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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Bad Tree - Good Fruit
distributed 5/14/04 - ©2004

The news this week calls into question the words of Jesus. Matthew records this message from the Sermon on the Mount:

You will know them by their fruits. ... [E]very good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16-20)
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new regulations that are being widely praised by environmentalists. The Bush administration is being given well-deserved credit for doing an environmentally wonderful thing. Many of us have been sharpening our axes to chop down the bad tree, and here it is bearing good fruit.

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This excellent set of new regulations has to do with the nasty pollution that comes from diesel engines. A Clinton-era rule -- which was affirmed by the Bush administration -- is already cleaning up the diesel cars, busses and trucks that are used on roads and highways. This week's new rules apply to the previously unregulated diesels that are not on the highways: forklifts, tractors, bulldozers, locomotives, generators, barges and ships.

The regulations will require the companies that produce diesel fuel to reduce the sulfur content of their product by an incredible 99%. The manufacturers of diesel engines will need to make them run 90% cleaner. These are very significant improvements!

When all of those changes kick in by 2012, the reduction in soot and other emissions are predicted to prevent 12,000 premature deaths and 15,000 heart attacks each year. If you're looking for a textbook example of the relationship between environmental improvement and human well-being, look no farther.

The economic figures are good on this one, too. The various industries involved will be hit with about $2 billion in costs as they meet the regulations. The US society will save $80 billion from prevented heart attacks, asthma and premature deaths. It is hard to argue with a 40-to-1 payback.

In developing the new regulations, the EPA did their process right, too. All of the interest groups -- industry, public health, and environmental -- were brought to the table from the start, and were given real voice in shaping the outcome.

Great process, good regulations, outstanding results. There is real cause for celebrating.

So how did the "bad tree" -- the notoriously anti-environmental Bush administration -- come to this wonderful place? Is this a sign of a change of heart?

Columnist Amanda Griscom says that we shouldn't get our hopes up.

The existing Highway Diesel Rule created a context that made the new non-road regulations possible, and even preferable, for those who might otherwise fight it. Engine manufacturers have already done the research and development work to create clean technologies, and they just need to shift those improvements into a different class of engines. The refineries are already preparing to produce low-sulfur fuel for the on-road engines. Since all diesel fuel is distributed through the same set of pipelines, it only makes sense to produce the same quality fuel for all users.

Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, points out that the political cost of these new rules are very low for the Bush administration, too. The biggest economic hit is on the companies that manufacture diesel engines, and the two businesses that are most involved are located in Illinois and Indiana -- neither one of which is considered a "swing state" for the next election.

The new rules are great. Credit should be given to all those who brought these important regulations into being. But the commentators say that we shouldn't expect other great environmental news out of Washington anytime soon.

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Back to the words of Jesus. In the verses immediately after the ones I quoted above, the text gets more complicated. Apparently producing one prize fruit doesn't make a tree good. Doing good works without the right spirit doesn't give you blanket approval.

Jesus said:

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.' (Matthew 7:21-23)

I rejoice in the new EPA rules that will clean up non-road diesels. They are, indeed, a wonderful step toward a cleaner world. Real healing is coming for God's creation.

But when the political campaigns heat up in the coming months, if we hear the words "Did we not cast out the sulfur and the soot in the name of human health and the environment?" -- and if there are not other good fruits to show that the tree is good -- then we may need to say, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers."

As we evaluate the fruit that each candidate has produced -- on the environment, human health, war and peace, economic justice, on all of the themes that can move us toward or away from God's shalom -- let's be careful to look at the whole harvest, and not a single item.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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