1 stordalen = 10,491 bacon cheeseburgers
As an engineer I like to think in numbers. Hence one of my favorite quotations is from Lord Kelvin (of degrees Kelvin fame) — yet another bewhiskered Victorian gentleman.
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
One of the difficulties that many of us face when discussing environmental issues is to do with the units of measurement. We talk about our carbon footprint, but how is that footprint to be measured? Our knowledge is indeed of a “meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.
Saving the Planet
In his post A Wilderness of Mirrors John Michael Greer refers to an article in the Daily Mirror entitled Globe-trotting billionaire behind campaign to save planet accused of blatant hypocrisy. Greer says,
Late last year . . . the mass media trumpeted yet another study proclaiming yet another low-meat diet that would supposedly save the planet. The study was funded by a Norwegian vegan billionaire named Gunhild Stordalen. For a change, reporters actually looked into the story, and turned up the fact that Stordalen’s commitment to the environment apparently begins and ends on her dining table.
Diet aside, she’s got the same colossal carbon footprint as other members of her class; her idea of a modest wedding celebration, for example, included flying a private jet full of friends from Oslo to Marrakesh and back.
(Math isn’t my strong suit, so one of my readers obligingly crunched the numbers, and showed that this little jaunt of Stordalen’s—one of many each year in her globehopping lifestyle, by the way—had a carbon footprint equal to no fewer than 10,491 of the bacon cheeseburgers she insists nobody ought to eat.)
So maybe, if we decide to walk rather than drive to the grocery store, we can determine how the impact of our decision by measuring the number of stordhalens saved.
(One person pointed out that ‘stor’ is Norwegian for ‘large’, whereas ‘liten’ means ‘small’. The stordalen is too large a unit for daily use, but if litendalen is a thousandth of a stordalen then it would be equivalent to 10.5 bacon cheeseburgers — a more practical measure.)
Live the Life Preached
The above is, of course, written somewhat tongue in cheek (although the idea of quantifying environmental impact is a good one). But the point that Greer makes is serious: we must live the life we preach.
He made the same point in an earlier post when talking about Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s book and the matching video introduced many people to the ideas of global warming and climate change. (Gore had been Vice President under Bill Clinton, and came close to winning the presidency himself.)
Although what Gore said was properly researched, his message lost credibility because his lifestyle does not match his message. He lives in a large air-conditioned mansion (and owns other properties), flies around the world in jet airplanes and eats a high meat diet. If he had really wanted to get his message across Gore would have moved to a small home without air conditioning, cut back on long distance travel (and then only by train), and eaten a mostly vegetarian diet.
To bring the topic up to date, consider the reporting of the New York Post to do with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s carbon footprint. The report states,
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign logged 1,049 car service transactions totaling over $23,000 between May 16, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, The Post found. Her campaign once booked 26 car-service transactions in a single day.
Even though her Queens HQ was just a one-minute walk to the 7 train, her campaign only made 52 MetroCard purchases, spending about $8,300.
And despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her green strategy, the Democratic firebrand took Amtrak 18 times, compared to 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during the campaign season.
“I’m just living in the real world”.
Another New York Post article says,
Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly attributed her success in beating Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley to walking the streets of her district, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx.
“I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles,” she tweeted last June, famously donating her worn-out campaign shoes to the Cornell Costume Institute for an exhibit about women and empowerment.
But Ocasio-Cortez and her staff appear to have done much less walking after she vanquished Crowley in the party’s June 2018 primary.
Instead, her campaign embraced the friendly skies, logging 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during campaign season.
The Democratic firebrand or her staff took Amtrak far less — only 18 times — despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her save-the-world strategy.
Ocasio-Cortez has drawn considerable praise for her Green New Deal proposals, including at our site, and it may be that reports such as the above come from her political opponents. Nevertheless such articles can knock her message badly off course.
I have already had much to say about Augustine’s works De Mendacio and City of God. But there is another work of his that is important in this context, and that is his Confessions. In one of the world’s first autobiographies he opens himself to his readers. He knows that that, before telling others how to behave, he has to act correctly himself. He takes very seriously the words from Matthew 7.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
One reason that the way in which we live matters is that none of us have enough time to investigate all the issues that we face. So we tend to base our opinions on the character of the person presenting a point of view. (Advertisers know that the best reference is from a person that you know and trust.)
This idea of living the by the standards that are preached is particularly important for rich and powerful people such as the Stordalens or Al Gore. Otherwise, ordinary people will suspect that they are being asked to sacrifice their standard of living so that the wealthy can continue to live in luxury.
The principle of living the life preached is one of the foundations of the monastic way of life. This is an important topic, and one that we will discuss in future posts. At this point it is sufficient to say that, when societies decline, there is often a revival of the monastic ideal. In the case of the western Roman Empire the person who embodied this ideal was Benedict of Nursia.
