This blog is the first in a series to do with the nature of a ‘Christian New Deal’. It discusses the nature of truth in the context of the Age of Limits. It starts with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The conclusion is that the truth of the predicaments that we face is complex and hard to understand. Nevertheless it is our responsibility to do the work needed to understand that truth.
The picture at the top of this post is of Pilate questioning Jesus. In John 18 we read,
. . . Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. One of the writers who has greatly influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues is John Michael Greer. His work is described in the fourth part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.
A Theology for Our Times
The ultimate aim of the posts in this series is to help develop a theology that addresses the issues that we discuss — issues that are collectively the ‘Age of Limits’. Every so often, we will publish a post that provides some thoughts as to what that ideology might look like. Given that the Green New Deal has attracted so much attention, let us call it the Christian New Deal.
This post is the first in that series.
A Committee Meeting
I recently attended a meeting of a church environmental group. It works with individual churches and the larger community on a wide range of programs such as,
Eliminating the use of plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash;
Management of storm water run-off to minimize the loss of top soil;
The development of community gardens; and
Writing mission statements and resolutions to do with church policy.
At the conclusion of the meeting we had a round-table discussion at which people were invited to talk about what was on their mind. One person introduced the topic of the recent youth movement (see The Thunberg Meme), another talked about the impact of the Green New Deal. This led to an immediate change in the tone of the meeting. It became apparent that everyone understood that, regardless of actions such as ours, climate change — with all its scary consequences — is happening. And these consequences are not just on the other side of the world. The climate in our own locality has changed (there will be more rain than has been normal).
Programs such as the Green New Deal can be properly challenged on the grounds that they are not realistic, either in terms of engineering or project management. But a more fundamental difficulty with such programs is that they assume that we can have our environmental cake and eat it. If we take the proposed actions then we can have both a remediated environment and maintain our current standard of living. It would be wonderful if this assumption were true, but, alas, such is not the case.
One of the themes of the posts at this blog is that Christians must always tell the truth, even if the truth is difficult to understand. For example, in Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics we note that not only does it provide us with fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it is also the source of the petrochemicals that create the products that are so fundamental to our way of living. We cannot stop using crude oil without facing wrenching changes to the way in which we live — and people at the lower end of the economic scale will probably be impacted the most.
A much harder truth to accept is that our climate is taking us into a hot-house world that humans have never seen before. An increasing number of people are spelling out the details of this future. Examples are the book Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells and the paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell. The story that they tell is not pretty.
Back to the committee meeting that started this post. Is it enough for Christian groups such as this to focus on actions such as those described? Or should these groups spend at least part of their time and energy on describing our future — no holds barred?
A Theological Response
We have already talked about Augustine of Hippo and his book The City of God. But there is another work of his that it is useful to consider, and that is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine insists that Christians must tell the truth at all times — not even white lies are permissible. Therefore, I suggest that the first step in the development of a new theology is to be totally rigorous about telling the truth about the dilemmas that we face. Such a truth has three parts.
Understanding the nature of truth is difficult. The issues that we discuss are complex and have many feedback loops. This means that, if we are to understand the truth then we need to do our homework.
Telling the truth may cause alarm in others, and may (will) make us less popular. Carriers of bad news are not popular.
The people who will be most affected by all these changes will be those toward the bottom of the economic scale.
I conclude that understanding and telling the truth is the first part of a Christian New Deal.
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We are up to the third part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). We take a look at two important authors, Matt Simmons and M. King Hubbert, and their thoughts to do with peak oil and the nuclear power industry. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.
As young people become increasingly aware of the climate change predicaments that we face, they are taking action. Greta Thurnberg — Out of the Mouths of Teenagers — started the meme. Now young people in western Europe and the United States are following her lead. (By young, we mean less than 20 years old)
One of the slogans chanted at their rallies is, “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” But, as they say, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Do these young people know what they are really asking for? Do they comprehend the utterly fundamental role of crude oil, natural gas and coal to our way of life, a role that goes way beyond merely supplying us with energy?
Writers such as Steven Pinker and Bill Gates point out that humanity has become far more prosperous over the course of the last 300 years than at any time in recorded history. By virtually every measure — life span, infant mortality, safety, peace, knowledge, happiness — there has been steady improvement, not just in the West, but worldwide. Pinker attributes this change to Enlightenment thinking — the development of rational thinking and the use of reason. But a simpler and more obvious explanation for the sudden and extraordinary improvement in the quality of life is that, also about 300 years ago, we learned how to extract and then use the enormous amount of energy available to us in fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and, above all, crude oil.
