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2005 Seminar Series:

The United Methodist Social Principles: The Natural World

Church and Society Work Team's Forum on the Social Principles
Presented by Joy Bergey
Downingtown United Methodist Church
January 29, 2005


I'm delighted to be here this morning, and am so appreciative of the dedication and hard work of the Church and Society work team. I also appreciate their votes of confidence and financial support in the form of the two grants they've given to my organization in the last two years. I read in full the section of the Social Principles called The Natural World - an inspiring and thoughtful document, indeed. Let me read just the first two sentences to you, which sum up the work: "All Creation is God's, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God's creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings." What are the scriptural underpinnings for the Social Principles on the Natural World?

  • In Genesis we're told to tend and till the garden.
  • Micah tells us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
  • Matthew tells us that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Christ.
  • Paul tells us in Corinthians that all things belong to us, that we belong to Christ, and that Christ belongs to God. In short: All things, all people belong to God.
These are just a few of the hundreds of passages from scripture that support the Social Principles. Listen to the areas addressed: Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life. I'll talk briefly about three topics. First suburban sprawl and the various prices we're paying, then computer recycling (which we're also doing this morning), and finally global warming, which for me, has become the most pressing issue I see.

Sprawl

I'll start by addressing suburban sprawl, a hot topic in Chester County and elsewhere.

I love birds. Here's a story about a favorite of mine, the hermit thrush. Not a flashy bird, but with a haunting, flutelike song. You can hear it in late summer afternoons in the woods. I have a tape of its song (??play tape?.) The hermit thrush is becoming a casualty of sprawl. It lays its eggs in a nest it has built-the "standard" method of avian parenting. But there's another bird in the story-the brown-headed cowbird. Instead of building its own nest, it finds the nests of other birds like our thrush, and lays its egg amidst the thrush eggs. The cowbird egg hatches first, but the adult thrushes don't realize it isn't theirs. They feed it, and it gets big fast. By the time the thrush eggs hatch, the cowbird is strong enough to kill the thrush babies.

I'm not blaming the cowbird. Cowbirds and thrushes have co-existed for millennia, because the thrushes have had a fine defense mechanism. You see, cowbirds are not forest birds. They prefer fields and woodland edges, but won't fly deeper than a quarter mile into the forest. Until recently we had vast forests, and the quarter-mile "edges" in which thrushes were vulnerable were a small part of the total forest. The thrushes held their own.

But in the last fifty years, we've gobbled up farms and woodlands with development. As we build more sprawling housing developments, strip malls, and roads to connect them all, we're cutting up our forests like checkerboards, often leaving narrow strips no wider than a quarter mile. So thrush nests at any point are vulnerable to cowbirds. The hermit thrushes are losing out, because we've unintentionally upset the natural balance.

Sprawl isn't great for people, either. Think about the countless hours we spend in our cars, often stuck in traffic. One author says we've been forced into a "tiresome life of constant driving."

For every car in Pennsylvania, it's estimated there are five or six parking spaces--at the workplace, at mall parking lots, and elsewhere. One shopping center looks like just the next. Fast-food franchises abound. There seems little sense of place left. A strip mall in Pennsylvania looks so much like a strip mall in Arkansas or South Dakota that one author calls this phenomenon "the geography of nowhere."

Once, most people lived in neighborhoods where our main streets were a mix of homes and businesses. We could walk where we needed. Towns and cities were compact, leaving plenty of room for farms, forests, and wildlife.

After World War II, we fell in love with the suburban dream; a big house on a big lot. The migration of people from the cities to suburbs like Chester County did not arise unplanned. Federal, state, and local policies over five decades have had a profound impact on where we live and how we use the land.

A huge influence was the building of the interstate highway system. Highways have given us mobility and access to recreational and business opportunities--all good things. But they've drawn people and businesses away from the cities, with devastating effects on many urban neighborhoods.

For decades, the Federal Housing Administration would back mortgages only for new suburban houses, refusing to write mortgages for older city homes. These policies have been changed, but their legacy remains.

Does anyone here think your property taxes are too high? Thank sprawl as one of the reasons. The public sector funds countless miles of new highways to connect our sprawling households. It's much more expensive to provide police, fire protection, postal services, electricity and phone service to stretched-out neighborhoods. Property taxes are driven up.

Municipalities are eager to attract businesses and new sprawling housing developments because these will bring in more tax dollars. But the costs to build the new roads and schools to support the new businesses and residents exceed the new tax revenues, and our towns fall deeper into debt, needing more tax revenues. It's an ever-worsening spiral.

