Responding to Global Anxiety

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The global climate is shifting, resource distribution (both actual and imagined) is becoming a source of anxiety, and this anxiety is driving people from their homes, pushing them across borders, making them strangers in strange lands, and aggravating the entitlement of native populations. Ethnic demographics are shifting, birth rates are fluctuating in attention-demanding ways. Meanwhile digital communication has turned the entire world into a single community—a single village of unimaginable size and complexity.

How can we face a changing world in ways that won’t spark fearful, desperate outbursts? How do we either slow the changes, or identify the most vulnerable and ease their uncomfortable transition to a new world?

We’ll need to ease fear, present options and alternatives, calm troubled and terrified souls, guide the misguided, and hold up a lantern for those who are losing—or are about to lose—their way.

We have entered a difficult chapter in human history; All major transitions are difficult. But we believe that if we can make it through the rocky shifts that lie ahead, an golden age is waiting. We also believe that those who are able to see the path, and those who possess helpful knowledge, ability, or influence, have a responsibility to protect and prepare those who lack these things. We will move through this chapter together, whether we choose to or not. Let’s bring our best selves, apply our strengths, whatever they may be, and light the way.

Sustainable Development and Massive Tree Planting

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Earlier this year at a UN Assembly meeting in Beijing, Secretary General Antonio Gutteres stressed to world leaders that the time for transitional change is now; we have only 10 to 12 years to prevent the 1.5 degree global temperature change that indicates a point of no return, and “no country or community is immune,” as the Secretary General reminded the attendees. “As we know, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer, and the worst hit,” said Mr. Guterres. The solution lies in green and sustainable development, or projects that align with the Paris accord and the UN 2030 Agenda.

With this urgency serving as a global cultural backdrop, researchers at ETH Zurich, a university that specializes in science and engineering, have quantified a common question: can aggressively planting and developing forests absorb atmospheric carbon and buy us more time?

Researchers determined that the planet can sustain 2.5 billion additional acres of forest without including existing cities and farms, and that these additional trees could store 200 gigatons of carbon poured into the atmosphere by industrial activity.

The studies authors declared that 2/3 of historic carbon emissions could be reabsorbed by this massive development. While critics of the study maintain the amount would be closer to 1/3, the findings are still significant and even though it’s just a hypothetical thought exercise, the move could put a serious dent in the damage inflicted on the planet during the past 150 years.

“The new information simply allows us to re-prioritize investment into the restoration of forests and the conservation of existing forests as this has more potential for carbon capture than we could have anticipated,” according to the senior author of the study.

As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which is returned to the soil when the trees die and decompose. Just short list of countries with the space and terrain available for massive tree plantings could accommodate almost all of the 2.5 billion acres that would be needed to stave off climate change: Russia tops the list, followed by the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Now the most important question remains: who will organize this effort, and who will plant the trees?

Farming, Fate, and Difficult Decisions

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Imagine yourself a farmer in the early summer of 2019. (If this already describes you, the exercise should be easy.) Imagine the corn crop you planted, or attempted to plant, during the regular spring planting cycle has been damaged or washed away by a season of intense rain, unusual cold and strong flooding.

Now you’ll have to make a difficult set of decisions that may not only impact your own family and finances, but also the complex fluctuations and intersecting factors that put food on tables across the country.

You’ll need to either:

(1)  Plant your corn three weeks later in the season than you usually do, trusting that the floods are over, and raising a crop that may or may not be high and valuable enough to cover your loans by the season’s end.   

(2) Switch to a soybean crop, which tolerates a later planting and which farmers often do during spring seasons that are inclement for corn. The risk: soybeans are typically delivered to markets in China, which have been threatened by the current trade debacle. What if you grow a crop you can’t sell?

(3) Accept a subsidy so you can stay in the business…or not. Subsidies promised to farmers by the Trump administration require eligibility parameters, and these payouts will be limited or unavailable to farmers who have not planted anything yet due to flooded fields.

And then, the truly hard questions: If you hold a crop in storage while waiting for prices to return, what will you do if that never happens, or the water ruins your stored crop?  Will exiting farming now protect you and your family from a lifestyle with shrinking prospects? If you leave, what will you do instead? Where will you go?

And finally, consider the questions that fall not to you, but to the rest of us: What will we do if a year (or two or three) of painfully difficult decisions push farmers to exit the profession in critical numbers?

A healthy society and a functioning civilization depend on several things, including a democratic system of governance; a sustainable economy; ingrained support for education, culture and art; just, flexible and fairly enforced laws; and a system that brings accountability to those in power who work to undermine and corrupt it. But at the very core, none of these pillars can stand without universal access to clean water and food.

Without food, democracy, laws, culture, human rights, transportation, infrastructure and commerce fail quickly. And while climate change strikes at the heart of all of these things, none of our systems are more directly connected to the climate than our food system.

The United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and by simply examining the larger world, we can already see how climate change upends the lives of those who depend on the land for a living.

We may not all be able to grow our own food (though backyard gardens can supply us with both tomatoes and crucial lessons about the knowledge, labor, patience, experience, cost, risk, and moxy that it takes to grow a tomato, which can breed a healthy respect for farming). And we may not be able to protect ourselves from food shortages by implementing policy changes and price protections; a broken system, once broken, is difficult to rebuild, and abandoned fields don’t return to instant fecundity once lost overseas markets reopen.

But we can do one important thing, right now in the summer of 2019: Help farmers to make the difficult decisions in front of them by supporting farm-friendly policies and standing up to poor and reckless trade decisions. Most important: we can recognize the impact of climate change that’s taking place before our eyes, and we can look around the world and into the future as we search for ways to adapt.  

