Thursday, September 27, 2007

Religion and Environmental Thought Lecture Series Welcomes Michael Northcott

Religion and Environmental Thought Lecture Series Welcomes Michael Northcott

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Although it would be more comfortable to pretend otherwise, many people live with the understanding that humans are damaging the earth more now than they ever have in the past.

You don’t have to witness it yourself to regret that we annihilate mountains to mine coal in West Virginia. Or that we scour the sea floor of all life in pursuit of fish to eat. Or that we continue to destroy rainforests faster than we can name the species we’re extinguishing in the process. Or that burning fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow may guarantee there is no tomorrow for the many species of plants and animals whose habitats are altered or wiped out altogether by climate change.

Faced with these ongoing disasters of our own making, University of Illinois professor and director of the Program for the Study of Religion, Robert McKim, thinks it essential to ask what guidance the major religious traditions can provide for living in a less damaging way.

Can religion, he asks, serve as a source of hope, optimism, creativity, and new ideas?

McKim is hopeful that it can. For starters, he observes that the changes in outlook and behavior called for by environmentalists are very much in line with the central messages of many religious traditions: to be less selfish, less greedy, less casual about assuming we deserve what we have.

Many religions, he notes, are in fact engaging new thinking about what caring for the earth requires. Some traditions are calling for more sustainable ways of life, for avoiding the destruction of other species, for reducing our carbon footprint, for restoring woodlands and prairie, for stopping the pollution of rivers and lakes with agricultural runoff, and more besides.

In order to promote further dialogue on this topic, McKim has been coordinating a series of lectures in the field of religion and environmental thought. Next week, as part of that series, Professor Michael Northcott from the University of Edinburgh will visit campus to give two lectures, which are open to the public.

On Thursday, October 4th, professor Northcott will speak about the shift in outlook he sees as necessary for a meaningful response to climate change. From Northcott’s perspective, we can’t fix our disordered relationship with the atmosphere without deep reforms in our current ways of living, which, he argues, grow out of a false picture of how humans are connected with one another and the rest of life.

Then on Friday, October 5th, Professor Northcott will speak on the present, massive wave of humanly caused extinctions in light of the first chapters of the book of Genesis. For him, the stories of Adam and Noah speak powerfully to the present human condition and the ecological crisis.

Michael Northcott’s lectures will also serve as book-signing events for the North American launch of his new book, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming.

Both talks by professor Northcott will take place in the Author's Corner at the Illini Union Bookstore and begin at 4:00 p.m. More information about the “Religion and Environmental Thought” lecture series can be found at the website for the University of Illinois Program for the Study of Religion.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

University of Illinois Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

University of Illinois Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

One of the more active environmental groups on campus at the University of Illinois doesn’t have the word “environmental” in its name. It is a student chapter of the international organization, Engineers Without Borders, which partners with developing communities around the world in order to improve their quality of life.

Begun in 2003 at the initiative of students, the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders currently boasts about 100 active members. They range in expertise from first year students to Ph.D. candidates in disciplines that include civil, electrical, and chemical engineering, as well materials science. The members of Engineers Without Borders work with a faculty adviser on each of the projects they undertake, but the students themselves are ultimately responsible for the design and implementation of these projects. In addition, students maintain the organization through their own efforts, which is no mean feat for a group that sends a good percentage of its members out into the world each year.

Tessa Colbrese, a junior in civil engineering, and publicity officer for the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders, emphasizes that the group doesn’t go around looking for things to do, but undertakes projects in response to requests from communities that will be served by them.

She also explains that the group seeks to develop reciprocal, ongoing relationships where they work. In her words, “It’s not just a drop and go arrangement.” Engineers Without Borders provides design and technical assistance, and they raise funds to cover costs such as their own travel expenses. But the communities where they work contribute labor and materials for projects, as well as other services, such as food, housing, and translation.

