Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bottom-Up Environmental Planning: CT EarthNet

Traveling around Connecticut one hears similar discussions in towns from Greenwich to Thompson, Stonington to Salisbury.  More and more people are expressing concerns about the pace of change in their communities. In churches and synagogues, schools, libraries and meetings of community groups, the talk is about how local surroundings have enriched peoples' lives for centuries--and about how decisions we make today will determine the sort of place Connecticut will be in the future.

This series of posts describes an idea to establish CT Earthnet, a network to support community-based environmental management in Connecticut, to foster real change from the bottom up.

The network would serve to assist community-based groups with fundamental needs, facilitate the sharing of information, learning and experience, build political support and foster collaboration toward the accomplishment of shared objectives. It aims to benefit all groups in Connecticut involved with environmental education, planning and management in ways that government cannot.

I've spent the past three years traveling the state speaking to people about local natural history. Afterwards I have a chance to listen. I've heard what people have to say about what they feel is special about Connecticut. Many recall combing freshly plowed fields for arrowheads, turning over rocks to looke for salamanders and exploring nearby woods and streams as some of their most treasured memories. All wish for the state to remain the kind of place where their grandchildren can grow up having similar experiences.

There is a dissatisfaction with our current direction and a frustration that not enough is being done to protect what we have and change the way we're planning for our communties' and the state's future, and a real recognition that changes need to be made--and quickly.

"Countless residents have come to see their towns at a crossroads. So is the state. Sprawl diminishes open lands that support agriculture, water supplies, wildlife habitat and the character of the Connecticut countryside. It isolates poor and senior citizens, and limits housing variety…" Relentless, helter-skelter development is chewing up CT landscape, The Hartford Courant, editorial, October 10, 2005.

"It’s great to live in Connecticut; we have a quality of life that is the envy of much of America…but that quality of life is threatened…"As we held public hearings in municipalities across the state, we heard from Nutmeggers...We noted that expensive infrastructure is crumbling and going unused in our core cities while being rebuilt at great expense in formerly rural areas.  Connecticut is losing open space at a rate twice the national average…"Growth management should come from the bottom up, not the top down…now is the time for a bold agenda for transportation and land use in Connecticut." Groundwork’s Been Laid For Smarter Growth,The Hartford Courant, commentary,July 9, 2006. By Lewis J. Wallace, Jr.Chairman, Planning & Development Committee, Connecticut General Assembly

"A wide variety of recent reports, polls and policy documents agree that Connecticut is at a crossroads...The overriding conclusion is that Connecticut must improve how it manages its public resources if it hopes to…maintain its quality of life.  All types of communities—central cities, fully-developed suburbs, newly developing suburbs, and even affluent areas—are hurt by the way Connecticut is growing…Current land use, zoning and tax laws encourage sprawl, traffic, pollution, and poor planning, and contribute to increased segregation of poor people and racial minorities in a few towns and cities." Connecticut’s Future:  An Emerging Consensus, CenterEdge ProjectOffice of Urban Affairs, Archdiocese of Hartford.
"The most significant threats to Connecticut’s land and waterscapes include habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation from development;  changes in land use;  and competition  from invasive species. "Other threats include insufficient scientific knowledge regarding wildlife and their habitats (distribution, abundance, and condition);  the lack of landscape-level conservation;  insufficient resources to maintain or enhance wildlife habitat;  and public indifference toward conservation." Connecticut Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, November, 2005. State of Connecticut, Department of Environmental Protection.

In light of such local environmental debates, there are questions to be asked about what is the best approach to addressing environmental issues facing Connecticut. Will the answer be in top-down governmental regulation? Is it in bottom up community-based collaborations, or some combination of both? This series of posts aim to inform consideration of such questions.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (10th in a series): Eco-Theology

To find a bright spot in the otherwise gloomy outlook for the environment Professor Roger Gottlieb of Worcester Polytechnic Institute argues that advocates need to look at an historic and unprecedented movement underway in religious communities around the world. It is a movement that, according to Gottlieb, may be able to accomplish things secular environmentalism cannot.

Gottileb spoke before a group of a hundred or more people from religious congregations around the state who gathered at The Sacred Trust Forum in West Hartford Wednesday night. The forum was organized by the Interreligious Eco Justice Network, a coalition of local religious communities whose mission is " encourage faithful living that reflects a right relationship between humankind and the environment."

In his remarks, Gottlieb (above) described ways that attitudes among religious traditions towards environmentalism are changing rapidly.

"Anne Frank wrote in her diary about how as long as people can go outside and be alone in God's natural world things will always be all right," Gottlieb said. In recent years, he suggested, there has been a growing feeling among people that things are no longer all right and a greater realization that we are about to lose many of the vital things nature provides for us.

It has been a long time coming, Gottlieb said, but now religion is also responding. Religious traditions have begun to realize the crises of health, of social wisdom and of spirituality that are following on a half century or more of human degradation of the earth and natural environments.

Eco-theologians are thinking differently about long held beliefs to reinterpret old writings, critique traditions, and be inventive about how new ideas may be applied to old ways. Where old texts such as the Bible were read to give man dominion over the earth and living things upon it, new interpretations hold that the natural world has its own ethical, moral and spiritual standing.

Similarity between the Hebrew word for earth, Adamoh, and the name given to the first man, Adam, supports the view that Adam's name serves to remind us that we are little more than the dust of the earth, not masters of it. Rather than giving the garden to Adam, God's intent was that man should serve as steward for His creation.

Even more inventive interpretations are being put forth. Gottlieb described how some Jewish scholars are extending ideas about eating kosher to nourish one's body and soul to standards for environmental protection. To them, "SUV's are no more kosher than a ham sandwich," Gottlieb said.

"The idea that the human spirit is fundamentally different [from nature] is being questioned," Gottlieb said. New ideas say that nature matters, leading to changes in religious traditions' attitudes not only toward nature, but also towards who we are as people. "There is some dimension of ourselves that can feel an affinity, a kinship, with the rest of the world."

Gottlieb points out that the environmental justice movement in the US, "the idea that the way we treat nature connects with people and the way we treat people connects with nature," grew out of conferences convened by members of religious communities in the 1980s.

"It led to a kind of politics, a wonderful synthesis about environmental justice, where we now see that human justice, racial justice, civil justice and environmental justice are all one. It's not a special interest group brand of liberalism; it's about all of life."

It is a movement that Gottlieb argues has distinct contributions to make to meeting the challenges of modern day environmentalism. Religious tradition can be persuasive in ways nothing else can. It has a language of sin used to "express a certain depth, an ultimate kind of crime" that is compelling, a "rootedness," or a structure between government and family, and is a means for looking seriously at otherwise scary, intimidating problems and eventualities--attributes that have proven uniquely effective at getting people to change their behavior.

Perhaps most important is that religion "is a source of information about the positive values about alternate ways of life." According to Gottlieb, eco-theology offers an opportunity to inspire people for the greater good--rather than browbeating them with gloom and doom imagery often associated with secular environmentalism.