Saturday, December 20, 2014

Green Church, Part I: Unitarian Universalism at a Crossroads

Two articles with different emphases in the Spring 2007 UU World issue show the Unitarian Universalism at a crossroads:  “Centered in Gratitude” by Galen Guengerich and “Eating Ethically” by Amy Hassinger.  The article by the Rev Galen Guengerich, senor minister of All Souls Church New York City, explains how practicing gratitude can make you a better human being.
The eating ethically article also purports to be about living a more spiritual life. It begins by describing the horrors of industrial agriculture, and recommends eating organic food, grown by subsistence farming instead of modern agriculture, for the sake of the planet.  Subsistence farming is backbreaking, mind-numbing labor.  The article also fails to note that when everyone ate local organic food, famines were frequent.
Organic food is more expensive because it takes more land and labor to grow a given amount of organic food.  The article doesn’t mention people on a budget.  Can only the well off be good UUs?   Are the tastes of the elite the moral choice?  
The article claimed that transportation from a distance increases a food’s carbon footprint compared to local food.  I did the math.  The food mile fallacy doesn’t take into account the fact that long distance trucks that can transport thirty tons of food compared to a quarter of a ton in a local pickup.  The article concludes by dismissing Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.   Didn’t those billion human beings saved from starvation have inherent worth?
The two articles show the UUA at a crossroads.  Should the organization emphasize the personal and spiritual, as in the Guengerich article, or the activist position as in the Eating Ethically article?  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Small Ain't Necessarily Beautiful

Rereading Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher, the classic first published in 1973, I could see how people thought it was visionary.  How could anyone be against “economics as if people mattered?”
But when you examine the text closely, Schumacher cites no data to back up his conclusions.  Moreover, some things he says are the opposite of what has actually happened.  For instance, he says, “People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get in large scale violence than people whose existence depends on world wide systems of trade.”
The 21st century Age of Globalization with its world wide systems of trade is many times more peaceful than tribal or feudal times. Frederic Bastiat, 19th century economist said,  “If goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”   Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature points out when both parties trade, it’s win-win, but if one party raids the other, even if the raiders get the goods, they still have to pay the costs of the raid.  It’s said that no two countries with a McDonald’s have had a war.
We have an historical example of a system of highly self-sufficient local communities. It was called the medieval manorial system, otherwise known as the Dark Ages. There was widespread hunger, disease, illiteracy, superstition, and violence. True, the violence wasn’t large scale, but the small scale violence more than made up (by an order of magnitude) for the lack of large scale violence.  There was nearly constant raiding and marauding in what historian Barbara Tuchman calls “private wars.”
In the Middle Ages all farming was organic and food miles were short. They had to be because there were no ways to transport food when local crops failed.  Yields were small, besides some land had to lie fallow or be used to raise fodder.  Hence famines were frequent.  Disease followed hunger.  The Black Plague killed at least a third of the undernourished population after the Great Famine of 1315-17.  People blamed the lepers, the Jews, and the witches for the bad times so they tortured them to death.
The 14th century was a Small is Beautiful world.  Was there culture?  Not when most people were illiterate.  Was there peace?  No, there was almost constant war among competing fiefdoms. Was there liberty?  Not for the 95% of the population who were serfs.  (Serfs were one step up from a chattel slave – they couldn’t be sold individually, but they had to stay with the land.)  Was there justice?  Not if you recall the grisly public torture-executions for offenses that aren’t even illegal today.
The Small is Beautiful idea has been rebranded as the eat local/buy local movement. A movement whose end result is a return to the 14th century medieval manorial system is not just nostalgic, it’s reactionary.  If Small is Beautiful didn’t work in the 14th century, why would it work now?
  As religious liberals, we Unitarian Universalists need to dig to the root of movements like Small is Beautiful/ buy and eat local.   Do they reflect our values?  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Voices Blow Out

