Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, March 25, 2011

Greater Love Has No One Than This…

… to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

We held our breath last week.  750 technicians were evacuated from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Only fifty remained behind to fight the fires and man the pumps, a desperate struggle to keep Daiichi’s six reactors from melting down and blanketing the Japanese homeland with lethal radiation.

Fifty men.  Faced with fires, melting reactor cores, hydrogen explosions, and intense gamma and beta radiation.  They knew, of course, what had happened to the technicians at Chernobyl, Ukraine a quarter century earlier: 28 died from radiation exposure; 19 were killed by infections resulting from radiation burns; 106 developed serious radiation sickness, costing them their lives during the ensuing years. 

Why they fought: Nuclear fallout harms little ones
But the Daiichi Fifty stayed, and fought.

We don’t know their stories yet, nor the extent of their injuries.  But we can be pretty sure what their motives were.  If the wind had shifted onshore, as it often does, a nuclear meltdown and fire could have killed millions, and exposed many millions more to doses of radiation sure to result in thyroid cancer and other debilitating diseases. 

There is something about a story of intentional, voluntary self-sacrifice that grips me all like nothing else.  You too, right?  Whether it’s a Dickens novel, a Harry Potter story, or real-life firefighters racing into the stricken towers of Lower Manhattan, our deepest core trembles at the sight of the one who knowingly lays down his life for another.

People from many faith communities feel this deeply.  But I think that Christians in particular see this impulse as more than just astonishment at selflessness and nobility.  Rather, we think that standing in awe of one who freely lays down his life is somehow what we were created for.  It is built into the created fiber of humanness.  And this, of course, is because at the core of our faith is the story of God, freely laying down his life for his creation. 

Why they fought: The elderly have suffered enough
But if we are created to venerate the few who give their all for the many, the inverse is also true.  It revolts us when the few cause harm to the many, when powerful elites exploit the powerless masses, and when dictators open fire on their unarmed  civilians.  This, of course, is why the Clothesline Report exists.  With the powers unleashed since the dawn of the Industrial Age, we see how – even though we often mean no harm – our practices and patterns can have devastating consequences for those on distant shores, and especially the poorest and least able to adapt. 

In recent decades, this was vividly illustrated by acid rain and the destruction of the protective ozone layer.  The pain was generally felt thousands of miles from the activities that caused it. Fortunately, in both these cases, nations recognized the problem and reversed course before it was too late.  And in our time, we pray it’s not too late to reverse course and counter global environmental degradation which threatens the natural balances on which all people -- and all creatures -- rely.

Can they recover? Tsunami: yes. Meltdown: no.
Perhaps my faith community will rise to take its rightful place in this struggle.  Our sacred scriptures say:  “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

Maybe we will seriously reexamine what it might mean for us to lay down our lives for the most vulnerable in this fragile ecosystem we call home.  And this week, perhaps we will take inspiration from the Daiichi Fifty.  We honor these people, not because they are uniquely valiant, but because they are doing what we were created for.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Monday, March 14, 2011

Give Us This Day Our Daily Fillup

I know, I know.  I can’t fool you.  Both religious and secular people know that Jesus taught his disciples to pray for daily bread.  It was a way of affirming dependence on our Father for the most basic of necessities, and an acknowledgment that not a single day goes by without needing His care.

Next to clean air and fresh water, nothing is more fundamental to life than bread.  Perhaps that’s why most of us love the sight of a productive farm as we drive through the country.  They’re growing our bread, our most basic need.

But things aren’t always as they seem.  As you drive down that bucolic country lane, only one in three corn fields is actually producing something for people to eat.  The first field produces feed for animals.  Granted, that contributes to the meat and eggs we eat, and the milk we drink.

The second produces corn to make human food – tortillas, cereals, cornbread, corn syrup sweetener, and the like – plus all the corn we export, no matter what it’s used for.

The third field produces corn for fuel: ethanol.  One third of all U.S. corn production – actually 34.9% – does not go to feed anyone or anything at all.  It makes fuel for cars.  Of course, it doesn’t make economic sense, so taxpayers have to subsidize it to the tune of $1.78 per gallon, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

And what’s the effect of all that productive farmland sidelined from feeding people?  As you’d expect, world food prices are soaring.  To be fair, experts disagree about the relative contributions of a number of factors, including ethanol, droughts, floods, and an increased appetite for meat in the developing world.  But the USDA’s chief economist, testifying before congress in 2008, attributed 70% of the rise in corn prices to ethanol production.

One thing’s clear, food is getting very expensive, while we’re subsidizing people to grow fuel for our tanks.

How expensive, you ask?  Well, since June 2010, the world price of maize (corn) is up 73%.  The price of wheat has more than doubled.  And the World Bank Global Food Price Index is up 29% from year-earlier levels.  If you are among the world’s poor, and use most of your money to buy food, a 29% increase is no laughing matter.  In fact, the World Bank reports that food costs have driven 44 million people into “extreme poverty” – less than $1.25 per day – since last year.

So the next time you hear a politician extolling the virtues of corn-fed "energy independence," you might want to ask him or her to think again.  How many millions more need to be driven to the brink of starvation to support our thirst for fuel?

Thanks for reading, and may God give you your daily bread.

J. Elwood

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Story of Farmer Dog

In a faraway country called Cornlandia, there lived a dog named Farmer Dog.  Farmer Dog was a free dog.  He depended on nobody, and he liked it that way.  He drove his tractor when he wanted to, and he plowed his ground when he wanted to.  He was a free dog.

