Monday, January 19, 2009

The Sin of Driving an SUV?

As the Salt Lake Valley fills with air pollution due to the inversion to the point that you can't see any of the mountains that surround it, and these are nine and ten thousand foot peaks, I can't help but think of Moroni.

An inversion, by the way, is where cold air gets trapped closer to the ground by a cap of warm air. As a result, all of the pollution and smog gets trapped, in Salt Lake's case, in the valley. This can lead to serious health risks and a major deterioration of visibility, as well as being ugly to the point of depression. As you go up the canyons not only does it get warmer, paradoxically, but when you get above the inversion you can look down on a smog filled valley which looks like a bowl filled with the milk left over from Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. So, in one way at least, I was kind of happy to take the scouts out on winter camp last weekend. And I will say this about the inversion, it makes for beautiful sunrises. Just before dawn the whole valley is this thick, eerie blue, like in deep water where the sun just barely makes it through. Then, just as the sun rises, the whole valley turns bright yellow. Unfortunately, this lasts just a few minutes, then the haze unmasks itself and becomes whitish-brown and disgusting.

There is something vaguely just, however, about an inversion. Usually we create all this air pollution and it just gets swept away by the prevailing winds and we never have to deal with it, but during an inversion we are forced to live with it as it accumulates and we get to see just how much we pollute the air. In business speak I believe this is referred to as internalizing an externality. Here is a nice picture of it:

Anyway . . . Moroni was, of course, the last prophet of the Nephites, and the last living Nephite. He prophesied that the Book of Mormon would come forth in a pretty crappy time in Earth's history, which he described in great detail. Some examples of what would be going on when the Book of Mormon was revealed are that churches will seek for monetary gain instead of spiritual enlightenment, wars, earthquakes, pride, murder, stealing, lying, justification of sin, secret combinations, and you get the point. Here's another one Moroni snuck in there:

"Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth."

I will leave it to the prophets to declare what is a sin and what isn't (and the title is obviously a joke), but it appears that polluting is frowned upon at the very least. Which makes sense when we consider that we were given this beautiful world and put in dominion over it. Polluting the earth seems like a poor performance of our stewardship when we know that there are plenty of alternatives in order to pollute less.

Keeping this short because I have a problem being concise, I just feel like if we believe that the earth was created for us, purposely made to be both functional and beautiful, we, as members of the church, and as always I implicate myself as well, need to make those hard choices which set an example of good environmental stewardship. If you are interesting in reading a little more about Mormonism and environmentalism, and I think you should, here are a few links:

Hugh Nibley:
Brigham Young and the Environment
Man's Dominion, or Subduing the Earth
Stewardship of the Air

Professor George B. Handley from BYU:
LDS Belief and the Environment

Here's a hodgepodge (that's right, hodgepodge) of references:
Mormon Environmental Ethic

The Church has no specific stance on modern-day environmentalism, as Prof. Handley notes. These links are not purported doctrine, or suggestions to the First Presidency or Twelve Apostles. What I want to propose is that a modern-day environmentalism is perfectly compatible with church doctrine and, in my mind, a good fit. The culture of the West, including Utah, has traditionally been one of extraction of natural resources and taming the wild, which makes sense given the history of its settlement. But we are at a time now where we need to make more long term decisions about how we protect the environment, and I think the Gospel lends a solid foundation.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Society of Guns

Two recent events spurred this post. First, I read this story in the Salt Lake Tribune, and others like it, which show a rise in gun sales, despite a faltering economy, leading up to Obama becoming President. Second, I ran into a friend recently who was given a handgun for Christmas from his father-in-law. This is about the last person on earth who I would voluntarily own a gun and we had a good laugh about it. Soon after giving him the gun, the father-in-law sent my friend an article about a kid who got drunk and went home to the wrong house. The mistaken kid was banging on the door trying to get in when the home owner shot and killed him. The kid was unarmed. The father-in-law sent my friend this article as an example of why gun ownership was good.

Here are some thoughts. First, the Democratic Party has (sadly) taken gun control off the table since it proved to be a political loser for Al Gore. There is little or no threat of gun control during an Obama administration and a Democratically controlled Congress. So all of these people spending their hard-earned money in a rush to beat out new gun laws are are chicken littles or crying wolf or some other appropriate allusion.

Second, let me state that I have no real problem with guns owned for certain types of hunting. In my mind, there are two types of hunting. There is hunting for food and hunting for sport. I don't think I can criticize hunting for food, especially if used in a program like Hunt for the Hungry which donates the meat to the poor. Hunting for sport, for me, is a little more problematic. When I see a beautiful animal, a creation of God, I don't wish I could put a bullet in its heart and mount it severed head on my wall. I also think about the animals hunted to extinction, or near extinction. The passenger pigeon, for instance, once numbered in the billions and flocks would take hours to pass over head. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914. In Africa, trophy hunters have brought certain rhino species to the brink of extinction, and there are countless other examples. On the other hand, hunters have been some of the leading land conservationists, which I appreciate, even though the ironic motivation for the conservation is so they can continue to kill the animal being conserved. In any case, though hunting is a mixed bag philosophically and theologically (eat meat sparingly and, yes, I'm pointing a finger at myself, too), I have no real outrage for gun owners using their guns for hunting.