To date the greatest success for the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders is the electrification project it assisted with in rural Orissa, in India. [Photo: UI Engineers Without Borders team members work with local residents to lay out foundation for building to house generator in Orissa.] There, in summer of 2005, they installed a generator intended to provide electricity for spice grinders, a source of revenue, and for lighting in one building in the town. The generator was modified to run on vegetable oil, a biofuel derived from local crops, rather than petroleum-based diesel, which would have been difficult and expensive to bring in. A year after the project was completed a group of students returned to Orissa to find power grids connecting more than 50 homes to the generator, mainly providing electricity for compact-fluorescent lighting. In addition, the community had organized a system under which families take turns providing the vegetable oil to run the generator.

The University of Illinois chapter of Engineers Without Borders currently has seven other projects in the works. These include one that will provide clean water to a village in Nigeria, one that will supply a rural area in Haiti with refrigerators that can operate independently of an electrical grid, and another to develop a device for measuring harmful emissions from indoor cook stoves, which are the source of a host of environmental problems worldwide. They’re even sponsoring a project in Champaign-Urbana to create biodiesel from waste vegetable oil generated by campus dining services that can then be used to power campus vehicles.

Beyond the immediate good that it does, perhaps greatest benefit provided by the U of I student chapter of Engineers Without Borders is sending out graduates who understand and value the importance of meeting human needs by environmentally sustainable means.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Appreciating Illinois Rivers, Celebrating “It’s Our River Day”

Appreciating Illinois Rivers, Celebrating “It’s Our River Day”

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

It’s easy enough to live in our part of Illinois without thinking too much about rivers. They are numerous here, but small and heavily altered, and most people encounter them only as they drive over bridges. But stop to dip your toes in one and you are connected to a system that makes life here possible.

Statewide, Illinois boasts 33,000 miles of permanently flowing rivers and streams. If you lined them all up they would stretch the length of the state from north to south 85 times.

We ask a lot of these waterways. More than seven and a half million people in Illinois get their tap water from rivers or other surface water sources, including reservoirs. We hunt and fish and boat and birdwatch on rivers.

We also depend heavily on rivers for taking water away. Cities and industry combine to discharge millions of gallons of treated wastewater into Illinois rivers and streams every day. These waterways are also essential for carrying off storm water, making it possible for people to live and farm in areas that would otherwise remain too wet for such purposes.

Human uses aside, Illinois rivers and streams are home to amazingly diverse aquatic animal communities, including 185 species of fish, 57 species of mussels, and hundreds of species of insects. These aquatic communities are, in turn, interwoven with the wider community of animals that inhabits river corridors, everything from painted turtles and tiger salamanders, to otters, osprey, bald eagles, and herons. Indeed, river corridors account for nearly all of the high quality wildlife habitat that remains in east central Illinois.

All of this is a long way of encouraging you to participate in “It’s Our River Day,” a coordinated effort to promote appreciation for rivers in Illinois, this coming Saturday, September 15th.

You can celebrate “It’s Our River Day” locally at the 10th anniversary Salt Fork River clean-up and workday. As in the past, volunteers of all ages are welcome at this event, where they can help beautify and promote the health of the Salt Fork River by picking up trash and removing invasive plant species.

Cosponsored by Salt Fork River Partners, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the St. Joseph group, Save Our Trees, and Prairie Rivers Network, this year’s clean-up has been moved upstream from it usual headquarters to highlight the new wetland restoration project in St. Joseph. At the wetland, which is being developed by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, volunteers will also have the opportunity to help install nest boxes for wood ducks, purple martins, and bluebirds.

Volunteers for the Salt Fork River clean-up are asked to dress in clothes that can get dirty and bring along work gloves and reusable water bottles if they can. Registration begins at 9:00 a.m. on the St. Joseph-Ogden High School lawn. The first 200 volunteers will receive a free calendar featuring photographs by local residents that highlight the many ways the Salt Fork River enhances our lives.

For more information about the Salt Fork River Clean-up and Work Day via email contact or By phone, call Prairie Rivers Network at 344-2371