Jones of the Nile

Friday, September 29, 2006

Don't go chasing bottled water falls

It's always nice to see coverage of a campaign that is likely just starting off, and sure to get bigger among progressives and social justice activists, especially those concerned about the environment. Case in point, check out this news article from the Toronto Globe and Mail on the United Church of Canada calling for a boycott of bottled water, and issuing a declaration that they will not use bottled water at their future gatherings and meetings.

I'm sure this is likely to rile up people. The hype is that bottled water is safer, it's trendier, and tastes better. But bottled water carries quite the baggage in the developing world, as mega-giant corporations seek to privatize water and sell it for a profit - thus limiting its access to people who might really need it, and also turning something that's a critical basic need into a commodity. God forbid they ever figure out how to privatize air!

David Hellman from the United Church of Christ had this to say:

Water is seen increasingly as a saleable commodity, [being used] to make a profit, as opposed to our perspective of it being an element of life and good for all creation.

Many writers, too, including Vandana Shiva, have asserted that our next wars are going to be fought over water, just as our current wars are fought over oil. I think she's right, which might be why corporations (pepsi and their aquafina, coke and their dasani) are licking their chops to get access to own and market water.

For more information on the United Church of Canada's boycott, go to

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Devil may care

I've been trying to articulate a comment about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's comments to the UN last week, where he, in dramatic flair, criticized President Bush as the devil, and made an superstar out of Noam Chomsky.

I met Chavez three years ago (well, not so much met him, as had coffee at his palace, Mira Flores, and watched a FIVE-HOUR taping of his weekly Venezuelan television show, Alo Presidente). I have a story, actually, of being clocked in the head by Chavez when he went to give the woman sitting next to me a hug. Ask me about it sometime, if you're interested. I promise to deliver the story with dramatic flair, though I'll refrain from calling anyone the devil.

I am not a Chavista by any stretch of the imagination, and think that his rant against Bush was unfortunate, if not comical. But don't write off this guy as the Carrot Top of world leaders. If you listened to his entire speech last week, you'll see one smart wizard behind the curtain.

To explain this better, check out Katrina vanden Heuvel's article "The Devil and Mr. Bush," posted here on Common Dreams.

For sure, the speech was far from a model of diplomatic rhetoric. But that didn't seem to bother the scores of experienced delegate-diplomats in the hall, who greeted Chávez's speech with wild applause. (When Bush spoke the day before, the General Assembly's hall sounded like a morgue.) That reaction, as an incisive Washington Post article points out, shows that Chávez's words, while " many ways...merely expressed in bolder terms what a number of other world leaders and foreign diplomats believe." Moreover, to be fair, how much diplomatic tact does Chávez owe to a President whose administration supported a coup against him?

Instead of trying to understand why Chávez said what he did, and how it played in Latin America and other parts of the world, or reporting that he also said in an interview last week that he'd welcome an improved relationship with the next Administration, most of the U.S. media was quick to attack the Venezuelan President for his incendiary words. Few bothered to ask why Chávez's excoriation of Bush might increase his popularity with UN member states and boost his campaign to win a non-permanent seat on the Security Council this October.

Katie Couric, Sean Hannity, or Paula Zahn can cover Chavez in any fashion they like, but painting him as a goofball really underestimates how much influence the man has gained, and not just within Latin America, but around the world.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A new way of environmental thinking

A friend of mine forwarded me the following reflection from Henri Nouwen, perhaps appropriate on Sunday, since it's the day we're all supposed to rest (instead of clinging to our blackberries for life support). Nouwen is a writer and theologian who I often find quite profound, though for some of his stuff I feel like an advanced degree in theology might be necessary (either that, or I'm just too flighty). This little reflection on creation is great, and could really be a guiding force behind the new energy toward merging the faith-based and environmental movements. Here ya' go:

How do we live in creation? Do we relate to it as a place full of "things" we can use for whatever need we want to fulfill and whatever goal we wish to accomplish? Or do we see creation first of all as a sacramental reality, a sacred space where God reveals to us the immense beauty of the Divine?

