Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Monday, May 21, 2012

Nearly One Billion go to Bed Hungry

Last week, I got a note from Godfrey Agaba, a young man in the remote Bundibugyo District of Uganda.  “I thank God,” he wrote, “because I am still surviving.”

Surviving? Whatever could be the problem?

Godfrey explained: “But in Uganda we are also somehow okay. I am saying ‘somehow’ because we are being intervene with hunger. This is a serious case in the all district.”

The English is a bit halting.  But the message couldn’t be clearer: We are hungry! There is not enough food for us!

Godfrey is not alone.  The World Bank’s Food Price Index increased by 8% in the four months from December 2011 to March 2012. That would come to a 24% increase for the year, if the pace continues.  For the 1.3 billion humans earning less than $1.25 per day, any increase in costs means more hunger.

Around the world, one out of every seven men, women and children goes to bed hungry every night. And what’s driving the costs of food? The World Bank notes turbulence in world oil markets from Iran nuclear sanctions, conflicts in Sudan and Iraq, strong demand for food imports in Asia, and extreme weather driven by climate change.  This year, the climate chaos showed up in extreme cold in Europe and Russia, extreme heat in Brazil and Argentina, and severe drought in the American Southwest.

In fact, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan estimates that 300,000 people die each year due to the effects of global warming. And many of them die because of hunger.

I don’t know much about hunger, do you?  Well, apparently, the God whom many of us worship does.  Jesus of Nazareth described the great judgment day, when he will evaluate all of humanity.  Those whom he welcomes as his beloved have a number of traits. But the first thing he mentions is this: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”

If that’s true, God is going hungry one billion times tonight.

You may want to help.  If so, you can directly assist Godfrey’s community here.  Or you can visit either of these reputable relief agencies to donate virtually anywhere in the world: Christian Aid or World Vision International.

But before you do, take two minutes to watch the World Bank’s great multimedia above.  What you learn just might amaze you.  I’ll bet you’ll want to share it with someone. And then, don't forget to make that gift!

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Game Over for the Climate

We have long admired the work of James Hansen, the top climate scientist for NASA, and leading advocate for environmental justice for our children.

Hansen is both a brilliant researcher, and a devoted grandfather.  As a scientist, he measures the impacts of growing greenhouse gas concentrations on the global climate. As a grandfather, he confronts policy-makers with the need to take urgent action to protect those who will inherit the earth that we leave them.

I too am a grandfather, and I share Hansen’s passion for protecting our kids.  Last summer, that passion landed us both in the DC jail system.  It seems we wore out our welcome at the White House in an effort to publicize the global threat posed by Canada’s tar sands, and the proposed pipeline that was to have transported it across the U.S. heartland.

Hansen protesting tar sands pipeline
Last week, Hansen wrote a wonderful op-ed piece in the New York Times.  I hope you’ll read it for yourself, and send it on via Facebook, Twitter or email. (Read it here.)

Hansen’s warning is stark:  “Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.”  And if Canada proceeds with tar sands development, and we do nothing, “it will be game over for the climate.”

Game over?  Strong words for a scientist, right?

In a nutshell, here’s what he means.  If we exploit the tar sands, and continue our use of conventional fossil fuels as most all American politicians advocate, then:
  • CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will reach the highest levels in 2.5 million years;
  • Sea levels will be 50 feet higher than they are right now;
  • The world’s ice sheets will disintegrate;
  • The world’s coastal cities (like New York, Miami, San Francisco and LA) will virtually all be inundated;
  • Global temperatures will become intolerable to humans over much of the planet; and
  • 20-50% of all living species will become extinct.

That’s right. Up to half of all species for whom we have been appointed earth-keepers will be forever lost, says NASA’s chief scientist. It’s Noah’s Ark in reverse. (Note: One key species under Noah's charge was mankind, lest we forget.)

And while scientists think in the long term, the near term is awfully sobering as well. Over just a few decades, says Hansen, while many of today’s grandfathers still walk the earth: “the Western United States … will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

You've noticed: Hansen's list ignores the entire rest of the world.  And at home, he makes no mention of Miami, New Orleans, New York and the Virginia tidewater region, just a few more near-term casualties of unbridled fossil-fuel burning.

