Essential Petrochemicals

Ruthenium — Used to convert CO2 to methane

A theme of the posts at this site is that society will have to reduce its use of energy and raw materials. There is no way of getting around an Age of Limits. This leads to a subsidiary theme that our faith in technology is misplaced. In spite of our best hopes, they will not “come up with something”.

Nevertheless, it is worth keeping an eye on technological advances that can help us reduce the impact of the predicaments we face, or that can slow down the speed with which they are taking place. In particular, it is worth looking at developments in “carbon sequestration” — the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. This CO2 can then either be stored, or converted to another chemical.

I am dubious about such proposed technological advances because they cannot get around the basic of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. No system is truly sustainable; all the actions that we take will lead to an overall increase in system entropy. Nevertheless, this is an area we should keep an eye on.

Given this background my attention was caught by an article published in this month’s Chemical Engineering Progress magazine. The title of the article was Transforming a Carbon-Based Economy. It discusses the use of a rare element, ruthenium (Ru), as a catalyst to convert CO2 in the atmosphere to methane (CH4). I was particularly caught by the following two quotations in the article,

We are a hydrocarbon-based economy, and we have been for 100-something years . . . So, at least as a bridge to technology for the next generation, we’re going to have to stay largely with hydrocarbons.

We still need plastics, carbon materials, and other commodity chemicals that are carbon-based.

What proponents of programs such as the Green New Deal fail to recognize is that about 10% of a barrel of oil is used as a feedstock used to make the thousands and thousands of chemicals that are essential to modern life. The list includes plastics, detergents, lubricants, packaging, carpets, structural foam, rubber, clothing, penicillin, chemotherapy drugs, food preservatives, fertilizers, pesticides, dyes, clothing, contact lenses, and so on and so on. Even if it were realistic to run our society on clean, renewable sources of energy within the next 20 years (which it isn’t), we would still need fossil fuels to make those chemicals.

The authors of this article recognize this dilemma. Their research is pointing toward a solution whereby we can use CO2 in the atmosphere as a petrochemical feedstock.

Anger

Greta Thunberg anger

How often at do we hear words in our churches to the effect, “We need to get our young people involved in . . . ”? Church membership is declining and, increasingly, the people who do attend are gray-haired. We know that we need young people to participate in our activities and to provide leadership for the future. But nothing seems to work. All sorts of ideas are put forward to increase youth participation. Maybe we need to be more conservative (or liberal); or maybe our worship services should be more (or less) liturgical; or maybe we should use more (or less) modern music. None of these ideas or initiatives seem to make much difference; the decline seems to be inexorable.

The chart below shows the membership in the Episcopal church in the United States. The steep decline it shows is hardly unique to that denomination — all types of church are reporting similar trends.

Membership Episcopal church

Maybe one reason that young people have a declining interest in church activities is that they see the church as out of touch with their concerns. Inter-generational gaps are hardly new — young people are always anxious to cast off the ideas of their elders and to strike out on their own. But in our time the gap seems to be particularly severe. Increasingly, young people look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk, and they are angry. They are angry that we have taken so much and left them with so little. The spokesperson for this anger is that remarkable young lady, Greta Thunberg. She and others in her age group are reading articles such as this one The Future will be Worse than We Thought.

Thomas Cole course of empire

No wonder they are angry.

Jesus reserves some of his harshest criticisms for those who fail to treat children well.

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18

Thunberg is not playing nice.

If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

If we were to use old-fashioned religious imagery, it’s almost as if she is condemning us for sin.

So how are we older people to respond? Greta and her friends want us to take action — they want us to at least slow down the rate of global warming. (In fact, she probably knows that it is too late, that we are facing predicaments, not problems. But she is giving us a second chance.) To use another old-fashioned religious word, she is offering us a chance of redemption. But we probably need to start with repentance — an acknowledgment of our responsibility for what we have created.


Postscript

After I had finished this post and scheduled it for publication I picked up a copy of this week’s Time magazine. The article describes how young people around the world are rebelling against the mess that their elders have made. Here is the cover.

Time Youthquake Cover

Young people have always known how smart they are. As George Orwell said,

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.

Having said which, it does seem as if the current generation gap is wider than it was for earlier generations.

Of Priests and Thermodynamics

Illustrates temperature and thermodynamics
Some years ago, my church started a search for a new priest. The search committee developed a list of attributes that they and the members of the congregation would like to see in the successful candidate. These attributes included the normal requirements that the selected person be a powerful preacher, good at financial management, skilled at working with both young and old people, have a deep knowledge of the Bible, and so on — in other words, a perfect person.