As long as we only use creation, we cannot recognise its sacredness because we are approaching it as if we are its owners. But when we relate to all that surrounds us as created by the same God who created us and as the place where God appears to us and calls us to worship and adoration, then we are able to recognise the sacred quality of all God's handiwork.

For far too long, our economic thinking and way of being has encouraged humanity - especially in the Western world - to relate to the world as a place full of "things" we can use for whatever goal we wish to accomplish...whether it's cheaper gas for mammoth vehicles, larger housing subdivisions, or food genetically modified and produced at larger than life quantities for a good profit. Land, animals, resources, water...there aren't unlimited supplies of these things, so we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought this way of life is sustainable.

But my favorite line in this reflection is the first sentence of the second graf: "we cannot recognize its sacredness because we are approaching it as if we are its owners." How profound! This line, to me, not only explains how environmental devastation continues, but how slavery, genocide, the war on terror, and poverty continue through history. When we approach people as though we were their owners (in the case of slavery, or farmworkers forced to pick food for little-to-no wages), we don't recognize their sacredness and condition ourselves to treat them unjustly. When the U.S. acts like a rogue cowboy (as increasingly is the case with our foreign policy) we fail to value the sacredness of others who share this planet. When we blindly participate in a system of economics that continues to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, soon we stop seeing any sacredness or self-worth in those that are poor.

Nouwen's words remind me of a line from "The Color Purple," by Alice Walker. Celie (who has gone through hell) is questioning whether God has forgotten about her, and Shug responds back:

God takin' his time getting around to you, I admit, but look at all he give us. Laughin', and singin', and sex. Sky over our heads, birds singin' to us. I think it piss God off if anybody even walk past the color purple in a field and not notice it. He say, "look what I made for you."

Maybe even worse than not noticing all the creation that lies around us is noticing it, then acting as if we own it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Youth with a wayward mission

"Youth with a Mission" sounds like one of those cheeky high school groups that I might have joined more than a decade ago, where suburban white students come together and do things like go to the local children's hospital, or clean up trash along the beach.

These Youth with a Mission, however, carry a different connotation. These youth are on a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity. And they do it by hosting The Thirty Days of Muslim Prayer, an event that coincides directly with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Their purpose? And I quote... (emphasis is their's, not mine)

Christians are called upon to make a concerted but respectful effort to learn about, pray for and reach out to Muslim neighbors — across the street and around the world. In the climate following the 9/11 tragedy, here is a proven tool to direct our focus more constructively. As Christians we resist the temptation to be caught up in generalizations, anger or fear toward all Muslims.

I love how they bold and italicize the word "all," seemingly indicating that it's perfectly acceptable to get caught up in generalizations, anger or fear toward some Muslims.

Of course, if they just stuck to this mission statement, I might give them the benefit of the doubt that they mean well, but just choose poor words to express themselves. Unfortunately, Youth with a Mission's international chairman had this to say to the Associated Press: Lynn Green, international chairman of Youth With A Mission, said organizers chose Ramadan because it is a time when Muslims pray for God's acceptance and guidance and "we add our prayers to theirs," Green said. "We are praying they really know God."

I love religion, until the point where people start praying that other's accept their God as the one true being. That's not solidarity, as Lynn Green would like this to sound. It's religious fascism, in every sense of the word. If you read the AP article further, both Youth with a Mission and the National Evangelical Association make great strides to say that they don't mean to disparage Islam with this campaign. Whether or not this is disparaging to Muslims is up for other's to decide. I think it is. But even more so, I think it's disparaging to Christianity.

Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, sums it up the best:
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, said he believes that true followers of Jesus would not pray for conversion, but would instead demonstrate their faith through good works.

"Mother Teresa did not go out to pray for people to convert to Christianity," said Hendi, who reads part of the Gospels daily. "She took care of the poor and that's what made people love Christianity."

Perhaps Lynn Green and the National Evangelical Association should try reading the Gospels daily.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

All in a week's work

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said “I must forgive so that the desire for revenge does not corrode my being.”

