The Story of 2018

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

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”.

Of course, this is a highly subjective statement, but it is supported by an editorial written in today’s New York Times by David Leonhardt. Its title is The Story of 2018 Was Climate Change. Future generations may ask why we were distracted by lesser matters.

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?”

We see how young people are already challenging the older folk in the post Out of the Mouths of Teenagers.

A similar sentiment is expressed in The Ghost of Christmas Future, published by Chris Martenson at the Peak Prosperity site. He says,

. . . 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.

1 Corinthians 12: 4

 

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Monasticism

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE)

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.

A Personal Journey Part III: Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World

Dante’s Forest Dark
Dante’s Forest Dark

A Personal Journey

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.

  • A Brief Biography
  • The Machine Stops
  • A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
  • Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
  • A History of Knowledge
  • Twilight in the Desert
  • Down The Hubbert Curve
  • The Archdruid Report
  • Hard Times for These Times
  • Oil Price Collapse
  • Hegelian Synthesis
  • Jevons Paradox
  • Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
  • Peak Prosperity
  • Post Carbon Institute
  • Cassandra’s Legacy
  • Resource Insights
  • Francis I
  • The Last Question
  • The Journey
  • The Ladder of Awareness

Entropy — Into the Greenhouse World

Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World

One of the first books that I read that was to do with ecological destruction was Jeremy Rifkin’s Entropy — Into the Greenhouse World (Rifkin 1989). Although published over 30 years ago, its predictions to do with the ‘Greenhouse World’ have turned out to be useful and accurate. His discussion to do with the deforestation of Europe that occurred in the Middle Ages, described in the previous chapter, particularly resonated with me.

Jacques Turgot (1727-1781)
Jacques Turgot (1727-1781)

Rifkin starts one chapter with an overview of a two-part lecture given by Jacques Turgot at the University of Paris in the year 1750. Turgot argued that history proceeds in a straight line and that each stage of history represents an advance over the previous one. In other words, he developed the idea of what we now call “progress”. We can expect tomorrow to be better (in material terms) than today.

The theme of Rifkin’s book is that this world view, the one of inexorable and unstoppable material progress, is coming to an end.

Though we are largely unaware of it, much of the way we think, act, and feel can be traced back to the . . . historical paradigm that took shape and form during those centuries [ the time of Turgot ] . . It is ironic indeed that only now as that tapestry begins to fray and unwind is it possible to really see the stuff we and our modern world are made of.

The concept of unending material progress would have made no sense to people in Biblical times because the only energy available to them was provided by human and animal labor, supplemented by the energy obtained from burning wood. Their society was basically steady state. Although Turgot probably did not realize it, material progress depends on the availability of fossil fuel energy. We are not in thermodynamic equilibrium with our environment.

40 Million Americans

 

Colorado river drying up

The Grist site has published an article 40 million Americans depend on the Colorado River. It’s drying up.

The article makes the following points:

  • The Colorado river provides water to 1 in 8 Americans.
  • It irrigates 15% of the country’s agricultural products.
  • Major cities such as Denver and Los Angeles depend on it.
  • In addition to its direct use, the water in Lake Mead and Hoover Dam generate vital electricity for the region.

But, “There’s no longer enough water to go around”.

People talk about “sustainable living”, with the implication that, if we just make adjustments to our lifestyle, we will be able to continue with BAU (Business as Usual).

But, if the Colorado really is drying up, then major disruptions lie ahead for the 40 million Americans living in the southwest.

 

 

Overthrowing the Tables of Technology

Jesus overthrowing the tables in the Temple as an analogy for religion overthrowing the authority of science and technology.

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?

 

A Personal Journey Part II: A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article

Dante’s Forest Dark
Dante’s Forest Dark

A Personal Journey

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.

  • A Brief Biography
  • The Machine Stops
  • A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
  • Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
  • A History of Knowledge
  • Twilight in the Desert
  • Down The Hubbert Curve
  • The Archdruid Report
  • Hard Times for These Times
  • Oil Price Collapse
  • Hegelian Synthesis
  • Jevons Paradox
  • Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
  • Peak Prosperity
  • Post Carbon Institute
  • Cassandra’s Legacy
  • Resource Insights
  • Francis I
  • The Last Question
  • The Journey
  • The Ladder of Awareness

A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article

Ethanol as fuel

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.

Out of the Mouths of Teenagers

Greta Thurnberg accusing world leaders of not acting on climate change
Greta Thurnberg (2003 – )

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.

Thank you.


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).
Kitechener. Your Country Needs You.
Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916)
  • 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.
  • Change is coming — like it or not.