The problem, of course, is widespread ownership of handguns and assault weapons. To get the pesky Second Amendment thing out of the way, here it is in its entirety:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The language is unclear as to whether the right to bear arms is limited to a "well regulated Militia" or whether anyone has that right. I imagine most people don't realize that the second amendment has that clause related to militias and simply know it as "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." So those are the lines of the legal debate. A recent Supreme Court decision leaned toward affording Second Amendment rights to individuals by striking D.C.'s total handgun ban, but did not make any decisions as to a state's hypothetical ban on firearms. I think if you showed the amendment to your average sixth grader she would come to the conclusion that the right to bear arms is linked to militias. It is hard to just argue the clause "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" right out of the amendment.

So the legal arguments are interesting, and it goes much deeper, but I'm more interested in the policy and the underlying arguments for gun ownership and gun control. Handguns and assault weapons, as far as I can tell, serve only one practical purpose: killing other human beings. That is a huge problem for me. The streets are flooded with guns and, no coincidence, violence. Of course there is no practical way to get all these guns off the streets, but we could begin that task if we wanted.

There are as many statistics and studies out there linking guns to violence or lack of violence as there are guns in the United States (hundreds of millions). Some statistics show that you are more likely to kill a person (usually a family member) by accident than in self-defense, while some show that a large number of murders and violent crime are averted because of guns used in self-defense. Some statistics show that countries with very restrictive gun laws (e.g. Japan, UK) have much lower murder and violence rates than the US, while others show that countries with very lax gun laws (e.g. Switzerland, Israel) have very low violence and murder rates. Some studies show that American kids are at particular risk of gun violence and accidents, while some show that American kids are more safe because of guns. In sum, just drop the statistical arguments. They will say whatever you want them to say and there is probably a nugget of truth in them all accompanied by outright bias.

This is not about statistics, this is about our culture and our values and what we choose to emphasize. This is about changing our mindset from seeming outright eagerness to use a gun against a hypothetical threatening person to finding a way to reduce violence and crime in the first place. Crime is often linked to poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of education. What if we put a real effort into avoiding crime at the front end instead of at the back end? What if, as a society, we decided to improve our public school system, particularly in inner cities and other poor areas, and give those kids a real chance to succeed instead of making sure we could carry a concealed weapon? What if we focus on making college affordable for every kid that wants to attend instead of making guns available to anyone who walks in the store with a drivers license?

It seems to me that promoting gun ownership to forestall crime, whose root is found in deeeper societal ills, is like telling a lie to cover up a previous lie that people are on to. Or, and I'm really dishing out the similes now, it is like if you decide to get a tattoo, and it turns out really crappy and ugly. So you go back and have a little more decoration added to cover the original mess, but that's not quite right, either, so you continue the process until the next thing you know you have tattoos unicorns and def leppard lyrics and names of ex-girlfriends and countless other things covering 90% of your body.

Throwing guns at crime (or any other societal problem) may have some benefit, but those guns also add to the crime. So crime goes up and we decide to add more guns to non-criminals, but then criminals find it easier to get guns, and so forth. Next thing you know we live in a society replete with guns, with very little control over who has them and how they use them. I don't want to live in that society. I want to live in a society where we find solutions at the root of the problem as opposed to at the fruit.

Gun ownership is a symptom, I believe, of a society that has given up on finding answers to the really hard problems and is instead happy to find the easy short term fixes, ignoring the fact that they do long term harm.

We should be a society, especially as Mormons, that value life and justice and mercy above all else. We should not be afraid to search for the hard answers and difficult truths, and I believe one is that guns and violence go together always and that justice and mercy and real-life opportunities to improve one's life at the beginning are the answers, not more guns.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Utah Man Am I

I have some posts brewing on guns and Mormons in the Senate, but this takes precedent. After the Utes' romp over Alabama two conclusions must be reached. Utah deserves at least a share of the national title and the 2008-09 Utes are the state of Utah's greatest ever college football team. And that includes the "national champion" 1984 BYU Cougars.

As to the first point, Utah is the only undefeated team in college football. They beat four teams (BYU, TCU, Oregon St., and Alabama) ranked at the end of the season. They beat an SEC powerhouse, Alabama, ranked number one for much of the season and 15 minutes away from the national championship game, decidedly. They beat Alabama better than Florida did. They beat the team, Oregon St., that beat USC. The Utes may or may not be the best team in college football this year, but they have the best resume.

As to the second point, BYU's 1984 team had nowhere near the year of this year's Utes, and it's really not even close. In the Cougar's 1984 season they beat Pittsburgh. Pitt was ranked #3 at the time but finished the season 3-7-1. This is similar to the Utes' win over Michigan this year, which was Utah's least impressive win, in hindsight. They beat no teams ranked in the final polls. 1984 BYU also beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. I always assumed this is what propelled BYU to the national championship, a bowl win over a football powerhouse. Michigan was 6-6 that year, barely bowl eligible, and finished sixth in the Big Ten. Hardly an impressive win.

The difference is that BCS makes it impossible for a non-BCS team to win the national championship. The BCS was not a problem for BYU in 1984. If you took Utah's resume this year and put in in 1984, the Utes would be clear national champions over BYU. If you took BYU's 1984 resume and plugged it in this year, you'd have Ball St. but with a bowl win over a crappy team.

And 1984 BYU probably ranks behind 2004 Utah, the other undefeated, BCS-busting Utah team.

2008 Utah Utes: deserving national champion and best ever Utah college football team.