If we have to pick a specific date for that event I would go with the year 1712. It was in that year that Thomas Newcomen developed an “atmospheric/steam” engine for removing water from mines.
The Energy Business
The sketch below is a visualization of how many people view the oil industry. A hole is drilled in the ground, oil flows out of that hole; it then flows along a pipeline to a refinery, which separates the oil into various fuel streams such as gasoline, diesel and heating oil.
Proponents of alternative energy propose that we build wind turbines and solar panel farms. They generate electricity, thus replacing the fuel streams. This would then allow us to shut down the fossil fuel industries, particularly the oil business.
Unfortunately, it is not nearly so simple. There are two objections to this far too simplistic scenario.
The first objection is that the energy density of wind, solar and other alternatives is much, much less than that of oil. To generate enough electricity for the United States, for example, much of the southwest would have to covered in solar panels. Which in turn would require an enormous build out of the electric grid. We would also have to replace all forms of transport with their electrical counterparts. (This would exclude airplanes — we are nowhere close to having batteries with sufficient capacity.)
The second objection, and the one that is the focus of this post, is that crude oil contains an enormous number of complex chemicals that provide the chemical feedstocks that are used to manufacture a bewildering array of products — all of which contribute to the prosperity that Pinker talks about.
The sketch below is a very simplified schematic of a typical oil refinery.
And here is a picture of an actual refinery.
One reason that so many processing steps are required is that crude oil, the composition of which varies enormously depending on the source, rarely contains the desired product mix. For example, the gasoline fraction in crude oil is typically around 15%. But the market demand for gasoline is such that many of the lighter and heavier streams are treated so that they can be added to the gasoline pool.
In addition to containing the relatively simple molecules (such as octane/gasoline and butane/lighter fluid) that make up the fuel products, crude oil also contains many complex molecules that are refined and sent to petrochemical plants. It is these complex molecules that provide the basis of so much of our modern industrial civilization.
The sketch shows some of the products that a refinery produces. The naphtha stream has been highlighted.
When mixed with various other product streams that contain the complex molecules, naphtha becomes a petrochemical feedstock. This feedstock is sent to chemical plants where it is further treated and used to make the enormous range of products that provide the basis of modern life: plastics, antibiotics, fibers, agrochemicals, inks, packaging, dry cleaning agents, engine coolant, synthetic rubber . . . the list goes on.
So, if “fossil fuels must go”, then so must all the other useful chemicals that our society relies on.
Windmills Cannot Make Anaesthetics
Our civilization relies almost entirely on crude oil, not only as a source of fuel, but as the foundation of our way of living. This means that, even if we do install an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels to, at least partially, replace the fuels that we use now, we will still need to extract and refine crude oil. to provide petrochemical feedstocks. This is something that windmills and solar panels will never do.
The goal of the posts at this blog is to try to figure out the parameters of a new theology — one that works in an Age of Limits. Some thoughts as to how to do this comes from looking at the works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). His book City of God provides a basis for my own A New City of God. But Augustine also wrote other important works, one of which is De Mendacio (On Lying), part of a larger book entitled Retractions.
Augustine took the ninth commandment very seriously.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.
In other words, you must always tell the truth.
In the context of the Age of Limits, telling the truth is not always as simple as saying, “I cannot tell a lie . . . I did cut < the cherry tree > with my hatchet”. (It’s a neat irony that the story about George Washington and the importance of telling the truth is not itself true.) In our world, telling the truth means doing the hard work of understanding the nature and complexities of our multiple predicaments.
With regard to coal, natural gas and crude oil, the truth is,
Fossil fuels should not be burned, they should be used only to manufacture petrochemicals.
We can conclude by saying that the slogan “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” is correct, but only if the emphasis is on the word fuel. The complex molecules that are derived from oil, natural gas and coal are truly irreplaceable. We should make every effort not to use them to make useful products, not just burn them.
In addition to my interest in the theological issues to do with the Age of Limits, I am also working with an organization called Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP). It is a non-profit that is researching a new and exciting method of transportation: hyperloop.
There is actually an overlap between my two interests. One of the key benefits of hyperloop over conventional air transportation is that it can move freight and passengers at airplane speeds but without the emissions.
