Monday, May 11, 2015

Not So Simple (May 10, 2015)

Reading- Solving for pattern by Wendell Berry

Perhaps it is not until health is set down as the aim that we come in sight of the third kind of solution: that which causes a ramifying series of solutions – as when meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm. Even so rudimentary a description implies a concern for pattern, for quality, which necessarily complicates the concern for production. The farmer has put plants and animals into a relationship of mutual dependence, and must perforce be concerned for balance or symmetry, a reciprocating connection in the pattern of the farm that is biological, not industrial, and that involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation - the whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer, of farm family and farm community, all involved in the same inter-nested, interlocking pattern – or pattern of patterns.
A bad solution is bad, then, because it acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained. It acts destructively upon those patterns, most likely, because it is formed in ignorance or disregard of them. A bad solution solves for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs. A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns – and this harmony will, I think, be found to have a nature of analogy. A bad solution acts within the larger pattern the way a disease or addiction acts within the body. A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body. 

Sermon- Not So Simple

A couple of years back our congregation and the UU congregation up in Syracuse were getting ready to swap pulpits. Their minister, Jean, asked if I would preach about Fracking, because she knew we in Bradford County were in the thick of it, and because Elaine and Frank and I had presented a workshop on the issues of Natural Gas Development at the Social Justice conference the year before. Since we are the only congregation in the St. Lawrence District in Pennsylvania, we still are the only congregation where fracking is a reality in our lives. “Sure” I said, and started thinking about it. 

What could I say to the Syracuse UUs about Fracking, knowing that a sermon is not a workshop. It is not enough just to present the mechanics of fracking, the chemistry and economics. A sermon is supposed to be a call to ethical action. But my time serving this congregation had not shown me a clear call to action, but instead shown me that the lived reality of fracking is overwhelmingly complex.

Many of the members of this congregation have faced the ethical dilemma of what to do when the landsman comes to your door to talk with you about leasing the mineral rights to your land. And it is clear to me from listening to your stories, listening to how you grappled with the ethical issues, that there is more than one ethical position. Some folks have decided not to lease their mineral rights, believing that the environmental impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing are not worth it for the money to be made, nor for the energy to be produced. Other folks, knowing how many of us use natural gas, for example, to heat our homes- my home is heated with natural gas- don’t want to succumb to the “Not in My Backyard” thinking, leaving some other community to take the risks and bear the cost of extracting natural gas. If we are going to use Natural gas here, they reason, we should be willing to allow it to be extracted here. Still others consider the economic impact of natural Gas extraction on the region. This is not a wealthy area by any means. Bradford county is 48th out of 67 counties in PA for per capita income, and Tioga County is 57th[i] This area has always made most of its wealth from farming and resource extraction, and since the family farm has struggled so mightily in these past generations, many people hope these mineral rights leases will literally help people keep their farms or homes, would provide some economic relief. There’s a barn I pass on my way into Ithaca from points East. Maybe you’ve seen it? It is caving in you can practically see it falling apart and it has a big sign hanging on the side saying “Coming soon Natural Gas and My New Barn.” Moreover, we have met some really great people who came to town because of jobs in the gas industry, doing the best they can to support themselves and their families at a time when the minimum wage in Pennsylvania still lingers at $7.25 per hour.

For a while on my drive down here from Ithaca, I began my drive in a sea of “No fracking” signs which quite abruptly would change to a sea of “Friends of Natural Gas” or “Frack here, frack now” signs. A perfect illustration of how this incredibly complex issue has become deeply polarized. It has strained the web of relationships between neighbors, between family members. I realized recently that I haven’t spoken from the pulpit about this issue in years is because we don’t want to bring that polarization into our beloved community. You can feel the social danger of expressing certain ideas.

These past Wednesday afternoons a group of us have been talking about our distinctive UU theology. And one of the aspects of our “soteriology” that is, our theory of what saves us and what we need to be saved from, is that instead of anticipating an ultimate battle between good and evil, we know we are part of a complex web of life. As we work together to build the beloved community, it is not a gated community, but must include environmental activists, gas company executives, landowners, all the people who heat their homes in the winter, and all the beings who need water to live. In the same way Universalists long ago rejected the notion that some persons were predestined to go to heaven and others to suffer forever in hell, I would like to reframe the debate over natural gas from a battle that one side must win and another side must lose, into something more like that “tangled bank” we talked about on Evolution Sunday. If we are going to move in a life-giving direction with this tangled web of issues and problems, there is not just one final solution, but many big and little decisions that allow people to be warm in the winter, to have jobs that pay a living wage, and that preserve our beautiful agricultural land and the water we all need to survive.

This image some of you will remember from a sermon I did recently. Here is the circle that shows what we need. The circle that shows what we don’t need, and this intersecting circle showing what is possible right now. I think most of us would agree, for example, that we need energy to heat our homes and to run this industrialized world we have created. Most of us would agree that we need sources of energy that will not contribute to global climate change. But as we heard in our opening reading, we have to be careful not to create solutions that in turn create new problems. Wendell Berry tells us there are three kinds of solutions. He uses these with agricultural metaphors, but I will apply them to the whole web of issues around how we make and use energy

To quote Berry: “There is, first, the solution that causes a ramifying[ii] series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution.” I think a great example of this is the controversy over on Lake Seneca. Crestwood, a company based out of Texas, is planning to build a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) industrial storage facility and a methane expansion facility, and plans to store methane, propane, and butane in unlined, depleted salt caverns “that were never engineered to store anything, on the shores of Seneca Lake”.[iii] So if the problem that we are trying to solve is where to store LPG, we have set up the discussion so that issues like the effects of leaks on water or air or agricultural soil or other industries like tourism are “beyond the purview” of the engineers and staff of the gas companies. Other problems caused with this technology are seen as separate problems requiring separate solutions.

