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The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics


If you’re interested in environmental politics and Christian ethics… if you’d like to know how scarcity, the tragedy of the commons, and risk symbolize the tragic in modern environmental thought… if you’ve ever wondered how Bonhoeffer’s work on justification and responsibility applies to global environmental governance… if you’ve long suspected that the Anthropocene is a necessarily tragic epoch…

If you teach environmental politics, environmental ethics, or theological ethics…

If the future of the planet seems to hang on choices in which we must give up, forego, undermine, or destroy one or more goods in order to possess or secure one or more other goods…

Then you may be interested in this book.

A couple endorsements

This book is courageously honest, rigorously argued, and practically important for our present and future. Toly unflinchingly examines “the impossibility of possessing all non-trivial goods at once” in environmental governance and articulates a Bonhoefferian ethics for making tragic choices that integrates radical humility and hope. This work is highly recommended, especially for Christians seeking a responsible vision of environmental ethics and our shared future.

Andrew DeCort, author of Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation

In this remarkably clear-minded explanation of environmental governance challenges, Noah Toly interprets their tragic character within Christian moral thought in a way that opens a range of legitimate responses and orients agents toward hopeful responsibility.

Willis Jenkins, author of The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity

Preview the book at Google Books. Buy it at Amazon, direct from Oxford University Press, or at your local bookseller.

A favorite quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the Greek herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man. But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” in Strength to Love

Pizza delivery and the future of cities

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal ran a special section on the future of cities, which included a number of mildly interesting pieces. The best two were about walkability and natural disasters. Tucked right in the middle, though, was a half-page piece titled “Pizza Delivery Gears Up for a Driverless Era.” It seems smart cities and driverless cars are going to improve pizza delivery, and testing for that is already underway.

I’ve got nothing against pizza, and if I order it, I’d like it to arrive hot. So in one sense better pizza delivery is… ok.

In another sense, there’s a very real risk that better pizza delivery is about the best thing we get from these technologies. There’s a real risk, as I wrote elsewhere a few years ago, that new technologies will give us “more of the same—not the city of tomorrow but the city of yesterday with the sensors of tomorrow. In the end, Big Data is less likely to deliver on utopian promises and more likely just to help deliver our pizza faster.” Featuring a piece on pizza delivery in the WSJ Future of Cities special may foreshadow exactly that.

(Cf. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash)

Bryan Caplan’s Orwellian take on education

From my review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education in this summer’s issue of The Hedgehog Review.

Orwellian is an epithet with many meanings, all of them negative. It can refer to doublespeak, the use of pretentious diction, distortion, evasive speech, intentional ambiguity, and euphemism meant to make an unpleasant truth sound more palatable. It can describe forces that promote or require conformity. And finally, there are those who take Orwellian to refer to generally dystopian social and political conditions.

But when Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, says that he loves education too much to accept the “Orwellian substitute” that is our education system in the United States, there’s no need to figure out how he means it: He clearly has all three definitions in mind. To Caplan, “education,” and especially “higher education,” has become a euphemism for base credentialism that promotes conformity and results in profligate spending that undermines investments of time and money in worthier goods.

Lest prospective students and their parents head for the doors before finishing this review, it’s not that education doesn’t pay. On an annual basis, the average college graduate earns 73 percent more than the average high school graduate; people with at least a master’s degree earn three times the income of a high school dropout. Unlike the concerns of parents and prospective students, however, Caplan’s question is not whether employers pay handsomely enough to make education adequately rewarding for individuals. Rather, Caplan is interested in the social costs and benefits of education. He wants to know whether our massive public expenditures in favor of education—from state funding of public universities to federal provision of grants and subsidized loans—can be justified.

More here.

My summer reading plans

Last week, I posted my response to students who ask me how they should continue to read after graduation. I’m following that up with another post about reading.

I’ve mentioned before that every summer I read at least one book on writing/publishing, at least one book on teaching, and at least one book on higher education. Of course I do other reading, too — this summer, I plan to read quite a bit of Lorrie Moore’s work, for example — but my practice is to engage these three themes with regularity and intentionality.

Before I get to that summer reading list, I have two brief comments on last week’s post. (Skip ahead if you just want to get straight to books I’ve chosen for this summer.)

