Friday, June 26, 2020

This is not normal

No One Must Be Left Behind
Dennis Testerman, PEC Moderator

“Affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” 1

“We cannot go back to normal!” So reads a poster held by a youth member of XR Youth Charlotte in a photo of a virtual protest posted on social media. Back to normal? No way! Because “normal” has not been working. Not for people of color. Not for the millions living in poverty. Not for endangered species facing (the 6th) extinction. Not for a warming planet dangerously close to the point of no return due to a changing climate. Who can argue that materialism, militarism and racism--and now COVID-19--are not infectious diseases of our time that must be addressed if there is any hope of healing for the land?

Like many churches and organizations, Presbyterians for Earth Care continues to engage with the intersectional issues of this moment in time through an ongoing, intentional process of action and reflection. We strive to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Faced with unprecedented choices between life and death, we choose life. Earth care at its best is health care.

Twenty-five years since our founding, Presbyterians for Earth Care’s commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion remains rooted in the core belief that all Creation is good. Our strength as humans is in our diversity. Each and every one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). And the best measure of wealth on the planet is the rich biodiversity all around us. This one, precious earth is beautiful and bountiful.

As people of faith, we can return to our creation narratives for reminders of why we are here. According to the biblical creation narratives, we are here to serve and preserve Creation (Gen. 2:15). We are all created to be essential workers. Not unemployed. Not underemployed. We need all hands on deck. No one must be left behind. No one.

Earth care at its best is also self care. And so we spend our days these days birding. And gardening. We enjoy feasts for our eyes and for our mouths. We plant trees. And native plants. And heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. We transform lawns into wildlife habitats and foodscapes. In the process, we build topsoil and increase organic matter by composting and mulching. And we do this work alongside children and youth, ever mindful of future generations that are also our neighbors.

And finally, in this election year, we advocate. We vote. Most of all, we hope.

1 John DeGraaf, David, Wann and Thomas H. Naylor. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2001, 2002.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Carbon Offsets for Planting Trees

Replanting the Tree of Life

by Jed Hawkes Koball

It really is blue! It only took about three days of lockdown in Lima to see the sky again. And, it is blue! Anyone who has been to Lima knows we have pretty bad air quality. On a good day with regular traffic flow, I can see an outline of the first ridge of mountains facing due east from my apartment. Today I can see as far as the third and even fourth ridge. While certainly an understatement to say that these are incredibly stressful times for us humans, for the Earth it must feel like jubilee. As my heart pains for the sick, the dying, and those with no income and little food security, my heart also fills with joy for the mountains and rivers and those blue skies out my window. If this tension does not feel right, it´s because it is not. The life of one must not depend on the sacrifice of the other. 

For nearly two decades our global partner, Red Uniendo Manos Peru – an ecumenical network of Peruvian NGO´s and churches - has been fighting poverty with a deeply held belief that such human injustice (the lack of health and food) stems from a long broken relationship between humans and the Earth. Much of this work has evolved out of years of accompanying families from the Andean town of La Oroya, often considered to be one of the ten most contaminated cities in the world where nearly 99% of the children have been shown to have extreme levels of toxic metals in their bodies due to emissions from a massive metallurgical complex once owned by a billionaire investor from New York. While the political advocacy of our partners has focused on specialized health care and the enforcement of adequate environmental protections, a more deeply seeded movement has been growing to teach and embrace more responsible living to restore the Earth – and more importantly, renew our relationship with the Earth. 

Mama Toya
In the community of Villa El Sol, on the outskirts of La Oroya, 84-year old Victoria Trujilla – better known as Mama Toya – has been leading an effort to re-forest the hillsides of the communal land she helps care for. As Mama Toya will note, remediating the toxins and restoring nutrients to the soil is only half of the problem. The other issue is climate change. The Andean glaciers, the source of water for the vast majority of the country, are melting. The vision she shares with her team of conservationists is to harvest water in the hills, remove the heavy metals with native plants, and make the land fertile again. La Oroya and surrounding areas were once pastures and agricultural lands that helped form the bread basket of Peru. Today, it is a food desert, making the cost of living much higher than elsewhere in the Andes. Children poisoned with lead and mercury are sustained by papas fritas and Inka-Cola. At 84-years of age, Mama Toya knows her work is for the next generation, yet she also knows that the work she does is what gives her life today. 