CR editor Elwood followed Hansen to DC's jails
Of course, for us grandfathers who care about our kids’ future, the oil-funded drumbeat in our presidential politics gives us nightmares.  But Hansen doesn’t give the sitting president a pass either: “President Obama speaks of a ‘planet in peril,’ but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.”

What does NASA’s Hansen have in mind?  We’ve advocated his solution for some time, as have many thoughtful observers:  “We need to start reducing emissions significantly,” says Hansen, “not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous.”

Of course, you’re not hearing this solution from virtually anyone in politics (see exception below). Instead of making fossil fuels pay their true costs to the world, Hansen tells of governments forcing the public to subsidize these polluting industries with hundreds of billions of dollar per year, and driving “a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.”

And in the face of proclamations by the merchants of doubt set on keeping the public paralyzed for another decade or two, Hansen leaves us with the most prophetic of warnings:  “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow…. Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.”

Amen, grandpa. Don’t hold back. You’re speaking for my granddaughter as well as your own.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Note:  Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) suggested just such a carbon fee to me in his offices last month.  May God bless your efforts, Rep. Waxman!

James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is the author of “Storms of My Grandchildren.”

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Birds, our Teachers

The Clothesline Report has been favored with contributions from some really good birders since we started writing.  I don’t count myself among them. But every spring, I marvel at the birds that visit Good Hand Farm. The barn swallows always come back to hatch their young in the barn – and mercilessly dive at us when we come too near. The iridescent blue tree swallows do the same in bird houses along our fences. The great blue heron always comes back to fish in the stream that borders our fields. And a harrier hawk inevitably manages to get one of our chickens, despite the vigilance of our fearless rooster.

There is no end to the display of the creation’s wonders in the avian migration that wends its way to our home.

And yet, I think our favorite of all are the killdeer.

Killdeer come to the farm to nest in the fields
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing one yourself, killdeer are small ground-nesting shorebirds that are drawn to tilled farmland habitats, which help conceal their exposed eggs. Every spring when we till ground, a few pairs will nest right among the row-crops.  Of course, we can’t abandon the fields to them entirely, and that’s what makes for the fun.  It’s amazing how well camouflaged those little eggs are.  But we don’t much fear stepping on them, because the killdeer run around loudly warning us when we come into the territory they’ve claimed for themselves.

When we get too close to the unseen nest, the killdeer entertain us with their broken-wing routine.  With mostly white and black plumage, they writhe nearby on the ground and expose the bright auburn feathers of an apparently broken wing, calling out piteously.  Of course, in nature this behavior draws away predators approaching the nest, and the broken wing becomes instantly as good as new.

"Injured" killdeer: predators can't resist the display
Several years ago, however, I was cultivating ground with my old Allis-Chalmers tractor, and the thrum of the diesel engine drowned out all the overtures of the alarmed killdeer mother.  I was unwittingly bearing down on the exposed nest, when the unheeded bird resorted to the most desperate measure of all.  She flew directly into the path of the tractor, landed in front of her nest, and spread out her wings to make herself as big and fearsome as she could manage, screaming at me in full throat.  With only a few yards to spare, it finally dawned on me what was going on, and the diesel came to a halt.

Nest saved. A tiny half-pound bird staring down a tractor weighing several tons.

It’s remarkable what we can learn from the creatures around us, isn’t it? Martin Luther thought so, at least.  In his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, he wrote that God “is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers.”  He added, “We have as many teachers and preachers as there are little birds in the air.”

Wherever you live, I hope you get out this spring and take special notice of the littlest creatures around you. You and I were created to be earth-keepers: protectors and stewards of all the creation.  But more often than not, it works the other way around: it’s the little wild creatures that inspire and enrich us.

Thanks for reading, and God bless you.