Two comments on my cover-to-cover reading comments from last week

Last week, I wrote:

  • “Read some things cover to cover.” For me, choosing to read a few publications cover to cover is a discipline that keeps me from picking the topics in which I already have interest, the perspectives that mach my own, the titles or headlines that intrigue me, or the authors that I already know and trust. My cover-to-cover reads are The Chronicle of Higher Education, Comment,  and The Hedgehog Review. [INSERT THE LAMENT FOR BOOKS & CULTURE AGAIN HERE.] For years, I’ve tried to cut down the amount of news and commentary that comes to me via social media. This semester, in order to get news slower, I specifically chose to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal in print — I read the front section cover to cover just about every day and the review section every week. (I also subscribe to the New York Times, but not in print (the educator discount isn’t as steep as it is for the WSJ), so I don’t read it cover to cover, exactly, and I try to stay away from the day’s breaking news.) Of course, my cover-to-cover reads are not my only reads. I read from a lot of other sources and some of it is crowdsourced or curated by who I follow on social media, but I think I’m in a better position to filter and interpret the reading that comes to me through those algorithmically determined and bubble-icious channels if I’m disciplined about regularly reading other sources.

First, I want to clarify that a lot of my reading still comes to me through social media. While I’m trying to avoid getting the day’s breaking news and hot takes that way, I still regularly encounter recommended commentary, essays, books, and more. I follow/friend a really diverse group of good readers, and I’m grateful that they find and post — and write! — good material. Moreover, I often crowdsource book recommendations. What I want to avoid is getting the news from my social media feeds.

Second, as soon as I posted this, I felt like something about my cover-to-cover reads was not quite right. Over the past few years, it hadn’t changed much. Books & Culture was discontinued [WORTH INSERTING THE LAMENT FOR BOOKS & CULTURE AGAIN] and I had added The Wall Street Journal, but something was missing. While in the past few years I have felt more keenly than ever the need to read and listen to Christians of color — and to allow their conversations to direct some of my attention — my cover-to-cover list didn’t reflect that. So I’ve asked some friends for recommendations about what I might add. I haven’t quite settled on anything yet, but Faithfully Magazine is one I’ll check out. If you’re reading this and want to suggest something, feel free to tweet the recommendation my way.

Now, my summer reading

Here are this summer’s choices in the categories of writing/publishing, teaching, and higher education (and a bonus category):

Writing/publishing

In this category, I’ll be reading What Editors Do: The Craft, Art, and Business of Book Editing. Over the years, I’ve read a number of books on editing, specifically. I think they’re helpful to me as I write, they demystify a key part of the publishing process, and, well, they may or may not be part of my strategy for writing procrastination.

Teaching

In this category, I’ll be reading On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom, by David Smith. Smith may be the leading thinker on how integration of faith and learning happens in the classroom. I had the privilege of spending the first half of this week in a seminar/workshop that he led on the topic, and I look forward to diving into his latest book.

Higher Education

This summer, I’m choosing a few extra books (five in total) in this category. (I’m also coordinating a Wheaton faculty summer reading group on the topic, but we won’t be reading all of these.) Included below are books I’ll read this summer, but also a few on which I cheated and got a head start. I meant to include them in summer reading, but couldn’t resist and got to them in late spring.

I’ve recently finished Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. It’s fascinating, worthwhile, and mildly depressing. Tl;dr version: Past models of higher ed demand have been too crude. The author, a labor economist at Carleton, develops a new, more sophisticated, and more granular model that accounts for variables like parents’ educational attainment and geography. The model suggests that our present slow decline in demand for higher education will be followed by a sharp but short-lived increase in the mid-2020s, which will be followed by a very sharp and uneven decline from 2026 on. Two-year schools and schools outside the top 100 in their categories will be hardest hit. Elite schools (top 50 in their categories) will actually see increasing demand. That will leave schools between 50 and 100, which will face a substantial decrease in demand, competing to fill their classrooms and dorms with the overflow from the top 50. So, my takeaway: if you’re in that 50-100 range, fight to stay near that top of that, get to the top of some niche, strengthen recruitment where demand will grow most, and develop programs and aid packages that make you a student’s top choice in their second tier.

I’ve also recently finished reading The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan. This book has been getting a lot of press lately (in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets). If you want my take, read the summer issue of The Hedgehog Review, in which I review it. Preview: Caplan is a clever writer and the book is a fun read. An Orwellian read, but a fun read.

In addition to those two, I’ll also read American Academic Cultures: A History of Higher Education, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King, Jr. Comes of Age (which I’m counting as a higher ed book)and Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education.

Evangelicalism (bonus category)

This summer, I’ve decided to do some remedial reading on evangelicalism. While I’ve read a lot around the topic (e.g., evangelicals and higher education, evangelicals and the environment, evangelicals and race), I haven’t read as much as one might expect on the topic. That’s not to say that I’ve read nothing, but current conversations about the state of evangelicalism often leave me wishing I had given the topic more attention earlier. After crowdsourcing an incredible (and incredibly long) list of readings, I’ve chosen to read the following this summer:

I’ll start with the introduction to Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and all of Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism. (These two are the first texts in another reading group I’m co-organizing this summer.)