I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a thorough understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People thought I was joking — such a requirement they said meant that there would be no priests at all. They were correct, of course. But my suggestion was not a joke; if we are to properly address the challenges that we face in the coming years then leaders of faith will need to have an educated grasp of technical topics, where the word “educated” is used in its Renaissance sense. Church leaders will need to have enough technical knowledge such that they can evaluate the claims and counter-claims that are made on topics such as climate change and crude oil depletion.

The catch is that priests are already fully committed to their ministry, indeed they are usually over-worked. They don’t have time to research these issues in sufficient depth to form a defensible opinion. Moreover, their inherent talents and interests generally lie in other areas, such as working with people.

One of the themes of this blog site is that secular leadership is not actually providing leadership. The reason for this failure is that any effective response requires that we all make substantial sacrifices in our material standard of living. Yet any politician who talks this way soon becomes an ex-politician. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the church to provide leadership.

Another theme is that we need to “Understand and Tell the Truth”. This is hard, very hard. The issues we discuss are extraordinarily complex and difficult to understand. Church leaders simply do not have the time, nor usually the background, to carry out the needed research.

So how are priests and other church leaders to become educated in Age of Limits issues such that they can provide credible leadership? Maybe one approach would be to develop an academy in which people of faith provide an honest and rational explanation as to what is taking place. They would not fall into the trap of “other-sideism” — they would provide clear direction for the faith community. This does not mean that their opinions would always be correct, of course. Discourse would be necessary. But such discourse would avoid hopium and wishful thinking. It would also try to see the truth in a society which is awash in fake news, truthiness, advertising, factoids and outright propaganda. The discourse would be based on an understanding that we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

What Grandma Knew

Grandma survived the great depression because her supply chain was local and she knew how to do stuff
Source Unknown

The above picture was used in a post at the reddit r/collapse site. I don’t know the source of the picture, but I assume that it was actually taken after the Great Depression (the 1930s). After all, it wasn’t until the 1960s that color photography became widespread. (If anyone does know the source, please let me know.)

Regardless of the actual date of the picture, the message it conveyed went viral within that sub reddit. Maybe it got such attention because the redditors at that site live and work in such a different world. Many of them are young, so they probably have jobs with titles such as marketing coordinator, social media consultant or global supply chain VP. Such job titles would have been incomprehensible to grandma, and I suspect that they will be incomprehensible to future generations.

The commentary added to the picture is somewhat misleading. Even in the 1930s supply chains were not all that short. Global commerce may not have been what it is now, but many of the tools that grandma used in her garden were manufactured in other States, and the bread that she and her family ate was made from wheat grown elsewhere. Nevertheless, she was a good deal more self-sufficient than most of us are.

It is important not romanticize those times. My grandparents lived through the Depression in England (they called it “the Slump”). My grandfather was head of accounting for a textile company that went bankrupt. The stress caused him to lose weight — eventually he was down to just nine stone. Their daughter (my mother) won a school competition of such distinction that the award was presented by royalty. But she did not make the trip because the family could not afford the train fare to London. Those were not the good old days.

Nevertheless, people then did have shorter supply lines, and they were more self-sufficient than ourselves. In particular, they were much less dependent on technology: no telephone, television, automobiles, refrigerators, central heating or washing machines.

What is the lesson for us in our time?

In future years our society will become much less complex than it is now. How that change will come about is a topic for much discussion. But it is going to happen — either voluntarily or because the change is forced upon us. Which is why one of the theological points I put forward for consideration is, “Accept and adapt”. In other words, we need to recognize that we cannot prevent the changes that are occurring — indeed many of them have already occurred. Therefore, like grandma, we need to learn “how to do stuff”. (The word “stuff” is important in this context. A journey starts with one step. We are not all going to become self-sufficient, permaculture farmers overnight. But anything that we can do to move toward a simpler and more self-sufficient lifestyle is something that we should be doing.)

What is the message for the church? One of the themes of this site is that the church has an opportunity for much needed leadership as we enter the Age of Limits. We are heading into difficult times and we will all need to become more self-reliant. Maybe the church can help with that transition. We are not going to leap straight from our SUVs into a Cistercian monastery. But, the more “stuff” we know how to do on our own and in our local communities the better.

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.

2 Corinthians 3:5


The picture below is of one set of my grandparents. It was taken around the year 1912. This was before the Slump, so they had personal, motorized transport. (And, no, I don’t know the name of the dog.)

Motorcycle year 1912

 

 

A New City of God — Chapters 1 and 2 for Review

City-of-God-1-300
The City of God

A draft of Chapter 2 of the book A New City of God: Faith in a Changing Climate is available for review. Its title is The City of Man. You are invited to download it and give us your comments.

We have also released a new and improved version of Chapter 1 — The Author’s Apology, as well as an  updated Table of Contents.

Here are the links.

