Sunday, November 1, 2009

Caring for Creation--A Conference Report

I arrived in Macon for the Caring for Creation Conference early enough on Friday to spend a little time walking around the Mercer University campus and to locate a blogging friend, Owlfan, who was also planning to attend. It was great to meet my online friend in person! I also met Sharon Astyk, the person I had gone expressly to hear, and she signed my copy of her book, A Nation of Farmers.

This post is a report of what I heard at the conference, for anyone who might be interested. I made only very sketchy notes, so my report may have some inaccuracies, but the gist of it, I think, is right. (Warning, the report is long!)

The first two talks were given in a Plenary Session for all the conference participants.

The first talk of the morning was by Judith Curry, who does research at Georgia Tech. Her talk was about the science of climate change, and it focused on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. There have been four, the first one published in 2000 and the last in 2007. The 2000 report showed that, based on available research at the time, no conclusive statement could be made about whether human activity was causing climate change. However, the reports have become successively more sure about the role of human activity in causing climate change. The 2007 report says, with 90% confidence, that human activity IS causing climate change.

Dr. Curry spent a few minutes explaining the authority behind the IPCC reports, that hundreds of scientists from around the world worked together on these reports, that the reports were based on the results of thousands of studies, and that thousands of scientists had reviewed the reports before publication.

Additionally, Dr. Curry talked about (and showed graphs concerning) our planet’s natural heating and cooling cycles, and showed that what we are experiencing now and can expect to experience in the future in terms of climate change goes WAY beyond the natural cycles. The three major greenhouse gases were discussed (methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide), and so was the cooling effect of particulate matter, but the upshot is that there is no more room for waffling on the human influence on climate change.

Dr. Curry talked some about how much carbon dioxide is now in the atmosphere compared to other times in geologic history (more!), how much warming we can expect, and what that all means for us and for life on our planet. Globally, droughts will be more frequent and more severe; so will floods. Storms will be more powerful. As the oceans rise (both from increasing temperature and from freshwater inflows from melting land-ice), we will lose agricultural land, cities, forests, coral reefs, and more.

Dr. Curry did point out toward the end of her talk that scientists can only say what is happening, and that doing something about it is up to communities like those in churches that can influence people to alter their lifestyles in ways that will reduce greenhouse gases.

Dr, Jeremy Hess, a physician and professor at Emory University and consultant to the CDC, spoke next, about health effects of climate change. He mentioned hurricane Katrina as an example of a weather event NOT resulting from climate change, as being within the range of expected storms, but said that the heat wave in Europe (2003?) that killed thousands of people, especially in France, was definitely a result of climate change. Deaths from heat are considered by the CDC to be preventable, but these are expected to increase as climate change progresses.

Many of the expected health effects will result from lack of food, caused at least in part by droughts and floods, and increased disease. The disease effects will result partly from increased spread of zoonotic (animal, insect) vectors, like the spread of the mosquito that carries malaria as warm weather and flooded conditions allow it to thrive in more parts of the world. The migration of displaced people will also cause negative health effects.

The migration and resettlement of New Orleans residents was brought up as an example of how such displacement can affect mental health, as people lose their homes, their communities, and their families in extreme conditions. These people will be at risk for depression and suicide. Additionally, as people are displaced, they may not have access to their usual medications, for both physical and mental problems, exacerbating any pre-existing conditions they may have.

This part reminded me of a news report I had seen during the Katrina mess, before buses finally came to move the newly homeless people out of the city. A reporter was interviewing children; one little boy was worried about his diabetic grandma, and he was saying very loudly something like “and what’s she supposed to do without her insulin? What’s going to happen to her?” I worried about her, too.

Dr. Hess also talked about the situation in developing countries being even worse than in developed nations, because they had fewer resources for responding to climate-change-induced emergencies. He seemed to think that, here in the U.S., we would be able to handle the problems.

To be honest, I do not share his confidence. Everything I’ve read recently about the climate situation indicates that change is progressing more rapidly than the models projected, and that we are in for some serious trouble. Also, the government (at many levels) response to Katrina was not exactly a confidence builder. When crises develop in several locations at the same time, citizens could be on their own for quite a while before “help” comes.

