Religious Support for the Environment

A Catholic Nun, a Muslim Imam and a Jewish Rabbi walked into a room. Per the Rabbi, there is no punch line as this is not a joke, as all three came to discuss how their religions support treating the environment well. The discussion was called “Interfaith Perspective on Caring for the Planet.” After viewing a movie called “Stewardship and Lost Rivers,” co-produced by two professors at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which featured numerous religious leaders of various faiths, it is very apparent that each religion supports doing something about man-influenced climate change and treating our environment well for our children and grandchildren’s sake. In fact, Pope Francis will be publishing a position paper that says these very things later this summer, in advance of the next United Nations global meeting in Paris on doing something about climate change.

The Catholic Nun, who is one of 25 Climate Action leaders in the US Catholic Church, was keen on equating poverty and maltreatment of the environment. She noted that people in poverty are more impacted than others due to the placement of environmentally harmful energy sources nearer poor neighborhoods and the inability to easily pick up and move or seek medical help for illnesses perpetuated by pollution and energy waste product. Also, climate change seems to hit impoverished low-lying areas with sea rise and encroachment into farm land and fresh water supplies. In fact, one of the co-producers of “Stewardship and Lost Rivers” who was present used the term “eco-racism” to define the inordinate onus placed on the impoverished.

Yet, each religious leader echoed what was noted in the film regarding the wishes of God, Allah or a supreme being to treat the environment well for future generations. The Rabbi told the story of a man who was planting a tree that would not bear fruit for 75 years. When he failed to attend a meeting with a potential Messiah, he said he needed to finish planting this tree, as a tree bearing fruit was here when he came along and, irrespective of whether this is the Messiah, people will need the fruit from the tree. This is echoed in Deuteronomy where God tells the armies if they must wage war, to avoid cutting down the fig trees, as people will need to eat regardless of who wins.

Each religious leader discussed our need to be good stewards with our resources, in particular, water which is important in all religions symbolically and spiritually, but as well as to survive. I spoke with the Imam afterwards, and he noted because water is so dear in the Middle East, Muslims can use sand instead of water in their prayers. We discussed in Steven Solomon’s book “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” Solomon notes that Saudi Arabia is oil rich and water poor, which will cause huge problems in the not-so-distant future. Sounds like Texas, Oklahoma and California to me.

This topic resonated with me, especially when poverty and the environment were linked. We must do something about man-influenced climate change and its impact on the world. We need to treat our resources of air and water as dear as they are and will become in the future. As noted in the movie, there is no “Planet B,” as this is the only chance we get. We cannot rewind and change what we have done, but we can alter the future course. It is great to see religious leaders, like the Pope and these three folks, embrace the need to act to address our environmental concerns and poverty, as well. We should follow the instructions in our religious texts and join them.

Good governance is needed to protect us from cheating

In our country, it is OK that people disagree. It is OK for legislators to disagree and hold opinions that I do not find appropriate. That is a greatness of our government construct. What I find far less appealing is when legislators cut corners on parliamentary procedures or do not do the right thing when a conflict of interest appears to gain advantage. This short changes the process and makes us less as a result. This is cheating, no matter how you slice it. I will not be speaking about the greater level of cheating and that is following the preferences of wealthy donors and lobbyists. Nor will I address gerrymandering, which puts in office legislators with strident views and insulates them in future elections. Both of these would require their own posts.

Three times in the past year, I have read about or seen a replay of voice votes being conducted by Committee Chairs in the North Carolina General Assembly and US Congress. Voice votes are when the Chair says all in favor say “yes” and all against say “no.” These votes are usually held when they know the outcome will be unanimous or near unanimous. Yet, on these three occasions the Chair, who was in favor of the action, took such a vote on a contentious matter which would have a close vote.

