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Friday, December 31, 2010

Deadly weather, the New Year ... and Mary, Mother of God

Historic flooding in Australia, severe snow and deadly storms in the American heartland, a soggy US West Coast and an unsettled Europe are making for unhappy New Year celebrations for many. The resulting homelessness, destruction, and death should make us pause and pray for the victims of this wild weather.

As for the why of all this meteorological drama, some say it's evidence of climate change--and they may be right. While no individual storm or cluster of events can be attributed to climate anything, trends can. Which is why the appearance of so many events occurring with so much more severity and precipitation amounts makes one wonder.

Scientists have noted for sometime that climate change will alter the way the planet distributes thermal energy and moisture. Some of us will be dryer, some wetter, some warmer, some cooler. Remember, climate and weather are not the same thing.

There's lots of resources to learn about all this ... but not now. It's New Years. And for most of us, it is a time of celebration, reflection and warm (or not-so-warm) memories of those we've lost this year, and in others. It is a time for new beginnings. And for Catholics, midnight will usher in not just 2011, but the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. And so let us place the entire human race in the loving embrace of Mary, and ask for her intercession that 2011 bring us all a greater understanding of our role in caring for creation, and in caring for each other, especially those who suffer the ravages of war, disease, despair or freak events of nature.

And so we pray, Hail Mary, full of Grace ...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Church and Science

One of the great misunderstandings perpetrated in popular culture and the mainstream media is that the Church is anti-science. After all, just look at what the Church did to Galileo! But for Catholic ecologists, science and faith blend naturally. And so the question, how did a Church that some say was so anti-reason ever become engaged in the natural sciences?

The truth is, the Church was never anti-science.

But this lie has been told so often that it's become ingrained in our popular culture. Take for instance a story sent out by the Associated Press in November, 2009. The piece was about archaeological findings at Galileo's burial site, but it contained the following paragraph that was as misleading as it was irrelevant to the story.

“Galileo, who died in 1642, was condemned by the Vatican for saying the Earth revolved around the Sun. Church teaching at the time held that the Earth was the center of the universe.”

There was never nor is there any official Church dogma on particular matters of science. While in Galileo’s day many scholars embraced the teachings of Aristotle, who did maintain a geocentric worldview, the Church made no such formal pronouncement.

One could write reams about the real scientific issues at play—such as Galileo’s faulty assumption that planetary orbits were impossibly circular, or that he held that the Earth’s movement was proven by the motion of the tides, or that Church scientists understood that empirical evidence wasn’t matching Galileo’s mathematical models and wanted the scientist to fess up to this scientific principal. Galileo wouldn’t, and so began his political problems with what colleges today call academic review boards.

Still, Galileo was a genius; his contributions to science are immense. And yet what many seem to ignore is that his great hope was to prove the heliocentric planetary model that had been proposed decades earlier by Nicaolaus Copernicus—who was a devout Catholic, scientist and Church canon lawyer.

My concern is that sloppy (or agenda-driven) journalism, etc., like that AP story, will reinforce for the casual reader the myth that the Church was, and is, anti science. Quite the opposite is true. It has always been a Catholic trait to engage and employ worldly sciences, as can be seen in the writings of St. Paul through St. Augustine and St. Thomas, to Fr. Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, and Fr. Georges Lemaitre, who took Einstein’s work and formulated the cosmic expansion theory—the Big Bang—a theory that not even Galileo could have ever imagined.

All this is important to keep in mind. Because when Catholics work in the natural sciences, or use them to bring about ecological or social good, we have to be ready to explain and defend our forebearers--as well as the faith-reason genetic code that has always been at the core of Catholic thought.

For more, take a few minutes and watch the following ...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The answer, my friends ...

Catherine the Great is quoted as saying "a great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache."

For those of us in the 21st century, one question to ponder is whether we will use the wind with imagination even if  proposed uses of it will bring us pain. We live in an age that does battle with itself over the building of (and investments in) large scale wind farms--especially the off-shore variety. Sadly, we too often forget that anything we do for the common good may mean sacrifice.

In the northeast Unites States, at least two off-shore wind projects are vying to be the first or the biggest or the best loved. Both Deepwater Wind, proposed mainly for in, and off, Rhode Island Sound, and Cape Wind, to be built off Cape Cod, seek to snatch clean energy from plentiful and vibrant ocean air. Which project will be built first? Which one makes the best economic sense?

Time will tell.

But the good news is that the Obama administration is encouraging off-shore wind power, and for that we should be grateful. Sure, this author (and many others) abhor the current administration's views on abortion or embryonic stem-cell research, but here we agree. And so should you. We must accept that wind power is a means to slowly but surely separate us from the shackles of foreign fossil fuels--which, as we know, are giving us quite a headache, and worse.

And so it's good to read from The Hill this news:
The Interior Department is trying to determine whether companies are willing to invest in offshore wind development off the coast of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts wants to position itself as a leader in offshore wind development. The state is moving forward with the development of the Cape Wind offshore wind project, which has been mired for years in regulatory delays. If completed on schedule, the project could be the first offshore wind project in the United States. But the project faces continued difficulty in finding a buyer for the electricity it produces.