This past week marked the five-year anniversary of 9/11. The burden of grief that I’m sure thousands felt this week must be pretty overwhelming still, even as time creeps on by.

At the beginning of the week, as the media marinated in flashbacks to that Tuesday morning, it occurred to me that for every person with a first-hand account of the tragedy, there are likely an equal number of people with tales of redemption in the time that has lapsed since the attacks.

My favorite story comes from a friend and former colleague, who visited Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks. While there, she planted corn seeds in the ashes – corn seeds given to her by survivors of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. A year later, she returned and found an eight-foot high corn plant growing in the middle of Manhattan.

The symbolism of a seed, given by survivors of one war, growing in the middle of what has become a location synonymous with terrorism, is something I can’t help but be moved by. Life amidst death. Hope amidst despair. It’s become the one thing I make sure to remember on 9/11, since for the rest of my life I know that every year we’ll be inundated with the flashback footage from that day, and reminded of the numerous wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and mostly likely more to come) that wreak havoc in 9/11’s name.

Seems like no matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, this week marks a period where it’s really easy to fall into a mode of hate. Some hate those that orchestrated 9/11, and either because they’ve bought the President’s pitch or because they just don’t know any better, they hate the rest of the Muslim world, and anyone who might register a peep of a complaint over the idea of preemptive warfare.

Others hate what President Bush has done in the name of security, and by default hate him, his administration, and his supporters. I know I fall into this camp sometimes, and it’s hard not to when those running this country champion everything from torture to illegal wiretapping. But at the end of the day, I can say I believe in peace all I want…if my peace is fueled by anger, is it really peace at all? Or is it just corrosive, like Bishop Tutu says?

Maybe Thomas Merton has it right. Merton was a Trappist monk and contemplative who wrote more than 50 books, and was influenced heavily by both Christian and eastern religions. Merton’s guidance for activists:

“Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and women and love God above all. Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.”

I wonder how many anniversaries will have to pass before 9/11 becomes what it really should – a day to remember those who died, and to cry out against the roots of war that take seed in the hearts of people – instead of a day to pay false homage to those who died, while using their suffering to feed the appetite for permanent war.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Coke bows to pressure

You learn something new every day.

In this article from you'll learn a lot of things. First, you'll learn that Coca-Cola - one of my frequent targets - has bowed to pressure from some activist groups and the University of Michigan, and is letting an independent investigation team perform a "transparent, third-party environmental and labor audit" of its operations in India. Bravo!

Though the independent investigation hasn't been completed, it's still a good sign that activists with groups like Killer Coke and with the University of Michigan have succeeded in pushing Coca-Cola to open its doors. It's worth checking out, especially if you have a peaked interest in economics.

This Grist article offers more than just news of Coke offers a really interesting take on corporate social responsibility (CSR), and calls for a new emerging understanding of what constitutes good management - both within the company, and within the world.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Now this deserves a "Crikey"

A lot of attention has been paid this past week to death-inducing sea creatures, given Steve Irwin's untimely death. This article, by activist David Helvarg (originally printed by the L.A. Times and reprinted on Common Dreams), uses Irwin's death to highlight even more scary ocean creatures. As Helvarg writes...

Stingrays have accounted for only 17 deaths in the last decade, fewer even than sharks, which cause an average of eight human deaths worldwide every year. (We kill 100 million of these slow-growing predators a year, according to a U.N. report.) Irwin, whose "crikey" adrenalin-fueled joy at encountering and wrestling with various wild animals will be missed by millions of TV viewers, was taking a break from his latest documentary series, "The Ocean's Deadliest," when he died. The show was to include encounters with various species of sharks, saltwater crocodiles and venomous sea snakes. Although these animals fall into the category of "charismatic megafauna" (animals we find either very cuddly or very scary), they don't come close to reflecting the ocean's true human-killers: the water itself, bacteria, jellyfish and algae.

