Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Hopeful News from the Ranch
distributed 6/17/11 - ©2011

Many years ago, I did some software consulting work for a cattle rancher. To help me understand the livestock business, Jerry signed me up for a collection of free magazines. Every now and then, I still get a copy of Drovers Journal in the mail.

For those without the arcane vocabulary cultivated by doing crossword puzzles or playing scrabble, a drover is "a person who moves groups of animals (such as cattle or sheep) from one place to another." The magazine, though, goes way beyond the stock handlers who actually ride herd on domestic ruminants. It covers quite a range of economic and management issues relevant to the big business of modern livestock production.

Needless to say, Drovers Journal is quite a change of pace from my customary reading in theology and ethics, environmentalism and progressive social change.

When I flipped through the May 2011 issue, I was surprised to find several articles that meshed quite comfortably with my eco-justice perspectives. A few weeks of ruminating on that reading gives me some encouragement about gradual changes that are happening in our society, and reaffirms one of my commitments about churches and social change.

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The editorial at the front of the magazine was titled, "Pondering 'Life Without Oil'". The editorial itself doesn't "ponder". Instead, it clearly summarizes the book Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future by Steve Hallett. The implication of that summary is that we all -- including cattle producers -- need to ponder the rapidly emerging impacts of peak oil.

The editor doesn't raise any questions about Hallett's analysis of peak oil, or his belief that the world has already reached its peak of oil production. Those seem to be accepted as utterly realistic. The end of the column encourages our pondering by quoting a "difficult truth" from the book:

We've filled up the world with enough people, exhausted too many of its resources, and we need to settle into a lifestyle where we don't feel the need for constant progress and growth. You can't grow forever. We will reach limits, and the book argues that we are reaching those limits. There are some things that just run out and cannot be replaced, and oil is one of them.

Imagine my surprise to find a business-oriented livestock journal putting forth the same message that I had in one part of last spring's Lenten series: "we must acknowledge that Earth is finite, contained and limited." The tone of the editorial seemed to take seriously my April assertion: "Any economic system, any political ideology, or any religious doctrine which does not acknowledge the truth that planet Earth is finite and limited is unrealistic and guaranteed to be destructive."

Then I turned to the back of the magazine, where I found a column, "Growing More with Less". It started off with the statement, "The challenge of feeding a burgeoning world population may not be met by deploying the latest industrial farming techniques over vast acreages, according to a March report from United Nations researchers. Instead, the answer could be found on small farms practicing agroecology."

Agroecology -- like eco-justice -- holds together what our worldview has often separated. "Uniting the principles of ecology and agriculture, agroecology aims for optimal results in both areas: improved soil, biodiversity, landscape health and food production." The lead researcher for the UN report was quoted in the Wall Street Journal: "Now we are facing a situation where expensive oil and gas and the influence of climate change on yields are scaring us." Especially in developing countries, "we may have to leapfrog this stage of industrial agriculture and find ways to produce that are less addicted to fossil fuels."

Climate change is included in the column as a fact. The notion of agriculture with far less chemicals, far less technology, and far less corporate control is presented as a viable -- even an essential -- trend.

From 15 years ago, I do remember Drovers as representing an enlightened approach to ranching. They championed, for example, designs for corrals and livestock chutes which reduce stress on cattle and which would guarantee that a ranch's drovers would never need to use abusive ways of moving the animals (such as electric shocks).

Even so, it was surprising and delightful to see Drovers Journal's utterly factual presentation of topics that I have recently addressed in these Notes as culturally challenging. I am encouraged that climate change, peak oil, biodiversity, animal welfare, and appropriate forms of international development are presented to cattle ranchers as important matters to be addressed by responsible businesses. The magazine assumes that these ideas are not foreign, confusing or philosophically offensive to their readers.

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In the pronouncements and policies of ultra-partisan politics, and in the modern "blog-sphere" where ideologies are tightly defined and highly segregated, we get the impression of philosophical universes that are in constant and total war. It appears that we're all rabidly polarized, with no areas of agreement between climate believers and deniers, or between local/organic food production and corporate agriculture.

The May Drovers Journal reminded me that there are farmers and ranchers who are well-informed and concerned about peak oil and climate change, not to mention topsoil loss, water shortages, the over-use of antibiotics, and other issues that are of deep concern in my predominantly liberal circles. I am encouraged that these kinds of topics -- which were little known or highly controversial a decade ago -- are now broadly known and can be generally acknowledged in a business journal.

That, in turn, reinforces one of my beliefs about churches (and other religious institutions). These community organizations are one of the few settings in US society where it might be possible to have conversations between cattle ranchers and environmentalists, and between those who self-identify as liberals and conservatives on any number of issues.

Rather than falling into the polarized policy debates that fill the media, congregations can be a place where people of diverse backgrounds might "ponder life without oil" and reflect on appropriate forms of agriculture. In our rapidly changing world, we need to find points of agreement about newly evident truths, and discern ways that we can work together toward the health and vitality of the whole Earth community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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