The Interior Department published a "request for interest" on Tuesday to help on that front.

“The Request for Interest issued by the Obama administration today begins a process that will lead to up to 4,000 megawatts of wind energy installed far off our shores — enough electricity to power approximately 1.7 million households, and enough to take this new U.S. industry from infancy to maturity,” Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said in a statement.

The request for interest, issued by Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), is part of a broader effort by the department to develop offshore wind on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

“The Administration has expressed its commitment to putting our nation on the path to a renewable energy future, and BOEMRE will continue working to fashion an expedited but responsible process for leasing and permitting on the OCS," BOEMRE Administrator Michael Bromwich said in the statement.

May the Holy Spirit--the true wind of human help--guide us all to a proper environment of sound thought and ethical choices, leading us to a future that embraces hope, and the price that comes with it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Bartholomew I on inter-faith dialogue, ecology

AsiaNews reports that Bartholomew I gave quite the address last week before an influential audience of the Orthodox world. His talk defended his unyielding intentions for inter-faith dialogue.

"We will insist on dialogue, despite the criticism that we suffer," he said. "There is, unfortunately, a certain religious fundamentalism, a tragic phenomenon, which can be found among Orthodox and Catholics, among Muslims and Jews. These are people who think they alone have the right to exist on earth, almost as if they alone have the right to rule on this our planet according to the Old Testament. And they say there is no room for anyone else, and are therefore opposed to any dialogue."
The strong tone of the talk made all the more notable his insertion of the ecology within it. But this makes sense, because dialogue works best when one can speak of what is shared--and what is a more shared reality than the natural environment? And so Bartholomew I noted that in speaking of those of other faiths, "we do not discuss purely theological issues as it would be difficult. But we talk about social issues, social issues that effect all people, all humanity, all over the world." AsiaNews then adds that

ecology has been one of the favorite themes of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1989. The Patriarch said:  "Everything that we try to do, we do because we believe it is our duty, because the Church should be actively present in the contemporary world and be sensitive to people's problems, raise awareness and encourage them to love and protect nature like their own homes".  He added: "The environment, nature, is God's creation and do not belong only to us who live today in 2010. They belong to all future generations."
Not surprisingly, you'll find a page on the Ecumenical Patriarchate's web site dedicated to the environment. You can also hear Bartholomew in his own words, in 1997, stating unequivocally that harming the environment is a sin:

Let us keep Bartholomew I in our prayers as he works to bring about understanding, closeness and ecological awareness.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The price of de-icing

I drove home from Mass this morning as New England's first big winter storm made its entrance. Luckily the roads were bare as the snow began falling. And as I did my pre-storm errands--getting gas for the snow blower, picking up take-out Thai and a good bottle of Shiraz--the plows were out treating with salt and sand to keep the roads as drivable as they are on an August afternoon.

The problem is, we're learning now that road salt use is having a big impact on the environment--on plant life along the roads, on water bodies around them, on the food chain, and the ground water that people drink. And so, what price safety? And might there be better solutions to keep people moving?

A report by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission tells the whole, scary story. But setting the science aside for a moment, here we see (once again) how attempted human solutions to our problems often create new ones. Such is life in a fallen world.

You can be sure that in the coming years, you'll be hearing more about the impacts of our growing use of salt. But to know more, below are snippets of Stephen Hochbrunn's impressive report.
Salt Institute data show that in 2008, the amount of sodium chloride sold for use on America’s roads exceeded 22 million tons, well beyond any previous annual total and almost 10 percent of the average amount of salt produced each year worldwide ... Seen from one angle, a growth in use is nothing to fear, since deicing greatly reduces accidents in winter, and in making roads clear, salt mitigates the financial hit delivered by storms that might otherwise cripple economic activity.

Unfortunately, the chemical makeup that makes salt such an effective deicer also makes it a uniquely persistent presence in the environment.

In the language of chemistry, sodium chloride is highly water soluble, meaning it dissolves readily into water— very helpful when the goal is deicing. But high solubility also means much of the salt applied to a road does not hang around as a separate entity after its work is done, waiting to be picked up and sent to a landfill. Instead salt hitches a ride with the slush created by its melting action. Plows and passing traffic push and splash the salty mix to the side of the road, where some lands directly on roadside plants or percolates into the soil where roots reside. And it is there—on the narrow strips of land to the side of a road—where the environmental impact of road salt first came to light.
In the 1950s, several states, including New Hampshire, began to report that thousands of trees along salt-treated roadways were not only looking sickly but were dying. It turned out the trees were absorbing salt through their leaves and needles, and pulling it out of the soil with their roots. The salt was wreaking biological havoc, stunting the growth of roots and stems. It was not pretty, and it was not environmentally innocuous. Roadside plants help to retain and process pollutants that run off roads; kill the plants, and you kill a key part of the natural buffer zone that helps keep pollutants at bay. 
If salt’s impact was confined to the immediate zone of impact next to a road, that would be problem enough. But trouble also occurs when salt-laden water travels beyond the roadside, which happens with or without vegetation loss. Again, chemistry explains: sodium chloride is made up of sodium and chloride ions, and as ions, they carry a charge—sodium, positive; chloride, negative. When salt dissolves in water, the ions go their separate ways. Of the two, sodium ions are less likely to travel far once the water runs off the road, since their positive charge makes them attractive to negatively charged particles in soil. But chloride ions pass right through soil, and though it may take a while, every single bit of chloride ultimately makes its way to a nearby lake, river, or stream. A 2006 study found chloride levels in the Cascade Lakes in the Adirondacks surged 250 percent in the preceding five years, and were 100 to 150 times higher than comparable lakes elsewhere in the park. The Cascade Lakes are not an isolated case.