J. Elwood

These killdeer eggs should be pretty easy to see, right?
Look again: What we see from 6' away in the asparagus

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Toxic Air: One More Burden for the Poor

Monday night, Barbara and I had the privilege of listening to Peter Harris, founder of the Christian environmental conservation group A Rocha. Peter was speaking at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, challenging the crowded auditorium of New Yorkers to rediscover the widely-ignored gospel call to care for everything God has made: his earth, its creatures and its people.

Brimming with excitement from an evening of insight and challenge, we headed west to our home at Good Hand Farm.  We crossed the GW Bridge in the fresh spring air, with the city’s skyline gleaming across the Hudson to the south. We flew along I-80 through Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck. A great end to a good day!

But suddenly, our perfect evening was rudely interrupted. A sickly-sweet odor assaulted our senses as we sped along the interstate. Something awful in the air! Where are we, anyway? Oh, of course: Paterson and Elmwood Park, industrial towns along New Jersey’s Passaic River. All those stacks billowing fumes night and day. Yuck.

I wonder what it’s like to actually live here! Those poor people!

Well, looking into it, I discovered that nothing could be more true.  Poor people.  

It turns out that the privilege of breathing that perfect evening air was reserved largely for people who are rich like us: Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck enjoy average per capita incomes in the range of $32,000 to $38,000. But the rancid chemical cloud hanging over Paterson and Elmwood Park burns its way into the lungs of people earning on average about half of that: $13,000 to $23,000. In my little sample, you need money to fill your lungs with clean air.

Paterson chemical plants foul the air for NJ's poor
I wondered, is this true in other places? Is it the poor who bear the burden of our world’s pollution? Well, in a word, yes.  It turns out that this is the rule everywhere you look.  We think of caring for the creation as a matter of aesthetics, or stewardship. But – true as those impulses may be – creation care is also a matter of justice for the poor, and for racial and ethnic minorities.  Consider:

  • The United Church of Christ has conducted studies over more than 20 years showing that racial minorities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. And these toxic communities have 50% more poor people than clean communities. Whatever the intent, people of color and the poor end up living with our hazardous toxins.
  • The University of Pennsylvania has published research showing that, for communities with nearby toxic waste facilities, those with predominantly African-American populations are nearly twice as likely to suffer accidents involving toxins, compared with similar non-minority communities. The inescapable conclusion: Facility operators adhere to varying safety standards in different communities, and race matters.
  • The Journal of Urban Affairs published a UCLA study which found that low-income and minority children in California are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhausts, resulting in much higher rates of respiratory ailments and mortality. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema.
  • The Climate Risk Index, which annually ranks countries around the world based on their vulnerability to climate change, puts impoverished Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras at the very top.  In fact, the ten most vulnerable countries generate almost no greenhouse gases, and in their poverty, they generate average per capita incomes of only $2,500. But the ten highest emitting countries (including the U.S.) enjoy average incomes of more than $43,000, with per capita carbon emissions 25 times as high. We generate the pollution; they suffer the consequences.
  • Researchers at Harvard and Duke universities have published findings that developing nations will be affected far more severely by climate change than developed nations, and that this unequal impact will persist throughout the twenty-first century. This means that the very countries which have largely missed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution will bear the brunt of its hazardous consequences.
  • The Christian Reformed Church, through its Creation Stewardship Task Force, has stated that climate change will impact the poor more negatively than the rich. Limited financial resources provide them  little buffer in adapting; they cannot move to a more benign climate; they are more susceptible to social unrest and resource conflicts; and they have little access to technology for adaptation.
  • The National Association of Evangelicals has reported that the world’s poor are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In a report titled “Loving the Least of These,” the NEA states: “There are millions of suffering people in the world…. Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.”
Since most of our readers are sincerely looking for ways to practice environmental justice, these findings may give us a whole new motivation for action.  Many of us hope for the day when the Son of Man welcomes his own with the words: “I was hungry, and you gave me food….” Of course, we will not understand, until he reminds us: “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-40).

As we repent of our abuse of the creation, and work toward a world which can sustain the world’s poor, perhaps we are beginning to learn what it might mean to care for “the least” of the brothers of God.

This is, after all, his world.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

More Climate Risk Index Data