Environment

Sounding the Alarm Bell

For those of us who live on the back roads of New England, there’s something about a bell rope leading up into a steeple. An old rope, that you have to really haul on to get the bells pealing—I’ve watched my smaller Sunday-school kids get lifted off the ground as it snaps back after a good tug. Everyone wants a turn.

I was in the small Massachusetts town of Sherborn, near Lexington, not long ago, and there were a dozen men, women, and kids standing around the bell rope, taking turns pulling, 10 rings apiece. But here’s the thing: It was a Saturday afternoon. And they rang the bell 350 times.

It was a test—a test of a kind of global emergency alert system that we hope to put into full effect on another Saturday, this October 24. In fact, I’m going to try and explain why pulling that bell 350 times may be the most useful thing your church can do to deal with climate change, to help avert the rapid unraveling of creation.

THOUGH YOU MAY not have yet heard, 350 is the most important number on earth. A year ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA scientist James Hansen, published a study showing that the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compatible with the “planet on which civilization developed” and to which “life on earth is adapted” is 350 parts per million. That’s a tough number, because we’re already past it (the air around you right now holds about 387 parts per million CO2). It explains why the Arctic has melted with stunning speed the last two summers and why the pH of the oceans has shifted dramatically just in the last decade. Global warming, it turns out, is not some future problem. It’s here, right now, breaking upon us.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Resurrection City

Kitty-corner from my church, St. Peter’s Episcopal, stand the remains of Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium. A new ballpark named after a bank—part of the run at the casino economy—is located in the new sports and entertainment district closer to downtown.

An attempt is ongoing to raise funds sufficient to save the historic field and clubhouse for a museum and playing field. Given the times, I wouldn’t bet on it. But I notice that the wound of demolition and removal of fully three-quarters of the old place is fresh enough that it still feels, every time I look, like a huge, gaping hole has opened up in the world.

That’s Detroit. Things coming down and spaces opening up. But open spaces mean possibility.

Thirty percent of Detroit is vacant land, nearly 40 square miles within the city limits. Google Earth that! Last year three farms and more than 200 school and community gardens bloomed in open spaces, plus nearly 400 family plots—and those are just the ones formally connected to Detroit’s Garden Resource Program Collaborative. Some of these are public school-based, such as Catherine Ferguson Academy, where pregnant teens and young mothers, in the shadow of a barn they themselves raised, each have an organic plot ringing the former football field (where horses now graze). Some are like the simple line of raised beds we constructed behind our church parking lot, a cooperative venture between congregants, neighbors, and soup kitchen participants.

Some agricultural projects aren’t properly gardens at all: Picture an east side community planting 170 fruit trees throughout their neighborhood. And some gardens spring up on vacant land, probably city-owned, but who knows? It feels like no one’s been in charge for a couple years, so people just seize the opportunity. But imagine if there actually were a programmatic city policy, with protected zoning for urban agriculture, or ways to legally get water from hydrants to vacant lots.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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The New Environmental Advocates

Victoria Cooper can rattle off the challenges that green job training programs face as quickly as she can the reasons for excitement. Cooper, who directs environmental technology programs at Chicago’s Wilbur Wright College, cautions that there’s “no such thing as recession-proof jobs.” Yet green workers will be required if the United States is to clean up the messes of global warming and pollution. “Everyone thinks this is a panacea and is going to change the world,” Cooper said. “The reality is there’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s complicated.”

Some places to start are the areas in which Wright College’s programs prepare students: energy auditing, managing hazardous materials, alternative energy, and environmentally friendly construction. Cooper estimates that 90 percent of the program’s graduates—22 so far since fall 2006, with 22 more students enrolled—are employed in jobs in which they use skills they learned at the school.

Buildings are a key area for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through cutting fossil-fuel use. Residential, commercial, and public buildings account for 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and consume 72 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the independent organization the U.S. Green Building Council. New buildings can be designed to be environmentally friendly. Older buildings can be made more energy efficient. Wright, a city college of Chicago, offers a building energy occupational technologies certificate to students who complete six courses on energy systems for commercial and residential buildings, the technical aspects of alternative and renewable energy sources, and building operation and maintenance.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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