For years, researchers across the country have detected rising chloride levels in water bodies large and small. A 1987 analysis of data from sources including the National Water Quality Surveillance System found widespread upward trends in chloride levels in streams nationwide. In 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that chloride concentrations in three New England rivers—the Merrimack, Blackstone, and Connecticut—rose steadily in the past century, with significant increases coming after the 1940s, when road salt use began. Chloride increases are also reported in the Great Lakes; federal monitoring shows levels creeping higher slowly but steadily in Lake Michigan.
Sometimes the increases are so striking, they catch scientists’ attention even when their focus is elsewhere. Aquatic biologist Angela Shambaugh said she was not even considering chloride when she began a project shortly after joining Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Shambaugh’s report includes summaries of other studies on chloride levels in Vermont and western New York waters, and the researchers consistently found chloride rising and fingered road salt as the culprit. Salt sneaks into the environment via other pathways; research has shown high chloride levels in groundwater beneath landfills, due to leaching of salt in food waste and products such as rubber. Water softeners are another source; a single residential system discharges roughly a pound of salt per day. Even all of us as individuals contribute: if we consume the recommended daily amount of salt, we relieve ourselves of nearly three pounds of chloride every year. But in study after study, deicing gets blamed for driving up chloride levels, which are naturally at a minute level in most waters.

“I knew there was a lot of salt being put on the roads,” Shambaugh said. “But it wasn’t until I started looking at the numbers that I realized it could have such an effect.”
Shambaugh’s statement echoes what has been said for years by Gene Likens, founder of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., and recipient of the 2001 National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest science honor. For more than 45 years, Likens has been looking into the effects of human-induced ecological change in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountain National Forest, N.H. Likens and his colleagues at Hubbard Brook were the first scientists to discover acid rain, and his work has earned him enormous respect. In the scientific community, his words matter. And in an article that appeared in September 2005 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, those words could not have been more direct.

In the article, Likens summarized analysis that he and a team of researchers conducted using data from streams in Baltimore County, Md.; the Hudson River Valley, N.Y.; and the White Mountains. The findings: “Chloride concentrations are increasing at a rate that threatens the availability of fresh water in the northeastern United States… Our analysis shows that if salinity were to continue to increase at its present rate due to changes in impervious surface coverage and current management practices, many surface waters in the northeastern U.S. would not be potable for human consumption and would become toxic to freshwater life within the next century.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice

From the Midnight Mass Responsorial Psalm

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.

And with the Good News of Christmas comes a more recent hymn ...

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

All this to say from this Catholic ecologist to you and yours, Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

From Bethlehem, hope is made naturally

The real people in the real town of Bethlehem, Israel, live in world very far removed from familiar Christmas hymns. The region's economy is depressed, and the Christians who live in the birthplace of Our Lord are suffering. The good news is that many of them have banded together to build better lives for their families, and they're doing so mostly out of available natural resources, like wood--as did a famous carpenter from Nazareth some 2,000 years ago.

And so we meet the group called the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans, which, in their own words, is

a non-profit, holistic development initiative formed in 2009 by members of the Bethlehem community.  We want to provide local artisans with access to global markets while also engaging in development projects. Many local craftspeople are the sole providers for their families, but are unable to sell their products at a fair price due to the economic crisis, language barriers and other outside forces. We want to give artisans the opportunity to be connected to the international community within the framework of fair trade, meaning that they get paid a fair price for what they make. By helping the artisans, making more sales and growing the organization; we hope to strengthen other areas of Bethlehem’s economy.  We want to promote recycling, education and food security to help ensure the sustainability of the community. 
You can't help but applaud the industry of these men and women, who, in seeking to build better lives, are doing so in many ways with an eye towards conservation. Many of their hand-made products are created from recycled materials such as wood and glass. And their handiwork is, to put it simply, absolutely beautiful. 

And so this Christmas--and all throughout the year--learn about the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisan group, and help them with your purchases. In doing so, you will be helping the town in which Our Lord was born, as well the creation for which he came to save. You'll also be helping your fellow Christians. Indeed, in one of their informational documents, we read that  
almost all of our producers, when asked what message they want to deliver, say the same thing: “Please support the remaining Christians in Palestine.  We are only asking that you help us by buying our crafts.  We don’t want a handout. We only want to support our families and community by doing the work that we love.”  These Christian artists need your support to remain as “living stones” in the Holy Land.
Here's some of their work: Crosses, embroideryjewelry, olive oil soap, and rosaries, with the wood products made from olive wood. Below is their Christmas message to supporters and the world: 

Dear Friends,
My name is Jiries (George) Canavati.  I am the the Sales Manager of the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans (BFTA) based in Bethlehem, Palestine. I write to send you Christmas greetings from the town where Christ was born, and to ask you to think of us as you celebrate your Christmas wherever you are across the world.
Our non-profit organization operates to give the artisans of Bethlehem, their work force and families, the opportunity to spread their trade world-wide.  These Bethlehem artisans have a wealth of experience when it comes to crafting olive wood and embroidered goods, and developing natural products such as olive soap.  The wisdom of these crafts has been handed down from generation to generation, particularly those who craft olive wood. 
Unfortunately this craft is in danger of dying out for several reasons.  Among them, while the tourist traffic in Bethlehem remains high it is also narrow.  Not all carvers get an opportunity to sell their goods in part because the political situation in the region means that tourists are bused to and from prominent religious sites without a chance to explore the area and meet the people at leisure.  As a result many shops and showrooms have greatly reduced traffic.  Furthermore, effective communication with the tourist population about our needs, and our goods is always a challenge.  To address these needs BFTA has developed a website ( to allow 98 artisans and more to sell their products all over the world.  We could not have done this without your valuable cooperation. 
We received funding help from Swedish sources that established our organization in well-equipped office space, allowing our tireless volunteers space to work and the artisans a location to connect with customers around the world. It is a welcoming location to extend hospitality, and we look forward to hosting more supportive delegation to connect them directly to the producers. The visitors and the locals will have the space to share ideas and expertise for empowering their handicrafts production.  We are always grateful for support and expertise as we seek to develop our organization.
Our region is blessed with a wonderful range of natural and organic products, many special to this area.  We believe they should be available without prejudice because of origin to people all over the world.
We wish you all the best and we hope the year 2011 will be a good one for everyone, and may bring Joy, Love and Peace.
I hope that you will continue to support and promote us through 2011; I look forward to hearing from you, and strengthening our friendship. From the heart of the Holy Land, the artisans, board members, staff we wish you Merry Christmas and a blessed happy New Year.  
We thank you for your continued support to promote,
Peace & Much Love
Jiries (George) Canavati
Sales Manager
Roubina Canavati
Assistant Manager

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Too White a Christmas for "Global Warming"?

Critics of climate change like snow. They like it cold. And all the harsh weather experienced these past few days in Europe is, for them, glorious proof positive that "global warming" is a farce. After all, if Lady Gaga had to cancel her show in Paris because of snow, snow and more snow, then how could anyone say that the planet is warming up?

Here in the real world, where climate and weather are two different realities, the recent amounts of snow and bitter cold suggest that the planet is distributing thermal energy and moisture in new and odd ways. Indeed, a changing climate would probably do just that. So is this all a sign of the new normal? Will places that never had to worry about snow removal--like, oh, airports in Europe and Great Britain--now have to buy plows and salt by the ton?

If so, what is behind the uncommonly (and unwelcome) white Christmas across much of Europe? The AFP explores the questions in a recent article by Marlowe Hood. In part, we read that
new research, however, goes further, showing that global warming has actually contributed to Europe's winter blues.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic -- increasing at two to three times the global average -- have peeled back the region's floating ice cover by 20 percent over the last three decades.

This has allowed more of the Sun's radiative force to be absorbed by dark-blue sea rather than bounced back into space by reflective ice and snow, accelerating the warming process.

More critically for weather patterns, it has also created a massive source of heat during the winter months.

"Say the ocean is at zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

"That is a lot warmer than the overlying air in the polar area in winter, so you get a major heat flow heating up the atmosphere from below which you don't have when it is covered by ice. That's a massive change," he told AFP in an interview.

The result, according to a modelling study published earlier this month the Journal of Geophysical Research, is a strong high-pressure system over the newly-exposed sea which brings cold polar air, swirling counter-clockwise, into Europe.

"Recent severe winters like last year's or the one of 2005-2006 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it," explained Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and a physicist at the Potsdam Institute.

"These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and north Asia," he said.
And so while scientists are still figuring all this out, one thing we know for certain is that something is causing a new kind of messy winter weather in places that aren't accustomed to it. This is causing suffering and impacting economies, which causes more suffering. So a Catholic response is to both use human reason to understand what is going on and to faithfully pray for those whose lives are in turmoil--that is, those either stranded in airports, or the elderly that are isolated in their homes, or the poor who can't afford to heat their homes.

In other words, what's happening in many parts of the globe is not a laughing matter. May God bless and protect all those suffering in so many unexpected ways, and may humankind learn, grow and adapt to the rather odd climatological and meteorological events that it (that is, we) could have very well brought about.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Peter Canisius, and ecology at Canisius College

Peter Canisius (d. 1597), who's feast we celebrate on December 21, seems a worthy patron of our own age. He was a tireless teacher of the faith during a particularly difficult time for the Church. He fought error with logic and love. His passion was for teaching to all--royalty and peasants, scholars and children. For him, rank didn't matter. Truth did. He knew that God's revelation was a gift to all people, and he gave his all to instruct by action and word. One of his most notable quotes resonates strongly with this author: If you have too much to do, with God's help you will find time to do it all.

Come to find out, his namesake Jesuit college, Canisius Collge in Buffalo, NY, has found the time to do very good work in ecology and conservation.

Once again, faith and reason blend nicely in this Catholic institution of higher learning. For instance, here's what they say about their Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation Program ...

"(it) will produce graduates who are experts in the science side of animal behavior, and who are also strongly grounded in the ethical and moral considerations in these disciplines. Canisius College is a national leader in this area by being among the first academic institutions to formally tie the study of animals to ethical considerations." 

Good job Golden Griffs! Keep up the great tradition of blending the Catholic faith with conservation. May Peter Canisius's intercession bring you all much success.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

O (Green) Christmas Tree

If I may interrupt these O Antiphon days of Advent with an alternate "O," I'd like to remind us that Christmas need not be filled with waste, and that there are some wonderful ways we can make Christmas simpler and more meaningful while reducing the mess we leave behind. The Ecology Center's Tips for an Eco-Friendly Holiday Season has some good suggestions for simple time-talent-(and not so much) treasure gift giving; creative and fun gift wrapping, etc.

As for our Christmas Tree--O Christmas Tree--you'll read

It takes 7 to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree, whose useful product life is about one month. Christmas trees are usually grown on tree farms that use large amounts of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers. These toxic chemicals pollute the land and waterways and can poison wildlife. At the end of the Christmas season, the cut tree is disposed of either in the landfill or through a yard waste program.

A better choice is to use a live potted tree that can be used over the years or can be replanted. If you do pick a cut tree, be sure to set it out on the curb for your city plant debris collection day. Lots of people also get creative by making wreaths or dressing up rosemary and other plants in place of a tree.
I was impressed that this group did not come right out and suggest banning all real Christmas trees, but some do. And that's unfortunate. Sure, not every Christmas tree grower is on the up-and-up, and the whole thing stems from a pagan tradition, but still ... a real tree living (whether cut and in water or, preferably, a pot for use again and again) is a beautiful way of reminding us what Christ's entry into human history means for all creation. And for the many among us who don't get to appreciate the great outdoors, for whatever reason, incorporating a live tree into the Christmas season can make one appreciate the glory of nature, up close and personal.

And anyway, are real, cut trees all that bad? Not really.

So trim your live tree free of guilt, sit back, breath deep of the pine, and enjoy. When you're done, make sure to take the tree out of your home in the same way as when you brought it in--without any tinsel or hooks, so that it can be recycled and composted all the more easier, and live on in more than just the quiet joy of fond memories.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Evolution, biodiversity and extinction

Recently announced news showcases cutting edge research about the importance of inter-related species on the evolutionary family tree, and what the loss of some means to others. (And a tip of the hat to one of the researchers, Pablo Marquet of The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, showing once again that faith and reason work well together in Catholic universities the world over.)

But to the topic at hand:
The message from the study, appearing online ahead of publication in Ecology Letters, says lead author Hélène Morlon, is that evolutionary diversity -- the millions of years of evolutionary innovations contained in present-day species -- is more sensitive to extinctions or loss of habitat than long thought. And that, she adds, means conservation efforts really need to take into consideration how species are evolutionarily related.
In other words, as policy makers and conservationists work to slow the planet's dizzying array of extinction, it will be helpful to know how evolutionary, genetic relationships may or may not impact biodiversity. It is research like this that will help save humanity (and untold forms of earthly life) from our ignorance and poor choices. After all, God Himself saw His creations as "very good." The least we can do is understand why, and how, the myriad forms of life He created benefit all others, and why, and how, we can save from extinction as much of that very good life possible. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

A climate of uncertainty

By mid century, the northern islands of Canada and the north coast of Greenland may represent the only remaining region in the Arctic where polar bears and the marine animals that sustain them can survive if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to climb at anywhere near their current levels.
So opens a story by Pete Spotts in the Christian Science Monitor. The piece goes on with updated insights on how current and predicted climate change may shift or destroy the habitats of so many species. Understanding where species may end up settling as our planet's climate changes, and what new predators they may find in their new homes, is part of the never-ending guesswork underway in the climatological and biological sciences.

 Image source: Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
Of course there's a lot of uncertainty about what a changing climate will mean to the earth's lifeforms--including homo sapiens. In fact there is, in general, a good amount of uncertainty about climate change, in part because there are so many factors to consider and mathematical models to be run. This often confuses that laymen. And it can confuse scientists as well. As an example, read the following excerpt from a NOAA weather blog, and note how even forecasting weather in the next 48 hours can be a challenge. (The format of all CAPS is theirs, and don't try to figure out exactly what they're saying, but notice how different computer models don't always agree.)


Now, per that techno-discussion, one thing is sure. There will be weather, and a storm will be in the neighborhood. And in fact, within a few hours of this NOAA posting, the models did begin to coalesce ... but not with complete certainty. And so the point: People sometimes say that because scientists "don't agree" on the particulars of climate change, then climate change itself is likely not real. But that is just not the case. After all, you may be uncertain about the purpose of your life, but that is not the same thing as saying that your life has no purpose.

With regards to climate change, the issue of uncertainty was put best in a report by the US Climate Change Science Program
Uncertainty is not the same thing as ignorance or lack of information—it simply means that there is more than one outcome possible as a result of climate change.
But for now, if you want to add some certainty to your understanding of climate change, visit here. And expect much more to come on these pages. That you can bet on.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cholera in Haiti, charity, and our utility bills

The news from Haiti is dire. Zenit news reports that

The head of the Camillian Mission in Haiti is warning that 200,000 Haitians will die, and 400,000 will be infected with cholera, if the pandemic is not stopped soon.
Cholera is a simple and terrible disease. It's spread by bacteria thanks to poor sanitation. Human wastes infect drinking water, or water used for basic hygiene, which spreads a small amount of infection to a larger population.

In developed countries with modern wastewater treatment systems and drinking water facilities, this disease becomes a story only read about in the news. For too many of our neighbors without basic sanitation, cholera is a painful death sentence, one that may infect them, or those that they love so dearly. The science of all this is clearly understood. More importantly, the charity needed to help our brothers and sisters is equally easy to grasp. 

And so let's both learn about the importance of funding our own public water infrastructure, and not complain about its costs, and let's give of our own wealth to help those who so desperately need it as Christmas approaches.

Benedict XVI expresses solidarity with Colombian landslide victims: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

 Rome, Italy, Dec 14, 2010 / 01:57 pm (CNA).- Pope Benedict XVI has expressed solidarity with the victims of the Dec. 5 landslide in the Colombian town of Bello.

Colombia’s ambassador to the Holy See, Cesar Mauricio Velasquez added that the Pope is urging solidarity with those affected by the torrential rains that have drenched 80 percent of the country.  See full story here.

Example photo of a hill removed of its forest cover, and the result
of a heavy rain. Click on the photo for a larger image.
These tragedies occur over and over in areas like Central America--places of steep mountains covered by a thin layer of dense vegetation. The plant life, when it is allowed to grow naturally, forms a structural base for the soils on steep hillsides. When deforestation, due to over harvesting of wood crops and poor farming practices, removes this vegetation, heavy tropical rains will turn the hills' soils into a rushing, liquid and deadly wave of earth.

May God bless these victims.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Being Dependent on Christ

December 2010

Christmas and the Annunciation have much to teach us about our role in creation. Christ’s entry into human history calls us to echo the Blessed Mother’s “Yes” to God, to align our ways with God’s ways—to willingly take part in the unfolding salvation of our fallen world, even if we don’t always (or precisely) understand what we’re supposed to do.

One thing that we in the twenty-first century certainly understand is that humans are dependent creatures. Much like an unborn child in a mother’s womb, our species lives in a self-contained ecosystem and we can not create what sustains us. We require the radiative energy of our sun and, infinitely more important, the eternal life of the Spirit of God.

All this comes to mind in Verbum Domini, the Holy Father’s recently published reflections on a 2008 meeting of bishops held at the Vatican. The meeting’s theme, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” sought to explore Holy Scripture’s interaction with the current age. One item on the agenda was our relationship with creation.

The Holy Father notes that “engagement with the world, as demanded by God’s word, makes us look with new eyes at the entire created cosmos, which contains traces of that Word through whom all things were made (see Jn 1:2). As men and women who believe in and proclaim the Gospel, we have a responsibility towards creation. Revelation makes known God’s plan for the cosmos, yet it also leads us to denounce that mistaken attitude which refuses to view all created realities as a reflection of their Creator, but instead as mere raw material, to be exploited without scruple.”

Benedict XVI writes that when individuals and cultures don’t view creation as the loving gift of God, humanity will “exploit and disfigure nature, failing to see it as the handiwork of the creative word.”

The Holy Father then quotes the bishops directly: “’’Accepting the word of God, attested to by Scripture and by the Church’s living Tradition, gives rise to a new way of seeing things, promotes an authentic ecology which has its deepest roots in the obedience of faith … [and] develops a renewed theological sensitivity to the goodness of all things, which are created in Christ.’ We need to be re-educated in wonder,” the pontiff adds, “and in the ability to recognize the beauty made manifest in created realities.”

And so this Advent, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, let us question how we may “be re-educated” in our wonderment and understanding of the gift of creation, and our responsibility towards it. In doing so we might heed what science is telling us about our impacts on our climate, about how our consumption can contaminate our air, water, land and even our own bodies. We might pay more attention to the choices made by our elected officials, by our business leaders and by ourselves.

We might decide to consume less or recycle more. We might choose to become more efficient users of energy. We might use public transportation, reusable grocery bags or compost kitchen wastes to make first-rate fertilizer. We might use safer alternatives to toxic household cleaning materials. We might support local farms—the ones that grow food as well as those that supply electricity from wind turbines.

The list goes on. But none of this means anything unless we connect our actions with a fidelity to and love of Christ.

As the Season of Christmas comes this December 25th, let us heed Verbum Domini’s call for an “authentic ecology”— one that sees in our world the Creator’s activity of sacrificial love. Let our Christmas gift to creation be a renewed sense of dependency on, and appreciation of, the very cosmos that God has made and, in the fullness of time, joined with to save.

Look to God alone to restore creation

September 2010

I’ve never understood why people savor September. The pace of life quickens while the amount of daylight shrinks; it’s always the beginning of the end of a year that I’ve known too briefly.

For me, September is a perennial reminder that our world is prone to corruption. Then again, such reminders are useful. From the beginning of the Church—and technically before, as when Peter sought to stay put at the Transfiguration instead of proceeding to what awaited in Jerusalem—we followers of Christ sometimes forget that we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world.

This forgetfulness can result in the presumption that we, by ourselves, can fix all our ills. For those who care about creation, forgetting our fallen nature can delude us into the lie that we need only our wisdom and will to abandon self interest, erase carbon footprints, or recycle and compost all wastes. Eden might seem ours to grasp.

It has been noted, most especially by the Holy Father, that good ecological concerns can easily lead to pantheism or paganism—that environmentalists might find themselves worshipping creation, not the Creator.

And in fact, too strong a confidence in our human (that is, created) abilities can lead to worshipping a creature—in this case, us. As others have noted, such tendencies are behind many radical ideologies, like those of Karl Marx or liberation theologians. For those of us with lesser or more personal ambitions, the heresy of expecting supreme happiness in this world can manifest itself whenever we seek final fulfillment from that next promotion, or that new iphone, or that new love we’ll certainly meet on

Catholic ecologists are prone to such errors as well. We can deny that our efforts in the political, educational and scientific arenas will all too often come to nothing without Christ, His Gospel and His Cross. I dare say, the occasional hour on one’s knees before the Blessed Sacrament will bring abundance to any attempt at environmental advocacy.

Hence, the good news. By keeping our focus on God’s grace, those of us seeking to protect the environment should not be discouraged when we can’t save the day, the planet, or the pond down the street. There will always be setbacks.

And of late, there have been a few: A proposed wind power project near Block Island is mired in legal claims and politics. A much smaller project, to bring solar energy to Christ the King Church in West Warwick, RI was halted by a change in state bureaucratic priorities. On the federal and global levels, science and political ideologies fail to understand each other, and this brings suffering to many ecosystems and economies.

I was once discussing such gloomy eco-political news with a group of confirmation candidates. One of them asked with frustration, “Why are you telling us all this if there’s nothing we can do about it?”

Nothing we can do? I never said that. I told them, and I state here, that there is nothing we can do by ourselves that will bring us closer to Eden. But with God, who is love and relation, all things are possible. Our whole faith—from the promises in Genesis through the cries of the Prophets to the words and deeds of our Lord—points to a restoration of creation, one which will bring lasting harmony, peace, truth and life.

And yes, we have a role in this always blossoming drama. It’s a simple one. We need only stay close to the person of Christ in prayer and sacrament, and we must continually heed those commands to love God and neighbor. Most importantly, as we go about our business, we must never forget Who it was that, in the beginning, made—and has promised to restore—the heavens and the earth and us.

Drill wisely, baby. Drill wisely.

Supporters of oil excavation are fond of chanting “Drill, baby, drill!” Today, critics of the petroleum industry want us to believe that current events in the Gulf of Mexico are the natural consequences of following such advice.

What they forget is that drilling for oil—on land or off shore—has been a reality for many decades, and it has occurred more often than not without incident.

In addition, our cars are fueled by, our lives are festooned with conveniences made from, and abundant technologies exist because of our ability to locate, extract and use reservoirs of this fossilized organic goo that lurks underground throughout the globe. All of this provides jobs for millions of middle class mothers and fathers. Most importantly, increased domestic petroleum use is good not just for our nation’s security, but for the lives of soldiers yet to be born.

Even with full-scale use of alternative energies and maximized energy conservation, we would still need petroleum pumping through the arteries of our infrastructure. And so the question isn’t “should we drill?” Rather, it’s “how do we drill best—and where?”

Here we benefit from the Holy Father’s wisdom in his last letter to the Church, Caritas in Veritate:
“The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole ... In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.” (48)

Catholic ecologists seek a balance between the needs of nature and the needs of man. But we recognize that in our fallen world these needs are often at odds. We lost our harmony with nature when we assaulted that forbidden tree in Eden. It will now be up to the Triune God to restore relations to their proper natural order. Until then, it’s up to us to proceed with life cautiously—but proceed we must.

Yes, the effects of this catastrophe are beyond words. It will take decades—many of them—before ecosystems and economies return to normal, if, indeed, they can. But a series of human decisions preceded this fiasco. Blame is shared with both an oil company that, it seems, didn’t heed safety, maintenance and contingency planning, as well as the federal government—both this administration and ones prior—that didn’t regulate rig owners with requirements to, at the very least, have some idea of what to do when an oil rig collapses, leaving a gushing stub stuck in Earth’s crust.

This is not to say human governance can prevent all tragedies—large or small, natural or man-made. That would be a denial of our fallen human nature. But acknowledging our fallen nature doesn’t mean we resign ourselves to corporate idiocy and sloppy government. We can do much better than the charade unfolding along the Gulf Coast.

This gets back to what the Holy Father has been trying to tell us. Nature is a set of systems and resources that has its own innate dignity while at the same time is available for our proper use. How we use the gifts of Creation is up to us. That we can use these gifts with care for the benefit of all should be self-evident. That we can not always do so perfectly is a tenet of our faith. That we have taken our imperfection to absurd depths in the Gulf of Mexico—and have thus irreparably damaged the lives of many people, creatures and eco-systems—is criminal.

But let us not cower before this man-made disaster. Because for the foreseeable future we will need petroleum. It is there for the taking and the taking can be done with enough care and planning to avoid a man-made disaster as incredible and prolonged as this one. Or, to put it another way, “Drill wisely, baby. Drill wisely.”

Climate researchers are sinners, too

March 2010

Last month, as the science of climate change seemed to have collapsed in a global scandal of sloppy research, a neurobiologist in Alabama shot six coworkers, three fatally, after being denied academic tenure.

Five months ago a court in Seoul, South Korea found a researcher guilty of falsifying results in stem-cell studies; a similar case happened in 2008 at the University of Minnesota. These incidents remind us that politics and sin are as happily at home in the ivory towers of scientific research as they are anywhere else.

For the secular world such news is troubling. Human reason was supposed to liberate humanity from the dark ages. Science was supposed to free us from petty misunderstandings, crusades and confessional wars. Academia was supposed to find rational means to earthly glory—a pill for every disease and a machine for every inconvenience. God would no longer be needed.

But even in atheistic or academic circles there should be little doubt today that something within the Age of Enlightenment has gone wrong. For people of faith—most especially those who accept as a given the fallen nature of humankind—news that all is not well in scientific circles comes as no surprise. Researchers don’t stop being sons and daughters of Adam when granted advanced academic degrees.

Catholic ecologists in particular can attest to this thanks to the recent drama over the falsification of climate change research.

This drama began several weeks before December’s United Nations-sponsored talks on climate change in Copenhagen, when the internet grew white hot with leaked emails and data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain; these emails seemed to counter the legitimacy of climate change.

Then in January the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found itself in turmoil because it had used an interview in an outdoors magazine as principal evidence of disappearing ice on the Himalayans. That claim was soon revised.

Charges by skeptics against climate research continues to mount—and many of these charges are dead on. Still, the larger body of evidence shows us that worldwide climate changes are occurring as a result of increased levels of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide). How or when these changes will impact you or I is largely unclear. Global distribution of moisture and thermal energy is difficult to predict even when the atmosphere’s makeup remains constant—which, because of human pollution, it isn’t.

Of course such scientific minutiae can be debated. But what Catholic ecologists are certain of is that the complexities of modeling global reactions to altered atmospheric compositions are sadly, but inevitably, made even more complex thanks to human sin—be it greed, a hunger for power, madness or simple hubris.

What the current turmoil in climate change science shows us is not that the science is all wrong—that would be wishful thinking. The lesson here is that scientific researchers can be as sinful and stupid as the rest of us. That said, what these people—these sinners—need is not our scorn and disbelief, but our sympathy, our understanding and our prayers.

God alone will judge us in the Final Harvest

December 2009

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home; All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin. God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied; Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.

Towards the end of the church’s liturgical year congregations often sing “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” a Thanksgiving song if ever there was one. But it is so much more. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, as Advent approaches a world still growing dark and ever more cold, this hymn reminds us that it is God alone will save us, or condemn us, in that great final harvest at the end of time.

It is also a hymn that should remind us of our worldly dependence on an often ignored sector of our economy and community: farmers. Of course, this dependence on agriculture is very much related to our faith. Again and again Christ’s parables use agricultural motifs to teach His truth to humankind. The people of first century Palestine, like most throughout all of human history, understood the vital link between farming, human life and those terrifying transcendent forces that made farming and life possible. Or not possible.

In today’s era of hyper-technology and industrialized, commercialized suburban sprawl, our only reminder that the food we buy was grown on a real farm (by real people) are the murals that enclose the produce sections of supersized supermarkets. This separation between ourselves and our food supply is as startling as, and is related to, the ease with which many often live unconcerned with divine judgment.

This separation between consumers and farmers has been skillfully described by author Wendell Berry in his essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” sent to me by Providence College’s Dr. Mathew Cuddeback, who offers a course on the philosophical principles of sound ecology.

Berry writes that “most urban shoppers would tell you that food is produced on farms. But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are, or what knowledge or skills are involved in farming. They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles. For them, then, food is pretty much an abstract idea—something they do not know or imagine—until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table.”

Or, I would add, on the altar.

The messy business of salvation came at a very high price: the life of our Lord. But for many of us, the Eucharist—which begins as wheat and grapes grown on farms—is something of a commodity that one expects to be served up on Sundays but has little to do with the rest of the week, let alone eternity. In Berry’s terms, the question of salvation has become an abstract idea. Christ’s final judgment has to do with some life other than the one I am living; some person other than me.

This brings us back to the substance of our hymn, and its not-so-quaint agricultural references in its later verses: “For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home; From His field shall in that day, all offenses purge away; Giving angels charge at last, in the fire the tares to cast; But the fruitful ears to store, in His garner evermore.”

When sung communally, these images beautifully balance comfort and challenge, as well as the eternal and the present. Such linkage is what good theology (and good hymnology) should do. And indeed, this hymn excels at using our vital dependence on real (local) farms as a reminder of our very real dependence on our Father, whose life-giving Spirit seeks our healthy maturity, so that when our Lord and King returns we each pray His judgment will find us a worthy and ever thankful harvest, one fit to be taken home.