  • The current Table of Contents for the whole book is available as a .pdf file here.
  • Chapter 1 is available as a .pdf file here.
  • A 21 minute video overview of Chapter 1 is available here.
  • Chapter 2 is available as a .pdf file here.
  • Please provide your comments on Chapter 1 using the Contact form at our Sutton Technical Books site.

Thanks for your feedback.

No Epiphany

Australian wildfires December 2019
This is not news

Like many churches around the world, our church has just celebrated Epiphany — the time when the magi or wise men visited the baby Jesus.

The word epiphany has been defined in the following ways,

  • An appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being;
  • A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; or
  • An illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

In the Biblical context the magi suddenly realize who it is that they have been directed to visit.  That is their epiphany.

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi
Adoration of the Magi. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The theme of this site is to provide thoughts as to how we might develop a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for the world that we are entering. The three theological points presented for discussion are,

  1.  Understand and tell the truth.
  2.  Accept and adapt.
  3.  Live within the biosphere.

I have highlighted the first of these because it is the one I would like to consider in this post. Specifically, I would like to consider whether or not we, as a society, will have an epiphany regarding climate change. Will there be a moment when people suddenly “get it”, a time when “it clicks” that something is going on, that the world is changing? And, were such an epiphany to occur, would it be followed by decisive action?

Let’s think about these questions in context of this week’s news: the appalling wildfires that are consuming so much of Australia. Have the people of Australia had an epiphany where they, as a nation, understand the threat that climate change poses? Furthermore, has the Australian government recognized the error of its ways such that it is now doing everything that it can to slow down the rate at which the climate is changing? For example, has it stopped the export of Australian coal to other countries? The answers to the above three questions are “No”, “No” and “No”. The fires have not led to a nation-wide “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”? They may have led some Australians to consider a new way of thinking. But there has been no nation-wide change.

Why not? Why has there not been an Australian epiphany? Two possible reasons come to mind.

The first reason is to do with “normalization of the news”. The wild fires in Australia (or California or the Arctic or anywhere else, for that matter) are, by definition, only news when they are new, when they capture people’s attention as being something out of the ordinary. As soon as they become routine or long drawn out affairs they are, by definition, no longer news. Hence, they no longer grab our attention. Once the fire season is behind them, people switch their attention to other matters of more topical concern.

The second reason that the Australian fires are not an epiphany is that the Australian government understands that, were they to restrict coal mining, then many individual Australians would lose well-paid jobs. Even those who understand the magnitude and seriousness of climate change will, for the most part, continue with the same way of life. After all, they have children to raise, mortgages to pay and a retirement to save for. Epiphany or not, most people will not be prepared to make radical personal sacrifice in order to “save the world”. Or, to put it another way, they have not repented, as discussed in a recent post in this series.

So, with regard to the first of the three theological points — Understand and tell the truth — we can conclude that there will be no nation-wide epiphany. There will be not be a time when the world as a whole “wakes up” and “gets it”.

If this conclusion is correct then it is, to say the least, a discouraging conclusion. Maybe this is where people of faith and the church overall can provide leadership. Secular politicians cannot ask people to voluntarily reduce their standard of living. If they do, they soon become ex-politicians. But faith is not about material prosperity — so the leaders of the church can talk about a society in which people make voluntary cut backs in their standard of living for the greater good of all. People of faith can help bring about an epiphany, for at least some members of the population.


Postscript

The day after I published this post Reuters published an article Australia’s leaders unmoved on climate action after devastating bushfires.

While the fires are still burning the ‘Emissions Reduction Minister’ said,

In most countries it isn’t ­acceptable to pursue emission­ reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, ­destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth.

This is a remarkably candid statement — he is not fudging around with “green growth’.

Repentance

Christmas candles
Credit: Pixabay

The post, Repent – Another World is Possible at the Resilience site caught my attention, and seems to fit in with my own Happy New Year discussion.

The author of the post, Vicki Robin, talks about old-fashioned concepts such as sin and repentance (although she does avoid the word salvation). She finds herself drawn to old-fashioned religious imagery; she tries to fit this imagery into a secular framework.
Here are some quotations from her work.

  • Haven’t we graduated from the angry Father God of the Israelites?
  • Proscribed rituals in the Talmud would today be diagnosed as OCD and medicated.
  • We are post-modern . . . we are not sinful.
  • How pitiful were the COP25’s flaccid results.
  • Repent is a biblical term for a biblical time, and this is a biblical time.
  • We have sinned against nature.
  • This is the time to repent. To fall on our knees before the enormity of our folly. To face the golden calf we worshiped.
  • I forgot I was part of the community of life.
  • I will never stop thinking — maybe won’t even after I die.

