Second Sunday of Advent: Crying in the Wilderness

Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus

Administrative Note

An encouraging number of people have expressed an interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change Theology’. Therefore, I will make an adjustment to this weekly post. To date, I have been publishing a post at this site once a week on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. east coast time. Typically the posts have been in two parts. The first part looks at this week’s appointed gospel reading in the context of the Age of Limits (climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot, and so on). This week I struggle with what it means to be a missionary in today’s consumer culture when climate change and related issues are just part of the cacophony. (One unexpected benefit of this writing strategy is that it means that I am prepared for this week’s sermon, regardless of the topic being discussed.)

The second part of a typical post consists of one or more short discussions to do with the dilemmas that we face. For example, last week we looked at my fourth “Aha!” moment: the I-10 Freeway, and at the unreality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per annum for the next two decades, as called for in a recent United Nations report.

As time permits (and, like everyone else, I have a life to live) I will add a third section to do with theology.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 3:1-12.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The familiar phrase, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” spoke to me. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. We are directed by passages such as this from Mark 16.

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”.

Yet preaching about climate change and resource limits seems to have very little impact. We have a situation where it is certain that the world’s climate is going to be radically altered within the lifetime of many (most) people living now. There is even plausible discussion suggesting that climate change may be so drastic as to lead to the end of civilization within a generation or two. Whether you agree with such extreme predictions or not, we still need to address three facts: (1) Age of Limits issues are existential — radical change is on the horizon, and everyone — there are no exceptions — everyone, will be affected, (2) very few people really care, and (3) our national and international leaders are not, in fact, leaders.

Given this background, what are the news media obsessing about? Mostly impeachment, Brexit and this year’s superbowl.

“Aha!” Moment #5: Psychohistory

In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these so far. They are:

  1. Predicaments, Not Problems
  2. Augustine’s City of God
  3. Light Bulbs
  4. The I-10 Freeway
  5. Psychohistory

This week, I would like to look at the fifth of these: Psychohistory. It came about when I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a set of science fiction stories set at a time when humanity has developed the technology to travel to other planets. At the start of the series all the inhabited planets in the galaxy are part of a single empire. But the Empire is declining in power, wealth and prestige. The hero of the series, a man named Hari Seldon, develops a discipline that he refers to as psychohistory. This discipline, which combines elements of history, sociology and statistics, allows him to understand how societies change and evolve. Based on his analysis, Seldon is able to organize new societal structures that will form the basis of a new empire that will develop quickly and bring a quick end to the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the first empire.

The reason that this book series formed the basis of an “Aha!” Moment is that we need to develop our own theory of psychohistory. The issues that we face — climate change, resource depletion, over-population, to name but a few, are not only inherently complex, but they interact with one another in ways that are very difficult to understand and predict. Some over-arching theory is needed. Such a theory will provide us with an understanding as to what is taking place, and will allow us to develop means of addressing the predicaments that we face.

As an example of the need for systems thinking, consider the call for the elimination of fossil fuels from people such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could be that their message is mostly unnecessary because our use of these fuels, particularly oil, is probably going down anyway, as discussed in the Peak Prosperity post Houston, We Have A Problem. Slide 4 from Art Berman’s presentation is particularly revealing.

Production of tight oil since 2005

The production of conventional crude oil in the United States reached a peak in the year 1970, as predicted by the great M. King Hubbert in 1956. In recent years there has been a surge in the production of Light Tight Oil and Shale Gas, as the slide shows. But there are many indications that tight oil production has reached a peak and that it will decline in the next five years (for example, this this post to do with Chesapeake Energy).

If production does decline as quickly as it ramped up then Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez may be reminded of the proverb, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. Another example of the need for systems thinking, this one to do with the realities of project management, is provided in the post The Slow Train.

Theology

This is the first post to do with the topic of Climate Change Theology. As a starting point, I would like to consider the following words from Ecclesiastes 1.

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.

I chose those words because they seem to express a view of the type of world that we need to create rather than the one that we have created based on what was told to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).

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.”.

Do we really need to “be fruitful”, to increase the world’s population? Do we really need to have all other creatures live in “fear and dread” of us?

I started thinking about the need for a theology for our times when a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking the same question. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide meaningful leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual framework, or, in religious terms, a theology.

Theology is to do with seeking truth through God’s word (theos, God, and logos, Word). As a semi-retired chemical engineer you may reasonably ask why I am writing on this topic. Shouldn’t we leave it to the professional theologians, the seminarians and the ordained clergy — people who are trained to understand and interpret God’s word? It’s a good question, one which we will discuss in coming posts.

In the meantime, let us start with the very sensible question that Pontius Pilate asks in John 18:38.

Jesus says,

. . . 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.

To which Pilate replies,

What is truth?

 

 

 

 

First Sunday of Advent: 7.6%

Four horsemen of the bible
The Four Horsemen: Conquest, War, Famine and Death (Vasnetsov)

Appointed Gospel

This week we enter the Advent season. The lectionary gospel reading is taken from Matthew 24:36-44.

Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Christian thinking to do with the future generally anticipates sudden, one-time events that arrive with little or no warning. “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. We see the same way of thinking in Revelation and in the story of Noah and the Ark.

Such a future does not seem to align with predictions to do with climate change and other Age of Limits issues. Instead we are more likely to see a slow, dreary, inexorable downhill trajectory — with a few bright spots here and there. Indeed, as shown in “Aha!” Moment #4, described below, that downhill trajectory started some years ago.