Somewhere in Iowa, I was barreling along the freeway.  All of a sudden I heard a loud pop from somewhere over my right shoulder. What caused it?  Then I heard, “Blowout!”  It wasn’t the voice of my ordinary mind chatter;  it seemed to come from an outside source.  The Voice continued, “Keep your feet off the pedals, hold tight to the wheel, and steer to the side of the road.”   The Voice told me exactly what I’d learned in Driver’s Ed.
I didn’t hear  the Voice again until about ten years later while giving one of my first dog training lessons.  Being inexperienced, I hadn’t asked the owners to put the first dog away while I worked with the second. The first dog, out of the action, gripped my leg from behind. “This dog is biting me,” the Voice said.   I felt no pain whatsoever, but then I saw blood running down my leg.  Again, the Voice had told the truth.
    Others who have heard voices believe they came from a supernatural source.  Religious leaders have received spiritual and ethical teachings in that manner.  Moses was given the Ten Commandments, Muhammad the Koran, and Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon on golden plates.
Occasionally a seemingly divine voice tells the hearer to do something evil.  Claiming they were acting under direct orders from God, renegade Mormons Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter.*
The Society of Friends (Quakers) believes that every person has a direct link to the Divine.  How do Quakers keep people from claiming their insight is Divine and must be obeyed?  The person with the insight must bring it to a meeting of fellow Quakers for a process of group discernment.  Among Friends, individual inspirations are subordinate to the meeting as a whole.
I’m not a believer in the Supernatural.  I hold that my Voice, which appeared to come from outside me, actually came from my subconscious mind.  In my case, my subconscious mind was a repository of valuable advice.  For all we know, all seemingly supernatural voices come from the hearer’s own mind.  The Voice may range from true and inspiring as it was for Moses, be valid direction as it was in my case, or it may be an excuse for evil behavior.  The Quakers know it takes a village to tell the difference.

*Jon Krakauer begins his account of Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven, with the story of the murder, then expands to a history of the sect, emphasizing the potential for violence because of the blood atonement doctrine and personal divine revelation (granted only to males).  However, the state of Utah, 60% Mormon, has a murder rate of 1.8 per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 4.7 per 100,000.  

http://www.amazon.com/Under-Banner-Heaven-Story-Violent/dp/1400032806/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405536474&sr=1-1&keywords=under+the+banner+of+heaven http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/murder-rates-nationally-and-state#MRord  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Grief off a Key Ring

Along with my house and car keys, I used to have a second interlocking ring for church building keys.  I was active enough in the congregation to have been issued a master key and a key to the financial file cabinet.  But the building air quality got so bad that in order to avoid an asthmatic cough, I needed to wear an uncomfortable painter’s respirator.   I got so tired of fielding comments about it that I stopped volunteering in the office and attending church functions.  
Losing my beloved church family hit me like a death, but various mental exercises helped me to get through the grief.  First, I drew a picture of a treasure chest.  There, I wrote reminders of all the good memories: seeing friends every Sunday, church socials, making connections with new people, and giving such well received talks that people asked for copies of them.
Below the treasure chest, I drew a trash bag where I put the bad memories: my chemical sensitivity not being taken seriously, not being able to attend worship with my partner, and fruitless meetings: with the accessibility group that met once, with the environmental committee who was saving the planet from carbon dioxide, the finance committee who refused my donation toward air quality improvement, and the building committee who took two years (during which time others also complained) to put air quality on the improvements list.  
The treasure chest and the trash bag helped my grief process, but the mature approach wasn’t enough.  I needed something stronger – sour grapes! I grumbled about wasting time with people who couldn’t get it together to do anything to make the building accessible, a professed church value.  I growled at the congregation, who used to be my kind of folk, but now seemed more concerned with their righteous causes than each other.
After my sour grape harvest, I could savor the good memories from the treasure chest, just as I can reminisce about high school without wanting to go back.  Moreover, it was a relief to no longer have to deal with the issues in the trash bag.
Once I turned in my church building keys, my key ring became lighter.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Divestment, the Feel Pure Choice