We have so many new roads, and yet, are there fewer traffic jams? No. The counterintuitive truth is that widening roads and building new highways makes traffic worse because people change their behavior and drive more in response to more roads. Another downward spiral. The environmental costs of sprawl are enormous.

  • Erosion from deforested lands causes loss of soil and more water pollution.
  • Paved-over wetlands can no longer serve as sponges to absorb heavy rains and floodwaters.
  • All our driving makes air pollution worse, threatening our health and aggravating global warming.

The hermit thrush, losing its struggle to cowbirds, shows us there are unintended consequences of sprawl. We see some of them, but there are no doubt others that we don't yet see.

In Southeast Pennsylvania, we're developing farmland at a rate of an acre an hour. We have one of the worst sprawl problems in the country. Our regional population is barely increasing, and yet we're consuming land at an acre an hour.

Yet we can commit to use our remaining undeveloped land more wisely without becoming 'anti-development'. I invite you to get involved. Read the paper. Share this pamphlet with a friend or coworker. Tell your elected officials about your concerns. Resist the temptation to push for wider roads. Studies show it doesn't work.

We are all paying for sprawl. Many of us pay directly in the form of a second car, higher gasoline costs for extended commutes, and higher property taxes. The poor stuck in the cities without cars pay by being excluded from jobs that they can't get to. The plants and animals pay with their lives. The Social Principles care about these issues, so should we.

There are spiritual costs we pay, for our growing physical isolation and alienation from each other and from the earth, by ignoring our covenant with God to honor the sacred and irreplaceable gift of land.

Preserving open space and farmland has become a hot topic in Harrisburg. Governor Rendell has proposed an extensive program called Growing Greener II, which would fund the preservation of open space, would help small cities like Norristown and Chester improve their lot, would clean up hazardous waste sites across the state, and provide more funds to state and municipal parks. The Republican Party has just released a counterproposal. Please pay attention to this issue. It will end up as a referendum on the ballot in this spring's primary election. The final form of the bill isn't known yet, but I urge you to support funding for open space. Let me know after my talk if you want me to keep you informed about this issue.

Recycling

Let's talk next about recycling. The Social Principles have much to say on this topic. Most of us, I would venture to guess, can put our newspapers, empty bottles, and cans out at the curbside for easy recycling. Some of us may also be able to recycle cardboard boxes or junk mail. Maybe you take your plastic bags to the supermarket for recycling. Good for you! But what we do with that old computer in the basement? That VCR that died last year? All those CDs from AOL that come in the mail, offering thousands of hours of free internet time. What about that cell phone, which still works, but you can't use it since you changed carriers and got a new number?

Most of seem to know we shouldn't just throw this stuff out. There are two good reasons not to: a) many of the components of this equipment are recyclable or reusable, and b) a lot of this equipment contains toxic metals, like arsenic. If you throw your printer into the trash, all the toxins in it will eventually end up in the air, the water, the soil, making us sick.

The glass screens on computer monitors contain lead, which is there for a good purpose; it blocks the user from harmful radiation emitted by the monitor. But each monitor contains four to six pounds of lead, a proven toxin. When monitors are thrown away, the lead can leach into ground-water, causing sickness, developmental problems (especially in children), and even death.

But there aren't easy ways to recycle electronic equipment, not yet, at least. So the Church and Society Work Team has asked the Center for the Celebration of Creation to work with churches to offer recycling drives, and that's what we're doing this morning.

It's estimated that 250 million computers will have become obsolete by the end of this year. However, only about 11% of computers are recycled. Americans throw away four million CDs and diskettes every day, over one billion disks per year. In landfills, they will take 450 years to degrade. When incinerated, they lead to acid rain. We toss out 130 million mobile phones every year. They contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead, and zinc-all of which can cause illness. Almost three million printer cartridges are thrown away each day. Recovering these for recycling would prevent more than 570,000 tons of plastics from entering the waste stream each year.

Recycling requires less energy than making a new product, produces fewer hazardous byproducts, and creates less waste. A good way to tend God's garden.

So we're collecting a number of products this morning, and I'll say a word about where they are headed.

Elemental, Inc. in Philadelphia recycles computers, monitors, printers, faxes, and keyboards. They charge a small fee for monitors, printers, and faxes because of the high cost of separating and handling the toxic materials in these items. The Peace with Justice grant is covering those fees. I can find homes in schools and non-profits for equipment that works is easily repaired, so let us know when you give us your equipment if it works.