HARP is organizing a Global Hyperloop Conference, July 8-9, 2019 at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. In addition to discussions to do with hyperloop technology itself, there will also be papers and breakout sessions on civil engineering issues, particularly tunneling.
One of the themes of this site is that there is an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership in the rather scary future that awaits us. But first we have to focus on Age of Limits issues, and stop placing gender debates up front and center — see the post Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs.
In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”
These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.
I find it interesting that, unwittingly, I have been following the leadership of these two dynamic young ladies at this blog with my various posts to do with the Green New Deal and Skolstrejk för Klimatet.
This line of argument would suggest that, if the church wants to promote gender equality, then maybe direct advancement of that goal is not the way to go. Instead, we should provide leadership in our search for “intelligent adaptation to scarcity”. In doing so, we may find that much of our leadership will be provided by the likes of AOC and GT.
The image at the top of this post is taken from the cover of a book to be published by Devil’s Due. Of their book they say,
It’s no secret that AOC has become the unofficial leader of the new school, and has sparked life back into Washington and that’s reflected in the enthusiasm on display by the men and women contributing to this project. While we all don’t agree on everything, we share a common excitement for the breath of fresh air the new Congress brings.
It is too early to know if this young lady really has started a movement, but it is interesting to note that she herself cites Rosa Parks as one of the people who inspired her. Maybe she and other young people have started the equivalent of a new civil rights movement.
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far. This week we are up to the second part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.
Saving the Environment
Some years ago, when global warming was still a new topic for most people, its most prominent feature was that of polar bears standing on floating ice. The bears seemed to be forlorn and literally cast adrift by human actions. We felt sympathy for the polar bears, even though, as far as we know, they contribute little toward human well being. Indeed, most of us would prefer not to meet a polar bear up close and personal.
But now many other species are under threat. For example, in recent months there has been a flurry of reports telling us that the world’s insect population is in serious decline. The response to this situation has been mostly on the lines that we need the insects because they fertilize our crops and so are fundamental to our well being. Bees are particularly important because, not only do they pollinate flowers, they produce the honey that we eat.
You see the little catch? We sympathize with the polar bears for their own sake, but we care only about the insects because of their usefulness to us. So why do we want to “save the environment”? Is it for the sake of the natural world itself, or is it because we need it for our own survival?
Rattlesnakes, Giraffes and Palm-Trees
The other day I borrowed a copy of the book As I Was Saying — A Chesterton Reader from our church library. The book contains some of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, including essays from Generally Speaking, published in the year 1928.
In one of the essays Chesterton muses on our relationship to nature. The essay was written long before the modern environmental movement got under way. But, like E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which I discuss in Chapter 2 of A New City of God, Chesterton’s essay seems to be remarkably prescient — or, at least, it asks the questions that we, in our environmental enthusiasm, sometimes fail to consider.
Here is the paragraph that triggered my interest.
A little while ago an intellectual weekly started an argument among the intellectuals about whether Man has improved the earth he lives on; whether Nature as a whole was better for the presence of Man. Nobody seemed to notice that this is assuming that the end of Man is to grow more grass or to improve the breed of rattlesnakes, apart from any theory about the origin or object of these things. A man may serve God and be good to mankind for that reason or a man may serve mankind and be good to other things to preserve the standard of mankind; but it is very hard to prove exactly how far he is bound to make the jungle thicker or encourage very tall giraffes.
Which brings us the modern environmental movement. Are we trying to save the coral reefs, the Amazon jungle, and the butterflies in our back yards for their own sake, or to ensure that our own needs are met?
All sane men have assumed that, while a man may be right to feel benevolently about the jungle, he is also right to treat it as something that may be put to use, and something which he may refuse to assist indefinitely for its own sake at his own expense. A man should be kind to a giraffe; he should if necessary feed it; he may very properly stroke it or pat it on the head, even if he has to procure a ladder for these good offices. He is perfectly right to pat a giraffe; there is no objection to his patting a palm-tree. But he is not bound to regard a man as something created for the good of the palm-tree.
It is very clear where Chesterton is going with this line of reasoning.
We protect nature, not for its own sake, but for ourselves. If an environmental activity does not directly benefit humans, then that activity need not be carried out.
So, for example, we recognize that we should not use some insecticides to protect our crops because those insecticides also destroy other insects, such as bees, which are beneficial to us. But this is not a moral decision — it is merely a cost-benefit calculation. We do not reduce insecticide usage because we care about bees, but because we care about ourselves.