After those, I’ll be reading Turning Points in the History of American EvangelicalismThe Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape AmericaApostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, and Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith.

We’ll see what’s next after reading all of that — my master list now includes several dozen books that have been recommended by friends. At some point, I may write a bit about what I think I’ve learned.

My advice to the class of 2018 about reading even after commencement

This is commencement weekend at Wheaton College. After a week of final exams, our graduating seniors will finally walk across the stage shake the president’s hand and receive a diploma showing that they’ve earned their college degree. Afterward, they’ll take photos outside, tassel turned to the correct side and folio held open to show off the goods.

If I recall correctly, back when I crossed the same stage, I received a note indicating that I needed to return several books to the library and that I owed substantial fines I had to pay before I could actually receive my diploma — thus, all of the photos afterward were taken with the folio closed. But who could blame me? (The answer to that is, I guess, the library and student accounts, but not, I suppose, anyone reading this post.) After spending multiple semesters as one of the worst students at Wheaton College (which is a story for another day), I had only recently figured out where the library was, and I was newly excited about the books it held. On the one hand, I’m certain I was still a recovering bad student — too lazy and disorganized to find some of the books, much less to return them. On the other hand, I like to think that I was also a bit anxious about whether I’d ever again have a chance to read so widely, alongside so many smart and interested readers, and surrounded by so many excellent resources. Nevertheless, in order to graduate, I had to return (or pay for) the books.

I remember this story every year in late April and early May as graduating seniors ask for my advice about what to read after they graduate or how to find good books when they’re not assigned on a syllabus. (And it strikes me that the very fact our students are asking such questions should play some role in assessment — an “our work here is done” kind of role.) I’d say I got this question from about a dozen students this year, with a few office hours appointments that turned out to have been made just to ask it. So here are some of my answers:

  • “Keep some great readers among your friends.” That was basically the answer I gave to a student who asked in general terms about how to find great books, but also specifically asked how I came across Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a novel I assigned for a section of my capstone course addressing the theme of vocation, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, another novel which I assigned as the last reading in my course on Environmental Politics. The first had been recommended to me by my (late) friend Brett Foster, whose reading recommendations I am sure never to exhaust. The second was assigned after I read a review of Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and asked my friend Tiffany Kriner whether I should be reading Ward. She said, yes, and not only yes, but that some interesting eco-critical work had been done on Salvage the Bones, and I might consider it for my Environmental Politics class.
  • I had come across the Ward review in The New Yorker, which leads me to the second piece of advice that I handed down: “Read some periodicals that take books seriously.” [INSERT LAMENT FOR BOOKS & CULTURE HERE]
  • “Read some things cover to cover.” For me, choosing to read a few publications cover to cover is a discipline that keeps me from picking the topics in which I already have interest, the perspectives that mach my own, the titles or headlines that intrigue me, or the authors that I already know and trust. My cover-to-cover reads are The Chronicle of Higher Education, Comment,  and The Hedgehog Review. [INSERT THE LAMENT FOR BOOKS & CULTURE AGAIN HERE.] For years, I’ve tried to cut down the amount of news and commentary that comes to me via social media. This semester, in order to get news slower, I specifically chose to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal in print — I read the front section cover to cover just about every day and the review section every week. (I also subscribe to the New York Times, but not in print (the educator discount isn’t as steep as it is for the WSJ), so I don’t read it cover to cover, exactly, and I try to stay away from the day’s breaking news.) Of course, my cover-to-cover reads are not my only reads. I read from a lot of other sources and some of it is crowdsourced or curated by who I follow on social media, but I think I’m in a better position to filter and interpret the reading that comes to me through those algorithmically determined and bubble-icious channels if I’m disciplined about regularly reading other sources.

Right now, I’m off to commencement ceremonies (faculty are gathering in the library, where perhaps I should check in to be sure I’ve actually paid all my fines!). For some of our students, once they cross that stage, there are no more syllabi, no more assigned readings. For others who may be off to graduate school there are plenty of assigned readings, though some may miss the breadth of their liberal arts education. Either way, the good news is that there’s plenty of good reading to do… even if you’ve returned all your books to the library so that you can show off your diploma.

Replacing absences and extensions with sick days and personal days

There’s one week left before the end of the semester. That makes it crunch-time for students. (Then it’s crunch-time for faculty who have to grade. Some of my students calculated that I’d have over 600 pages of work to grade just from one class.)

