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Kat Liu

Update on the Evolution Debate in Florida

About two months ago, I blogged in recognition of Darwin Day, at which time I pointed to a disturbing trend in Florida. Twelve county school districts had passed resolutions banning the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The teaching of evolution is no more a matter of ideology than the teaching of the Big Bang theory or thermodynamics. These are scientific theories, and whether or not one agrees with them, valid scientific theories are what is taught in a science class room. I myself have serious misgivings about the theory of natural selection, but I would still put it forth if I were teach high school science. To censor the teaching of evolution in a science curriculum is like censoring the teaching of Plato in a Greek philosophy curriculum. Teaching Plato has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with him.

At that time the Florida State Board of Education was scheduled to vote on the new science standards. The good news is that the board did vote to adopt standards of science education that require the teaching of evolutionary theory in Florida schools.

However, in response to this, anti-evolutionists then took on the strategy of requiring that Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative theory. Eight Florida school boards have since passed resolutions insisting that “alternative theories of organismal origin” be presented alongside evolution. On February 29th, Florida State Senator Ronda Storms introduced a bill in the legislature to the same effect.

The claim is that it’s not about religion (as that would obviously violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment) but about allowing teachers to teach alternative theories. The problem with this, as I said in my previous post, is that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It is by its very nature unscientific. This has nothing to do with whether it is “true” or not. I myself believe in a God who interacts in the world. But theories involving God as a cause simply cannot be empirically tested, and one of the criteria for a valid scientific theory is that it makes testable predictions.

When the bill was first introduced, the Florida Citizens for Science blog predicted it would go nowhere. Likely, that was the author’s hope. It so far has passed through two committees. And once again, these events have gone largely unreported in mainstream media, being carried mainly through blogs.

Building the Border Wall Hurts Us All

On the grounds of “protecting national security,” the U.S. government wants to build a wall on the 2,000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, with estimated costs ranging between one and eight billion dollars. (For perspective, the first 11 miles of the wall near San Diego cost $42 million – that’s $3.8 million per mile.) The government is building this wall despite evidence that tells us that the Canadian border is far more susceptible to anti-U.S. terrorist activity than the Mexican border. (Yet the U.S. is not building a wall along the Canadian border). Also, where it has already been built, the wall is woefully ineffective at keeping people out, delaying crossing by a matter of minutes. Instead, the wall has made human smuggling a lucrative business.

The Bush administration wants to complete another 670 miles of this wall across the environmentally sensitive Southwest by the end of this year. On April 1st the Dept of Homeland Security announced that it would be waiving almost three dozen federal, state and local laws and regulations in order to accomplish this goal. DHS has the power to do this because Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, which amongst other things gave the Department of Homeland Security the ability to waive all legal requirements, as necessary, in order to expedite the construction of border walls.

Unfortunately, this was not a cruel April Fools joke. In addition to the exorbitant costs for something that isn’t effective, these waivers have other quite serious repercussions. First, in the name of security, they bypass the very laws designed to ensure our safety, including the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. This means for example that DHS can build its wall without monitoring the impact that it will have on the Rio Grande. (If there are no negative health impacts, then why the need to bypass the laws?)

Second, by bypassing laws that protect land ownership/use, DHS can force the rightful owners to sell the needed land. This includes the forced selling of First-Nation-owned, sacred, ancestral lands, violating the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Third, it means that wildlife refuges that took years to create by painstakingly purchasing contiguous segments will be cut in half, bypassing laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The wall designed to segregate humans will also keep endangered species such as the ocelot from hunting and mating. It’s no wonder that the wall is opposed by a broad coalition of mayors, land-owners and environmental activists.

Our Seventh Principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, tells us that what we seek to do to one group also affects everything else including ourselves. As the examples above show, building a 2,000 mile wall across a continent hurts the most vulnerable people and animals on both sides of the border. We need a more holistic approach than building walls to reinforce boundaries that nature does not recognize. Looking at the economic forces that drive immigration and recognizing the need for equitable economic development would be a start.

Friends, if you are outraged by this latest abuse of power in the name of “security,” please do not let another abuse pass without resistance. Raise awareness. I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t even know about it. Tell your friends. Write letters to the editor. Blog. Make your voice heard.

Updates on the Eco-justice Front

First off, we offer this very graphic presentation on environmental degradation from the Guardian UK, in case you haven’t seen it. The images are powerful and disturbing, and drive home the scope of the challenges we face.

Secondly, some joyful news. Last week, leaders of the two largest faith groups in the U.S. took stronger stances on the need to act on global climate change. When the Vatican spoke to the Catholic faithful about the “new sins” of our times, they listed “ecological” offenses. Pope Benedict has recently and repeatedly said that climate change is an important concern for the entire human race. Along similar lines, the New York Times reported that high-ranking Southern Baptist leaders are backing a declaration calling for more action on climate change, saying their previous position had been “too timid.” We applaud the efforts of both denominations in our shared work to care for our earth.

Lastly, a call to action:

Saturday March 29th, is Earth Hour. Earth Hour started last year in Sydney, Australia. This year it is a global movement. Participants turn off their lights for one hour at 8 pm. Some past participants held weddings by candlelight. Get creative! In addition to raising awareness of the urgency of global climate change, if you register to participate in Earth Hour, they’ll give you tips of further actions you can take.

These actions will be good practice leading up to Earth Day!

World Water Day

Happy Vernal Equinox!

The availability of fresh, clean, drinking water is something that we tend to take for granted. It’s true that many of us worry about possible contaminants, but that is not the same thing as having no drinking water, where the only source of water for you and everyone around you is a well that is miles away on foot, or the river where others bathe and do their business. Most of us take for granted that when we turn on the tap, there will be water for us to drink, to bathe in, to wash our dishes and laundry and water our plants and slake the thirst of our pets. We take for granted that we can flush our toilets, safely and neatly removing bacteria away from us.

What if that weren’t the case?

One of every six people in the world lacks access to safe drinking water. That’s over 1.1 BILLION PEOPLE globally.

Two of every five people in the world lack access to basic sanitation services. That’s nearly 2.6 BILLION PEOPLE globally.

The repercussions of these numbers are immense. Since in many cultures it is the women and children who are responsible for procuring the needed water for their families, water scarcity poses an extra burden on their lives. And the lack of safe, clean water and sanitation leads to diseases such as dysentery. Over 13,000 people die every day due to water-related diseases, many of these children and almost all of them poor and communities of color. Over 13,000 deaths every day that could be easily avoided if we had the will.

March 22nd is World Water Day. It grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and its purpose is to raise awareness to water scarcity experienced by so many while we here often take the right to water for granted.

Several factors exacerbate water scarcity, the two of the biggest of which are global climate change and privatization of water:

As global climate change results in droughts and flooding (which contaminates water), water scarcity will be increasingly urgent. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that by 2080, it is likely that 1.1 to 3.2 billion people will be experiencing water scarcity. At least a billion will be forced to leave their homes, becoming water refugees. Those who are the least responsible for climate change are the first to suffer.

Large multi-national corporations are gaining increasing control to water sources all over the world. On the premise that they will provide jobs, these companies are often given large subsidies, even as they drain away millions of gallons of water from the local sources, leaving residents in the dust. As private companies have gained control of water sources, water has become a commodity that is denied to those who cannot afford to pay.

Water scarcity affects people all around the world and right here in this country. Last Fall we heard the amazing news that the metro area of Atlanta, Georgia had less than three months worth of water left. A booming population was competing for drought-scarce water with power plants, wildlife refuges for endangered species, and the needs of people down stream in Alabama and Florida. Imagine living in a city with no water coming from your tap, where only those who could afford to pay for bottled water can drink.

Given that access to clean, drinkable water is essential to human life, the UUA recognizes the human right to water, regardless of ability to pay. We follow the lead of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) on this issue. We also lift up the work of the UU Legislative Ministry of California for their work in my home state.

March 22nd is World Water Day. This Saturday, please take the time to reflect on all the ways you use water in your life. Visit the UUSC’s pages on the right to water. Visit the UUA’s new pages on this issue. And pledge to work for water justice.

Putting the Justice in Environmentalism

This past weekend was both physically and emotionally draining, highly educational, and ultimately uplifting. As happens occasionally, I double-booked myself. I had signed-up to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a three day conference on advocacy and social activism. (I’m not Christian but at no time did I feel excluded.) On the same Sunday, I was also slated to give a sermon at the congregation of Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists. Yet there was a kind of synergy going on, for the “track” that I was attending at the conference was “eco-justice” and the topic of my sermon was on environmental justice. The presentations that I heard on Saturday certainly helped to prepare me for Sunday. And with Sunday in mind, I took in all the information from the conference through the lens of Unitarian Universalism.

I will be talking about environmental justice a lot in the coming weeks, for certainly one post is not enough to do justice to the subject. But I thought I’d start off with an introduction on the difference between environmental justice and environmentalism as it has often been practiced, for indeed there is a difference and there shouldn’t be. Environmental Justice (or EJ for short) looks at environmental issues through the lens of racial, economic, and gender justice. For example, concern about global warming/climate change is environmentalism. Concern about global climate change because of the immense human suffering that it will cause to those who are least to blame is environmental justice. Saying that we’re going to address global warming by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions is environmentalism. Saying that we’re going to address global warming by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that low income families do not suffer disproportionately from the “solutions” is environmental justice.