In two of the cases, it was clear the “no’s” won and several folks in the same political party as the Chair said so, but the Chair was predisposed and heard “yes.” When others cried foul, their complaints were not heeded. In the third vote in an US Congressional Committee, the vote followed a very well done impassioned speech trying to give farmers the right to voice their concerns without repercussion against the industry. The industry won in a voice vote, a vote that sounded fairly close and should have warranted a roll call vote. It should be noted that the two votes noted above in NC favored a long-standing industry position.

To further illustrate, we had a former Speaker of the House in NC who led two unsavory votes. On the first, when a legislator realized she had voted wrong, she approached the Speaker to change her vote. Her request was denied and the vote the Speaker favored passed by one. On the second, the Speaker had a tough budget vote. When it passed midnight, he sent everyone home, but told his party to stay close by. He then recalled legislators to the chamber and had a quorum, but many “no” voters were already headed home to their districts and could not return. The budget passed.*

Not to be outdone, we had a former state legislator, who is on record to have participated in two votes where he had a known conflict of interest. He actually had a financial interest in the decision. He did not recuse himself which would have been the ethical thing to do. This is not restricted to NC, where I have seen footage of a Texas legislator who was voting to protect pay-day lenders, while being a marketing person for a pay-day lender. He was admonished on the floor, but that did not stop him from casting his vote.

I recognize fully we have huge problems with money in politics, voter restrictive laws and gerrymandered districts. The money means that the legislator has to win for their funders. The voter restrictive laws and gerrymandering make it easier for them to win an office and stay there. Yet, the money should not permit blatant cheating like the above examples. In each case I mentioned, an industry who had funded a legislator – fossil fuel industry, poultry processing industry, real estate developer industry and pay-day lending industry – each had sway over this politician or the politician had a personal conflict of interest in a vote.

I want to tie these things together, as when you see legislators cheat with parliamentary procedures, it is far worse than Tom Brady’s “Deflategate” cheating with deflated footballs. Brady cheated and is being punished after the fact and his saying that everyone does it is a child’s answer. The greater crimes are noted above.  It is people who have been funded to make votes happen in the favor of the funders. So, we should not say “boys will be boys,” and say everyone does it. We should ask pointedly, why did you cheat like that and who benefits the most? The act of cheating should give you pause about the veracity of the cheater’s position.

* It should be noted we had a previous NC Speaker who accepted a bribe and a previous Governor who got caught up in a real estate boondoggle. So, we have some more tangible cheating issues, but the focus on this post is parliamentary process being short changed to curry favor.

That is what people do

I was re-watching a wonderful movie called “The Book Thief.” The story is about an adopted girl who survives in Poland post the invasion by Nazi Germany. She learns from her step-father (and step-mother) about treating others with kindness and humanity as they hide a Jewish friend in their basement and he speaks out in favor of a half-Jewish man who is being taken away by the soldiers. When she does something similar, her step-mother says “you are just like your father.” When she asks why is that so bad, she adds to her question, by saying “That is what people do.”

In our increasingly adversarial world where helping people becomes harder given the politicization of every issue, we sometimes lose sight of what people do. I often quote Gandhi who noted that a society’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of the least fortunate. In the Christian bible it is noted that “there but by the grace of God go I,” when describing the need to help those less fortunate. And, Jesus noted when you help people who have the least, you are honoring him.

When there is a tragedy, a flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, mudslide,tornado or tsunami, we eagerly help people in need. Yet, today when people are in need because of generational poverty in areas where opportunities do not exist and hope is hard to find, we tend to define groups as less worthy. We seem to look to pat reasons why they are in poverty oftentimes blaming the victims of poverty more than we should or if at all. As I have noted, many of the poor I work with as a volunteer, have multiple jobs and work their fannies off.

We need to look rationally at the conditions that cause poverty and make sustainable efforts to remedy these conditions. This takes a longer level of commitment, as decades old problems can rarely be solved overnight. I ask that we look into our hearts as well as our heads to do what people do and help those in need. Help them find ways to climb ladders out of poverty. But, show the desire to help that we each have smoldering within us.