Presbyterians have been supporting the work of Mama Toya and Red Uniendo Manos Peru for most of these past twenty years. Often, they have visited with one another – both in the US and in Peru. Relationships have formed. Commitment has been deepened. About a year ago, following a visit from Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery with Mama Toya and friends in Villa El Sol, a conversation ensued about responsible living in the context of climate change and a poisoned Earth. We looked at our carbon footprints, and we quickly saw that the very travel – specifically, air travel - that strengthens our relationships was also undermining our shared vision. Further conversation and research taught us that the best technology to capture the carbon dioxide emissions we were contributing to is none other than the tree. And thus, a vision emerged: 

Red Uniendo Manos Peru adopted a policy to charge a small fee to each visitor from the US for their in-country air travel while in Peru. The idea was to establish a tree fund to support the work of Mama Toya and other reforestation and forest protection projects being implemented by partner organizations in Peru. Shortly thereafter, I shared this initiative with the newly formed Peru Mission Network (a collection of Presbyterians from across the US who are interested in God´s Mission in Peru) at its inaugural meeting in Webster, TX on the outskirts of Houston in October of last year. As this was a gathering of folks who would be most impacted by the financial aspect of the plan, I was anything but confident in sharing the news of our global partners. Yet, to my joyful surprise, the gathering not only applauded the decision, they embraced it so fully that they developed their own plan – not just for themselves – but for the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

On behalf of the Peru Mission Network, I present to you the Presbyterian Tree Fund! At the initiative of the Peru Mission Network and with the support of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Presbyterian Tree Fund overture has already been approved by Scioto Valley Presbytery and concurred by New Covenant Presbytery and Monmouth Presbytery. However, as the 224th General Assembly will not be addressing overtures, it will have to wait until the 225th General Assembly to be perfected. You can read the full text and rationale of the overture below. 

Yes, air travel has nearly come to a halt in recent months. Yes, there are urgent needs of health and hunger that must be addressed right now. Yes, we must find a responsible way to get the global economy up and running again, which in some form or fashion will include increased air travel. But, in all this, I believe our hearts and minds are big enough and strong enough to also imagine a new way forward – a new way of co-existing, a new way of sharing this one Common Home entrusted to us all. A Presbyterian Tree Fund is hardly a solution, but it is a responsible step for us to take in a still globalizing world in which we can deepen our relationships with our global partners and strengthen the work we share. 

Overture to General Assembly to 
Create the Presbyterian Tree Fund

The Presbytery of _____________________ overtures the 224th General Assembly to direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA”), no later than June 30, 2021, to develop and implement a carbon offset program for carbon emission generated as the result of work related air travel by personnel of the PMA, that includes the following components:

1.     The PMA will establish a “Presbyterian Tree Fund” administered by the Compassion, Peace and Justice office of PMA, in collaboration with the Presbyterian World Mission office and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation board, which shall hold carbon offset donations that are received, and fund grants for tree-planting and other climate-friendly projects;
2.     For every flight taken by personnel of the PMA, a specific dollar amount calculated based on generally-recognized standards would be taken from the travel budget of the staff person´s work area and transferred to the Presbyterian Tree Fund. 
3.     Presbyterians throughout the church (including but not limited to commissioners to General Assembly, attendees at Ecumenical Advocacy Days, Presbyterians traveling to mission network meetings, and participants at Presbyterian-Sponsored conferences) will be invited to voluntarily contribute to the Fund to offset their own carbon emissions related to their own air travel, and/or to contribute to reforestation efforts on a global scale above and beyond any relation to their air travel or other greenhouse gas emissions. 
4.     The Compassion, Peace and Justice office of PMA in collaboration with the Presbyterian World Mission office, together will identify global partners, U.S. Presbyterian entities (local congregations, presbyteries, synods) and partner projects engaged in reforestation programs, and other carbon sequestration projects eligible to apply for funding from the Fund to support and expand their reforestation efforts or may determine that a existing program could adminster this initiative.
5.     The Compassion, Peace and Justice office of PMA will report to all future General Assemblies regarding disbursement of funds from Presbyterian Tree Fund and the impact of such disbursements on reforestation efforts.


This overture seeks to offset carbon emissions due to work related air travel by personnel of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and support the ongoing work of PC(USA) partners in addressing climate change by establishing a fund within the Presbyterian Mission Agency to support reforestation efforts of PC(USA) global partners and other Presbyterian entities in the United States. 