Quoting Berry again: “The second kind of solution is that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve, causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another” Some folks, including our president, have proposed Natural Gas as a “clean energy.” We know, for example, that Natural Gas “emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when you burn it.”[iv] The complexity comes from the fact that when Natural Gas is mined, Methane escapes into the atmosphere, and Methane “ unburned, is around 70 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.”[v] If we are using natural gas to reduce greenhouse gases, this is a solution that makes that problem worse.

In the same light, it seems like stopping all natural gas production tomorrow around the world would also be a solution that makes things worse. So many people would be suddenly out of work. People who now heat with natural gas would have to quickly have their heating systems converted, and those who couldn’t afford the conversion, the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, would suffer

But says Berry, there is a third kind of solution, those “which causes a ramifying series of solutions” . In his essay Berry uses for his example example a farmer who solved the problem of a grain shortage on his farm by selling off part of his heard, by using more of the herd’s manure to increase fertility, by breeding programs that selected for cows that could eat roughage, and then by reduced the percentage of grain in the feed ration. By solving the problem of a feed shortage, in this way, he ended up with a healthier farm. 

We need to have the courage to figure out what we REALLY need. To even imagine what we really need. We are afraid that there is no solution that reduces the acceleration of global climate change, while keeping our water clean, and providing jobs for everyone. When our vision is too narrow, we miss important pieces of the big picture. We all know that humans and most other living beings on teh planet need water to survive. But it’s easy to forget, living in an area that is one of the greatest sources of fresh water in the world. [vi] It’s easy to forget that many living beings right now on the planet are suffering from a shortage of drinking water. It’s hard to imagine that fresh drinkable water which is so freely available to us, it’s hard to really comprehend and that it could ever be a scarce resource, and that it could become scarce by our own actions. 

Did you know that in China governmental reports show 60% of their fresh water has become polluted, and others suggest the government is underreporting the problem, so it may even be worse?[vii] Half of China’s population lacks safe drinking water. Nearly two thirds of China’s rural population---more than 500 million people---use water contaminated by human and industrial waste.[viii] Now, did you know that it takes roughly 4.4 million gallons of water to frack one well?[ix] These millions of gallons of water are mixed with a chemical cocktail that so far we haven’t figured out how to remove from the water after fracking is over, and so is permanently removed from the water cycle and stored as toxic waste. I suggest to you that a true solution to our energy problems does not create a new water problem to be solved. We must have the courage to imagine and to say out loud that the energy we really need is energy that does not jeopardize the water we need to live.

When the complex issues around producing safe, clean energy are reduced to whether Natural Gas development is Good or Evil, it becomes impossible to have public conversations that will make a huge difference in our children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives. 

Right now in Bradford County, Hydraulic Fracturing is a reality. It is providing fuel, and jobs to our community and other communities around the world. While the state of New York is under a moratorium. The choice is no longer “to frack or not to frack,” but a series of ramifying choices for those of us who live in both states. Remember those methane emissions I talked about earlier? A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) concluded that “There is a need for the natural gas industry and science community to help obtain better emissions data and for increased efforts to reduce methane leakage in order to minimize the climate footprint of natural gas.” This seems like a really important issue- gathering data to track and reduce methane leakage would make the difference between natural gas being cleaner than coal, or being just as dirty as coal. In fact there are new EPA regulations that went into effect on January of 2015 that require many wells to capture some of that Methane. As an example of Solutions that lead to other solutions, the EPA projects that not only would the “new rule would reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by 190,000 to 290,000 tons per year and toxic air pollutants by 12,000 to 20,000 tons a year…. [through a process] known as “green completions,” at the same time the industry would save $11 million to $19 million a year because drillers would be able to capture and sell the methane that is now burned off, or flared.[x]

I never did preach that sermon in Syracuse. I chickened out and decided to preach on something less controversial- the Doctrine of Discovery and whether European-Americans even have the right to live on the lands we now claim. What would I tell that congregation in Syracuse today? I would tell them there is no simple answer, we must be constantly looking for solutions that increase the health of the whole. As Berry says “Good solutions exist only in proof... Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes.” Berry is suggesting that good solutions are created by people who know a place, work a place, and will suffer if the place suffers. That’s us. Whether our land is leased or not. It’s up to us to monitor our local creeks (as several volunteers in this congregation and in our community are doing) and know how the water in this very place is healthy or sick. It’s up to us to ask for good data on the emissions, and to ask our DEP to create and enforce standards that make sure our solutions are good not only for energy production, but for our health. I would probably tell the Syracuse congregation that good solutions may be different in their community than in ours. I would tell them not to settle for Solutions “which causes a ramifying series of problems,” but to keep looking for solutions “which causes a ramifying series of solutions.” Even if they don’t seem possible right now, we must keep looking for solutions together. Not necessarily a simple solution, but one in harmony with “the inter-nested, interlocking patterns of health”, the interconnected web of life of which we are a part.


[ii] Ramifying-“ present participle: ramifying - form branches or offshoots; spread or branch out”