Throughout the course of 2018 it has seemed to me as if there has been a shift in public opinion to do with climate change. By and large, people seem to grasp that, at the very least, “Something is going on”.
Part of the editorial is addressed to corrupt public officials such as Scott Pruitt or Ryan Zinke. Leonhardt writes, “I often want to ask these officials: Deep down do you really believe that future generations of your own family will be immune from climate change’s damage?”
. . . every older person needs to be ready for the day when a younger person walks up to them and asks them two questions:
1. When did you know, and
2. What did you do about it?
When did you know about the many problems and predicaments facing our world today? When did you find out about species loss, and peak oil, the generationally destructive policies of your peers, and the unsustainability of our entire economic model?
And what did you do about any of it? Did you make any changes at all to your behavior, or did you close your eyes and slip into a strategy of false hope? Hope that ‘somebody’ would do ‘something’? Did you fight at all for the things in which you once believed?
These are tough questions. Martenson is going beyond public officials who had the power to make a change but chose not to do so. He is directing the questions at all of us. We all have the power to do something — however little it may seem. We all have some talent to contribute.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Each week I aim to publish two posts at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday mornings. (They posts are supplemented by occasional “newsy” items such as the recent Out of the Mouths of Teenagers.)
The first post can cover any topic. This week it is A Personal Journey Part III: Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World. The second post is directed toward the Christian community. This week I thought that I might say a few words about Monasticism and the Age of Limits.
It is probable that, as our own society enters its own extended period of decline, that we will see a revival of the monastic ideal. It has happened before. For example, as the western Roman Empire declined, and what we refer to as the Dark Ages commenced, Benedict of Nursia and others started a powerful monastic movement.
Their ideals are usually condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience.
Few of us will choose to join such a community. Nevertheless, the monastic ideals can be adopted by everyone, at least in modified form — particularly that of poverty, which can be construed as being living a simple life within the physical constraints of the environment. In other words, as far as possible to live in equilibrium with natural systems, and to minimize the use of fossil fuels and other finite resources.
As the Roman Empire declined, monastic foundations in both halves of the empire helped maintain cultural institutions. They also helped save valuable texts, which would otherwise have been destroyed in the chaos of the times. It is reasonable to suppose that monastic institutions in our future will also help preserve the memories and culture of our society.
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.
Matthew 21: 12
We have seen in earlier chapters how the success of science works has marginalized religion‘s role in explaining how the world works. The development of scientific principles, followed by the astounding growth in industry over the course of the last 300 years has firmly established the authority of science and technology as a means of explaining the world around us. Over the course of the last five centuries we have seen the following events such as the following unfold.
Galileo said that the earth, the moon and the planets are all made of the same material. There is no quintessence. Later, we learned that we ourselves are also made of earthly materials. We are not special. There is no physical City of God.
Copernicus told us that our earth is not at the center of the solar system. We are live on a small planet orbiting an average star. We are not special.
Charles Darwin delivered probably the most devastating blow to our self-esteem. He said that we are not the pinnacle of life, nor do we represent the culmination of evolution. We have evolved, just like all other species. Darwin stated that evolution favors the survival of the most adaptable (not the fittest). There is nothing inherently special about having a big brain, or in being able to control fire, or in being able to manage large groups through the use of writing and money. It just so happens that these attributes worked very well for our species during the 10,000 years of the Holocene to such an extent that we have radically altered it. Maybe those attributes will be a handicap in the coming Anthropocene. Species do not evolve toward some type of pinnacle; they merely evolve to meet changing circumstances. We will see how adaptable we are when faced with the world that we have created.
But now, as we enter the Age of Limits, science is losing its prestige.
The over-turning of the tables in the Temple as described in all four gospels provides an analogy. While no one would claim that science and technology are corrupt in the manner of the merchants in the Temple, we nevertheless see that we have corrupted our planet; science and technology have stumbled, and stumbled badly. This gives an opportunity for the religious community to provide leadership in explaining what is going on, and in coming up with responses that work.
In Chapter 2 saw how van Doren explained Augustine’s response to the catastrophic events of the early 5th century by contrasting the City of Man with the City of God. He and the other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of the City of God. In doing so they created the theology of the medieval church. This project culminated in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
What Thomas Aquinas had tried to do was to resolve the question of the two cities, the one of God and the other of Man, which had lain at the heart of theological speculation for a thousand years. Augustine had viewed them as in eternal conflict. Thomas tried to bring them together in peace. In effect, he tried to write a single constitution for both cities that contained no internal contradictions. He tried harder than anyone ever had, and he was the greatest thinker to do so. But he failed.