Violent Attacks and Freedom of Religion

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When mosques, churches, synagogues, and places of worship are attacked by violent actors, these places take reasonable steps to prevent future attacks: typically, they begin to implement countermeasures to protect those who assemble there.

With religious centers increasingly facing potential violence, many organizations and congregations are starting to consider lockdown protocols, security screenings and other measures designed to mitigate the threat. But while these measures may not conflict with the fundamental goals of a school or shopping center, they often conflict philosophically with the idea of a religious center as a place of refuge, inclusion, and spiritual welcome.

What happens to houses of worship when they close their doors and become cautious and vigilant in the face of possible violence? And what happens to democracy when freedom of religion and assembly become difficult to protect from violent threats, cyber threats, or political threats carried out by policy makers who harbor religious hostilities?

In a truly democratic society, is it reasonable to expect religious centers to change their practices and alter their fundamental approach to service and community in order to accommodate a system that can’t protect them?  Where should the changes occur: in the religious center itself, or in the justice and law enforcement systems in the surrounding community?

As heartfelt condemnations and messages of support surge following each attack on a religious center around the world, the growing number and brutality of these attacks are beginning to warrant more from policy makers and world leaders than pro-democracy, anti-hate rhetoric. And as this truth sinks in, the UN is encouraging national action by setting an example. In the spring of 2019, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the development of an Action Plan, led by Miguel Moretinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.

The plan will address a central goal: to reaffirm and protect the sanctity of all places of worship and “the safety of all worshippers who visit revered sites in a spirit of compassion and tolerance.” According to the Secretary General, “People everywhere must be allowed to observe and practice their faith in peace.”

The plan will require a new approach to the spread of hate on social media, and the separate threat of religiously biased media reporting. Guterres noted that in the US over the past decade, attacks involving Muslim perpetrators or suspects connected to Islam received 357% more coverage than attacks carried out by others. This act of injustice and irresponsibility can be difficult to trace to a single source or media outlet, making accountability a challenging goal.

But as always, the pursuit of peace and justice lie at the foundation of a healthy democracy. While the road to these goals can be riddled with contradiction and compromise, it’s time to dial back on heartfelt but empty expressions of support, and start looking for the elusive, complicated solutions that can protect free media without allowing biased reporting, protect communication and privacy without fanning the flames of hate, and protect safety without violating the free expression of religion and peaceful worship.

To learn how Just Atonement is working to achieve these goals and find these difficult answers, contact our team!

Erin Sweeney is a Philadelphia-based writer, illustrator, and advocate for sustainability and environmental justice.

Plastic Pollution: Where do we Stand?

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It’s 2019 and at this point, we all know that much of the human impact on our fragile planet comes from pollution. Our landfills are overflowing, and we haven’t successfully dealt with carbon emissions, toxic runoff from farm and lawn fertilizers, pesticides, manufacturing byproducts, mining waste, or the pollutants created by energy generation and transportation.

We’re introducing unwanted material to the biosphere at an ever-growing rate and we haven’t yet found the brake pedal, much less put it to use. One of the most depressing topics under this subheading can be summed up in a word: plastic.

The issue of environmental plastic is depressing, and in many ways paralyzing, for a simple reason. Each of us personally contributes to the problem every single day, and none of us know how to stop.

One Problem at a Time

Here at Just Atonement, we recognize that the problems are of the world are vast. So vast that in some cases, the metrics and charts that detail a given crisis contain numbers incomprehensible to the human mind. How many is a billion? How about 200 billion? How many children go hungry each night in conflict zones? How many people die of cholera each year due to a lack of clean water? How many grains of wheat are required to sustain a population of millions? How many years, months and days must pass before a nation is held accountable for a war crime? These numbers are available, but for most of us, they still somehow lie just out of reach. We can see the charts with our eyes, but we still can’t fully comprehend what they mean.

So it goes with plastic and the planet. A single coffee lid or plastic straw will lie on the sand for thousands of years. It will never disappear, generation after generation, lifetime after lifetime. One busy moment at a coffee shop, a single forgotten morning on the way to work, will leave this legacy for millennia. The giant garbage gyres made of such straws and lids are so vast that a two-day drive across a state like Texas still can’t cover their width. Our minds can’t typically process this, and since we need to get to work, the straw goes into the trash, the moment is forgotten and the day goes on. Since we don’t know how to prevent, slow, or comprehend the numerical extremes that lie within this series of events, we don’t want to try.

That’s normal.

But if we don’t, nobody else will.

So What, Then?

There is a way around this obstacle. The path is rocky and steep and the outcome is—so far—not guaranteed, but the road has two lanes: personal changes and policy changes. We can work hard to apply cultural pressures that convince our fellow consumers and ourselves to reject single-use plastic even when it’s available and convenient. And we can advocate and vote for policies that will remove plastic options from our lives, making them less available and thereby making individual smart choices easier.

But to get to either one, we need something that many of us struggle with: courage. That’s where organizations like Just Atonement can help. To move forward with either path, we need to overcome the paralysis and hopelessness that make us scroll past articles like this one  and this one. We need to trust ourselves, have faith, believe that our actions will create real change and then….take those actions.

Contemplating a sea turtle choking on our coffee shop straw is NOT pleasant. But contemplate it we must, before we use the straw and—most important-- before we refuse to think about it. Easy? No. But possible? We work every day to keep our eyes fixed on a distant future where sustainability is real, peace is attainable, and humans can live without fear, injustice, or a lack of access to resources, and we believe it IS possible.

If you’re looking for ways to gather your courage and help us find a path to that future, please contact our team today!