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Archive for June 2011

The Government and Human Nature

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The passage of the equal marriage law in New York this past Friday was a great day for the US, and it is exciting to see so many more Americans living with the right to marry, regardless of orientation. My enthusiasm for New York’s wonderful change is about as high as can be from a straight, married man living in St. Paul. That said, I wasn’t going to write about the NY gay marriage law here because there are others who have more intimate stories and better voices with which to celebrate this. I have decided rather to write a little about our government.

Today, after a convoluted series of linking from blog to story, I ended up reading an editorial in the USA Today by Maggie Gallagheris, who is the chairman of the board for the National Organization for Marriage. Obviously we are not going to see eye-to-eye, so I read her piece not planning to much engage in her argument, or at least, not planning to allow it to affect me. But it did anyways, when she said this:

Gay marriage is not an increase in liberty; it is a government takeover of an institution that government did not create and should not redefine.  When the government endorses a lie about human nature, there will be consequences.

I don’t like this. I don’t like Ms. Gallagheris determining what is human nature nor what government should or should not do. Any good civics student knows that government does not make determinations about human nature (nor should anyone else, or any religion, or culture), nor does government endorse or oppose lies, or truths, about human nature. Government does operate within it, and tries to do its best to seek justice in society. Those societies, by the way, tend not to agree on what justice looks like, or what human nature is, or even the idea that there is a single thing that can be called human nature and defined, and thus lied about.

The government, especially the US gov’t, is not an arbiter of authority cramming “false equality” down the throats of unassuming Americans who are just hoping to avoid contact with the homosexuals. Instead, the government is quite literally the American people, and the people do the best we can, understanding the world the best we can from our limited perspective. Unfortunately, that means we don’t have the ultimate knowlegdes of human nature. For most,  it means that if we see what looks like inequality, we try to fix it. And that means marriage equality.


Written by Christopher ZF

June 29, 2011 at 17:04

The Coming Trouble with Natural Gas

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The NYTimes has published two articles in the past two days that address the natural gas industry and the future of US energy relating to gas. Yesterday came Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid Natural Gas Rush. The article looks at industry e-mails and warnings coming from within gas companies that the picture gas co.s have painted and the money they have made might be irresponsible. Like Enron style irresponsible.

A lot of the money provided energy companies rely on forecasting, and energy forecasting is difficult business. The forecasts for nat gas continue to grow, but the product of those wells remains in question. And this problem, far from the glamorous and high-profile issue of fracking, might be the real danger facing the gas industry. The promise of the gas business is that the amount of gas in US shale is enough to provide fuel for electricity, heat and vehicles, for generations, and there is so much that we can have it all at cheap fuel prices all along, because gas is so abundant and easy to procure. That may yet be the case, but it ignores the entire history of energy pricing to assume so. And energy industry folks are right to worry about this level of investment in an unproven industry.

Money is pouring in” from investors even though shale gas is “inherently unprofitable,” an analyst from PNC Wealth Management, an investment company, wrote to a contractor in a February e-mail. “Reminds you of dot-coms.”
“The word in the world of independents is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and the economics just do not work,” an analyst from IHS Drilling Data, an energy research company.”

It all depends on forecasting. A lot of that energy forecasting is done by the Energy Information Agency, the ‘independent’ government info agency, who are front and center in the second Times article, Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas. Gas forecasts at the EIA have been steadily increasing, a good sign for the industry and its investors. But like any group of officials, not everyone at the EIA agrees with the agency’s forecasts. Said one analyst at EIA: “Am I just totally crazy, or does it seem like everyone and their mothers are endorsing shale gas without getting a really good understanding of the economics at the business level?”

And this I think is the important piece of the natural gas narrative these articles are starting to investigate. The point is not that natural gas will not and can not be a long-term, affordable energy source for the next 60-100 years (depending on the forecast). Rather, that is one option in the realm of possibility, and anyone with an ounce of wisdom should think about the other possibilities: a boom and a bust as the industry sells the energy messiah only to fail to produce, or greater technological advancement fails to increase production as much as is expected and all that gas we know exists cannot be recovered affordably, or environmental degradation resulting from hydraulic fracturing makes shale gas recovery unsustainable.

Whatever the reality about the nation’s use of natural gas, the industry is in its infancy, and it is promising a lot of reward to a lot of people who are providing a lot of money. If nothing else, that alone should cause skepticism. Because too many stories that have started the same way in the past 10 years have ended in tragedy.