Dirty water, bacteria, jellyfish and algae are more dangerous than hammerhead sharks and pirrahna? Yup. As Helvarg points out, warming oceans (linked to climate change) and pollution from businesses and downright evil people, are increasing the number of "harmful algae blooms" (a term I find great pleasure in saying aloud, for some reason, as it just rolls off the tongue...) in our oceans.

The warming oceans also attract more jellyfish to the surface, and certain types of these are quite poisonous. Oh, and as Al Gore pointed out this summer, and many scientists before him, warming oceans also equal bigger and badder storms, from tsunamis to hurricanes, that account for many a drowning...and drownings, according to Helvgar, are the leading cause of ocean-related deaths.

So while the media this week devours the unique nature of Steve Irwin's death, it's helpful to put the evil stingray into perspective. It's also good to note that while Irwin loved to get up close and personal with sea snakes and sharks, the man was also a prominent conservationist...something he shared with another late ocean explorer, Jacques Costeau. As Helvgar writes:

"It's not hard to imagine that, like the elder Cousteau, Irwin's joyful and hugely popular exploits might have, over time and as he aged, become a more explicit forum in which he'd challenge us to protect, restore and value the wild side of our blue marble planet. Without him, we'll have to do it on our own."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Florida is bringing sexy back

Despite the fact that half of her campaign staff resigned, she was tied to a corrupt defense contractor, and the National Republican Party wouldn't offer an official endorsement of her, Katherine Harris has won the GOP nomination to challenge Senator Bill Nelson in November. Six years ago we all remember her (and her make-up!) during the Bush v. Gore recount debacle. Then she ran for Congress...and won. Now she's uncorking her $10+ million personal fortune to take on Sen. Nelson, who used to be an astronaut way back in the day.

Harris has almost no chance of winning, as she's already 30 points down in polls two months before Election Day. Not a good sign. But it is always amusing to see blasts from the past emerge again.

I do enjoy the picture on her campaign's Web site, however. I'm not sure, but I think that turtleneck is going to eat her.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Democrats pushing for their religious voice

With the launch of today, the Democratic establishment looks to further set in stone that they are a party that gets religion.

Only one in four voters thinks that the Democrats are friendly to religious voters. And as this CBS news article details, former Democratic Party chairman David Wilhelm was booed when he told members of the Christian Coalition that good Christians could belong to either political party.

Ergo the new Web site that is "tired of politicians, partisans and preachers spelling God 'G-O-P'." On the site, you can read a "faith exclusive" from Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey, or a blog entry on Internet porn from Eric Sapp, a staff person at Common Good Strategies, a DC-based consultancy agency that works with Democratic campaigns to clue them in regarding faith issues.

Looking over the new site, I'm all for Democrats cluing themselves into religion. Some of the great victories for the Left in the past century have been steeped in faith-based organizing, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Labor movement, and even now the Environmental Movement (for a great dose of optimism on how liberals and conservatives might actually work together to solve our environmental crisis, see this article about Harvard professor E.O. Wilson).

What boils my britches, however, are consultants looking to mold religious values into a series of talking points to elect Democrats. It's no different than consultants (ala Karl Rove) molding religious values into a series of talking points to elect Republicans (see elections in 2000, 2002, and 2004). It may be effective, but what you get in victory you lose in authenticity.

I know religion is the new fora for practicing politics, and I get that Democrats have lost touch with the core social justice principles that make many people - myself included - register with the party. But I hope that folks realize that this Web site - which hopefully will do some good - looks more public relations than religious substance. Reading Bob Casey's take on faith is great, but when he says that he takes to heart the words of St. Francis that we should "preach the Gospel always...use words whenever necessary," I'd like him to offer an explanation for how he's preaching the Gospel in one sentence, and saying that he would have voted for the Iraq war in the next sentence. Because my religious values dictate that the two don't go together.

For what it's worth, I hope this site does push Democrats to embrace religious values, and urge candidates to open up about what faith values drive their desire for public service. What I hope it doesn't become is a gift-wrapping center for packaging Democratic candidates in faith-based wrapping.