The first breakout session I attended was with Sharon Astyk, the person I drove to Macon to hear, but she also gave the very next Plenary Session talk, and I have probably mixed up in this report exactly what information was given in which talk. However, in the breakout session (for sure), after a general introduction, she spent considerable time discussing the effectiveness of motivational propaganda from WWI and WWII in getting people to make changes in their lives that helped save resources like food, oil, and rubber for the war effort. This conservation, the reduction in use of resources, is almost exactly what needs to happen again in order to reduce the additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Sharon pointed out that the activities represented in many of the posters of those times, gardening, canning, and mending, are all activities we can do again. The changes that people made in other areas of their lives, like carpooling, not taking vacations to far away places (or taking fewer of these), enjoying lower-energy entertainments, and choosing productive hobbies instead of consumptive ones, can be made again.

It was made clear that all of our actions are deeply political, even if they don’t seem that way on the surface. Who we give our money to determines to a large extent who will have power in our lives. In the World Wars, U.S. citizens understood that their individual actions, multiplied across the nation, made a difference in the war effort. Back then, the results of our actions, what we wore, what we ate, whether we walked or rode a bicycle, were definitely seen as political. Sharon extended that to say that our choices, our actions, still are political, even though we are no longer reminded of that connection, and that our actions and choices are important in creating cultural change now to help stop climate change.

Sharon also said that, even after this massive conservation effort ended, people in the 1950s had comfortable, happy lives, using 18 times fewer resources than we do now. Essentially, Sharon emphasized two points: 1. we did it before, we can do it again, and 2. it won’t be awful.

At one point she showed the poster with Roosevelt’s words “We are now in this war We are all in it all the way Every Single Man Woman and Child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history We must share together the bad news and the good news , the defeats and the victories—the changing fortunes of war.” I remember thinking that it would be great if our current president could make such a strong commitment to fighting climate change that he could issue this poster again, in this new context.

Sharon’s Plenary Session talk had a different end-message, even though it covered some of the same points along the way. For me, this is the talk that really tied the two themes of the conference, the scientific and the theological, together. For part of the “scientific” component, Sharon talked about the “Four Degrees & Beyond—International Climate Conference.” Essentially, a very high percentage of climate researchers do not believe that a global rise of as much as 4 degrees Celsius is out of the question. This is a somewhat different view from the morning session with Dr. Curry, who was discussing a lesser rise of perhaps 2 degrees over the next 100 years.

Sharon showed a map that had been created to show expected effects of such a temperature increase, and the result was that much of the world would be a desert. The best places to live, because it would be possible to grow food there, were parts of the Antarctic, very far North America (the U.S. was toast), and Siberia. If I could find a link to the map online, I would post it, but I haven’t found it yet. Hilariously, it showed solar panels all across the U.S. making power to send up to the inhabitants of the farther north. For anyone who cares, we would still be a center of energy production, and finally independent of oil from the Middle East!

As Sharon talked about the science of global warming and what some expected consequences are, she showed, interspersed among the graphs, pictures of people who already are having a hard time surviving, and she pointed out that today, we could feed the world and reduce a lot of suffering with our current resources, but that there is a problem with distribution that is a justice issue.

If anyone reading this has been also reading Sharon’s blog, the link to the story of Noah will not be a huge surprise. Noah had a big role in this talk, as a way to link actions to the idea of doing what is right. Not being Jewish, I haven’t read the Midrash, the commentary by numerous rabbis on the Jewish scriptures (which have huge overlap with the Old Testament Bible), so I heard some things I hadn’t heard before. According to the Midrash, in making the ark, the first thing Noah did was to plant the trees. As a result, building the ark took more than 100 years.

Part of the reason for growing the trees first was so other people would have a chance to change their ways, to allow for the possibility that a flood wouldn’t be needed. Also, it isn’t certain that Noah was an especially great man, only that he was a good man “for his time.” He didn’t plead for his people to ask that their lives be spared, for example. Considering how things are in the world today, that gives the rest of us some room for hope!

