Tag Archives: Environment

Seeking the Spiritual: The Century of Common People (Part 2)

Will we finally let go of our differences? (Source: scu.edu)

This is the second part of an earlier post, which you can find here. If you’re a bit lost, give my earlier post a read!

Sadly, we’re nowhere near as far toward this as we could be, or should be, and I must admit there’s a long way to go. But progress is being made, and in no small way! A great example of this is in the steady advancement of gay rights over the past years. Public opinion is moving toward favoring marriage equality, DADT has been repealed (nominally at least), 6 states allow gay marriage, and Maryland will soon join them. To add to this, the Department of Justice is no longer upholding DOMA, a strong step that shows that government is moving with the popular opinion. The long run for marriage equality is looking even brighter, as more than half of voters under the age of 30 (55%, to be exact) approve of same-sex marriage, and the media generally treats it as both normal and acceptable.

Of course, this is by no means the only place we’re moving forward! Huge strides are being made across religious, social, cultural, and linguistic barriers, as people all around the world are connecting in new and incredible ways. Even just in the short time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many new and amazing people, and talk with them about some of the most important things in life, and we’ve been able to do this across entire oceans!

This new century brings incredible new potentials with it, unlike anything in centuries past. Just as the 20th century brought about amazing new developments and turning points in our collective history, the 21st century is bringing a new kind of change, one that brings understanding and peace, instead of division and strife.

Maybe this is just the optimistic musing of a young mind, but as I mentioned above, this seems to me to be happening in a variety of very real and tangible ways! I’m finding more and more people who are willing to reach out and understand others, no matter what their differences are. People seem to be slowly becoming more willing to accommodate the different ideas of others, without feeling the need to be right. In schools, more children are being taught the value of acceptance and tolerance, instead of the value of winning an argument. There seems to be a greater and greater need and desire for interfaith dialogue, and prominent religious leaders (Feisal Abdul Rauf, Desmond Tutu, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and many others) are standing up to try and bring greater peace and unity between religious traditions, without sacrificing diversity.

As I said, there is still a lot of work to be done here, but a lot of progress is being made as well. Though we’re only a tenth of the way through it, I can see this century being a bright one, a time when people will slowly but surely realize that all of our differences, all of our outward appearances and supposed differences can be left at the wayside. This 21st century will be, I’m sure, one of Common People.

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Seeking the Spiritual: The Century of Common People (Part 1)

I watched a fantastic documentary tonight, for the third time. It’s called FLOW (standing for For Love of Water). The documentary discusses the privatization and pollution of the world’s water, and highlights the growing problem of water shortage, and what we must do to prevent it. I wrote a brief post about this a few months ago, and it’s certainly something I’ll explore more in the future.

But what really caught my attention this time around was a very short quote, from an elderly Indian Gandhian. The venerable man said, shortly and simply, “Twenty-first century is the century of common people.” Now, I apologize if this doesn’t strike you in the same way as it struck me, but this really made me start thinking.

A little interjection here: As far as I can tell, the phrase “century of the common people” is based on a speech given by Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice-president, in 1943 on the goal of the Allies in the Second World War. In the speech (which you can find here), Wallace says that the 20th century can and must be the century of the common man, not the century of America. I assume that this is what the Gandhian based his idea for the 21st century on.

I tend to think of the future in pretty optimistic terms, and I think that the world is generally getting better, albeit slowly. But a number of events over the past few years have really called my view into question. As I’ve grown up in the US, I’ve seen a terrible economic crash, horrific terrorist attacks, natural disasters compounded by human error, a plethora of wars, arguably one of the worst presidents this nation has ever had, and a whole host of other terrible things. So it’s been hard over the past few years to convince myself that things are getting better on the whole.

But! There are still many things that make me think positively about the future! And this is one of them.

Now, I can’t claim to know exactly what the gentleman in this film was referring to when he said “the century of common people.” But I can certainly tell you how I interpreted it! This phrase has helped give form to an idea I’ve been having for quite some time now, about the ways in which the world is improving, and that idea is this: Even though there is still great suffering and division in the world today, people are becoming much more willing and able to understand each other, help each other, and grow closer to each other, even with oceans of water, difference, or disagreement between them.

