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Scott’s Column: Affection, Stewardship, & Economy

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
May 8 2017

On the morning of Wednesday, May 3 I left early to drive to York, Nebraska in order to attend the Public Service Commission’s town hall meeting on Trans-Canada’s application for the Keystone XL pipeline. The PSC must approve or deny the route the company has applied for, and this meeting was the first step in their hearings on the matter.  They must decide if the pipeline is in Nebraska’s public interest.

I listened to almost seven hours of testimony, waiting for my turn to speak as number 119. I was fascinated watching this democratic process and effort at public reason.  People were sharing their particular points of view. Some arguments were more persuasive than others, some more compelling than others.  I learned a lot listening to the various perspectives.

Proponents, who were far outnumbered, spoke primarily about job creation.  The union construction workers testified compellingly of the importance of those jobs for their livelihoods and their families.  They spoke of the skill with which they build, the pride they take in their work, and the concerns they have as Nebraskans for the land and its well-being.

Opponent testimony varied across a wide-range of points-of-view and represented the vast geographical spread of the state.  Some spoke against the bullying and manipulative practices of Trans-Canada.  Some spoke of the bad deal offered landowners in Trans-Canada’s easement.  A few said that if there was going to be a pipeline, then put it in the route where the existing Keystone pipeline already is, further east and away from the aquifer.  Many spoke about the dirty tar sands and the potential ecological disaster posed by leaking.  Some spoke about climate change and the need to invest in renewable energy instead.  Many worried what would happen decades or more from now when the pipeline is no longer needed and neither the law nor the easements require Trans-Canada to reclaim the land. People spoke of Nebraska agriculture, the beauty of the landscape, Native American cultural sites along the route, negative economic impacts, and more. In fact, so many reasons were given for being opposed that it was difficult to imagine that the opposition won’t outweigh the support.

I wasn’t sure I would speak, as I didn’t want to cover ground someone else had already talked about.  But no one had spoken of the issue from the perspective of the Christian faith.  I was surprised by the absence of clergy, particularly from our denomination, which has long opposed the pipeline.  I stated that our stewardship of nature is among the first commands God gave us in the book of Genesis and that if we are to fulfill our moral and religious obligations then we should reject the pipeline.

Most compelling for me were the ranchers and farmers whose land would be seized through eminent domain.  Many are living on land that has been in their families since it was homesteaded in the 19th century.  When they spoke of their land it was with deep affection and an abiding sense of responsibility that goes by the old word stewardship.  A number of the ranchers cried, including one man who was in his eighties and could barely finish talking about his love of and responsibility for his land.

Listening, I was reminded of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and my favourite poet, whose 2012 Jefferson Lecture was entitled “It All Turns on Affection,” in which he explained the core ethical difference between those who stick to a place and those who exploit it for short term gain.  The stickers are motivated by affection.  Berry believes affection is sorely lacking in America these days.  I tend to agree.

I first learned about the impending effects of global climate change when I was in third grade, almost 35 years ago. I’ve long been puzzled and deeply disturbed by the moral failure of the generations ahead of mine to deal adequately with it.  We should have had a workable public policy about the time I was in high school.  The continued delay is nothing short of a moral catastrophe.

Wendell Berry writes that “economy is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us,” but he does not mean economics. Rather, he means the art of making household upon the earth, of kindly adapting ourselves to ecosystems.

It would seem to me that this defines the public interest—our kind stewardship of the land we hold in affection—while at the same time drawing upon the rich spiritual resources of our faith tradition.