Written by Christopher ZF

June 27, 2011 at 09:56

Posted in energy

The unfortunate case of Science in the US

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CNN reports“I support intelligent design,” Bachmann told reporters in New Orleans following her speech to the Republican Leadership Conference. “What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”

Why do Christians work so hard to make a science of belief? This makes me sad. Leave science to science, and the science classroom to the teaching of science. The God/no god question doesn’t matter to science; there is no meaningful definition of science that can be satisfied by ‘God did it.’  Christians of the world should not hurt their own argument ( a beautiful one: There is a creator that made all things perfectly) by trying to gussy it up in junk science and creating a false debate.

There are not two sides of the evolution argument in science. No “letting the students decide” as Bachmann envisions. This isn’t how science operates, and that we have presidential candidates arguing for such demonstrates the horrible state of scientific literacy in the our country. One need not ‘believe’ in evolution, Ms. Bachmann, but there is no alternative scientific theory that can replace it. That doesn’t mean there never will be, but there is not a competing theory right now. And one cannot make up a scientific theory in a think-tank for the purpose of finding a teacher to teach that theory in order to draw a lawsuit  in order to bring that suit to the Supreme Court in hopes of  overturning evolution’s hold on scientific understanding of biological life thus freeing the minds of children from the evils of science and opening their hearts to Jesus. That’s not where science comes from and unfortunately, that is all Intelligent Design is.

And if the result of total local control of educational curriculum would lead to the teaching of intelligent design in the science classroom (not that this doesn’t happen all the time already), then individual curriculum should not be entirely controlled locally.

One might say that such comments from Bachmann are just campaign platitudes, conservative bona fides that do not really matter and do not call for any type of reaction from the other side. But one would be wrong. This is the education of our youth, and taking from them honest education is a terrible crime. The argument deserves to made every time some politician uses it for political purposes, if for no other purpose than to remind people that only science can be science.

Written by Christopher ZF

June 18, 2011 at 10:34

Bishops and abuse policies in the RCC

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There is a meeting of Bishops from the Catholic Church coming up in Seattle, WA. The agenda for this meeting was expected to include revisions to the abuse prevention policies currently in place in the Roman Catholic Church. Those rules were adopted in 2002 and seem to have either been 1) inadequate or 2) ignored.

I imagine 2 is more likely, but either way, my take on how poorly the RCC has handled the abuse cover-up has been discussed here previously. Suffice it to say the problems continue to mount, and will do so until real admission of guilt and true accountability come about. There are real questions, I suppose, about what power a bishop maintains for enforcing such policies, but those questions just seem like excuses most of the time.

Written by Christopher ZF

June 15, 2011 at 16:59

The Fracking of Minnesota.

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In Minnesota, there is sand. A lot of sand. Specifically, there is silica sand along the Mississippi River, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And these days, where there is sand, rest assured, there will be fracking. The Star Tribune last Sunday reports on the natural gas industry’s move to the upper Midwest, and all that it brings with it.

Fracking for natural gas is the new future of US energy, in case you haven’t heard. It will provide natural gas for generations, wean the nation off of foreign oil, power our automobiles, release fewer CO2 emissions, provide economic recovery for the blighted rural towns of America, you name it. This may sound mocking, but truly, these things are possible as  result of natural gas, and they should be acknowledged. Of course, there are problems. Food and Water Watch, for example, recommends a ban on fracking entirely. If fracking is the new energy manna, then opposition to fracking is the new environmental crusade.

To be fair, in my opinion, the jury is still out. Fracking could be as bad as Food and Water Watch says. It seems safe to say that there are great water concerns involved, but the science has not convinced me yet. Too much of the fracking opposition in the environmental community is anecdotal (Gasland), and too much of the pro-fracking science is simply industry movement (read: Haliburton). But you know who does pretty sound research? Sorry Michele Bachmann, the EPA (of course, that science does not always see the light of day). And the EPA has a comprehensive study on hydraulic fracturing in the works. There is danger in waiting for analysis, especially if we are polluting our water-tables in the meantime, and we should remember the precautionary principle, but the research just isn’t there yet to ensure that the benefits of gas mentioned above do not outweigh the risks to our water resources (or if it is, I’m missing it, and you should send it along).