I see much greater understanding between people of different faiths, cultures, beliefs (political, philosophical, religious, or otherwise), and lifestyles looking past their differences in an effort to understand each other more, and this is what the Century of Common People looks like. We’re moving into a time when we can live with and even love the differences in other people, and regard them in a deep and loving way, no matter how dissimilar we may be.

I’ve decided to break up this post into multiple parts, as it’s already becoming fairly lengthy and will keep growing. Check back soon for the sequel!


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Fallout Fears (Part 1)

A nuclear power plant (NPP), an example of a key source of energy for much of the world. (Source: picture-newsletter.com, photographer unknown)

As I write this post, Japan is still reeling and recovering from a devastating trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear threat. The country has suffered a terrible three-headed beast of a disaster, and it’s taking a toll, not only on the country, people, and economy of Japan, but on the world’s mindset on nuclear energy.

For years and years, nuclear power has been viewed as a viable and clean source of alternative energy in much of the developed and developing world. But after the shocking triple tragedy in Japan, there has been growing fear and apprehension towards nuclear power plants and  nuclear energy, as the safety of this source is being called into question.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Germany, where seven reactor facilities are being temporarily shut down for safety testing, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has, for what many think is a mix of political and safety reasons, called into question the entire country’s nuclear power supply.

This kind of thinking has taken root all across the European Union and in many other parts of the world, including the United States. But is this anything more than hasty reactionary thought sparked by the ongoing crisis in Japan? There was little outcry or objection to nuclear energy sources before the disaster, but since the radiation dangers in Japan have caught international attention, leaders and thinkers have begun to reconsider whether nuclear energy is a safe option.

Now, it’s of course natural to look into one’s own energy systems’ safety precautions, especially right after a disaster such as the one in Japan. But the kind of panicked shut-downs and alarm seen in places like Germany in response to the crisis are, in my opinion, blown far out of proportion, and have potential to greatly damage popular perception of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy has given us the opportunity to create quite substantial amounts of energy at little cost to the environment, especially when compared to other sources such as “clean” coal. A 2008 study that examined the relative emissions of a nuclear power plant and a fossil fuel plant found that the fossil fuel plant had emitted around 11 million tons of waste in a year, while the NPP emitted a mere 26 tons. There’s really no arguing that this is one of the cleanest energy sources available to us.

Besides that, the dangers of NPPs really do not exceed those of other energy sources, especially coal. It’s estimated that two to three thousand workers die in coal mining accidents every year in China, and explosions and collapses still kill dozens of workers every year in the United States. So why is it that people are so afraid of nukes?

Because this post is becoming rather lengthy, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Check back soon for part two!

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Beyond Environmental Consciousness

A power plant in the Turkish countryside. (Photo credit: Connor Schaefer)

A very popular phrase these days is “environmentally conscious.” It’s a pretty ambiguous term when you really examine it.

The word “environment” is pretty easy to wrap your head around. But what about that word “conscious?” Many people throw this phrase around in the vaguest way imaginable, talking about “environmentally conscious solutions” to the problems facing our world. But few really make it very clear what that term really means in this context.

To be conscious is to be aware and attuned to your surroundings. Alternatively, it can mean to be awake. So if we go with these definitions, environmental consciousness means being awake to the environment, and being aware of your own impact on it.

But I would say that environmental consciousness is not a big enough step to take anymore. To be conscious of your impact on the environment is a great thing of course, but it’s no longer enough. The amount of damage that humanity can and does inflict on the Earth is tremendous, so instead of simply being aware of our place in the world, we need to focus on actively working to be more responsible members of this world.

Another way to think of this is as a shift in attitude from passive to active, or to use a bad driving cliche, to shift from ‘Neutral’ to ‘Drive.’ When home from college, I live in Portland (Oregon), a city that prides itself on its collection of hipsters and its (general) love of the environment, so I’m accustomed to seeing cars that look something like this. But many Portlanders, and really Americans all across the nation (and people all across the world), show their commitment to the environment only by words or appearances, and take little action other than buying stickers or using steel water bottles. (That said, I really do love Portland quite a lot, and there are a lot of people their committed to the environment.)

But words and water bottles are nowhere near enough to bring about the kind of environmental change we need to be responsible to our planet. We all need to move from consciousness to activism. Our consciousness of the environment is something like waking up from a deep sleep of ignorance. But it’s time that we got up out of bed and started actively walking towards a goal of greater responsibility and care-taking.

This can take many different forms, but I believe that the most important thing to do is to become actively involved in the political arena in whatever capacity you can. Of course, we should all be personally responsible about the choices we make: The food we buy, the clothes we wear, the ways in which we get around. But the simple fact is that the greatest negative impacts on the environment are committed by huge industrial, commercial, and agricultural pursuits. Now, there isn’t a lot we can do to directly affect environmentally harmful companies and industries’ pursuits. But we can vote or lobby for a change of government policy toward these groups, and get local, state, or even national government involved in calling the nation to responsiblity.

And perhaps even more importantly, we can make this an important issue in the communities around us. While our own environmental decisions have an impact on the world, we can do so much more by encouraging others to be responsible as well. The more people there are who are genuinely concerned for and dedicated to treating our environment right, the more this kind of responsible thinking will become a part of our day-to-day lives and culture. It’s time to move above mere environmental consciousness. Spread the word!

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Seeking the Spiritual: Nature and the Divine

Could our spiritual being be connected to nature?

Ever since the dawn of man, humanity has had a deep connection with the land, or at least it has been meant to. Our land has been used for growing our food, providing us with water and animals, building our homes and habitats, and supporting most of life as we know it. Humanity depends on the rest of nature for almost everything we do.

But I think that nature has much more than a utilitarian connection to us. So often, we as humans view the rest of the environment as a kind of resource to be used and exploited as we see fit. Many people fail to see that we as humans are a part of nature, not above it, and that we’re very much dependent on it for almost all of our most basic needs. So in some sense, humanity is deeply rooted and connected to the world around us.

But I would say this extends far beyond a simple physical dependency on the land. Humankind has a spiritual connection to the world as well, in ways I can’t claim I’m even close to completely understanding. The religion I grew up in, Protestant Christianity, has never had much interest (or concern) for nature, being careful to keep it in a subservient role so as not to “idolize” creation. I was always taught that creation cannot and should not be revered above its creator, and to elevate nature too high would put me in the heresy danger zone. And, although I’m still young, I’ve begun to see more and more how limited I had allowed my spirituality to become, especially in this area.

Until recently, I would never let myself think of the natural world as something I could be spiritually connected to. While I’ve always known I’m in some way part of nature, for most of my life I’ve thought of myself as above and apart from the natural world. But now, I’ve begun to realize just how important and meaningful nature is for me, especially in a spiritual sense. There are few times when I feel more connected to my spirituality, the world around me, and even my fellow man than when I’m in a beautiful, natural place.

What I really want to stress in this post is this: the connection between man and nature is not specific to any religion, creed, or belief system. It is a spiritual, divine connection between human beings and the world they live in. If all people, all across the world, could agree to live in a way that honored this connection, then we could be responsible inhabitants of this shared Earth.

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Plastic Bags and the Place of Government

The future of shopping!

I live in Oregon, a state typically known for its environmental friendliness and urban liberalism (centered in Portland of course). I’m pretty proud to be a resident of this wonderful state, especially now that I can be involved in its political affairs (and by that I mean I’m old enough to vote).

Recently, a bill was introduced in the Oregon senate, Senate Bill 536. The bill would ban the use of plastic bags for check-out in almost every retail setting in Oregon, and require stores to charge 5 cents for each paper bag used. The idea of the bill is to encourage Oregon shoppers to bring their own reusable bags more often, not to tax shopping.