It is thought that Noah became a truly good man in his service to the animals over the long period of time that it was afloat. One story is that he didn’t sleep the whole time, because when one animal’s needs were met, another needed tending. All had to be fed, and their wastes shoveled out.

Sharon told another story involving the planting of trees, and that is the story of Jacob, whose family was required to move into Egypt, even though he knew in advance that they were in for a long period of suffering. What convinced him to go was that G-d said he would go with him. But before crossing into Egypt, Jacob stopped his family and made them plant trees. When they asked why, Jacob told them that they were planting the seeds of their own deliverance (the trees would be used later to build the Temple).

Now, there are details in these versions of the stories that are not in my old RSV Bible (I re-read Genesis to check), but they are interesting and instructive. Essentially, for Noah, we can see that going ahead with a task you know to be right, even when most people don’t seem to believe that the task is a good one, is important. Also, you don’t have to be an especially important person in society to be useful/helpful. For Jacob, going into a difficult situation with faith, knowing that your G-d is with you, really helps. Apparently, so does planting trees ;-)

I cannot exactly remember how she got back to climate change, but Sharon re-emphasized that we, as individuals, need to work on reducing our own connection to the production of greenhouse gases. Already there is a lot of suffering in the developing world. That suffering is going to get a whole lot worse as climate change progresses. Much of the cause of climate change is the use of resources here in the U.S. We don’t see the results of our action s right in front of our faces, so it is easy to ignore the problems, but our wastefulness hurts other people.

The take-home message was that, regardless of what we would prefer to do, changing the way we live, reducing our wastefulness, is the right thing to do.

When Sharon was done, someone behind me said something like “best talk of the day,” so I am pretty sure that people paid attention. Also, at the next breakout session, I went to hear Farmer D, and the questions people asked at the end made it clear that more than just a few people had heard and understood.

Farmer D has a company that composts veggie and fruit leftovers (not what he called them, but I don’t remember the exact words) from 14 Whole Foods stores in the Southeast. He has his own retail store that sells the compost, but it also sells everything else a person might need for gardening. In addition, he sells “Gardens to go,” which are kits for raised bed gardens, complete with thick cedar boards and soil, that his gardeners set up for customers. His store also carries worm bins, chickens, and chicken tractors.

What was most compelling, though, for his audience of mostly Mercer University students, was that he had started farming when he was college age. He told about going to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a big agricultural school, and taking a summer internship on an organic farm. When he came back to campus, he wanted to study sustainable and organic farming, but those options were not available.

As a result, he quit college and did more work at organic farms before starting his own little farm using a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. Basically, he contracted with local residents to provide boxes of produce for them weekly in exchange for a subscription to the farm. They paid in advance; he delivered food as it became ready. Over time, he shifted to what he is doing now, in Georgia.

The students who came to the talk wanted to know what they could do. Farmer D did talk a bit about students at UW-Madison starting a 2-acre organic garden on campus. At Mercer, a much smaller college, 2 acres might be a bit much for a start, but it seems likely that those students will find more than one way to make their own reductions in resource use.

I also attended the closing session, which included readings from a couple of my favorite poets: Wendell Berry and Pattiann Rogers. I had been kind of hoping for a reading of Berry's "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," but I settled for reading it later, when I got home.


  1. I really enjoyed meeting you, Amy. I'm so glad we found each other at the beginning rather than the end of the day.

    Good synopsis of the conference. I wish I could have gone to more break out sessions. I posted some info on the last breakout session I went to on my blog.

    On Sharon's post about the conference, I saw that you told someone to follow you from your name - she later replied that it didn't work. I checked and it didn't. You may want to contact her or add a new comment.

  2. Owlfan, I went over to your blog and read your post. Thanks for writing! I really was interested in (and now am a bit horrified by) what Judith Curry had to say in her breakout session.

    Thanks for letting me know about the link not working. I went over to check, and someone had already posted a link to my blog! People over at Sharon's are all so helpful and thoughtful.

    Hope to see you again!

    -Amy, NW of Atlanta


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...