Verizon Corporation's Hope Line program puts refurbished cell phones in the hands of battered women and women at risk, benefiting both society and the environment. If not reparable, the phones are disassembled and recycled. Verizon has collected more than 790,000 used phones for domestic violence victims.

GreenFund Network recycles printer cartridges, paying a small cash bonus to a non-profit of the donor's choice. The Center for the Celebration of Creation has designated the Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network as our beneficiary. This network offers shelter and life-training skills to hundreds of people every year. The Interfaith Hospitality Network applies the funds it receives from our printer cartridges to rent trucks to help families move into homes of their own. They have gotten over $500 as a result of our recycling efforts in the past year.

GreenDisk Company recycles computer media (CD's, diskettes, audio and video tapes). They partner with non-profits to provide jobs for developmentally disabled adults and with the Veterans Administration to retrain and employ disabled veterans.

To address the longer term need for recycling computers, call your municipality and your county and ask them what to do with your equipment. Some townships have computer recycling programs, and each county has at least one dropoff date each summer. As our elected officials hear from more and more of us, they'll recognize that we all need to have convenient ways to recycle our electronic gear. Seek justice by pressing your officials to setup municipal recycling programs for computers.

Take some of these flyers, which list all the companies I've named. Share these with your municipalities to help them get programs started.

By the way, it's still not easy to find a safe way to dispose of televisions. I haven't found a reliable disposal program, except for the annual drop-off days sponsored by the counties. So save your TV's till the summer.

Global warming

Finally, a few words about the topic weighing most heavily on my heart these days: global warming. A very brief overview of global warming, if you'll bear with me for a moment of high school science:

Let's start with a quick refresher on Global Warming. Hang in with me for a minute or two of high school science to help explain the broader picture.

Our energy for electricity and transportation comes largely from the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil-and its derivative, gasoline. We call these fossil fuels because they formed from the ancient remains of plants and animals. When we burn fossil fuels, we get energy to move our cars and power our houses. And we also get Carbon Dioxide as a byproduct.

We've burned so much fossil fuel in the last 150 years that we've created a huge excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This excess acts like the glass over a greenhouse, holding in heat. This is why carbon dioxide is called a greenhouse gas. Think of all this carbon as a blanket warming up the earth. Average global temperatures have increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century. Earth's temperatures are projected to keep rising. A degree or two may not sound like enough to worry about. If it were just a matter of adding 1 degree to the low and high temperature every day of the year, that wouldn't be that big a deal. We'd have more rain and less snow every winter, and while our kids might not be happy, plenty of adults would be.

All right, it was four degrees outside this morning. Fess up, I know somebody in this room is thinking to themselves that a little global warming might sound like a mighty good idea right at the present.

So we've already heated up the planet a degree or two overall. Doesn't sound like a big problem. But this small but steady warming is not the problem per se. Rather, the overall warming is leading to instability in the climate with dramatic disruptions?more droughts, more intense hurricanes, floods, and Nor'easters, increasing sea levels. Florida got hit with four hurricanes within a month last fall. So, burning fossil fuels at the rate we have been leads to global warming and climate destabilization. End of science lesson. You all get A's.

So our actions are leading to changes in the weather. But this is not irreversible. If we act responsibly, sooner rather than later, starting now, we can slow down and eventually reverse global warming and the weather changes. We have the know-how to do this. Buying clean power is a great start.

Most of us are using dirty power at present. Half the electricity in this state is generated by burning coal, and about a third from nuclear power. Neither of these, according to the Social Principles, is acceptable. Burning coal for electricity not only generates carbon pollution that leads to global warming, but it also generates soot, mercury, and other pollutants that aggravate asthma, heart disease, birth defects, and cancer.

Have you heard about the warnings to limit our intake of fish caught in Pennsylvania because of the mercury in them? The primary source of that mercury is the smoke stacks of coal plants. It falls back to earth, runs into streams and lakes and is consumed by fish, which we then eat. Mercury is a proven neurotoxin. Children and pregnant woman are at special risk when eating fish from Pennsylvania's lakes and streams. The way we generate power in this state has made our fish unsafe for pregnant women and children to eat. Is this acceptable?

Look at the overall health impacts of power plant emissions: 1,800 people a year die in Pennsylvania. We have over 200,000 lost work days in this state every year caused by power plant pollution.