Greenhouse gases generated by human activity are almost unanimously considered to be the cause of global warming and climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions from air travel constitute approximately 2% of all such human generated greenhouse gases. The carbon emissions attributed to a single passenger on one mid-range flight are greater than the average annual carbon emissions attributed to individuals in many of the countries of PC(USA) global partners. Some of these countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Any efforts to curb climate change must include reducing human generated greenhouse gas emissions and amplifying efforts to remove such gases from the air. Trees surpass any human made technology in their efficiency and capacity to extract carbon dioxide from the air. Reforestation not only helps to mitigate climate change, in many cases it also helps adaptation to climate change because of trees´ capacity to hold water in the soil. The creation of a Presbyterian Tree Fund would provide a mechanism through which the Presbyterian Mission Agency could continue its travel intensive work more responsibly while also strengthening its global partnerships and stimulating passion for the care of God´s Creation. 

Rev. Jed Koball is a PC(USA) mission co-worker who serves as the Presbyterian Hunger Programs Facilitator for Joining Hands in Peru. He serves with his wife, Jenny Koball, who is the site coordinator of the Young Adult Volunteer Program in Peru. They live in Lima with their three year old son Thiago. 

Kairos is Now

Kairos is Now

by David Paul Siegenthaler

Paul Tillich once said that if Christianity ever dies in America, it will die in the American suburban church…not under attacks from without, but of its own respectability.”

Most of us, and all of us collectively, have been trapped in a worldview that is out of touch with reality.  Sure, we have known the problems we have caused for some time. The Biblical record is replete with reflections on our problematic relationship with the land and peoples. The centuries are packed with awakenings to harm and reckonings with the consequences. As long ago as 1864, George Perkins Marsh spoke of his discoveries of anthropogenic climate change (albeit not on a global scale) in his book Man and Nature.  The concepts of pollution, overpopulation, habitat destruction, and the recognition of our reliance upon biogeochemical processes of life, and complex interrelationships within ecological communities, were not born on the first Earth Day in 1970.  Our demise has been noted for centuries. Our science has advanced our knowledge of how things work and what fixes are needed. But we have known, and we think, technically with the view that the earth is at our disposal to manipulate as we will.  This technical worldview has produced at least six errors in our perception of the world and our place in it.

First, it has led us to believe that a technical fix can be devised for any of our big problems and that the fix will allow us to get back to normal – to consume and live the profligate life to which we have become accustomed.  

Second, it has conditioned our minds to assume that all that is needed to achieve a sufficient remedy is greater scientific understanding. One of the greatest errors that any educational approach can make is to assume that knowledge contains within it an intrinsic moral valence – that a grasp of scientific facts naturally translates into correct action. And with that, to ignore the fact that moral agency is already in play as we choose certain methods to gather data and to come to conclusions directed by certain commitments that constantly act to interpret data, experience and phenomena so that they are coherent  with and reinforce the worldviews defining framework.  This delusion has been exhibited in some widespread environmental education curricula which have claimed to teach people how to think, not what to think” while uncritically presenting arguments, ostensibly representing a range of perspectives but with varying degrees of objectivity, that are biased in favor of a particular conclusion. Usually the one favored by the corporate sponsor. 

Third, it has blinded us to the narrow self-interest and limitations that are inherent to human being in favor of a concept of humans as limitless in our ability to objectively comprehend the complexities of life. 
That we are still caught up in the self-serving, technical, objectifying worldview is evidenced by the language we use which is still dominated by commercial, extractive and domineering terms such as resources” (even in preservation agencies), gross domestic product,” “customer service” (even for government services), and stewardship” (even that which recognizes the need for solidarity with all life), and which uses language that is deceptive and inaccurate, such as recyclable”, Green” and sustainable.” It also so honors wealth that it accepts philanthropy in exchange for a meaningful critique of how wealth is generated.

Fourth, it has prevented us from seeing the humanity in other humans and in recognizing kinship with other creatures. The need for such recognition is not merely to satisfy an aesthetic, but to relate in ways that honor the ontological reality of mutual interdependence.  

Fifth, it has kept us from knowing ourselves as integral members of ecological communities with which we have co-evolved, and prevented us from exploring our calling as responsible members of those communities. 