That is what people do. To do otherwise, is not very humanitarian.

These truths should be self-evident, but many are not

This Monday we get a day off to create a nice long weekend. Memorial Day is a wonderful celebration, but is one where we should honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We tend to promote jingoism, which is an ugly term, to beat on our chests and talk about how mighty we are. Yet, I believe we should honor our valiant soldiers who died fighting our battles, by being truth seekers. We owe it to them to do so.

I believe the following truths are self-evident. If you disagree, I welcome your comments. I am not looking to blame anyone, but learn from our mistakes and realities of the situation. In my view, we cannot address our problems, if someone is telling you the problem is not real and we are so great that we can make any problem go away. In no particular order.

– We went into Iraq with insufficient troops and hardware and without a clear-cut plan for success. General Shinseki actually resigned because of this initial failure. The later “surge” is what Shinseki had argued for in the first place. Winning battles is easier than maintaining the peace, which is what Shinseki noted to his bosses.

– We overreacted to 9/11 and as a result underreacted to Syria and pulling out of Iraq, so says a military historian. Al Qaeda was small in number and now we have a much greater enemy. We are a war-weary country and made many mistakes from the outset and along the way. We had the Iraqi police force fired, many of them later became part of ISIS. This concern was noted at the time of their firing ten years ago.

– Torture of prisoners has made us less safe, because we have grown larger, multi-generational groups of people who do not hold America in high regard. What little intelligence we have gained is dwarfed by this continuing animosity and mistrust.

– The Middle East is a hard to solve conundrum. America cannot win a war that will solve this problem, as proven in Iraq. Again, winning battles is easier than maintaining the peace. We have been fighting in the Middle East for over thirty years and spent trillions of dollars – what do we have to show for this asks another military historian and Vietnam veteran. He noted we did not learn the lessons of Vietnam.

– While many are grandstanding with chest beating opinions, it is good to be negotiating with Iran over limiting nuclear development. The non-diplomatic options are not worth considering as they could lead to a deadly result for many. In any situation, we owe to our troops and to their families to exhaust all other means before we send them to die.

– The same is true for Ukraine which gets lost in the news these days. Vladimir Putin is not a trustworthy individual. We need to continue to hold his feet to the fire as an international pariah. We need to help Ukraine be stronger, but also continue a joint effort to call Putin on the carpet.

– We also owe it to our troops to protect them and their families from predators here at home. Pay-day lenders and expensive and ineffective for-profit colleges have had a license to steal from our military families. The former will get our families into a 1000% annual effective interest rate pretty quickly. The latter spends more money marketing than teaching and graduation rates are in the low teens if that high. Also, the diet supplement business which is largely unregulated (due to some well-funded senators), has led to deaths of many soldiers who bought diet supplements (from on-base stores to aid with their training). You cannot support troops and screw them over like this. It is not right.

We owe it to our troops and their families to make sure we have exhausted other means, before we send them into battle to risk their lives. We owe it to them to have a clear-cut plan for success and a reasonable end strategy. We owe it to them to learn from our mistakes and not placate political egos to gain favor with voters. Finally, remember the quote from the movie “Troy,” when Achilles is consoled by his cousin – war is old men talking and young men fighting. Let’s honor those young men and women and treat them and their families well.

 

 

 

Which energy approach is more cost effective?

Our legislators in North Carolina are debating whether to continue a state solar energy tax credit that has helped fuel our growth in solar power. NC is now the fourth most prolific state in solar energy. The solar boom has also helped with job creation, which is often used to support the arguments for fossil fuel. Yet, with this debate comes the argument we should be agnostic to the energy method and let the market gravitate to the cheaper approach.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, the cost of solar production has continued to decline along with its expansion, and will actually rival the cost of fossil fuel energy production. I have read that a cross-over point is 2018. I find that very exciting, as when that occurs, the cost on a production basis, may favor this renewable energy source.

Second, the above speaks to a comparison of production costs. I have long believed that a true cost comparison has yet to be done which will show the comparative costs of energy options. What has happened with major coal ash spills is a good metaphor as any for what I am talking about. When the residual costs over the lifetime of the energy source are factored in, the cost of using the cheaper production source, may be the more costly source.

A few costs to consider in this equation are as follows – the cost to clean up messes caused by the energy source (coal ash spills, oil spills, e.g.), the added healthcare costs due to a more polluted environment, the cost of water utilization, the costs of environmental degradation, the lawsuits due to the economic havoc wreaked on people and their land, etc. The bad part about this equation is the costs are borne by different people. Oftentimes, the developers get in and out with their profits, leaving the added costs for others. So, often we taxpayers or utility customers are left holding the bag.

Yet, the biggest risk is how much water must we use for each source.  The cost of water utilization is one factor, but the threat of running out of a dear water supply is the greater risk. This is not a pie in the sky concern, as water loss from our water supplies are factored into models for utilities like Duke Energy.

So, let’s look at the real cost of energy production, not just the current cost. My hypothesis is we may be pleasantly surprised that the cheaper cost is the one best for us and our health. With climate change and water utilization being major concerns, I would strongly argue the need to incent the migration to more healthful and environmentally sound renewable energy

The Wizards of Oz

One of the most telling scenes from the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” is when Dorothy and friends discover that the wizard is not all that he is cracked up to be. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” says the very mortal wizard through a distorting microphone. This scene is indicative of what is happening with great ease in our society much to our detriment. The “wizards” behind the curtain are people of great wealth who constitute an oligarchy of individuals and companies that are actually dictating the information we receive and who we should vote for. The distorting microphone and frightening wizard persona is, in essence, represented by their Public Relations (PR) people.

These PR people are well paid because of their ability to influence consumers like you and me. We tend to buy what they are selling. This has always been the case, but now it so easy for them as they are funded by industry or individuals through super-PACs or corporate marketing budgets. There is an excellent movie on the havoc that can be wreaked by PR people in the movie “Merchants of Doubt.” A link to an article in a San Antonio online news is as follows: http://www.sacurrent.com/sanantonio/americans-revealed-as-willing-suckers-in-merchants-of-doubt/Content?oid=2423641

In short, these well paid PR people are paid liars. There really is no better way to put this. They are often given the more politically correct term of “spin doctors,” but that does not do justice to what some of them do. I am more than OK with public relations people who do their best to tell a positive story based on factual information. In other words, helping companies put their best foot forward. As a business person, I have actually engaged people to help my company tell our story. But, we did not ask them to lie or distort the truth as that would have been a disservice to our clients. Yet, the folks I am referencing care little about the underlying message and the detriment it causes.

A dilemma we face is with our smaller attention spans, limited news budgets and conflicts of interests, news agencies that seek out and report verifiable truths are few in number. Some even rely on these PR agents to be subject matter experts, as presented in “Merchants of Doubt.” These PR people can contrive a more understandable story to countervent a scientist who has spent a lifetime on an issue, but cannot break his or her message into a sound bite. One of the more troubling things about the movie “Merchants of Doubt” as highlighted in the San Antonio article is one of the PR people actually brags on his ability to defeat scientists in arguments because he says they are “boring.” A sad truth is also shown in the movie is some of these scientists actually receive death and harmful threats at the directions of “paid liars” like this guy.

How do we combat these highly effective PR people and their underlying “Wizards of Oz” who pay for their services.

– Watch, read or listen to credible news sources – PBS Newshour, BBC World News America, NPR, The Guardian, Al Jazeera News et al are reputable sources who discuss issues in-depth and often with subject matter experts. Also, read editorialists you do not agree with as they will help confirm or shape your beliefs. I have changed an opinion or reconfirmed an opinion by reading someone who shares the opposite view.

– When a politician, pseudo-news person, or leader uses labels (Nazism, Socialism, Tree-Huggers, Apartheid, Slavery) in an attempt to discredit something or limits debate over a topic (as Governors Scott and Walker did in Florida and Wisconsin over the use of the terms climate change or global warming), dig further into argument. These tactics are generally used when the labeler or squelcher’s argument is not sound.

– Ask questions of politicians. Politicians know less than you would think and hope, plus they are beholden to funders who tell them how they should vote. Why did you change your vote or opinion? Why do you believe that when more people do not? Do you expect us to believe what you just said? Remember the words of Senator Jon Kyl, when caught in a lie when he responded “You should not confuse what I am saying with the truth.”

– Get involved. We have major issue facing our planet and country around climate change and eco-energy issues, poverty issues, and corruption issues to name a few.  There are more corrupt places than in the US, but we have monied influences that dictate what they want. These Wizards of Oz are akin to the Robber Barons that President Teddy Roosevelt fought so hard against.

– When you hear something inane in conversation or on Facebook, ask the person do you really believe that? Or, maybe you could say, “that is an interesting viewpoint. I personally do not share that opinion.” Be civil in your discourse, but it is more than OK to counter an argument. I do my best, but fail sometimes, to focus on the argument or issue. I use Senator Kyl’s name above as an exemplar as this line is on the public record.

We all need to channel our inner Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion’s and seek the truth. That is the only way we can countervent the “Wizards of Oz,” and their well-paid “Merchants of Doubt.”

America is one big pothole – stupid is as stupid does

In January, 2014, I wrote the blog “America is one big pothole” after seeing former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on PBS Newshour. They have joined together for a bipartisan effort to promote much needed investment in our crumbling infrastructure – roads, bridges, railways, ports, etc. and have been in front of Congress to discuss these needs. Fifteen months later, not much has been done about the growing problems, and at the end of this month, our stop-gap funding of the Highway Trust Fund will expire one more time.

The Amtrak accident has caused people to recognize the need, but to be honest politicians do not need anymore wake-up calls. They are fully informed of the problems, but choose not to do anything about it. Their lack of stewardship is not a surprise, but in this case, people have died and will die from their failure to act. The interesting sidebar to this is any investment in infrastructure will create jobs and, as you may recall, that was supposed to be the number one mission of this and previous Congresses. These jobs will dwarf the jobs that could be created with a Keystone Pipeline, for example, and certainly deserve more attention than many of the items discussed in the chamber of Congress.

As reported on a repeat episode on “60 Minutes” last night, this is one issue that the leaders of the US Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO labor union agree on. Both were in front of Congress last fall to plead with them to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. Yet, the leaders of these Congressional Committees refused to be interviewed and will not act. And, fifteen months after the following post and six months following these pleas by the US Chamber and AFL-CIO leaders, not much has happened.

The Speaker of the House has reacted with criticism over linking the Amtrak train derailment with a lack infrastructure investing. He even stated the question as “stupid.” I recognize, as do many, that this accident is likely due to excessive speed. But, one of the investments would have added a breaking system that may have kicked in. One thing is for certain, a question about failing to invest in our infrastructure is not “stupid.” What is “stupid” is failing to act when the information to do so is so compelling and business and labor are pleading for action.

Just a quick example from the “60 Minutes” episode re-aired last night. A key railway bridge has 500 trains per day crossing it, the most heavily used railway bridge in the western hemisphere. This bridge is on the most traveled rail line in the country from Boston to New York to Philadelphia. If this bridge goes, it will not be an accident. It will be an accident waiting to happen that could be prevented.

There are other arguments noted in the attached post. Please join with me and write your Congressional representatives and ask them to act. In fact, we should tell them to act as their lack of stewardship is beyond poor. Using the Speaker’s word, their failure is “stupid” and we will be the ones who pay for their stupidity.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/america-is-one-big-pothole/