Perhaps the biggest impact that we as individuals can have is to buy electricity generated from clean, renewable sources. What does this mean? Renewable electricity is generated by sources of power that are always available: windmills, solar power, and methane from landfills and farms. Wind and solar power produce virtually no pollution. Windmills are not killing undue numbers of birds. I can address that during Q&A, if you'd like.

Each of you in your homes can opt to buy clean energy. No rewiring needed. The power company will still get your power back on when it goes out. Clean power is somewhat more expensive at this point in history, as these new industries have up-front development costs and don't get the huge tax breaks that the fossil fuel and nuclear industries get. More about renewable energy shortly?.

I want to talk briefly about what's happening in the Arctic. The Arctic is already in trouble because of global warming. For a number of reasons, parts of Alaska and northern Canada are warming much faster than the rest of the globe -five degrees already. The glaciers are melting. The ice caps are breaking up. There is 20% less ice cover now than there has been over the last 30 years on average. The polar bears and the seals are losing their homes. Projections are that there will be no more polar bears by the end of this century. We belong to God. Don't the polar bears also belong to God?

We're the wealthiest nation on earth. The U.S. makes up 4% of the global population, but we consume more than 20% of the world's resource. We create 25% of the world's global warming pollution.

We here in Pennsylvania bear a particular responsibility. Did you know that Pennsylvania emits more global warming pollution than 105 developing countries combined? We are the third worst state in the country, behind Texas and California. Our state of just 12 million people contributes 1% of the world's greenhouse gases. On a per capita basis, Pennsylvanians create 20 times more global warming pollution than the average citizen of the world. We must act.

The Bush Administration and Congress are ready to do nothing about global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to control global warming, goes into affect Feb 16. But our national leaders don't want us to be a part of it.

However, I have good news to report from Harrisburg. How many times do you hear those words?

I'm delighted to tell you that the General Assembly in Harrisburg passed and Governor Rendell signed a Clean Energy Standard in November. These law will require that within 15 years, 8% of our energy must come from clean sources, primarily wind and solar. This will help level the playing field for providers of wind, solar, and other emerging clean technologies, letting these new businesses compete against the fossil fuel and nuclear giants who continue to get huge tax subsidies.

Buying Clean Energy

We currently produce about 1% of our power from clean sources. Did you know, by the way, that Pennsylvania is a national leader in wind power? We generate more electricity from wind than any other state east of the Mississippi.

I'm almost finished, and want to make one more pitch for buying clean energy. What are the benefits of buying clean power? Buying 100% renewable energy in your home is like planting 950 trees, or NOT driving your car 20,000 miles - every year. You will make a difference.

Clean energy costs a bit more. The monthly cost for an average household to switch to 100% renewable is about the same as a large pizza, about $12.50. If you can't swing $12.50 a month to buy 100% renewable, you can buy 20% or 50%. Buying 40% clean electricity costs just $5 extra a month, and offers the same benefit as driving your car 8,000 fewer miles every year.

I have handouts that show you which suppliers offer clean power, and how much it costs. I assume most of you buy electricity from PECO. Does anyone buy from PP&L? Do any of you already buy clean power. All you need to do is get your PECO or PPL bill with the account number and call one of these suppliers. Renters can buy clean electricity as well, even if you don't pay your own electric bill.

I would be delighted to help you make the switch. Take my card and call me later as questions arise. I also have sign-up forms for two of the clean power suppliers. Take these with you, or fill them in and leave them with me. Thanks to a brand new grant that the Pa. Interfaith Climate Change just got , for any PECO customer who starts buying clean power as a result of today's presentation, we will donate $5 to the Church and Society Work Team. If you want to take advantage of this, please let me know.

Again, I don't care which supplier of clean energy you choose, just choose one of them. Remember the numbers? Using 100% clean power in your home is like not driving 20,000 miles a year, or planting 950 trees every year. I live in the suburbs, as do many of you. I can't figure out how to give up my car. But I do buy 100% clean power.

So, in conclusion, let's honor our Social Principles: till God's garden, the sacred and irreplaceable gift of creation. Listen to Micah and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Recycle everything you can, and buy less stuff to begin with. Think about where you live and where you work. What costs are borne by others as a result of these decisions? Whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Christ. Buy clean power for your home. Help reduce air and water pollution, make our fish safe to eat again, improve the health of Pennsylvanians, and give the polar bears a fighting chance. We all belong to God.

Thank you.


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Last updated February 5, 2005

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