Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On jellyfish and other delicacies:

I went to the New England Aquarium the other day. I thought I was just taking my son to see the fish and the penguins but I got another reminder of our impending doom instead.

Right now there is a special exhibit on jellies, so we checked it out. I’ve never liked running into them at the beach, but they are kinda pretty. Problem is, they are taking over the oceans! Apparently jellies are much better at adapting to global overheating* than fish. Before global temperatures started to rise, fish hatched each year before jellies began reproducing. Now the water warms earlier and the jellies are feeding while the fish are laying eggs and hatching. Jellies eat fish eggs and young as well as the plankton the fish need to survive. Meanwhile people are overfishing, making it that much harder for fish to compete. There was a video in the exhibit showing shrimpers bringing in a net full of jellies with just a sprinkling of shrimp!

My sister and brother- in-law were with us at the aquarium. They are both planetary scientists and they say that global change is already occurring: temperatures are increasing and weather is becoming more erratic. The good news is: we can slow the changes by finding alternatives to fossil fuel use and we need to do so right away. The bad news is: no matter what we do at this point, things will not go back to how they were. At some level, we’ll need to do like the jellies and adapt to climate change. Better learn to love peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches!

*I was at a Move On Political Action movie night in Roslindale, Massachusetts a few months ago to view "An Inconvenient Truth" and the group was discussing climate change. A man whose name I don’t remember said he thought “global warming” was too benign a name for a global crisis of this magnitude. He threw out “global overheating” as an alternative. I agree so I’ve started saying global overheating in hopes it will catch on. In the movie there’s a cartoon about a frog in a pot of water. Apparently, if you put a frog in boiling water, he’ll jump right back out. If, however, you put him in cold water and slowly heat it, he’ll die without ever knowing what hit him. We’re the frog. We need to be shocked into action. We need the language we use to describe this crisis to remind us constantly just how dire it is.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

On civil unions for everyone:

In Turkey, in many ways a more truly secular society than the U.S., marriage is a civil ceremony for everyone. The legal ceremony-- which is very brief and to the point, consists of: the couple stating their intention to be joined legally; the entering of the event into the record books of the municipality with the signatures of the couple, the official and 2 witnesses; and, occasionally, a short speech on the importance of marriage—is carried out by a government official usually at a party that resembles an American wedding reception. Those who wish to have an Imam (or minister or priest) sanction the marriage, seek one out separately. For some people the official ceremony is the “real” wedding and for others the religious one is most important-- that’s up to the couple and their families. The state sidesteps the issue, as it should, by not allowing religious leaders to be vested with powers of the state. Or, more accurately, it preempts it. In a truly secular society, this never becomes an issue in the first place.

That we have such trouble in the U.S. with the separation of church and state is largely an accident of history. Clearly our founders meant us to have a secular state. Because it was born of a more religious state, colonized by Christians, organized in its early days around churches, and made strong through public education that was-- for much of its history-- religious, the U.S. has out of habit, and sometimes political will, taken on certain characteristics of a religious state (In God we trust).

It is not, I would argue, an accident of history that we have a pluralistic society. It is, instead, the nature of America to welcome citizens of all kinds. The assertion of our Declaration of Independence that all (men) are created equal permeates our national self-image. Before there was even a democracy here, pilgrims came seeking freedom. “Give me your tired, your poor, yearning to breathe free,” the statue of liberty beckons. Our Constitution’s dictate of separation of church and state implies that we are open to being a home to people of all faiths.

Our citizens subscribe to many different religions or to no religion at all. They have many different styles of life and, under our Constitution, they are free to choose what they do privately. Even if you don’t believe this is a secular democracy by doctrine, certainly it is one de facto by virtue of our diverse population.

Now some citizens want to ammend our secular Constitution to deny others the right to marry based on religious ideas that aren't common to all. If we want to keep our democracy from flying apart, we need to affirm that it is a secular one. We should take a lesson from Turkey. We should make church and state truly separate by making civil union and religious marriage separate.