Proper 23: The Enemy Is Physics

Physics and the Age of Limits

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (October 13th 2019, Year C) is taken from Luke 17:11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This passage to do with faith is a continuation of last week’s gospel reading, Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences.

It can be difficult to have faith when we look at our predicaments. So few people seem to understand what is going on, and even fewer are taking action to try and change our direction. But this gospel passage tells us to keep the faith and to be grateful for any progress that is made.

Episcopal Bishops

Many bishops of the Episcopal church joined the recent climate strikes. The following is taken from the church’s web site.


Tens of thousands of young people are mobilizing at this moment in New York and across the United States, standing up for climate action and climate justice. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who electrified the audience at the UN Climate Summit in Poland last year (2018) came by fossil-free boat to join the mobilizing youth. We, a group of Green Bishops of The Episcopal Church have stepped out of our Fall meeting here in Minnesota to voice our support for this youth mobilization.

We Green Episcopal Bishops resolve to support a network of young climate activists in The Episcopal Church, building up to an Episcopal youth presence at the important United Nations Climate Summit in 2020, most likely to be held in the United Kingdom. Called COP (Conference of Parties) 26, the summit in 2020 is so crucial because it will be the 5-year stocktaking of how the world is doing keeping its commitments to the Paris Agreement. Even more importantly, we will all be called upon in 2020 to “raise our ambition” on climate action.

The Episcopal Church is already committed to action that will support a 1.5°C ceiling on global warming above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. We are working from the individual and household level up to regions and to the level of the whole Church to make the necessary transition to a sustainable life.

The Episcopal Church is also committed to climate justice, standing in solidarity with vulnerable people – the Gwich’in People of Alaska, the Standing Rock Tribe, Caribbean island peoples, and the people of Polynesia, and others, all of whose ways of life, and in some cases their very lives, are already threatened and disastrously changed by climate chaos. We recognize that climate change joins other scourges such as social violence and poverty in displacing millions of people worldwide, and we will work to make sure that all immigrants and asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect.

Finally, all we do as Episcopalians following the Way of Jesus is done with prayer, faith and trust. We turn to God for guidance, courage, and compassion.

The reaction of myself and many of my friends in the Episcopal church is to be grateful that our leaders are stepping out and providing much needed leadership. Their message provides a link to the church’s Creation Care web site (many of us are involved in local Creation Care activities at the diocese and parish level). The Anglican Communion has a similar Season of Creation site.

But, and there’s always a but . . . One of the purposes of the posts at this blog and the book New City of God is to take a careful look at the scientific background to statements such as these. After all, Greta Thunberg (G.T.), the young lady who started these strikes, says “listen to the science” and “our enemy right now is physics”.

With these thoughts in mind, I make the following comments to do with the bishops’ statement.

  1. G.T. did not arrive in a “fossil-free boat”. From the look of the boat it appears as if it has carbon fiber sails. The making of such sails, and of the boat’s hull, requires an enormous input of fossil fuel energy per kilogram-kilometer travelled. If we compare the fossil fuels required to take G.T. on a commercial airplane (including the fossil fuels needed to build the airplane and its infrastructure pro-rated for the number of flights) I would be curious to know which is more environmentally friendly. Actually the most energy-effective way to cross the Atlantic is in a spare cabin on a large cargo ship. This would give a very low energy consumption in terms of joules / (kilometer * kilogram of body weight).
  2. If the Episcopal Church is committed to the 1.5°C target how does it propose to get there? Such a goal requires substantial sacrifice on the part of the church members. Has that sacrifice been calculated and explained? Moreover, aren’t the bishops being unrealistic. Given the lack of action at the national and international level, and given that, once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere it stays in the atmosphere, shouldn’t we accept that 1.5°C is going to happen?
  3. The above two points are rather picky, but my third point is of the greatest concern. The statement commits to “climate action and climate justice”. Both goals are, of course, fully in line with Christian mission. But, by splitting the focus, confusion can be created. This is not just a theoretical point. Earlier this year members of Congress proposed a ‘Green New Deal’ based on mitigation of the impacts of climate change. The same document also proposed various social justice goals. What happened was that its opponents sensibly picked on the social justice part to effectively challenge the entire message. They said that the GND was just another way for the government to control our lives. This allowed them to successfully avoid discussing climate change issues. It’s true that addressing climate change will likely help poorer people the most, and that’s good. But I suggest that the focus should be only on climate change such that all people — rich and poor alike — benefit.

My comments may seem to be unnecessarily pedantic and even ungracious. But, if the church is to provide leadership with regard to climate change and other Age of Limits issues, then we need to make sure that we address the scientific, engineering and project management realities correctly.


The Carbon Trap

In his 2012 paper The Ladder of Awareness Paul Chefurka talks about understanding our predicaments as developing in the following five stages.

  1.  Dead asleep;
  2.  Awareness of one fundamental problem;
  3.  Awareness of many problems;
  4.  Awareness of the interconnection between many problems; and
  5.  Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.

He has now written an equally useful piece entitled the Carbon Trap. Here is what he says.

Whether we realize it or not, everyone living on planet Earth today is caught in what I have come to call the “carbon trap”. The nature of the trap is simple, and can be described in one sentence:

Our continued existence depends on the very thing that is killing us – the combustion of our planet’s ancient stocks of carbon.

This unfortunate situation was not intentional, and is no one’s fault.

The trap was constructed well outside of our conscious view or understanding.

Its design came from our evolved desires for status, material comfort and security.

We recognized its seductive promise long before we knew enough science to discover its hidden hook.

It was built with the best of intentions by well-meaning scientists and engineers, whose knowledge of the consequences was both incomplete and clouded by their own evolved desire for a better life.

Most of us, even those who are aware of our predicament, distract ourselves by creating and admiring elaborate and luxurious appointments for our carbon-clad prison.

Many who can see the bars spend their time dreaming of ways to slip through them into the world outside – a world of natural freedom that they can see but never reach.

Those who are fully aware of the trap also understand that we now need it to survive; that leaving it (if that were even possible) would be as fatal as staying inside. We are victims of what complex systems scientists call “path dependence” – where we came from and how we got here puts strict limits on what is now possible for us to do.

One of the things we can’t do is simply open the door and leave. Even the fact that our carbon-barred prison is now on fire can’t change the cold equations. We are condemned to wait here until the walls burn down, when a few soot-blackened survivors may stumble out into the blasted and barren landscape left behind by our self-absorbed construction project.

This is why I believe that the one quality most needed in the world today is compassion.

Our fossil fuel dependence started 300 years ago. (I select the year 1712 — that was when Thomas Newcomen invented his atmospheric/steam engine for pumping water out of mines.) Many people say that, when our fossil fuel supply declines and/or we simply cannot add more carbon to the atmosphere, then we will simply revert to an earlier lifestyle, the way that people lived in Biblical times.

Chefurka is saying that this is not the case; we cannot go back. The pre-industrial world is gone and will never return. You cannot swim in the same river twice. If and when the fossil fuel dependency comes to an end he is saying that we will be living in a totally different world — one consisting only of “soot-blackened” survivors.


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Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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