Waiting for the research, frankly, puts the Mississippi River Valley in jeopardy. Regardless of the environmental dangers of fracking, it is easy to acknowledge (and tremble at) the massive land- and resource-use requirements* of hydraulic fracturing. Do we want to open the Mississippi Valley to the scale of mining on which fracking operates? Silica mines are not new in the upper Midwest, but mines of this high-volume scale will be (the Trib mentions a land purchase that will yield the equivalent of 7 Metrodome fulls of sand, 20 million tons). Taking sand out of the earth is a big deal, the amount of water needed to do so is an even bigger deal. And the nat. gas movement is not to industrial agricultural land  that has been in use for generations (a different, still contentious issue), but lovely country–Chippewa County, WI or bluffs on the river near Red Wing, MN–beautiful forest and sandstone formation river valley. It would be shameful and tragic to see it stripped bare and dug out. Because that is what fracking does. Hydraulic fracturing removes land and replaces it with Nothing. The gas folks know this. Here’s the Star Tribune:

Industry officials acknowledge the worries. “At the top of the list we have dust, trucking and water,” said Rich Budinger, regional manager for Wisconsin Industrial Sands, which owns mines in Maiden Rock, Bay City and Menomonie. “Blasting is another concern.”
His company works with local communities to minimize the effects, he said — tracking water usage, using tarps on its trucks and limiting the use of dynamite.
But the topography will change.
“The end would be a flat farm field that could be used for an industrial park 25 or 30 years down the road,” he said.

The US needs energy, and consistent energy policy. Do we want that energy to result in stretches of industrial parks? There is little reason to wait out the analysis of environmental concerns to know we don’t want this for some of our most beautiful spaces.

Frontenac State Park, on the Mississippi, just miles south of Red Wing, MN

*I am aware there may be some who see irony in using the land-use argument on fracking, as that same argument is used in support of the fossil fuel industry against renewable energy. However, this argument does not hold up for various reasons that are too detailed to engage in a footnote. But TRC is aware of this potential conflict.

Written by Christopher ZF

June 14, 2011 at 10:40

McKibben in Pictures

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TRC posted here recently about a Bill McKibben editorial in the Washington Post, about which we said:  “McKibben’s piece is an insult to those making millions or billions of dollars by successfully convincing people that climate change can be “believed” or “denied.” And for this reason it is a deserved insult. But that does not make it less sad.”

Also sad is this video, which I lifted from Grist. It’s a reading of McKibben’s editorial accompanied by footage of the content. It’s an on-line video about climate change, and thus has only (very) limited potential for efficacy. But is a powerful video none-the-less. And I wanted share it since McKibben’s article was discussed here.

Written by Christopher ZF

June 13, 2011 at 12:30

V.S. Naipaul and Feminine Tosh

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V.S. Naipaul’s books have had a genuine influence on how I see the world and live in it. I read his work in graduate school, where I had a class devoted to Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, and left a changed man, more curious and understanding than I was before it.  For Naipaul, the world is a difficult place, filled with uncertain futures and danger, but a possibility for navigating through this and living and seeing beauty in the world exists. There is a beautiful sense in his work, fiction and non-fiction, that this place requires one to be tough but also to understand others–especially if that understanding means exposing things that are generally left unseen. I am thinking here of Beyond Belief, a wonderful, difficult work following Naipaul as he travels through the Muslim world. He frustrates (to put it kindly) everyone with his books, nobody more so than the subjects of his books. Pick up a Naipaul novel, A Bend in the River is quick and amazing, and you wont’ be disappointed.

But that is Naipaul’s work. Naipaul the man is an asshole and it can be hard to recommend his work.  V.S. Naipaul is arrogant and condescending and treats people terribly, especially if those people are his wife, or not-wife, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Not-English, choose any specification you want. In his work, he is a terse and short, unwilling to accept half-way–and that is an asset in his books. But his acidic attitude matters in public, and the things he says matter: He is a Nobel Prize winning author who has written a body of work that spans decades, hemispheres, religion and politics and family. But then he speaks. What did he say now? The Guardian has the article:

This time, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – and singling out Jane Austen  for particular criticism. Asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.
He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

At least he’s not trying to be unkind. Jane Austen is your equal, Naipaul. She is among the greats of the greats. Jerk.

Written by Christopher ZF

June 4, 2011 at 12:01