Sixth, it prevents us from achieving our full humanity through experiences and expressions of the force and compulsions of the love that embraces others, and it fails to comprehend the fundamental role that love and loving relationships play in the humanity to which we are called. Significantly, it utterly fails to recognize the essential role love plays in moral discernment and the quest for knowledge, greater understanding (including technical knowledge) and its role in choosing how to act. So even though it may recognize love as a human emotion capable of compelling action, it misses entirely the role of love in the quest for understanding. And so the frequently cited quote from Baba Dioum is backwards, In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Although the conclusion may be right, the danger in this thesis is in thinking that love is a product of a technical knowledge, rather than the force that drives the entire process of understanding and action.  It all starts with love – love that is known in relationships. I believe the  progression more properly starts with first-hand contact, a sense of wonder, and a feeling of belonging. There is no way to achieve full understanding without the force of love.

But must we resign ourselves to such a constricted world view? What does it take to escape it? Not a technical knowledge – we can see the failure of that to solve the worlds big problems all around us. That much has been visible and recognizable to us for quite some time. It should be enough to lead us to repent for the damage we have done. But world views are hard to crack. It takes a breakthrough – a glimpse of something transcendent that gets us out of our mental traps and allows us a glimpse of an alternative reality – an alternative future. That time is now! Weve been counting the passage of time that now prevents us from enacting business as usual and satiating our appetites as if it is a burden and an affliction. In some sense it is certainly that – there are victims who suffer tragically. But while we must recognize and respond to that, we might also consider that waiting out the passage of time is not our most important task. Perhaps recognizing that this is a special time is.  This is not chronos were waiting on, but a Kairos moment – a special time when we are enabled to recognize truths beyond the world view of the status quo. We need to pay attention now.

Things are opened up, revealed to us now. This is both a time of crisis and a time to embrace the reality that more clearly, more viscerally, engulfs us, and to respond with the love that is within and around us. Lets take stock of some of  things that we can see more clearly now:  First, it is the more vulnerable among us who suffer the most – the weak, homeless, impoverished, the immigrant. Weve known this for a long time, but it now hits home in a new, profound way.  Second, our economic system is not geared towards mutual support as much as it is for the survival of individualists and people of wealth. Third, our health care systems are not designed to meet the needs of all. Basic health care should be guaranteed to all and our best collective effort should be organized through agents that are not motivated by profit but by public service. Fourth, but perhaps primarily, we have a better sense of how interconnected we are with all the peoples of the earth. There is no sense in, or possibility of America First” because it is self-destructive as much as it is harmful to other nations and peoples. Fifth, global climate change is upon us, and the only sufficient response to that now will be a concerted global response characterized by mutual support and solidarity. Sixth, I remember  Aldo Leopolds saying, because it seemed to express my own feelings that One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”   It seemed to me that much of what was recognized long ago as ecological harm with severe implications for the future generally had little impact on the worldview whose focus was extraction, consumption and manipulation. Despite some real progress in social and ecological justice, we achieved little in the way of deep ecological understanding and connection, and the educational responses were by-and-large coopted by the extraction industries that would have the most to lose under a healthier worldview.  It should be apparent to all that we live in a world of wounds now.

But what have we seen lately? Some report that the air in urban areas is cleaner than before. That wildlife is seen with greater frequency and in greater abundance.  There is a sense that the earth is taking a breather while we, for the moment, relax our stronghold and our incessant dismembering and polluting. Go outside – find any wild place, pay attention, experience it with your feelings and your senses (relax your inclination to objectify) and you are guaranteed to be astounded.  Kairos is now. We can hear the call of the earth, the call of each other. Lets be sure also to listen for the call of God for new Being, dedicated to pursuing the vision of a future that is an alternative to the failed respectability” of the past. Were done with trying to manhandle the world as rugged individualists. Were done serving the gods of laissez fair capitalism and fulfillment through consumption. Its time to surrender the dominion model of stewardship and any pitch to care for the earth that is undemanding. Now is the time to exercise, as we never have before, the love to which we are called and which we see coming to expression around us more in these days of crisis. Its time to reinterpret the world through a lens of solidarity that honors all creation, to seek new ways of thriving together. The time is now for a new beginning. 

David Siegenthaler has volunteered as an eco-justice minister in the Presbytery of San Francisco and as an educator on the adult education committee of Montclair Presbyterian Church. He is employed by the National Park Service to manage the Federal Lands to Parks Program for the Western Region. He also works in other federal grant programs including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act Program, and the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program. His work with non-profits has included interpretive planning and design, wildlife sanctuary management, environmental education, and public interest work. David serves on the Board of the international group, The Institute for Earth Education, and Starflower Experiences. David holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, a Master of Science in Environmental Resources Management, a Master of Divinity, and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology.