Friday, January 31, 2014

Loaves and Fishes and Environmental Impact Statements

Today’s Daily Office Gospel reading (John 6:1-15) was John’s version of the familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. John writes that when a huge crowd of people was approaching, Jesus asked Philip “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew what he would do to feed the crowd, but he wanted to see what sort of an answer he got. Philip’s answer is a non-answer, understandable under the circumstances. He points out that even if they had the equivalent of six months’ wages to spend, it would barely give everyone in the crowd a little bit to eat. The unspoken assertion is that they do not have money like that to spend anyway. Then Andrew says, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

We know the rest of the story: Jesus blesses the loaves and fishes and the disciples distribute them. Everyone eats, and at the end they fill twelve baskets with leftovers.

People puzzle over this miracle story or simply marvel at it. What struck me reading it early this morning, though, was the contribution of the unnamed boy. I imagined Jesus talking to the disciples, having this adult conversation about how to do something that looked difficult to impossible to do, and a little boy standing there listening. A child knows little about the marketplace and probably has an even harder time comprehending the size of the crowd than do the disciples. But a child with five loaves of bread and two fish probably thinks he has a good amount of food! He doesn't know it isn't enough; he knows that he can help to feed the crowd, and he offers what he has.

The story from this point of view is less about the miracle or the lack of faith of the disciples than it is about the faith and generosity of a child who isn’t afraid to try to solve the problem. The disciples see what won’t work with the solution of buying food or of using what is at hand; they see failure as the only possibility because the chances of feeding that big a crowd with that amount of food are slim to none. I imagine the child, in contrast, brightening with the hope of being able to solve the problem.

For some reason I paid attention this morning when this aspect of the story surfaced.

When I sat down to check the day’s news, I saw that the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project was expected to be released today, and later in the day it was indeed released. The report finds that the impact on climate change is not significant; at the same time the report does say that there are greater emissions of greenhouse gases from the cumulative “well-to-wheels” effects of tar sands crude as compared to crude oil from other sources. (Executive Summary, Section 4.1.1) There is an underlying assumption that the tar sands will be mined with or without the pipeline.[i]

Environmentalists opposed to the Keystone XL project for a variety of reasons had hoped the report might clearly report that approval of the project would result in a significant and harmful increase in greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama had said that the effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change was a critical piece of his decision-making on the pipeline. Many news sources say that this report opens the way for President Obama to approve the pipeline.

There are, of course, many reasons to oppose this pipeline, and people who are concerned about the environment we are leaving as our legacy are not convinced that this is a harmless project. (See, for example, this statement from the Sierra Club, this by climate scientist Michael Mann, or these responses from Nebraska leaders in the movement to stop the pipeline.) While leaders have talked about the need to keep fighting, there has been some despair from the environmental community and concerned citizens in general today because it looks as if the oil industry with its huge amounts of money and the power and political influence that seems to be able to buy has the less moneyed, less powerful environmentalists in a corner. There has been an adult conversation today about how to do something – stop the Keystone XL pipeline -- that looks difficult to impossible to do.

But I heard Andrew say, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” And I began seeing what we have. Look over here -- there is a solar and wind powered energy barn - that has been built in the path of the pipeline. And over there are First Nations people in Canada who know the effects of the pollution from tar sands mining, and people on Indian reservations in the United States in the path of the pipeline who stand in solidarity against it. There are men and women who write regularly to elected officials and call the White House and talk to their neighbors about what is happening. There are grandmothers in Lincoln who bake apple pies to give to officials who do the right thing, and who encourage others to act in positive ways to counter despair. There are farmers and ranchers over there ready to stand their ground. And right here are people of faith who pray and preach and teach because we are people of hope and faith who know the outcome of the David and Goliath story and the Easter story.

We don’t know how all of this will work out, but we do know that when we offer what we have and put our eagerness to help ahead of our worries about our chances for success, God can find a way where we see little chance of one. When I pray about the pipeline in days ahead, I will keep in front of me the image of the little boy offering his loaves and fish to feed the crowd.

[i] In Section 4.1.3, the report includes this chillingly factual account of climate change impacts that can be expected once the pipeline is built:

However, during the subsequent operational time period, the following climate changes are anticipated to occur regardless of any potential effects from the proposed Project:
                        Warmer winter temperatures;
                        A shorter cool season;
                        A longer duration of frost-free periods;
                        More freeze-thaw cycles per year (which could lead to an increased number of episodes of soil contraction and expansion);
                        Warmer summer temperatures;
                        Increased number of hot days and consecutive hot days; and
                        Longer summers (which could lead to impacts associated with heat stress and wildfire risks).
The report concludes that the risk of spills from any of these climate impacts is less than the risks of spills from other causes.