We in Western North Carolina should be grateful that we have a representative in Congress who's a good listener. This is not a skill that's easy to come by. Good listening is a gift, often born of a family and spiritual life in which it was valued by significant people during one's early years.
I have met Rep. Heath Shuler only a few times, but when I did, he was clearly, truly present to me. When we spoke about the mountains of WNC, I felt he understood the importance of place on a deep, cellular level. He spoke of fishing the small streams near his home and the importance of preserving them for his children. I imagine him spending hours alone along the trails and waterways in the nearby mountains, listening and being nourished by the beauty of creation.
I also imagine him paying respectful attention to the old-timers in the mountains, who may have experienced the double-edged sword of "progress" when electricity was first brought to their communities. Much was improved, but much was also destroyed, and we're still trying to come to terms with the long-term social and environmental implications of "cheap" energy.
Shuler is no old-timer, but in his short lifetime in WNC, he has heard the hemlocks and trout calling out in distress. He doesn't need scientists to tell him that many of the distinctive creatures who make their homes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will surely migrate north (if they can do so quickly enough) or else become extinct as global warming accelerates.
No surprise, then, that Shuler has been a leader in the House of Representatives in helping to preserve, protect and restore God's creation. In his short time in Washington, he's been a leader in environmental conservation and in advocating for a new green-energy economy. He has voted not only to renew tax credits for clean, renewable energy but also to create a national program of environmental education (the No Child Left Inside Act). He not only voted to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, but also to require federally funded housing and community-revitalization projects for low-income and elderly people to meet certain energy-efficiency standards.
But perhaps Shuler's greatest challenge in listening came in the run-up to the recent vote on the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454). He was asked to listen to those who fear that responding responsibly to climate change will cost our economy and consumers too much.
Studies by both the Congressional Budget Office and the Union of Concerned Scientists agree that aggressive, comprehensive legislation that combats climate change while promoting conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy will not only save the country money but will protect consumers from the inevitable rise in energy costs.
Shuler knows the value of efficiency in protecting us from those cost increases. He knows the value of clean, renewable energy to a new green economy. And he knows the value of a clean, climatically stable biosphere to safe, secure human communities.
He has also listened to the international community, and he understands that we need to show the rest of the world that the United States is ready to take responsibility for its lion's share of global-warming pollution. When the new international climate treaty is negotiated in Copenhagen in December, the U.S. cannot arrive without having its own comprehensive plan in place.
So call Shuler and thank him for listening not to you or me, but to the voice of creation. His votes to protect the earth reflect wisdom beyond his years, a wisdom that understands that the human economy exists within a proper relationship to earth's economy — and in humility to the mysterious Unity of creation itself.
[Retired physician Richard Fireman is public-policy coordinator for NC Interfaith Power & Light, a program of the North Carolina Council of Churches. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]