This weekend was emotionally draining as I heard first-hand accounts of how global climate change is impacting residents of Tuvalu, forcing them to plan for mass evacuation/emmigration as their islands are being swallowed by the rising salt sea. The shoreline encroaches on houses; mangrove trees that form a natural protective barrier are dying; agriculture is failing and fresh water is increasingly scarce. They are being forced to become climate change refugees, leaving their homelands and relying on other nations to take them in. And the great irony is that these island cultures are the least responsible for the greenhouse gases that are causing global climate change. They are the least responsible yet the first to suffer.

It isn’t just island nations that are being adversely affected. The drastic changes in weather patterns due to global warming have resulted in floods in some places (which contaminate fresh water) and droughts in others. The United Nations has said that the violence in Darfur, Sudan has been greatly aggravated by the two decade long drought in the region. And given that in many cultures it is the women and children who are responsible for procuring water, it is they who suffer the most when local water sources are no longer usable and they have to travel ever farther on foot to carry the family’s water. Between the masses of refugees and the fighting over scarce resources, it should be obvious that global climate change is a peace and security issue. If we want peace, we must work for environmental justice.

As we drove to the conference in our cars, sat in well lit and comfortably warm rooms, watched presentations projected from computers onto big screens, ate our lunches packaged in plastic, and shopped for books, t-shirts and fair-trade coffee, etc. the irony really hit home. What we do on a daily basis without even thinking about it is directly responsible for suffering going on right now around the world. And it is taking resources that have taken hundreds of millenia to create and literally burning through them as if they were nothing. Our life style is simply not sustainable. Ultimately, environmental justice is spiritual work. EJ calls us to be in right relationship with our mother earth, with the rest of creation, and with each other.

For the record, the Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists welcomed me with great warmth and hospitality. Their questions showed great interest, knowledge and desire to make a difference. UUs have long been leaders in the racial and economic justice movements, in the women’s movement, in the peace movement, and in the environmentalist movement. It’s long past time to link them all together as an organic whole. I believe that our experiences will allow us to do just that, and that our voice is urgently needed.

Happy Darwin Day

Most people know today as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. What you might not know is that the man who saved the Union shares his birthday (to the year) with the man who proposed natural selection as the driving force for evolution. February 12th is “Darwin Day,” promoted by some as an “international celebration of science and humanity,” mainly in reaction against those that favor creationism/intelligent design.

As a former biologist, there is no doubt in my mind that the diversity of life on earth today came about by evolution. The common genetic origins that we share with all living organisms is seen not just in evolutionary theory but also genetics, developmental biology, molecular and cellular biology… In short, all of biology points to this unifying explanation. Even so, I would not normally be holding up Charles Darwin’s birthday as something particularly important to note. So why am I doing it now?

Yesterday, February 11th, the Florida Department of Education held its final public hearing on new state-wide science standards that would supercede any policies at the local levels. The proposed standards, which have been favorably received by teachers and scientists, would make the teaching of evolution a required part of Florida’s science education for the first time. This little fact drew people from all over the state to testify both in favor and against the proposed state standards. The controversy was so great that it eclipsed discussion on any other aspect of the proposed standards.

While I appreciate their sincerity, the arguments presented against the teaching of evolution show a fundamental lack of understanding of science and highlight the desperate need for improved science education. People argued that the word “theory” means it’s unproven, ignoring the fact that science doesn’t use the term that way. Few people go around disputing the theory of gravity, for example.

Nor do proponents of teaching intelligent design in science classrooms understand that while “God did it” is a valid theory, it is not a valid scientific theory. The assumption seems to be that “science teaches the truth and since I believe that creationism is true, science should teach it.” In reality, science describes the natural world and thus has no room for supernatural explanations. Science is not saying that there is no God; it makes no statement about God whatsoever.

One seemingly open-minded suggestion was that kids should be exposed to “all theories of creation,” and then free to decide which one they like best. That is great on a personal level. Every one of us is free to decide what we will and will not believe. However, we are not free to decide what is science and what is not science. Science is determined by an objective set of standards, not by subjective feeling nor popular vote.

Most shocking of all in this debate was the revelation that twelve county school districts in Florida have passed resolutions against the teaching of evolution in schools. Yes, twelve. First, I had no idea, after the Scopes (Monkey) Trial, that it was still possible to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. (What exactly does this mean? – will teachers be arrested or fired for teaching science?) Second, I would have thought that something like this would have received more attention than it has. A school board here and there is a blip; twelve school boards in one state is a movement. Yet so far, I’ve only been able to find scant mention of it in local Florida newspapers.

The Florida State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new science standards on Feb 19th. On this Darwin Day, let us pray that it votes to uphold education for future generations.