The essay below appeared today in the Raleigh News & Observer.
At a Convocation at Duke Divinity School a couple of weeks ago, I was one of the lucky 600 or so folks who were privileged to witness author Wendell Berry in conversation about the relation of religion or spirituality and the economy and politics. His wisdom is profound. A short quote from an essay called “The Burden of the Gospels”:
“If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left with a dire predicament, facing a humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given is Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?”
Whether you are a Christian or Jew, pagan or Buddhist, spiritual but not religious, an agnostic or atheist, the question Berry posses is at the heart of our cultural and ecologic crisis.
Duke Energy: An Altar Call for Coal - published in Raleigh News & Observer, Oct. 22, 2007
The “Amen’s” startled at first! But then as person after person came to the podium and microphone it became clear that what I was experiencing was like an altar call in church or at a revival. People were testifying to their faith - their faith not in God or Jesus, but to Duke Energy (DE) as a “good corporate citizen” and provider of energy and jobs for their community.
The event was a Department of Air Quality (DAQ) Public Hearing on Duke’s request to build a new coal-fired power plant at their Cliffside facility in Rutherfordton, N.C.
The hearing was the ONLY public hearing that the DAQ scheduled in the entire state for public input despite repeated requests for statewide hearings at more convenient times and locations for the N.C. public. This decision was basically a sacrifice of democracy at the altar of DE. This hearing was in the high school auditorium inForest
City, the heart of Duke’s circle of influence. DAQ made it nearly impossible for a truly representative sample of public comment to be heard, because the auditorium was packed with people beholden to Duke.County Commissioner after Commissioner and Mayor after Mayor of the communities around Cliffside in Rutherford and Polk Counties testified to the community benefits that the new power plant would allegedly provide.
Paul Hawken in his new book Blessed Unrest phrased it well when he wrote:
“We live in a faith based economy, and by that I do not refer to religious practice. People are asked to place their faith in economic systems and political systems that have polluted water, air, and sea; that have despoiled communities…and created a stratosphere sufficiently permeated with industrial gases that we are, in effect, playing dice with the planet.”
What the good people of Rutherford and Polk counties don’t understand are the broader implications of the DE proposal. The new Cliffside will cost an estimated $3 billion dollars and generate only 20-30 new full time jobs. A more prudent investment of those dollars in efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy facilities will generate 100’s of middle class wage earner jobs for their local economy. In The Power to Choose, North Carolina’s Clean Energy Future, Tellus Institute’s analysis reveals close to 40,000 jobs statewide could be generated by investing in efficiency and renewable energy.
The new Cliffside boiler, if allowed to be built, will produce over 300 million tons of CO2 during its 50 year lifespan. This will occur at a time when climate scientists are telling us that we need to immediately cap CO2 production and begin to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases over the next 20-40 years if we are to avert the most damaging effects of global warming.
Professor Martin Parry, co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently said, “Ten years ago we were talking about these impacts affecting our children and our grandchildren. Now it is happening to us…Even if we achieve a cap at two degrees, there is a stock of major impacts out there already and that means adaptation. You cannot mitigate your way out of this problem… The choice is between a damaged world or a future with a severely damaged world.”
Jim Hansen, the USA’s pre-eminent climate scientist wrote in his written testimony to the DAQ:
“The upshot is that the scientific community realizes that we are much closer to the dangerous level of atmospheric greenhouse gases than would have been estimated even 3-5 years ago. In turn the implication is that humanity must find some way to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at a level of, at most, 450 parts per million, and perhaps even significantly less. Based on the amounts of carbon in the different fossil fuels, coal being the largest, an inevitable conclusion is that coal use must be phased out over the next few decades except at truly clean coal power plants that capture and store the carbon dioxide.
In blunter language, it has become clear that in order to avoid creating a different planet with disastrous consequences for humanity and other species, over the next few decades we will need to “bulldoze” old-style power plants that do not capture and store CO2. The new Cliffside, although better than most coal burning plants, is one of those old-style plants not designed to capture and store CO2.”
The members of DAQ are public servants and are required, according to Section 2 of the NC Constitution, to act on behalf of the “good of the whole.” The “good of the whole” includes both the human community and a climate that supports planetary integrity and stability. We need more democracy, not less. We need an altar call to life, not to a “severely damaged world.”