The great intellectual challenge of the Middle Ages — understanding the nature of the City of God — lost its momentum and was replaced by the energy, insights and excitement of natural science: physics, chemistry and biology. Theology was no longer the Queen of Sciences.
We, in our time, are at a similar juncture. But this time it is the other way around. Science is losing its authority; the sense of never-ending material progress is being challenged on all sides and we are wrecking the environment and do not know how to extract ourselves from the morass that we have created. So maybe the time has come to develop a theology and a way of life that addresses the situation in which we find ourselves. So, maybe now is the time for Christians to show leadership. It has happened before. Leaders such as St. Augustine and Benedict of Nursia led western society through the Dark Ages that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. Can we repeat?
The second chapter of the book A New City of God: Theology in an Age of Limits describes my personal journey through Dante’s “Forest Dark” as I learned more about the changes that are taking place, and as I thought about the theological implications of such changes.
The sections of that chapter are shown below. Every so often I will write a blog to do with one of these topics. In this blog let’s take a look at the third entry (highlighted in red): A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article.
My first glimpse of long-term limitations in our energy supplies was provided by an article I read in a chemical engineering journal. Unfortunately, I do not recall who wrote the article or when it was published — my best guess would be around the year 2005. The article described the relatively new concept of converting corn (maize) into ethanol which could then be added to gasoline, thereby reducing the need for imported oil.
The author examined the ethanol production process in terms of net energy. He found, evidently to his disbelief, that it might take more energy to manufacture ethanol than the ethanol provides as fuel. In other words, the ethanol-as-fuel program actually increases the importation of oil from foreign suppliers. What struck me about the article was the tone of surprise that was evident in the author’s conclusions. It was as if he had started a straightforward journey to a known destination, but had somehow been sidetracked into unexpected territory. In fact, he had stumbled across the crucially important concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI), a topic that I will discuss in later posts.
The author did not go on to discuss non-economic issues. For example, would the corn be better used to feed the world’s hungry people? Or does fuel containing ethanol have less of a global warming impact? And then there is the politics; farmers who grow corn naturally want their market to expand. We begin to see just how tricky discussions to do with Age of Limits issues can be.
Greta Thurnberg, a 15-year old from Sweden, gave the following speech to the comfortable “adults” at the COP24 Conference in Poland in 2018.
My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden.
I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now.
Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do.
But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference.
And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.
You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.
Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.
Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.
You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.
Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.
We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.
We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.
We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.
We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.
So what is this young person telling we “adults”.
Speaking as a young person living in a country with little economic power, she says that she, and people like her, still have power.
She speaks clearly — no fudging around about “sustainable growth”.
She speaks for the many poor people who suffer disproportionately from the ravages of climate change. She is not self-centered.
She sarcastically talks about “green eternal growth”. She seems to have a better grasp of the second law than people three times her age.
She makes the obvious statement that a continuation of the bad actions that got us into this mess is not a good idea. She does not use Einstein’s famous remark, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we crated them” — but she could have done.
She tells the world “leaders” that they are not mature. They leave all the hard decisions to the young people.
She challenges the economic system that benefits the very rich at the expense of the life of the planet.
Her comment about how she will talk about people like us when she is 75 is reminiscent of the famous Kitchener proposal (which, incidentally, worked — it persuaded many young men to join the army at the start of World War I).
She accuses us of hypocrisy — she says that we don’t love our children enough to make real sacrifices in our lifestyles.
She says that “we are running out of time”. In this she is actually incorrect — we have already run out of time. But maybe she was being tactful.
The stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant. But he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all of his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Most of us would be overwhelmed and angry about such an event, but he chose to create a philosophical school in response to his calamity. Others who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa.
One of Zeno’s later followers, Epictetus, said,
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
For many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to suffer the consequences without complaint.
Stoicism recognizes that we do not control and cannot rely on external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to external events over which we have no control.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is profoundly stoic.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
The metaphor that the people of Zeno’s time used was that of an archer firing an arrow at an enemy soldier. The archer must do the best he can to be ready for battle. So, he chooses the best quality bows and arrows, he trains hard, and he maintains his equipment well. These are actions under his control. But, once in the field in front of an enemy, there are issues that he cannot control. He fires his arrow, but it may be knocked off course by a gust of wind, or the enemy soldiers may move. He accepts the result, whatever it may be.
(I have tried I try to adopt something of a stoical attitude with regard to the writing of this book. I research the issues, I listen to the advice of other people, I enter it into my prayer life, and I work on the writing, publishing and marketing processes. Then I’m done. I do not need to worry whether people actually buy the book.)
In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes. (This approach is, of course, the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”)
Stoicism does not condone fatalism, nor does it provide an excuse for “hopium”. Stoics do the best they can with the resources that are under their control — they are not passive. In the context of the Age of Limits, the stoic person may take the attitude, “None of us know what is going to happen two generations from now. Maybe global warming will kill us all, or maybe it won’t. . So let’s focus on actions that we can take to take care of problems that we know about, and where we have some measure of control.”
Moreover, stoics are not selfish or self-centered. They knew that any effective action would involve community. For example, in a society where slavery was part of the way of life, he advocated that slaves should be treated well.
Pillars of Stoicism
Three of the pillars of stoicism are shown below. For each I provide some thoughts in the context of the Age of Limits.
Confront fears head on
If you are worried about the consequences to do living a more basic lifestyle, then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a beautiful air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, certainly. But you will probably survive.
Do not judge
This precept is difficult for me since I have a strong ‘J’ component in my Briggs-Meyer score. It also is somewhat in conflict with the Platonic approach of ideals. Rather than labeling everything as being either right or wrong, the goal is always to look for the silver lining in all clouds.
Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”
There are, of course, many other aspects to the Stoic response to life’s ups and downs. But my interest here is how it fits with the Christian response to the wrenching changes that are ahead of us, and to what degree it can contribute to a theology for the coming times.
Throughout this book I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.
Christianity and Stoicism
Christianity and stoicism have much in common. Four pillars of the stoic way of life are:
Courage / Fortitude
There is nothing there that a Christian would challenge.
In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find strands of that way of thinking in Christianity. After all, Paul himself came from Tarsus, a place where the stoic philosophy was widely accepted. Scholars debate the degree to which stoicism formed part of Christianity. I have no intention of wading into that debate. But I do believe, as discussed below, that the stoic world view should be an important part of the theology of the Age of Limits.
One of my reasons for saying this is that, throughout this book, I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.
The stoic point of view does, however, pose some challenges for Christians.
First, there is a fatalistic streak to stoicism. We are all going to die, eventually the universe is going to die (or so astrophysicists seem to think), no one will remember who we are two or three generations from now, so what’s the point? This is not an attitude that most Christians would endorse.
A second difficulty that Christians may have with stoicism is that people may be tempted to divide their life into two parts.
< Stoicism is > the philosophy of the “inner man” and the “outer man” . . . This became the code of privatism, of the nine-to-five man who keeps back the best part of himself for his private life of feelings, of the arts, of family, and of beauty. His real life takes place after five and on weekends . . .
Stoicism is well suited to a society that could not control or explain ravages of nature, such as plague, fire, war, or holocaust . . .
A third concern is to do with the relationship of God to the world we live in. A stoic sees God as being part of the universe, whereas a Christian sees God as someone who created the universe and is therefore, in some manner, external to what is going on.
But probably the biggest difficulty that Christians have with stoicism is to do with the meaning of our actions. Christianity says that our actions and way of life matter in the long run, whereas stoics say that, in the end, none of this really matters.
Stoicism: Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
Christianity: Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.
Stoicism in an Age of Limits
In an Age of Limits a stoic response may encourage people to retreat from society. Their retreat can take one of two forms.
The first response is to retreat from society and to try and live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Persons taking this approach will grow their own food, make their own clothes and provide their own entertainments
The approach has much appeal, and should probably be followed, at least in part, by Christians. It aligns with the Greer quotation that we have already discussed (page 58), “Collapse now, and avoid the rush”. His argument is that our current lifestyles are unsustainable, so we would do well to prepare for the inevitable move toward simplicity.
The catch with this approach, at least when taken to extremes, is that, like it or not, we are all part of community, no matter how restricted its scope. No one person can truly be a Robinson Crusoe and live entirely on his or her own resources.
The second type of retreat can only be carried out by wealthy and powerful people. They create their own private reserve, often on an island. They aim to maintain their current lifestyle which they protect with a private security force.
This approach has deep and fatal drawbacks. A person is only wealthy if he or she has access to electronic banking in order to purchase useful goods. If the computer systems fail, or if the supply chains break down then that person becomes poor overnight. Moreover, a person who retreats in this manner will always be vulnerable to disloyal security personnel, just as the Roman Emperors could never fully trust their own bodyguards.
In conclusion, we see that the stoic response to life’s ups and downs may not be a complete and integrated philosophy, but it can make an important contribution to the theology of the future. And it provides practical guidance and help.
The Christian Stoic
We can draw the following conclusions to do with stoicism — and its fit with Christianity and the Age of Limits.
There are fundamental differences between the Christian and the stoic world views. Nevertheless, stoicism influenced Christian thought.
As we enter the Age of Limits, stoicism can provide practical guidance.
It can also provide one of the pillars of a new theology.