collapse.

Justice. The Old Testament land ethic was an ethic of herders, one step better than the banished Cain and his tillers. Their stunting of the forest was effected by moving around herds of herbivores, rather than plowing the earth, breaking the arc towards stable climax and cultivating juvenile, annual plants. But it was a land ethic nevertheless. It grew into a more comprehensive ethic to include the relative right livelihood of the conserving farmer, exemplified in the late modern era by Wendell Berry. But the most embracing term is eco-justice. Post-Leopold, the forms of livelihood, and in our case, energy production, that do least harm to the web are the most just to all. We need to simplify our lifestyles, let go of the idea of space heating and cooling (construction improvements), drive personal vehicles less (or abandon the car entirely), and get rid of unnecessary appliances, especially clothes dryers, my pet peeve. The extent to which we can do this, and lower our standard of consumption, is key to how much energy we can save. Which standard of living are we going to strive for? Are there models? Vermont, Cuba, Costa Rica, Romania, Kerala,? We don’t have to retreat to the level of poor African countries, but the
planet could sustain a lot more folks who lived at 1/200th the American lifestyle – though not on sub-Sahel farmland.

Compassion: if it includes humanity, which it does for all but the most misanthropic Earth Firster, then we need to accept nuclear power, however reluctantly. If it is for the greater system, for Gaia, then perhaps we should stop burning fossil fuels, shut down the nukes and take the money for renewables and put it into habitat restoration for other species, transferring land back to our brother and sister species as we accelerate starvation and disease and the general die-off of homo sapiens. But we’re not going to do that, and as religious people we are already committed to compassion for our own species, including the enemy we are to love. If we are compassionate to both our species and to Gaia, we must embrace the necessity of nuclear power, at least for an interim period of a hundred years or more, along with other sources which emit less carbon than fossil fuels.

Ahimsa. Arguing against my testimony on behalf of nuclear power to the State Utilities Commission, a Buddhist colleague on the NC Interfaith Power and Light board built his case on the foundation of ahimsa, the Hindu/Buddhist concept “to do no harm.” Unfortunately, in the vast drawing down of Earth’s resources that has led to the fit of burning that Thomas Berry calls the “petroleum interval,” the very concept of doing no harm exists relative to the greatest harm we have every perpetrated, both to ourselves and to the earth system. Each of us witnesses from within a system that continues to perpetrate this rape, including those of us who rely on solar and other technologies that are dependent upon the embodied energy of oil (this is true of nuclear power as well). None of us is pure, nor outside it. So all statements about ahimsa are relative. I would have to say that our goal needs to to do the least harm, for “no harm” is not possible as human beings living in the 21st century. Just how much harm we cause is being judged right now not by a transcendent God in heaven, but by the earth herself, and for those of us who are theists, the immanent God whose outer garment is the ecosystem. Least harm in terms of Gaia and continued civilized existence is a mix of energy sources that brings carbon emissions as close to neutral as possible. If we manage to make it that far, then by the latter third of the century, the emissions need to be a net zero.

We have a chance to still be decision-makers then if we radically reduce coal and petroleum use, initiating the shifts in behavior required immediately. As Tim Flannery says at the end of The Weather Makers, “If everyone who has the means to do so takes concerted action to rid atmospheric carbon emissions from their lives, I believe we can stabilize and then save the cryosphere.”[1] (the “eternal realm of ice and snow” at the two poles of the earth. The cryosphere is necessary to buffer solar radiation, both by temperature and the albedo effect of reflecting it. For coastal civilization and tidal and marshland life, its holding water out of the seas is also critical.) My personal response to “everyone” is to go beyond efficiency and conservation to install photovoltaic panels. But in a world of social inequality, civil society needs to supplement what is achievable by those with relative wealth so that the poor, too, can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle – and survive. Up to now, that has meant relying on cheap oil and cheap coal. In the near future, that will mean supporting nuclear power so that the huddled masses in the northern latitudes will survive winter. Justice, compassion, and ahimsa are all involved in reaching this conclusion.

Frankly, I would prefer to let the nuclear power industry quietly die. I’d rather be sharing with you the morally simpler essay, “Don’t’ Mess with the Nucleus” that I drafted five years ago. When I was first asked to write about the moral and spiritual aspects of accepting nuclear power, I realized with a shudder that what I was doing didn’t feel very spiritual. It felt technical, intellectual, political - but not spiritual. But I am the same person whose last stage of life is given over to Creation Care, to convincing enough of my brothers and sisters to change their carbon-producing ways to give Creation a chance. A chance for us and a chance for the critters and flora. I have had to accept my lack of purity, my ability to feel above it all (or so embedded in the web as a deep ecologist that nuclear power would be unthinkable). I have come face-to face with the implications of coal-burning and all that that entails. And that’s just it. When Leopold published the Sand County Almanac (1947), there were 2.5 billion humans on the planet, and CO2 levels were at 305 ppm (now above 6.5 and 382 ppm. Remember, 450ppm is the probable tipping point). Global Warming was not yet a hypothesis.

