Plain Speech from the Heart(ache)land

The John Brown Mural hangs in the Kansas Statehouse.
The John Brown Mural hangs in the Kansas Capitol Building. That is a Bible that the crazed abolitionist is holding in his hand.

by guest writer, Lowell Bliss

The next time you hope for some plain-speaking legislation to come out of your state legislature, you may want to take a moment and be careful what you wish for.   This is the story of three environmental bills recently introduced in the Kansas statehouse. I live in Kansas.  We’re generally known for being plain-spoken.

Our governor Sam Brownback says he has an “All of the Above” energy policy.  I do not consider that plain-speaking any more than when President Obama uses the same phrase.  “All of the above” means that an executive can throw a sop to renewable energies without threatening the continued exploitation of fossil fuels. And thus we have our first bill, House Bill 2241, which wants to give our state utility companies a break on the Renewable Portfolio Standard.  They will no longer have to get a certain percentage of their energy requirements from renewables by the original deadlines – 10% by 2010, 15% by 2016 and 20% by 2020.  Surely these deadlines aren’t onerous for America’s second windiest state.  Even our name is a Native American term for “People of the South Wind.”  The bill also grants vague exemptions for “firm transmission” (i.e. standards don’t go in effect if there aren’t transmission lines available) and “excessive costs.”  There were a couple of occasions last summer when the nation of Germany reached the 50% mark in obtaining its electricity from renewables. Germans are the largest ethnicity designation of Kansas citizens.  Perhaps we could take some inspiration from the Old Country.

The second bill,  House Bill 2306, introduced last week,  is also not particularly plain-speaking.  In a tone of academic fairness and objectivity, it mandates that science classes in the state must “provide information to students of scientific evidence which both supports and counters a scientific theory or hypothesis.”  The teaching of certain “scientific controversies” should be objective and include “both the strengths and weaknesses of such scientific theory or hypothesis.” Lest you think they are referring to evolution or the existence of extraterrestrial life, the only controversy identified in the bill is “climate science.”

And that leads us to the one bill that is plain-speaking.  The first line of House Bill 2366 reads, “No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development.”

How does one outlaw sustainable development?!   Why would one outlaw sustainable development?

Actually, whenever I am tempted to say with exasperation, “Oh bloody Kansas,” I remind myself of what The West, the PBS documentary produced by Ken Burns, said of my beloved home state, namely that no civilian population suffered more for the cause of abolition than Bleeding Kansas.  Additionally, for the longest time, we were a hotbed of progressive populism.  Our most favorite Favorite Son—Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower—embodies what it means to war against totalitarian oppression.   In other words, when it comes to these three environmental bills, “we’re better than that!”

So I’m taking a new tack, based on my reading of theologian Walter Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination.  I’m not looking for you to join me in ridicule, scorn, exasperation, or even anger.  Instead I mourn.  Like Daniel in Daniel 9, I seek out the sackcloth and ashes,  and confess my sins and the sins of my people.  I cry out to God that our consciousness in Kansas seems as enslaved to Koch Industries (based in Wichita, by the way) as ever as much as the minds of the Israelite brickmakers were enslaved to Pharaoh.   So please, if you are tempted to roll your eyes at me and my fellow Kansans, include some tears as well.

Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil, and heartily endorses the work of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, the organization which alerted him to this pending legislation.  (If you are from Kansas, please consider writing your representative in opposition to these bills, thank you.)