The Benedictine ideals are usually condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Although Benedict’s rule is demanding, it is not a harsh; indeed, it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. The key words are ora et labora: pray and work.
In his book The Benedict Option Rod Dreher suggests that Christians can form Benedict-style communities within the larger secular society. It is not necessary to actually become a monk or nun to follow many of Benedict’s principles.
The counter-argument to Greer’s point of view is that the actions of individuals and small groups of people are not enough to make a difference. Indeed, Jevons Paradox suggests that whatever we do will be cancelled out by someone else’s actions. For example, we may choose to drive a smaller car to save fuel. But the fuel that we do not use is not really saved — it is simply used by someone else, somewhere else.
Therefore, it is argued, it does not matter if we personally lead a profligate lifestyle, just as long as we are able to change society’s rules and standards. The catch with this argument, as we have just seen, is that it can be perceived as being hypocritical and self-serving.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
The Christian Response
In these posts I always try to come back to what the issues that we discuss mean to today’s Christian church. By doing so we may be able to figure out some aspects of a theology for our times.
The first decision that the individual Christian and that the church overall has to make is whether to work top-down or bottom-up, i.e., whether to take political action to change the actions of governments and large corporations, or whether to concentrate on individual lifestyles.
The ideal answer is that a person will adopt a simple lifestyle and then work with the church overall to change national policies. In practice, the decision will probably depend at least partly on the personalities of the people involved. Some people enjoy working with others who are trying to change policies, others prefer to work by themselves or with small groups.
A Low-Carbon Lifestyle
If we are to live the life that we preach then we need to cut back on those actions that have a large carbon footprint. But this is not always easy or justified. For example, we know that commercial aircraft are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Therefore we should stop flying. But does that mean that a person living 3,000 miles from her children and grandchildren must give up seeing them? We might say that she should take the train, or that she should drive her car. But what if there is no train service, or if her medical condition prohibits long-distance driving?
Or maybe someone with a large garden decides to grow her own vegetables and other produce. This is obviously good for the environment, and it reduces resource consumption. But the seeds that she purchases are delivered to the local nursery using the same supply chains that deliver food to the supermarkets. If the supply chains were to collapse she is in a pickle. So maybe she should save her own seeds. But many of the vegetables we grow now are hybrids so their seeds may not grow true. So now this person is into seed-saving, with all the work that that involves.
None of this is easy.
The point is that it is easy to say that we should live a simply, but such a decision is more difficult to implement than it first appears. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once.
Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough
I started this post with some comments on the importance of quantification. Continuing with that theme, it is useful to keep in mind the Pareto Principle, often referred to as the 80/20 rule. The Principle was developed by yet another bewhiskered Victorian-era thinker: Vilfredo Pareto — an Italian economist and misanthrope. He noted that most of the wealth of the Italian communities he looked at was not spread evenly — in fact, typically about 20% of any population owned 80% of the wealth.
His principle, which, to the best of my understanding, has no theoretical underpinning, is widely observed to be true in many fields of human activity. It can be expressed by the following equation,
log n = c + m * log x
where n is the number of items whose value is greater than x; c and m are constants.
Examples of the principle’s applications in an industrial context include:
- 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its customers.
- 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of the sales force.
- 20% of the workers are involved in 80% of the accidents.
- 20% of the equipment items cause 80% of the facility shutdowns.
- 20% of a company’s products will account for 80% of the total product defects.
In a church context we generally observe that.
- 80% of the revenue comes from 20% of the parishioners.
- 80% of the social services are provided by 20% of the parishioners.
- 80% of the internal arguments come from 20% of the parishioners.
The practical effect of this rule is that there is no need to be a perfectionist. Just 20% of the effort will achieve 80% of the desired results. We can choose to live more like the Benedictines without having to follow every aspect of their rule.
So, as the Age of Limits closes in, how should individual Christians live, and what should the church’s strategy be in a world of so much uncertainty and anxiety? We know that the option of maintaining BAU (Business as Usual) is not an option. As resources dwindle, and as the climate becomes ever more erratic, we will be forced into a simpler lifestyle — like it or not. It is this knowledge that prompted Greer’s famous remark,
Collapse now and avoid the rush
In other words, prepare for a lower standard of living now. Such a decision does not necessarily mean that we have to suffer hardships. Indeed, many people who adopt a simple lifestyle say that they prefer it to our current, fast-paced way of living.
From the overall church, it will be necessary to work with governments, corporations and other secular bodies to create policies that align with our predictions as to what may take place in the coming years. For example, church leaders need to decide whether they prefer an incrementalist, “realistic” strategy, or whether they should follow a bold approach such as that outlined in the Green New Deal.
Or should the church adopt a different strategy — one of adaptation and resilience, as discussed in The Third Road? None of these decisions are easy.