Now, I want to say first that I think this is a great idea. Plastic bags have become almost universally symbolic of retail shopping and are hugely convenient, but have a terrible impact on the environment. I think that this bill is a great way to encourage Oregon shoppers to be more environmentally responsible, and it could be another badge of pride for Oregon’s history of environmental care.

But on the larger scale, this brings up an interesting question of how far the government can and should take their control over the personal lives of the governed. This is a question I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. On the one hand, I want to say that the government should keep its paws out of peoples’ personal lives, and let people allow their own morals to guide their decisions. But on the other hand, I think that government has the unique power, opportunity, and most importantly, privilege to help improve the world we live in and improve the lives of the people that live in it.

Now, on some issues, I would say the government has a responsibility to mind its own business. Some of these issues would be things such as sexual expression (regarding most kinds of sexuality; I’m not condoning pedophilia), religious and spiritual values, and a few other very personal decisions and traits. These are the areas of life that government should avoid intrusion into (and incidentally the ones that many GOP lawmakers seem most interested in meddling with). However, there are some areas of our lives that can be bettered by a governing presence in them. There are too many people who view the government as a purely negative, invasive organization whose only goal is the restriction and removal of their civil liberties.

This is a ridiculous and painfully close-minded view of government. This institution was always meant (in America at least) to be a governing body put in power by the people, and there for the betterment of the peoples’ lives. Personally, I believe that good government not only outlines and enforces fair law, but also helps build and support a better and healthier society. Now, most of the time, I think this should take the form of putting laws and legislation into place that prevent wrongdoing, or providing specialized services (such as Medicare or Medicaid) that can’t necessarily be fully provided privately. However, I think there are many circumstances, such as this one, where the government must encourage citizens to act as they ought to. Environmental responsibility doesn’t come naturally (pun intentional) to everyone, though it should, so perhaps the government has a duty to help the people do their duty.

My liberalism shows pretty strongly here, I know. I never promised to be bipartisan! But here’s my point: While it may seem questionable to some to put a lot of authority in governmental hands, they frankly have much more power than the average individual. And while it could be argued that private groups (companies) can provide many of these services, these companies would inevitably have the wrong motivation for social good: money. The simple fact of the matter is that organizations motivated by profit aren’t philanthropic by nature. Jumping off from this, some form of government is necessary for what I mentioned earlier, where the government sometimes has to encourage the people to do the right thing. This shouldn’t extend to the private areas of peoples’ lives, such as their sexual or religious or political expression, but the government does have a right and duty, to a certain extent, to regulate the ways commerce is executed.

I like this bill not only because I agree with its sentiment, but because of the interesting point I think it helps illustrate: There aren’t just rights associated with being a citizen of a country, but duties as well, and I think environmental responsibility is one of these duties. Our government not only has a duty to protect militarily, but environmentally, even if in some cases that means from its own citizens.

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Using Our Water Responsibly

What could be more crucial?

Water. It’s one of the most basic compounds known to humanity, and also one of the most necessary for the survival of nearly every form of life. It powers not only our individual bodies, but provides insulation for the planet, energy for our civilizations, and food for people, both indirectly and directly. Simply put, no other substance could be more basic, universal, or important for our survival than water.

So why is it used so irresponsibly? Many people have yet to realize it, but our societies, especially those of very developed or developing countries, use or pollute colossal amounts of water, even in the simplest day-to-day activities. The real problem I want to focus on though is the area of life in which the modern world uses water most freely (and oftentimes, irresponsibly): agriculture.

Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the world as a whole needs to cut back on agricultural development. Of course this is good and necessary, especially in our modern technological society. But there are many practices in this crucial field that can help reduce the titanic amounts of water we pour into it.

But first, how much are we really using for these things? Here are a few examples: A pound of corn requires about 108 gallons of water to grow. The same amount of cotton uses 713 gallons, cheese uses 600, and a pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water. Now, there is the argument that all these figures exist in a vacuum (that is, they seem like significant numbers, but there’s little to compare them to in order to put them in perspective), and this is somewhat true. Perhaps comparing this to the amount of freshwater remaining for us will help.

