A Web Interview with
Al Fritsch, SJ, on
Simple Living, Christians and

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Who is Al Fritsch? Kentucky-born, farm-raised, Catholic-nurtured, chemistry and liberal arts-educated, Jesuit priestly-called, public interest-involved, ecologically-concerned, and generally praying to continue with a balance of holy anger and compassionate mercy.

How did you get started doing your ecological work? From early youth I have been a conservationist and was a member of the Kentucky Junior Conservation Club from early high school. A love of nature was part of my upbringing mainly through the influence of my parents. We grew all our food and turned a rather rough hill farm into a successful agricultural venture -- even remineralizing the soil through crushed rock dust in the 1930's and 40's.

My formal education predated the environmental crisis and yet I had a deep desire to apply my scientific training to help poor folks both in this country and throughout the world. The opportunity came during a Vietnam War march at Austin in 1969, where I was working at the University of Texas. I met Joe Tom Easley who was a part time intern with Ralph Nader's DC-based Center for the Study of Responsive Law and asked him whether Ralph could use a chemist. The answer was "yes." So I have been fully engaged in public interest issues for the past 28 years, first for 7 years in Washington, DC, where three of us started the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and for 21 years in Appalachia at ASPI.

Tell us more about ASPI. ASPI seeks to make science and technology responsive to the needs of low-income people in Central Appalachia. The focus of attention is on environmental and appropriate technology issues. ASPI has five programs:

* ASPI Publications (for details visit our Web site)

* Earth Healing, a weekly half-hour television show that is soon to expand to more than the single WOBZ station (that station is going to become the first solar-powered television station);

* Two appropriate technology demonstration centers, one near Livingston, Kentucky, consisting of solar energy applications and examples of low-cost buildings, six types of dry composting toilets, three artificial wetlands, two greenhouses, and organic raised-bed garden plots, and a second small-town demonstration center at Mount Vernon with some of the same features;

* A sustainable forest center consisting of a nature center and about three miles of nature trails near an old-growth section of forestlands in the Rockcastle River Valley; and The Resource Assessment Service performing environmental resource assessments and creating ten-year action plans for over 150 non-profit organizations in 30 states. Associated with this Service is an effort to take solar and wood efficient stove demonstrations to other countries (Peru, Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Malawi).

What about Christians and ecology? This is a big topic and my work in this area has been somewhat spotted due to misunderstandings and differences as to what the Christian ecological task should be. I did serve as the first president of the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology and that drained a number of us very much. The reason in part is that, once such a group is organized, a number of single agenda folks quickly latch on and try to influence the otherwise ecumenical proceedings. These range from fundamentalists to New Age ex-Christians.

I have shied away from conference and massive gatherings in the past decade and generally regret any that I attend and participate in no matter how pleasant the surroundings and people. In part it is because the focus in the churches should be on action, not words. It would be far better that each church property have an environmental assessment and then develop a plan for simplification. And quietly implement that plan. When churches, as many do in this country, take on the same materialistic values of the prevailing culture there is no meaningful witness that can be given unless the congregation or group decides to simplify the church's lifestyle first.

I find selected theological texts and Scripture readings counterproductive in an affluent setting where the people are determined to continue in affluent ways. However, this simplification cannot be done overnight and that is where patience is necessary. The process of simplification is long and sometimes difficult and requires prayer and fasting. Many congregations are unwilling to make the plunge. Thus we need to emphasize 12-Step programs of facing addictions to material things and the need to put ourselves at the mercy of a greater Power. The conversion of materialistic Christian bodies can only achieved through confronting addictions and working through them, a process that our environmental resource assessments attempts to do.

Urgent Concerns. Being an activist one of my primary concerns is the assault on our surrounding Mixed Mesophytic Forest, the oldest and most varied temperate forest in the world. This forest is a treasure that is not valued highly by fellow Appalachians, who have been wounded and have lost much self-respect due to the environmental and community damage caused by colonial exploitation of our natural resources (coal, timber, etc.). We must reassert the uniqueness of our forestlands. In order to ensure that we have forestlands and employment for our poor woodland owners (over 400,000 in Kentucky alone) ASPI is promoting ginseng as an alternative crop to tobacco. Growing virtually wild ginseng could both save forests and offer a livelihood to the people.

A second concern is the gross materialism of the American culture and how poor folks are drawn into the rat race through their desire to imitate neighboring affluent people. Combatting this materialism through voluntary lifestyle changes has not been highly successful. Mandating lifestyle changes to our American Way is worth exploring in greater detail at this time. This more radical approach does not have much current popularity, but it does have a long history in the Biblical prophetic tradition.

A third concern is getting our message out to the general public. The competition for attention in an age of information overload is fierce. How are we going to deliver a message of good ecological practice when many such practices as sustainable living, healthy foods and recycling have been commercialized and perverted by special interest groups? Certainly the Internet is one answer, and so more attention must be given to preparation of materials for the mass media.

How can people participate in the work of ASPI? People could subscribe to our newsletter either by writing to

50 Lair Street
Mount Vernon, KY 40456

or by finding our Web Page -- www.kih.net/aspi  

Support comes from those who buy publications and simple lifestyle calendars and from those who visit our ASPI demonstration centers or help as volunteers.