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The hermit and the ruler

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An old hermit was once invited to visit the court of the most powerful king of those times.

"I envy such a saintly man, who is content with so little." said the ruler.

"I envy Your Majesty, who is content with even less than I," responded the hermit.

"How can you say such a thing, when this entire country belongs to me?" said the offended king.

"For precisely that reason. I have the music of the celestial spheres, I have the rivers and mountains of the whole world, I have the moon and the sun, because I have God in my soul. Your Majesty, on the other hand, has only this kingdom.”

Food manifesto for the future

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Mark Bittman writes on food and food safety for the New York Times. In his Feb. 1 column he presents a Food Manifesto for the Future."

"For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet," he writes. "We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.

"That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

"Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring."

The 2011 State of the World report focuses on advances in sustainable agriculture

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The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report has been released for 2010. In the preface, Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch president, focuses on innovations in world agriculture over the last ten years, saying that these moves forward have been “an impressive success story.”

He writes: “Efforts to raise crop yields by investing in new agricultural technologies and infrastructure have met many of their immediate goals. Productivity has risen steadily in major grain producers such as Australia and the United States, while large areas of Asia, including China, have succeeded in raising yields and thereby reducing rural poverty and hunger.”

Another part of the story is that agriculture has advanced little in much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where national governments and the international community have underinvested in agriculture over the past several decades. “The failure to advance agriculture in some of the world’s poorest regions has made it impossible for rural economies to develop, leaving hundreds of millions stuck in a cycle of poverty.”

The nine ecological virtues

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When I was a kid in Catholic school I memorized a list of virtues out of the Baltimore Catechism. The three theological virtues roll right off the tip of my tongue still -- faith, hope and charity. These three were followed by the cardinal virtues -- prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude -- that when cultivated led to a moral stalwartness fortified by the gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, and fear of God.

These virtues were the goal and focus of our spirituality. They were resources to not only get us through life, but to enable us to flourish as citizens, as workers, as parents. Above all, they planted in our hearts dispositions to resist temptations and to do good.

Those afternoons memorizing the catechism took place, for me, in the late 1950s, while the Cold War was raging. Now it’s early in the 21st century.

The current attack on clean air

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Legislation proposed this week by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to block the Environment Protection Agency from enforcing safeguards to protect against carbon dioxide and other pollutants would be a serious public health setback, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said.

“Now we know the upshot of that behind-closed-doors meeting last month between big polluters and the staffs of Rep. Upton and Sen. Inhofe: A proposal that puts polluters’ profits ahead of our health’’ said Franz Matzner, climate and air legislative director at NRDC.

“This is unprecedented political interference with sound science and enforcement of clean air safeguards, which have improved our water and air for the past four decades. Politicians should not block EPA scientists from continuing to reduce carbon dioxide, mercury and other life-threatening pollution. Big polluters cannot be allowed to continue spewing unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our air.

Putting the cold in perspective

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It's very cold in the upper and lower Midwest right now. How cold can it get on a long-term basis and still support a functioning human population? For the answer, go to Oymyakon.

Oymyakon, in Russia’s Siberian republic of Yakutia, is the coldest inhabited place on Earth. The village of Oymyakon (???????) only has a population of 800 people and has registered a record low of 71.2 degrees below zero in [img_assist|nid=22657||desc=|link=none|align=left|width=246|height=185]1926. Average highs in winter are only -20 to -40F. Reports have it that it's so cold in Oymyakon that some birds freeze to death in mid-flight. The name Oymyakon actually means non-freezing water, because there is a natural hot spring nearby. The town is located 690 meters above sea level and lies in a valley between two mountain ranges (the reason for the low temperatures). The town was founded by the Mongol horsemen of Genghis Khan sometime in the 13th century.

'A smart ride' -- a test drive of the new electric cars

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"The future is here. It’s cheaper than I expected, and it’s so small that you could fit two in a single parking space," writes Adam Aston, blogger for the Natural Resources Defense Council's On Earth feature. He's referring to the new mainstream, all-battery electric cars that are about to hit U.S. Roads. He takes a test drive and reports on the experience in his Feb. 1 column.

The Koch brothers and the EPA

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For years, billionaires David and Charles Koch have given millions to Tea Party candidates and anyone else who fights efforts to promote clean energy and stop climate change.

Last weekend, this dangerous duo met behind closed doors with other big-money donors and political strategists to plot how to end the EPA's authority to protect our clean air and water. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune blogged about why the Koch brothers threaten America's future -- and how we can stop them

Debunking the myth of hell

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I’m writing about hell because it is an unthinkable, horrible, destructive concept that can’t possibly be true. I frankly can’t even imagine how anyone came up with something so horrific. Could any wrong merit the terrible pain of burning in fire, while fully conscious, for a week or a year, much less eternity? What kind of a monster would inflict that on anyone? How could such cruelty and sadism be consistent with a God of love? I don’t buy it for a minute.

I don’t care if scripture mentions hell or Jesus talked about it, if saints had visions of it, or if it’s a time-honored Catholic teaching. It simply can’t be justified on any level. We have no proof of its existence. It doesn’t work as a preventative for wrong. Fear is the lowest form of motivation in moral development, and has probably been more the cause of the terrible crimes of humanity than any deterrent. People laugh and joke about burning in hell and draw cartoons about it, but almost no one takes it seriously.

February's star of the month: Menkib

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Fourth-magnitude star Menkib (Arabic for "shoulder") in the constellation Perseus is one of the hottest stars visible to the unaided eye and one of the most massive. Located about 1,600 light years away, this blue-white giant's visible light is believed to be over 13,000 times as bright as our Sun. The star is also six times hotter with a temperature of 37,000 Kelvin. It is thought that this luminous giant is about 40 solar masses in size. Interstellar dust may dim its brightness, but Menkib itself illuminates the large California Nebula, a star forming region located in Perseus. The young star is only a few million years old, is unstable and may someday explode. It is also one of the rare "runaway" stars of our galaxy, rapidly accelerating with its dim companion away from its birthplace in Perseus.

Menkib and the constellation Perseus are visible overhead on February nights in North America.

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