My congregation’s Climate Justice Committee, along with Bill McKibben of 350.org, recommends divestment from fossil fuel stocks.  However, UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan,  (UUWorld Summer13) who believes, “the world is hurtling toward climate change disaster,” distinguishes between divestment, which is not effective and something that actually is effective, disinvestment.  http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/285525.shtml
Disinvestment means the refusal to provide start-up capital (Initial Public Offering).  It’s an effective move because corporations need more capital to expand and profit.  Brennan points out that it was disinvestment that was effective dismantling apartheid in South Africa.  
On the other hand, divestment means selling off stock in a corporation in the secondary market.  However, the corporation doesn’t care who owns its stock and gets a share of the profits.  Besides, if one party sells, someone else will buy.  Only if almost everyone sells, will the value of the stock decrease in value.  Then indirect effects come into play, such as managers’ portfolios decreasing in value, employee stock options being less attractive, and the corporation having less bargaining power.
However, an organization that continues to own stock in a corporation can collect the corporation’s profits as dividends to use for good.  Moreover, shareholder activism allows the organization to influence the other stockholders and the Board of Directors, also for good. Besides, brokerages charge fees for stock transactions.  Hence, divestment wastes time and money that could be diverted to good works.
Since fossil fuel corporations deliver concentrated, storable energy, they aren’t going broke any time soon, in my opinion.  And on the alert for ever more profit, they will go green as soon as it’s economically feasible.  For instance, Big Oil Chevron, one of the world’s leading producers of  geothermal energy, is also developing solar energy and non-food biofuels.
Corporations make money by selling what they produce.  If nobody buys their products, they go broke.  So, instead of divesting, our congregation could affect fossil fuel corporations’ profits by refusing to buy fossil fuels, and using only our solar panels.  Though I doubt we’re willing to forego our gas heat in the winter and most of our electricity.
Surely an astute politician like Bill McKibben understands the difference between divestment, refusal to own stock, and disinvestment, refusal to provide capital.   Is he taking advantage of the fact that most people conflate the two?   Most of us, not having the odd million to throw around, can’t disinvest, but we can divest through our churches, other organizations, or our personal portfolios.  Hence, divestment involves many more people than disinvestment ever could, thus gaining adherents for the climate movement.   (350.org, founded in 2007, has grown to the point where it can get 50,000 people at climate rallies.)
Fossil Free, a website promoting divestment, says it’s wrong to profit from wrecking the climate.  In other words, divestment comes down to a purity issue, allowing an organization to avoid sullying itself from what it considers morally questionable ventures such as alcohol, tobacco, guns, or nuclear and fossil fuels, without affecting those ventures.  (Note that nuclear energy doesn't generate CO2.)  Divestment falls into the same category as eating organic food because it’s pure, not because it’s nutritionally superior.
The resolution concludes “Finally, be it resolved that we the members of the Fellowship shall urge each other to divest from personal holdings in fossil fuel corporations.”  Instead of encouraging spiritual growth, we’re encouraging fiscal purity.  What a go-ahead for self-righteous busybodies!
We’ll be voting on this issue at the annual meeting next month, but I won’t be able to speak at the meeting because I need to wear a gas mask to breathe at church where the CO2 concentration is over 2000ppm in the sanctuary, six times the 350ppm goal.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Loaves and Fishes for All

