Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis I - an historic day for religion...AND the environment?!

Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment
Today's election of Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope has already proven to be an historic moment for the world's Catholics. I'm hopeful for an entirely different reason. I'm hopeful because, although he has not yet revealed why he chose it, he took the name Pope Francis I.

Francis of Assisi, born to a wealthy cloth merchant, eventually forsook the worldly (consumeristic) life to pursue a life a poverty and service to God. But he had a particular fondness for and connection with animals and the natural fact was enraptured enthralled with it. Though he was never ordained into the Catholic priesthood, he is perhaps the most venerated of all religious figures and is today known as the Patron Saint of Animals, the Environment, and Ecology.

Side bar: I had largely forgotten about it, but as a child I was incredibly moved by a movie. Being raised in a religious hippie commune for several of my early years, we did not have much access to television or radio. So when us children DID get to watch a movie, it was a significant moment for us. And one particular movie - Brother Sun Sister Moon - really resonated with me. Even (especially?) now, remembering back to watching that movie and learning more about the story of St. Francis of Assisi, I am moved to my core. Not so much by the movie, but by his story. This image (below) captures it particularly well for me. In complete vulnerability, there is this sense of amazing glory, fullness and strength...and he is offering himself to and embracing the amazing world - God's Creation - around him. But I digress...
1972's Brother Sun, Sister Moon movie cover
Religious leaders hold tremendous influence with people of faith regarding perspectives and attitudes about the environment. Recognizing this, a number of scientists have attempted to engage religious leaders in developing and framing science and sustainability messages that resonate with people of various religious backgrounds by convincing them of the direct applicability of environmental issues to questions of faith (journal examples [sadly behind paywalls] here, here, here and here). Among the more notable examples is the work from world-renowned ecologist E. O. Wilson (examples here and here).
A few Twitter links from today's historic Papal election.
Assuming the Pope takes up and fully embraces his namesake, I'm hopeful that a new era of wise environmental stewardship, perhaps initiated and championed by the roughly 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, may be just around the corner. Today's election results seem like a significant event. Maybe it will even prove to be a watershed moment in the move toward a more environmentally-minded consciousness. Today has certainly proven historic for the world's Catholics. But will today also prove to be an historic day for our planet? Only time will tell...but I'm hopeful.

Read the Canticle of Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Francis of Assisi

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dirt poor you (and me): Wealth Inequality - is there a role for government?

Video on wealth inequality in America. What we think it is, should be, and actually is are vastly different. Is this OK? Are you OK with it? Do you think you'll be able to move up into another wealth category? The statistics indicate no. Does government have a role to play here? Perhaps redistribution (such a vilified word for half of Americans)? Or maybe implementing Ross Perot's flat tax idea? See some good Mashable discussions on wealth inequality, then watch the video below. What do YOU think about wealth inequality?

Lest you think, in a momentary lapse of quasi-(in)sanity, that you actually CAN work your way into something of a top 20 percenter, this New York Times article (Ambition at a Cost) does a good job of illustrating just how deep the division is between the haves and have-nots.

And yet, for some strange reason, I keep striving to "lift myself up by my bootstraps" and attain greater wealth...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is efficiency the most important thing?


As I work my way through the OSU's Master of Public Policy (MPP) program, I'm struck at how much emphasis - at least in the early program coursework - is given to economic efficiency for solving problems (or rather, prioritizing solutions to problems). I can't help but efficiency really the most important variable in valuation of a thing? In a capitalist society, it certainly seems to be. World-renowned economist Bjorn Lomborg illustrates this well with his work on the Copenhagen Consensus (around the 12 minute mark you get his interpretation of what's most important) - we should be spending our money to influence problems of immediate concern rather than focusing on problems with longer-term affects. I can't be the only one that finds discounted present value - the concept that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow - an insidious notion...

Access larger versions of Lomborg's TED talk.

But what of non-capitalist ways of living (thinking)? What of making decisions now with an eye toward how current decisions will impact future generations? The Iroquois, Onandaga and other indigenous peoples understood the importance of thinking down the road. Why can't we? Is money really that corrupting an influence? Has economics ruined (clouded, at best) our long-term thinking? How can we dial back this myopic economic viewpoint and return to generational planning? Is it possible? I'd argue we're near a (Malcom Gladwell-ian) tipping point.

Political Typologies - don't box me, bro!

How do you identify yourself politically? How does it align with the results from this Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey/analysis? I consider myself a liberal Republican turned moderate Democrat (a centrist, really...something we've lost in our current political divisiveness). And, indeed, that's where my typology fell ("Post- Moderns" to "New Coalition Democrat", depending on my answer to one question) - socially liberal but generally fiscally conservative. I find it silly to try to label people along a continuum as they can simultaneously hold multiple "positions" along that spectrum - that is to say, being at one place along a spectrum isn't mutually exclusive from simultaneously being at another place along the same spectrum. 

Why do I consider myself centrist? I hold some socially liberal perspectives but also consider myself fiscally conservative. The results from that fun-to-take-but-not-too-insightful Pew Research survey landed me pretty much where I expected, too. BUT...I did not like answering many of the questions as the two options presented often did not capture my position. I took the survey several times, changing one question each time to see where it would place me and was not surprised to learn that changing one answer was often enough to move the label assigned me to another category. For instance, when I first took it, I landed in the "New Coalition Democrat" but when I changed my answer to the question about people whose skin color is of the darker persuasion and racial discrimination from "racial discrimination is the main reason people can't get ahead these days" to people of the darker skin persuasion "can't get ahead and are mostly responsible for their own condition", I was assigned to the "Post-Modern" category. In reality, I don't agree with either of these statements. But I did find it apropos that the name of the survey was "Going beyond red and blue" and yet the answer options were so restrictive, forcing you into one of two answers with no grey area between them. Guess that's the tradeoff between having too few people answer the questions (too complex and long) and a survey short enough to hold people's attention. No matter, it's just a quick-n-dirty survey/analysis. I am a complex onion with many layers. Some are so sweet and others might make you cry. I am secure in it.
I am an onion... (art by
Nevertheless, the utility in these sorts of "analyses" (if we can call them that) and of public policy theories in general is in helping us structure how we view the world. Indeed, these sorts of typologies offer some insights into how groups of people might loosely be clustered. But what value does that have in and of itself? How about for deciding how allocating government funds? Or deliberating on cutting, expanding, or creating new programs? Is it useful for getting understanding how to get elected? Certainly. How much utility beyond that? I believe the real utility is in illuminating where similarities exists and where the potential for commonalities/overlap can help advance or arrest particular policies.

This Pew Research survey/analysis claims to go "beyond Red vs. Blue". I don't think it goes far enough in identifying commonalities among differing political ideologies. Do you?