[1] Flannery, The Weather Makers, 296.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007



I have been an environmentalist since the first Earth Day. I have tried to make that posture into something I can live into, to “walk the talk.” In the 70’s I built a passive solar house, and have provided the extra margin of heat – about 50%, or one cord/year, with wood ever since. We have worked on getting more efficient appliances, turning off lights (and phantom loads) and now replacing virtually all of them with compact fluorescents. This year we plan to install a photovoltaic system, either as a residential consumer or as part of a solar co-op with others in our land-trust. The last car we bought was the most efficient available in 1996, a Honda Civic equipped with a nifty V-tech engine Since 2001 it has been our only vehicle. We expect it to last until 2012 at our present rate of consumption. The old Ford pick-up from my dream moulders vine-covered in a field a few miles away. I borrow trucks to haul trash and get manure for a productive garden. Taking the last jet flight is still ahead of us.

One of the cardinal tenets of my environmentalism has been to shun nuclear power. Eisenhower’s “peaceful nukes” was a program of disinformation, a figleaf for the real business of world domination through military power. It was a no-brainer, with the allied problem of nuclear proliferation, and most especially the unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal. My basic position evolved into “don’t mess with the nucleus” (applicable as well to genetic manipulation) – because it’s not our business. The nucleus is a driving force of creation, and God is our Creator. We were playing God .
But unfortunately, the genies of the nuclei are loose, and we have to live with the consequences as responsibly as we can. More importantly, we’ve dug up and burned a huge store of ancient sunlight in the form of coal and oil. Much earlier, the hunter- gatherers warned that it was a sin to dig into the entrails of the earth, even to plow for annual agriculture. In hindsight we can see their immense wisdom.

However, the neolithic revolution is history, enabling us to grow to 1 billion before the industrial revolution. It continues to envelop us, providing a platform for the industrial revolution, and the subsequent accelerated rape of the earth, much species habitat, and indigenous cultures to get at the coal and oil, so that we could grow through a fit of burning to 6.5 billion and counting (UN estimates for 2050 8.5-9 billion, the Great Year of reckoning by so many accounts). If we take fossil fuels out of the equation, we are either pre or post-industrial, with tremendous implications for sustaining our current population, much less current rates of growth and development.

Watching An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by the fact that I, along with a generation of eco-activists, ignored the warnings about impending climate change. Al Gore was one year behind me at Harvard. We activists knew who the enemy was, Nixon, Big Government, the corporations – anybody but ourselves. But when Carter said that the energy crisis of the early 70’s, which coincided with that first Earth Day, was the “moral equivalent of war,” he made the prescient turn which now haunts us. The war we need to mount is with ourselves, our very nature. All of us are modern industrial consumers in an overpopulated world which is hugely dependent on fossil fuels for its very existence. Now that we’re finally getting the message about global warming, we recognize that what is unsustainable in terms of supply and demand is also threatening the very basis of higher life on earth. It is this context, especially the imperative to reduce carbon emissions immediately, which forces a revision of the nuclear part of the equation.

Since becoming aware of climate change, like many of my enviro colleagues, I have been optimistic about the possibility of “doing it all” – ramping down carbon consumption – with conservation and renewables. In the process of my research, it quickly hit me that I had never looked at the numbers, going on my God-given values, and my gut instincts: don’t mess with the nucleus. Even if we ramped up R and D of the “other renewables,” that little 2.3% piece of the pie-chart which is chiefly wind and solar, it would not grow to replace both fossil fuels and nuclear power in the next 3 or 4 decades. If we act to limit our carbon emissions, and thus save civilization from its own excesses, we will need something greater than “other renewables” to provide base power for the grid. In other words, if you’re anti-coal, you’d better be pro nuclear power.

There are other parts of human impact upon Gaia: transportation, housing and infrastructure, food. Nuclear enthusiasts point out that nuclear power would be a relatively carbon-free method to get hydrogen to power fuel cells. But the infrastructure changes required for fuel cells are massive, and we don’t have enough time to make that transition. Huge changes are needed in all areas of human lifestyle. For our present purposes, I want to focus on the necessity of nuclear power for maintaining the power grid. For I feel that if the grid is not maintained, civil society will unravel, and with it the very basis for moral and spiritual existence. We must keep the lights on if we want to continue searching for Light.

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