The Bible story of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes says Jesus fed four or five thousand people on five or seven barley loaves and a few fishes with leftovers to spare;  the details differ in different versions.  Some interpret this story as an uncomplicated miracle, that is, Jesus, being God, made something out of nothing, a feat He would be most capable of.
Unitarian Universalists, who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, might say those people in the crowd who had a lot were led to share with those who had little and that’s why there was enough.  Both of the above interpretations rest on the premise that it took something special to make sure there was enough.
At GA 2010, Ralph Ellison suggested another interpretation of the story: the disciples just thought there wasn’t enough.  In other words, maybe the story means although it may not seem like it, there can be enough for all.
Our job as beings with brains is to use our ingenuity to provide enough for all rather than limit how many are at the table.  Ten thousand years ago, everyone in the world was a hunter-gatherer.  I can imagine some old cave sage saying, “We’ve driven the large mammals to extinction! Our lifestyle is not sustainable! We’re overpopulated!” (The hunter-gatherer world population was around five million, less than a tenth of a percent of today’s population of seven billion.**)
I hear a soft but determined voice reply, “Not so fast, old man! My sisters and I saved seed from last fall and planted it by the river.  Now we can gather more grain in days than we used to be able to gather in weeks!”   The invention of agriculture wasn’t the last time human ingenuity overcame perceived unsustainability.
Things continue to improve. During the 20th century alone, we captured the nitrogen for fertilizer from the air [Haber-Bosch process] and bred high yielding grain [Green Revolution].  In 1981, 52.2% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 a day;  by 2008 only 22.4% did.*** From more than half poor to less than a quarter poor in twenty-seven years!  Billionaire tech mogul Bill Gates predicts there will be no more poor countries by 2035.****
As the Loaves and Fishes parable says, our job as humans is to work with and trust the processes that will bring us all enough.

*http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/170691.shtml     Rep Keith Ellison on radical abundance at GA 2010.
**http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.  

***http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty

****http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Clicker Training and Climate Change

Bozeman, my new fifty pound mixed breed rescue, is devouring the food in his bowl.  I approach.  He gobbles faster.  I take another step closer.  Instead of his usual soft adoring look, I get a hard stare.   Being prudent, I step back.  Despite the thirty-four pounds of kibble stored in the kitchen, Bozeman believes there’s not enough dog food in his universe.  Hence, he’d best keep anyone else from getting any of his food. In Bozeman’s mind, resources are limited.
My challenge is to convince Bozeman that there is enough, resources are not limited, and that people approaching when he’s eating means more food for him, not less.
Bozeman being a dog, I’ll have to act out my explanation.  After he finishes, I go to his bowl, click (the signal a treat’s coming) and drop in a delicious spoonful of wet dog food.   After a week of training, I can pick up his bowl while he’s still eating, add the canned food and return the bowl.  His tail wags.
Some humans such as Paul Ehrlich, and David Suzuki follow the 19th century Reverend Thomas Malthus, who claimed population increases exponentially while food resources only increase arithmetically.  These pundits believe that food will run out because people will multiply without end.  Like Bozeman with his limited vision, they don’t see the big picture.  They extrapolate from such simple situations as bacteria in a petri dish or fruit flies in a milk bottle that do overshoot the carrying capacity of their environments.  Humans, on the other hand, figure out solutions, for example the Green Revolution’s advances in agricultural technology.  Since Malthus, and in the forty years since Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, humans have simultaneously increased both their numbers and their overall wealth.
Nevertheless, the Malthusians are still catastrophizing.  They claim humans and their activities are destroying the planet via climate change caused by fossil fuel use.  Hence, to maintain the climate, the use of fossil fuels should be restricted.   Poor countries should not be allowed to use fossil fuels to develop, which will keep them poor.  Coincidentally, the resources of those that already have them will be conserved.  
However, when countries develop and become richer, women get educated and have fewer babies, not more.  We saw this phenomenon in Europe during the 19th century and in the United States during the 20th century.  The population growth curve levels off.   This change from high death rates and birth rates to low death rates and birth rates is called the Demographic Transition.
The Demographic Transition is the click or signal to tell the Malthusians not to worry. Populations will level off.  There will be enough.  We big-brained humans can figure it out.
After a month of training, Bozeman figured it out.  I can pick up his half-eaten bowl of food and return it without incident.   Bozeman has been persuaded that humans approaching him during meals is a good thing. Would that the Malthusians likewise see human beings as a good thing!