The main source for American agriculture (which is centered in the Midwest) is a huge underground “sponge” of rock called the Ogallala aquifer. This aquifer supplies around a third of America’s farming, with around 14 billion gallons of water withdrawn yearly for farming and another 330 gallons or so taken out for other purposes. At this rate, it’s estimated that we’ll have drained this aquifer down to nothing with 190 years or less. Some estimates even hold that the US will face severe water shortage issues with 50 years. The Ogallala aquifer isn’t refilling either. It’s filled with what is sometimes called “fossil water,” meaning that the water was deposited there millions and millions of years ago and is hardly being replenished at all.

So what to do? The biggest problem facing modern agriculture is that it has become tied to a hugely outdated system of ideas that were established in the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Many good things came of this development, and the economic strength and stability of agriculture was vastly improved, but all of this came at a high cost to the environment in the form of ecological destruction and use of huge quantities of natural resources. While we may have had an excuse during the Revolution for the new pollution and contamination, we’re no longer blameless. It’s crucial that agriculture, especially in the developed and developing worlds, is responsible and efficient. We can do this by watching how much water is used in irrigation, what kind of irrigation we use, restriction of pesticide use, and so many other innovations. The time to seize the future of our water supply is now. Time is short.

Note: A great resource to use if you’re hoping to understand the water crisis better and get a better grasp on how much water we use is the National Geographic Freshwater webpage, which is where these statistics came from. Also, if you can get your hands on the April 2010 issue of that same magazine, it’s a special edition on the water crisis and a fantastic set of articles. Some books I would recommend are Blue Planet Run and Water Consciousness, both of which offer a lot of insight into this subject (and BPR has a lot of fantastic pictures too!).

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The Dragon’s Breath

Most people would agree that the future of the environment, and the way we treat it, are some of the most important issues we face today. How we handle today’s environmental issues will affect how tomorrow’s world will operate.

Many Americans are (thankfully) pretty conscious about environmental risks and the consequences of a failure to care for the Earth. But part of this awareness arises from the mistakes that our nation has made in the past. During the Industrial Revolution, America and other Western nations were blazing new trails of industry and commerce, coming up with incredible new technologies like the steam engine, or the use of electricity for energy. This came at a high cost to the environment though, dealing a blow to American soil, water, and air.

Now, China’s obviously made it past Industrial Revolution standards – at least technologically and industrially. But at the same time, their impact on the environment is colossal, not just for their own country, but for the world in general. As a rising nation in the world, China has an obligation not to burden the environment as they ascend in global power. And they’re doing a pretty bad job at holding to that obligation.

I won’t absolve America from guilt for this either. The average American contributes vastly more to global warming than the average Chinese. Really, this is part of the problem! America isn’t in much of a position to insist that China be more environmentally conscious, especially in light of the somewhat tense relationship between the two countries. As was put in another article (a review of a book on this subject, and my inspiration for this post), “A seventy-a-day smoker riddled with lung cancer isn’t really in a position to lecture a younger man to stop smoking, especially if he’s trying to steal his nicotine patches.” America really has little authority to tell China to clean up.

On the other side though, American pollution doesn’t claim the lives of 700,000 people every year, at least not directly. China can’t say the same. And while America still has a lot to learn, China has the benefits of experience from other nations making mistakes during their periods of industrialization. Now that countries like Germany, France, the US, and Britain have all had their screw-ups during industrial development, China has a lot more to look back on and avoid.

The real problem here is that China is unlikely to cut back on pollution, out of a deeply rooted philosophy of pragmatism. As China has risen to power in the world, keeping up with other nations like the US economically has been of primary importance. When weighted against things like water pollution or the difficulties of the peasantry, economic strength and vitality has always come out on top. That’s the side of China that most of the West sees: a rising power that has seemingly conjured economic and military might out of nowhere. What many people don’t see is the heavy toll this mindset has taken on the Chinese people.

I’m planning to write more on this later, so stay tuned! If you didn’t before, you should definitely check out that article I mentioned earlier. For now, 再见!


Filed under Environment & Nature, International Focus