Plastics and Polymer Fibers
Since Chesterton’s time the mood seems to have shifted — we now “preserve nature” (as if “nature” is something external to us) for its own sake.
For example, the chemical industry has manufactured billions of tons of plastics and polymers. When we have finished using these plastics, we throw them away. But there is no “away”. Moreover, these plastics do not degrade quickly — they stay in the environment long after we have finished using them, and many of them wind up in the ocean. Now we are learning that plastics/polymers in the form of tiny threads are being found in the internals of fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. (These threads are microfibers made of polyester, rayon and nylon and are found in laundry effluent. Evidently a single piece of clothing can generate up to 250,000 of these fibers.) So “away” includes the fish that live in the deep oceans.
If our concern is to do with “nature” and all the creatures that inhabit it then we should stop manufacturing polymers for use in clothing and we should revert to wearing clothes made of natural materials such as wool and cotton. Yet the artifical materials allow us to have comfortable, hard-wearing clothing at an affordable price. And even if richer people could afford to switch to natural materials, many people toward the bottom end of the economic scale cannot.
So, should we protect these fish even though very few people have even seen these fish and which, as far as we know, contribute nothing to our health and prosperity? Or should we continue to use polymer fibers, knowing that they are of great benefit to us, particularly less well off people, and let the deep sea fish take their chances?
Similar thought processes can be applied to other types of plastics. For example, shrink wrap film allows us to protect food from contamination, and so contributes to our overall health. But, when discarded, that film winds up in trash heaps, where it remains for many years, and so becomes a chronic environmental problem.
Another factor that has changed since Chesterton’s time is that he did not have to worry too much about resource limitations. For example, up until his time, if people wanted land for farming, they took it. If it so happened that that land was currently being used by wildlife such as giraffes then there was no problem — there was room for both farms and wildlife.
We now realize that there is only a finite amount of land available and that we need to set aside space for the giraffes, otherwise they will cease to exist. But, once more, we need to understand why we are doing this. Are we doing if for the giraffes, or for ourselves? Are we making a moral argument that giraffes have a right to life — even in limited numbers? If so, how much space should be set aside for wildlife, and how much for farmers who are growing much-needed food?
Striking a Balance
So we need to strike a balance between “saving the environment” and providing people, particularly people who have few economic options, with a superior quality of life. On the one hand if we insist that the environment should be protected at all costs then we human beings would have to depart this planet Earth. As long as we are here we are going to impact the environment. The other extreme is to permit unlimited exploitation of natural resources and to dump our waste products wherever we please.
Neither of these extremes is going to happen. So what is the correct balance?
Many environmentalists would argue that this discussion is merely academic, that, in practice, we are so far to the side of favoring consumption of resources that we are not even close to being in balance. But we need to be careful. For example, at the time of writing (early 2019) the State of California has all but given up on its high-speed rail project. Why? Fast trains between metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles not only make economic sense, they helps the environment by taking people out of airplanes that create large quantities of greenhouse gases. Yet the project fell apart partly due to resistance from environmental groups who did not want their land despoiled by this new industrial endeavor.
Another example concerns the abolition of factory farming — a move which is definitely good for nature and for millions of animals. But that decision may not be so good for those people who are already having trouble affording sufficient food.
The Christian Response
Throughout my writing I try to understand how Christian theology should adjust to the world that we are entering.
G.K. Chesterton was a devout Christian and a member of the Roman Catholic church. His attitude is very much in the spirit of Genesis 1:28.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This passage supports Chesterton’s argument that nature is here for our good, not that we are here for nature’s good.
Genesis 9:1-3 is even more outspoken.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”
A theology that is appropriate for an Age of Limits cannot accept the world view put forward in the Genesis passages. Maybe a starting point for Christians is to help people understand that we cannot have our environmental cake and eat it. We cannot “preserve nature” and simultaneously “preserve our standard of living”, let alone hope for a more materially prosperous future.
Our theology should reflect this reality. To what extent should we make sacrifices, not just for other people, but also for the natural environment? Where do we draw the line? And, if we are to make sacrifices, who do we include in the word “we”? Just those who are already reasonably prosperous, or thos who are already struggling to maintain an adequate life style?
More fundamentally, we need to understand that we are not “over” nature, we are not even separate from it. We are part of nature.