Farmer Dog on his tractor
One day, his neighbor told Farmer Dog that he wasn’t as free as he thought.  The gasoline that he used to fill his tractor was bought from a bad duck named Qadaffy, who lived in a foreign land.  Qadaffy Duck pumped oil from deep beneath his ground, and put it on a ship that sailed to Cornlandia.  Recently, Qadaffy Duck had been charging more and more and more for his oil. 

Qadaffy Duck had the oil that Farmer Dog needed, so he wasn’t really free.  This made Farmer Dog mad.

But Farmer Dog was a resourceful dog.  So he decided to make his own gasoline out of something that he could grow in Cornlandia – CORN.   It wasn’t really gasoline.  It was called Ethanol.  But Farmer Dog could make plenty of Ethanol.  All he had to do was grow plenty of corn. 

So Farmer Dog climbed onto his tractor to plow the ground and plant the corn.  But there was a problem:  he had no gas in the tank!  Farmer Dog was a resourceful dog.  Even though he was mad, Farmer Dog asked Qadaffy Duck for ten buckets of oil for his tractor.  It took one bucket of oil to run the pump, and Farmer Dog went away with nine buckets.  But crude oil isn’t gasoline, so Farmer Dog went to a neighbor who could turn the remaining oil into gasoline.  It took another bucket of crude to run the refining machine, and Farmer Dog went back home with eight buckets of gasoline.

Qadaffy Duck sold Farmer Dog the oil he needed
He poured four of those buckets into his tractor, and it roared to life, plowing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the ground, and harvesting the mature corn.  When he was done, his wagon was full of bright yellow corn, but the four buckets of gasoline were used up. 

He took the corn to the distiller and asked him to make it into Ethanol, so he could be free from the evil Qadaffy Duck. The distiller needed Farmer Dog’s last four buckets of gasoline to run the distilling machine.  Now the last of the gasoline was all gone.  Farmer Dog watched as the distiller worked.  Ethanol poured from his machine, bucket after bucket!  When the distilling was finished, there were eighteen buckets of Ethanol, which Farmer Dog happily took home.

But there was a problem.  The Ethanol didn’t provide as much power as Qadaffy Duck’s gasoline.  It was about one-third weaker!  Farmer Dog was not happy.  All this work to be free from Qadaffy Duck’s oil, and only enough Ethanol to equal about 12 buckets of gasoline: only two more buckets than the ten he had bought from Qadaffy Duck to start with!

All that work and all that cost to gain only two buckets of fuel! 

Farmer Dog was not happy, but he was a resourceful dog.  He had an idea: What if he could get the people of Cornlandia to give him a little extra money for every bucket of Ethanol he made with his corn? Better yet, what if he could make all his neighbors buy a little of his Ethanol to mix with their gasoline?  Then, maybe it would be worth it.

Governor Mutt thought Farmer Dog's idea was brilliant
Off he drove to visit Governor Mutt, Cornlandia’s top dog.  The Governor thought Farmer Dog’s idea was brilliant, and he made all Farmer Dog’s neighbors give him extra money for every bucket of Ethanol he made.  He also made them all buy a little of Farmer Dog’s Ethanol to mix with their gasoline.

Farmer Dog was happy, and he made more and more Ethanol, since everyone had to buy some.

But there was a problem.  Farmer Dog’s neighbors were not happy at all.  The corn they had once bought to feed their chickens and dairy cows was now gone for Farmer Dog’s Ethanol.  Now the chickens laid no eggs, and the cows gave no milk!  They had to buy Farmer Dog’s Ethanol.  And worse yet, they had to pay Governor Mutt’s tax for every bucket he made from his corn! 

Farmer Dog was selling so much Ethanol that he needed more and more gasoline to run his tractor and the distilling machine.  Qadaffy Duck sold him all the oil he needed.  Qadaffy didn’t seem to be such a bad duck any more.

And Farmer Dog and Qadaffy Duck lived happily ever after.

** THE END **

Note to reader:  I actually made this story up.  But here are a few actual facts for you:

FactWorld corn prices have increased by 73% since June 2010, according to a World Bank January 2011 report.

FactAccording to the World Bank, rising global food prices swelled the numbers of those in extreme poverty by 44 million souls last year alone – people living on less than $1.25 per day.

FactA 2008 report by the World Bank attributed 70-75% of the world food price rises to subsidies for biofuels like corn ethanol.

FactOne tankful of ethanol consumes more than enough corn – 8 bushels – to feed one African person for an entire year.

Fact34.9 percent of the U.S. corn harvest went to make ethanol last year, almost as much as for animal feed. This year, about 36 percent of the American corn harvest will be ethanol.

FactU.S. acreage to grow corn for ethanol last year was as big as the entire state of Ohio, or Virginia or Tennessee.

FactU.S. law requires the use of ethanol in fuels:  13.2 billion gallons of it last year.

FactAmerican taxpayers paid $23 billion in taxes or government deficits last year because of subsidies for corn ethanol. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the cost to U.S. taxpayers from ethanol subsidies totaled $1.78 per gallon of ethanol produced.

FactWhile researchers disagree on the exact number, they all agree that making ethanol uses a lot of fuel.  Some argue that it uses more fuel than the actual ethanol produced.  But even the most optimistic admit that for every unit of ethanol produced, you have to consume at least two-thirds of that amount in petroleum.

FactIf we used all the corn grown in the U.S. for nothing but ethanol, we would only satisfy 12% of our gasoline demand.  But if we count the petroleum used to make the stuff, we would only have about 3% more fuel – and no corn at all for that old-fashioned practice … eating.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.   Isaiah 55:2

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood