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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The dangers of rigid ideologies

I came across “Has Progressivism Ruined Environmental Science?” in the online publication American Thinker, which—from the advertising that populates it and the comments posted—seems to veer “right.” But as I am not a regular reader, I do not know this to be the case.

Still, the commentary by Anthony J. Sadar is a critique of the industry known as environmental protection. His concern is that the field has become too “progressive” and, as such, is not challenged from within by alternate views. This, he says, is dangerous for seeking truth.

He’s correct. But he’s not entirely on the money.

First, as an environmental regulator myself, I do appreciate one point he is making:
In my thirty years of work in the science arena, as a government scientist, an industry consultant, and an academician, I have witnessed an increasingly adverse influence of progressivism on the practice of science. This influence has been especially visible in my specialty, environmental science (with a focus on air-pollution meteorology).
Amen, brother. From my own experiences, I know that the ecological vocation tends to attract left-leaning ideologues and that they champion other causes common to the left. So be it. Perhaps this is akin to how, say, the armed forces tend to attract right-leaning ideologues.

In my own eco-industry world, some of my dear friends seem frustrated that because of my ecological credentials I am not also pro-abortion, or pro-same-sex marriage, or that I do not favor big government (even if I work for one). So, yes, I believe that Mr. Sadar is correct in his point about the general worldview of ecology.

But then he expresses concerns with the matter of climate change and I wish he hadn’t tethered his argument so much to the past sins of a few researchers. After all, as I’ve written about earlier, sin is one thing we all have in common, and climate researchers are sinners, too.

Then again, I do not understand the political right’s obsession with disproving the general acceptance of climate research—that is, how well-defined trends in various data sets are aligned with climate-change modeling and hypotheses. It's as if some on the right reject climate change science only because so many on the left laud it.

But also, in agreement with Sadar, I do not understand why so many on the political left can be so uncritically accepting of what they’re told about how anthropomorphic climate change is occurring, and what effects it will have. In fact, sometimes it seems that they wish harm on the human race. And allow me to confess this: occasionally I sit in meetings to discuss climate change and sea level rise and wonder, what if we’re wrong—even just a little? I suppose I should speak up, but then I can’t help but think, what would people think? Would they dismiss me? Would they discredit me? Would I be invited back? It's not that I reject that we are witnessing anthropomorphic climate change—far from it. But sometimes it would be nice to talk about it openly. And I don't think that we are allowed to—which is exactly Sadar’s point.

But either way, right or left, I am impatient when any scientist (or anyone of any vocation) must fit their worlds into neat packages of human political ideology. That limits one’s horizons, which makes no sense.

Then again, I am Catholic, and I do not describe myself as left or right, liberal or conservative, or what have you. I suppose if anything, I am Augustinian. That is, I'm a-political because no political party or ideology has the fullness of truth to offer.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What sailing teaches us about our environment, and our faith

August 2011

"What I love about sailing is it makes you pay attention to everything in the environment around you.” So noted my friend David Kane as he worked the sails of the Able, his sturdy Stone Horse sloop.

David is an instructor at Newport’s Navy base and he’s responsible for my maiden voyage on Narragansett Bay—indeed, my first sail ever. Having finally accepted his long-standing offer to see the world from the water, I and another friend joined David on a post-card-perfect Ocean State summer afternoon. You couldn’t ask for a better first sail, even if I did ram the ship’s newly painted hull with the dingy while boarding, but that’s another story.

By the time we came ashore six hours later, the sun had set over Jamestown, the moon had risen over Fort Adams and, with much guidance, I—the clumsy land lover—had steered the Able and my friends around Gould Island and tacked a few times back and forth across the East Passage. It was the first time I saw the underside of the Newport Bridge—and we did it twice. I learned a little of how those red and green lights try to protect you as they pulse on the water; I learned how to make a sailboat go where I wanted, and how to keep it safely from where it shouldn’t go.

David was right. Sailing makes you respect your environment. It’s an experience I recommend for all.

When sailing, you sense that creation is hardwired for humanity to be at home in the space where wind meets water—those primal elements spoken of in the first words of Holy Scripture. Intuitively, the human mind—even an inexperienced one like mine—comprehends the relationship between rudder, sail, wind and current. The Able’s creator, the well respected Massachusetts yacht designer Sam Crocker, clearly knew something of the mind of God.

When sailing, you learn the nature of a community—whether it’s the shared responsibilities of three people on a boat or the good-natured communication with those on crafts passing by. Everyone is everyone else’s friend on the water because everyone’s life depends on it.

Of course, I was reminded of the quality of our waters, something near to my heart, as it is the mission of my office at the Department of Environmental Management. Clean water becomes all the more appreciated when coasting along its depths—when its spray swirls around you and you breathe it in.

And certainly, I couldn’t help but think of those first disciples who caught fish before they were fishers of men. Their experiences on the water helped formed their nature. God’s grace elevated their sea-faring nature, allowing them a role in founding the universal church, which is our great ship of salvation, steered always by the Holy Spirit.

As you can tell, in small but analogous ways that six-hour sail elevated me. For forty-seven years I’ve explored the shores of Jamestown and Newport, crossed Narragansett Bay on bridges and admired it all from the safe distance of land. When sailing, however, those familiar landmarks and seemingly disconnected places—Beavertail, downtown Newport, the nighttime brilliance of Quonset Point and the far distant glow of Providence—were now seen as they really are: a landscape of distinct places that exist in intimate union. They, like we, are in relation to each other.

Sailing, I’ve concluded, is very Catholic. It makes you well aware of your environment; it joins worlds and peoples and it teaches you that there are rules to follow that are not yours to change—even if it seems that you can or should. Sailing shows us that our individual lives and journeys are in relation with each other and with God. Indeed, like the open ocean I glimpsed well beyond the East Passage, there is much that is outside of us—much that calls to us. Only in choosing to trust and journey outward are we ever able to know what it means to be human.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What's missing in Pew Research vs. the poultry industry

The Pew Environment Group and the poultry industry are in a bit of a tiff.

The debate began with Pew’s recent study of pollution from large-scale poultry producers. The summary on the Pew website notes that
“in just over 50 years, the broiler industry has been transformed from more than one million small farms spread across the country to a limited number of massive factory-style operations concentrated in 15 states,” said Karen Steuer, who directs Pew’s efforts to reform industrial animal agriculture. “This growth has harmed the environment, particularly water, because management programs for chicken waste have not kept pace with output.”
The summary then gives these statistics:
  • In less than 60 years, the number of broiler chickens raised yearly has skyrocketed 1,400 percent, from 580 million in the 1950s to nearly nine billion today
  • Over the same period, the number of producers has plummeted by 98 percent, from 1.6 million to just over 27,000 and concentrated in just 15 states.
  • The size of individual operations has grown dramatically. Today, the typical broiler chicken comes from a facility that raises more than 600,000 birds a year.
The Pew report—which in particular studied nutrient loading into Chesapeake Bay—has a few feathers flying at the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, which released a scathing statement in response. Here’s a sample:
The report's critique is terribly misplaced, and once again demonstrates Pew's bias against modern farming practices. The poultry community has already taken meaningful steps to further reduce nutrient impacts on the environment. The sources of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay and other watersheds are ubiquitous. EPA acknowledges the positive steps agriculture has implemented in reducing its environmental footprint in the Bay region, even as the nutrient contribution from non-agricultural sources continues to grow.
You can read the report and the response for yourselves, as well as some of the media coverage (here, here, or here). What gets lost in all this back and forth is, usually, the truth.

As a regulator myself—and a Catholic one—I find it nearly impossible to hold any group, industry or individual in either the “all good” or “all bad” category. Our fallen human nature keeps most of us from ever being completely selfless, although we do often try—and by “we,” I mean even the people at big corporations.

I’ve seen local communities, local public employees and volunteers excel and sacrifice for the common good. And I’ve seen others only care about themselves. I’ve seen corporations (large and small) care more about the bottom line and their corporate image than anything else, and I’ve seen others go well out of their way at significant cost to simply and quietly be good neighbors and good stewards of the environment.

My point is that we should not always assume that big business is inherently evil—even when they’re not always good—nor should we given them license to do what they will just because they employ many, many workers. And we should not forget that there is such a thing as the environmental protection industry, and it, too, can be big business.

In other words, there is a pastoral element to conflicts like the one between Pew and the poultry industry. Both groups have something to offer mankind. But if one or the other can only see the world in black and white—with the bad guys always being the other guys—then the only people to benefit will be the news outlets.

I think of a statement in Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum. Here he’s speaking of labor and management, but the sentiment applies just as well to professional environmentalists and the industries they monitor:
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.
May God bring cooperation and solutions to the many good (but not perfect) people at Pew and the poultry industry. May God grant that they, we and all creation benefit from their mutual respect and fraternal efforts.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The hypocrisy continues . . .

Once again, media reports on the dangers to unborn children—and the moms that carry them—dodge an important issue: Why are we so concerned about “fetal development” when so many in our culture support abortion?

Today's news from the University of California, published in the online version of Environmental Science & Technology, examines banned chemicals used in flame retardants that are turning up in pregnant women. Here’s a clip from a story in the San Francisco Chronicle:
The data, while preliminary, also found a relationship between thyroid hormone disruption in women in their second trimester of pregnancy and exposure to once-common flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. Most PBDEs are no longer in use today but persist in the environment.
"Maternal thyroid hormone during pregnancy plays a critical role in fetal brain development, especially during early pregnancy," said Ami Zota, postdoctoral fellow at UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and lead author of the study. "Even moderate disruption of thyroid hormone can have a long-lasting developmental impact on her child, including (attention deficit disorders) and reduced IQ."
The good news is that the researcher uses the term "child," and the paper printed it.

But as covered in these pages repeatedly (here and here and here), a good many people that rightly find such news terrifying hypocritically support abortion. But such contradictory thinking can’t last long. Over time, such studies will remind people of what exactly grows inside the nurturing womb of a pregnant woman.

Perhaps, we pray, that such a recognition will be embraced soon—and that all life will be allowed a chance to live and grow, free from toxins and the lethal tools of abortion providers.