The purpose of this blog, and of the book/video that I am writing, is to help us all figure out a theology appropriate for an Age of Limits. Robin reminds us that creating theology is not merely an intellectual exercise. It includes old-time concepts such as sin, repentance and salvation.

Repentance starts with the recognition that you have thought and acted wrongly in the past and wish to think rightly in the future. But repentance also contains within itself the concepts of sin and salvation. It is a deeply personal issue. The term “Godly Sorrow” comes to mind.

We are at the start of a new year — a time for making predictions. I predict that we will see more articles and posts such as Robin’s. People will be looking for personal meaning in a degraded world; they will come to acknowledge their own role in creating that degraded world and they will be struggling with what it means to repent.

Happy New Year

episcopal-church-2

I wish everyone health and happiness in the year ahead of us. The year 2019 was a time of change, and I expect that 2020 will be no different.

A Theology for Our Times

This year I plan on a series of posts built around the theme of a ‘A Theology for our Times’. We live, as they say, in “interesting times”. At such times we need an intellectual framework that helps us understand and respond to what is going on. For people of faith this means that we need a theology that is relevant to a world of climate change, resource depletion, over-population, pollution and so on.

I approach this topic as an engineer who also has a background in systems engineering and the management of large projects. This experience can, I trust, be of value to professional theologians, seminarians and ordained clergy as they try to figure out a suitable theology for an Age of Limits.

A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. We set up a search committee — a process with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of good Bible knowledge, working well with children, preaching a powerful sermon, and so on were put forward. I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, of course. But I was not joking. An understanding of thermodynamics and other technical topics helps us grasp the root cause of many of our problems  and should be part of a theology for our times.

In order to assist in the process of developing a suitable theology I suggest that the following three points be considered.

  1. Understand and tell the truth,
  2. Accept and adapt, and
  3. Live within the biosphere.

I will unpack these points in future posts — and I very much welcome feedback. But before doing so it is important to examine why a new theology may be needed. After all, isn’t God’s truth as revealed in the Bible sufficient for all times and all places? I would say that the answer has to be, “Yes and No”. The fundamentals do not change, but their application will change under different circumstances.

In this context, three names come to mind. They are: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and John Wesley. We will look at how these men responded to the world of their times, also in future posts. They shared the same fundamental beliefs, but they each developed a way of understanding their world that addressed the situation in which they and other people of faith found themselves.

Even when interpreting the Bible, we need to see issues in context. For example, in Genesis 9, following the flood, God says to Noah and his sons,

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.

Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it has brought us: an over-populated, polluted, depleted world.

Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 are more appropriate to our times.

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

Final Thoughts on 2019

Time magazine’s Person of the Year was Greta Thunberg (GT) — and rightly so. Quite suddenly she started a meme that swept the world. Those who choose to deny that the climate is changing, and that those changes are caused by human beings, are now very much on the defensive.

But it is important to understand the mood of GT and her followers. To put in plainly, they are angry.

Greta Thunberg release hell

Credit: Ugo Bardi

One of the more puzzling aspects of the meme was the response that she received in the Halls of Power. Repeatedly she was applauded and praised  by those who had failed to make the changes that she wanted them to make. Why?

Consider the well-known words from Matthew 8.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

Here is what Thunberg says,

I speak on behalf of future generations. I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science.

Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?

In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us. Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.

You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

Did you hear what I just said? Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.

People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at.

You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.

If we were to use old-fashioned religious language, it as if she is telling us that we have sinned.

Nor is she offering much in the way of forgiveness.

If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

Incidentally, here is what the emissions curve that she talks about looks like.

co2 carbon dioxide concentration 1960-2015

She is right. All the well-meaning rhetoric has achieved nothing.

Let’s compare her words with the following message from the Episcopal Church (USA) from the year 2019. It is structured in the form of three goals.

Goal #1
Create and sustain a network of Episcopalians dedicated to the care and protection of the whole Creation, especially by providing grants and cultivating circles for Story Sharing among  practitioners in local and regional ministries.

Goal #2
Stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable victims of the impact of climate change – particularly women, poor people, and people of color – as part of seeking the liberation and flourishing of all God’s people.

Goal #3
Set climate mitigation benchmarks as individuals and as a church, in order to live more simply, humbly, and gently on the Earth.

The difference in tone between the messages of Thunberg and of the Episcopal Church is unmistakable. The church’s message is one of accommodation and reason; hers is one of condemnation.

Rhetoric

Martin Luther King I have a dream speech

Maybe one reason that GT’s message is so powerful is that, even though English is not her first language, she speaks powerfully and to the point. It puts one in mind of that earlier meme, the one created by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the year 1963. He also spoke about children and the world in which they were growing up.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

As church leaders wrestle with the impact of climate change and other Age of Limits issues, they will need to understand how the intellectual and emotional environments are also changing.