With crunch-time comes the inevitable barrage of requests for excused absences and extensions on projects, papers, and exams. Reasons range from illness to sudden personal or family crises to other college obligations. These are all things that students face during the rest of the semester, too, but at the end of the semester, any one of these issues is bound to intersect with some classroom obligation.

There seem to be as many ways of dealing with these requests as there are professors who field them. There are those with attendance policies (and among them those who enforce their policies and those who don’t) and those without attendance policies. There are those who never allow extensions and won’t accept late work, those who penalize late work, and those who will offer an extension for almost any reason. But most seem to have one thing in common: They’re not quite satisfied with the way they handle these requests.

Since February, I’ve been thinking about new policies on absences and extensions. That month, my students weren’t the only ones missing class. Typically, I don’t miss a single class session for anything but a professional obligation (e.g., a conference), but this semester I came down with influenza and missed class. (I should have missed more classes, but the doctor I first visited assured me I didn’t have the flu, so I actually taught  — maybe “taught” would be a better descriptor, given the shape I was in — when I should already have been at home.) When I missed class, I didn’t write to see if I could take the day off or not — I took a sick day. I think it was the second sick day I’ve ever used at Wheaton College and maybe the third or fourth I’ve ever used with any employer. This got me thinking….

Next year, I’m going to take my cues on this from the workplaces in which most of our students will find themselves soon after graduation. Many of those employers allow some combination of vacation days, personal days, sick days, and holidays (unless they roll the first three into one category, like “paid time off”). I think something like this model might work better for me and my students.

While students don’t need me to give them holidays or vacation days — there are plenty of those in the college calendar — I’m going to assign a set number of sick/personal days in a single group called “sick/personal days” (because I’m not going to be the arbiter of when someone is truly ill). Students will be able to use these sick/personal days for absences or extensions. Need to miss class? Use a sick/personal day. Need another two days to complete that paper? Use two sick/personal days. Want to give me your reason? Fine. Don’t want to share your reasons? Great — I don’t need to know.

How many sick/personal days should a student get in a semester? Here’s what I’d propose.

  1. The average number of sick days offered to new, early-career employees appears to be something like 8 per year– some get more, some get less. To be generous, let’s round that number up to 10.
  2. A semester is roughly one-third of a year. So it would be reasonable to give 3.3 sick days per semester, if a class were to meet every day.
  3. Very few classes meet every day, so we need to account for that: Multiply 3.3 by the percentage of days per week that your class meets. For a hypothetical class that meets three days per week, that’s 3.3*.6, which equals 1.98, so let’s say 2.
  4. So we have 2 sick days. Let’s add a personal day. That’s 3 sick/personal days in something like 45 class sessions.

A few additional guidelines:

  • Sick/personal days would be non-transferable (imagine the market for these days if they were transferable).
  • I would not allow them to be rolled over to any future term.
  • Students would still be accountable for material they missed during an absence. (Want to save up your days and miss the last week? No problem, but that material may still be on the exam.)
  • Again, students would be able to use sick/personal days for any combination of either absences or extensions.

Just like sick/personal days in the workplace, if you use them all up and then need additional time off, you’re pretty much out of luck. So, if a student uses all three sick/personal days and then wants an extension, they’re out of luck and the assignment is subject to whatever penalties normally accrue to late assignments. If a student uses all three and then wants to miss class for a trip or return late from spring break, no dice — they should have planned for that. Hopefully this approach would teach students to think ahead, steward their resources, and exercise good judgment while also getting them accustomed to some of the limitations of their future workplaces.

How rest can save the conversation on vocation from itself

If your college is anything like mine, conversations on “vocation” or “calling” have become integral to campus life. Many of us have become more intentional about helping students prepare for a life of discernment when it comes to making meaning or finding significance, making an impact, and making a living.

I’ve invested quite a bit in those conversations, both on campus and off. Here at Wheaton, I’ve written a semester-long curriculum of vocational exploration and discernment for our Wheaton in Chicago program and participated in the activities of Opus: The Art of Work (our institute for faith and vocation), serving as a Faculty Fellow and a Vocation Scholar in the institute’s Theology of Vocation Project. Away from Wheaton, I’ve been privileged to participate in the Project on Vocation & the Common Good, run out of the Charlottesville-based think tank New City Commons.

These projects on vocation have been some of the most rewarding opportunities of my past few years. That said, I have noticed some dysfunctions or perversions that, while not universal, are at least pervasive in our conversations on vocation. Specifically, much of the conversation on vocation struggles to deal adequately with

  • Careerism and consumerism
  • Choice and anxiety
  • Privilege and inequality

In this paper, “Called to Rest,” I argue that rightly understanding rest can not only help us  deal with the fragmentation of our time and attention, but may also help to save the conversation on vocation from itself.