“Aha!” Moment #4: The I-10 Freeway

In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these “Aha!” moments (at least, so far). They are:

  1. Predicaments, Not Problems
  2. Augustine’s City of God
  3. Light Bulbs
  4. The I-10 Freeway
  5. Psychohistory

The first three are described in the linked posts shown. This week I take a look at “Aha!” Moment #4 — The I-10 Freeway.

Katy Freeway flooding tropical storm Harvey

This “Aha!” moment occurred when I saw the following photograph. It is a before-and-after picture of the I-10 freeway between Houston and Beaumont, a road I have driven many times during the course of my business career. The “before” picture shows the freeway and feeder road in its normal state. The “after” picture was taken during tropical storm Harvey. It is estimated that this ‘1 in 1,000 years’ storm dropped a million gallons of rain for each resident of south Texas. (Just two years later, a second ‘1 in 1,000 years’ storm, Imelda, flooded the same area.)

This picture taught me that climate change is not just something that will happen in the future, it is happening now. Indeed, it is something that started some years ago. And it is not just a matter or reports and blog posts — real people, people I know, are being really affected.

7.6%

At this blog I don’t spend much time describing current events, including reports and analyses from professional and trustworthy organizations. But I would like to make a few comments on the recent United Nations report which states that fossil fuel CO2 emissions worldwide grew by 2% in the year 2018. The report also states that we are on track for a global temperature increase of 3.9°C by the end of the century. It goes on to say that we must reduce emissions by 7.6% each year, starting next year.

Let’s pick on two of those numbers.

Ozymandias symbolic of four degree temperature rise

The first is the 3.9°C temperature increase, which we will likely reach well before the end of the century. If we reach that point then the world will be drastically and irreversibly changed. With respect to Europe, and the droughts that will ensue, Mark Lynas, author of the book Six Degrees, evokes Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias,

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Moving on to the second number, the call for a reduction of 7.6% per annum in greenhouse gas emissions, starting now — the effect on the world’s economy would be disastrous. In 2009 worldwide CO2 emissions fell by 6% following the most serious recession since the Great Depression.  (If we are increasing emissions by 2% per annum now, then a 7.6% reduction really means that we need to cut emissions by 10% per annum.)

Therefore the UN is suggesting that we cut emissions by an amount that we have never before seen, even during the 2008 recession. And they are also suggesting that we maintain this pace for decades. A reduction on this scale would require a massive restructuring of the world’s industrial and commercial systems. To make such sweeping changes is, as suggested in the post The Slow Train, completely unrealistic if we hope to simultaneously maintain our current lifestyles.

Proper 29: Light Bulbs

Five light bulbs

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke 23: 33-43.

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This is a tough passage. It tells us that Christians can anticipate having to suffer for their faith. But it also tells us that such faith, if it is as strong as that demonstrated by the second criminal, has its reward. In the context of climate change and related issues, maybe the message is that are heading into difficult times, but, if we have sufficient faith, a new world can open up. Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday.

Aha! Moment #3: Light Bulbs

Light bulbs not available with alternative energy

In the posts from the previous two weeks I have described the first two of my “Aha! Moments”. These are times when “something clicks”, when suddenly “we get it”. I have had five of these Aha! Moments. They were:

  1.  Predicaments, Not Problems
  2.  Augustine’s City of God
  3.  Light Bulbs
  4.  The I-10 Freeway
  5.  Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory

We took a look at the first two on this list in the posts Proper 27: Complexity and Proper 28: The City of Man. This week I will spend a few moments on Aha! Moment #3: Light Bulbs, which came to me when I was reading an early blog from James Kunstler. In one of his fictional works he describes society in upstate New York fifty years from now. The people are living in a post-industrial society, one in which Peak Oil has occurred, so they are having to live a much more basic lifestyle than they did two generations previously.

The people in the community that he describes have energy generated by alternative energy sources, but they do not have light bulbs. The factories and supply chains needed to supply manufactured goods have broken down. Kunstler’s point is that it is not enough to simply find alternative sources of energy, we also need to develop manufacturing and supply systems that effectively use those energy sources. In his book that goal had not been achieved.

The challenges that we will face go beyond finding and deploying alternative energy sources. We also will need to maintain the extraordinarily complex manufacturing and supply chain systems that we have created. We will have to move from a business mentality of efficiency and Just in Time (JIT) management to a way of thinking that stresses resilience and adaptability. Whether we will be able to do so in time is dubious.

It’s All About ERoEI

red queen alice symbolizing peak oil peak water

I recommend viewing the YouTube video How to Enjoy the End of the World presented by Sid Smith. It lasts for over an hour, but Smith makes some important points as to where we are headed. In particular, he notes that our core predicament is one of declining ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested). It is only about halfway through the video that he even mentions climate change. (An explanation of ERoEI, and of its importance. is provided in our ebook Age of Limits – 1. One of the chapters in that ebook is Alice and the Red Queen. Like the Red Queen, we are running faster and faster just to stay in one place.) Smith shows that alternative sources of energy are not going to replace fossil fuels, at least not on the scale and convenience that we need them to do.

 

Diocese of Virginia Annual Meeting

Gods-Creation-Table

The Episcopal diocese of Virginia held its 225th annual convention November 14-16, 2019 in Crystal City, just outside of Washington, D.C. Our task force, ‘Care of God’s Creation’, had a table in the exhibit area, and led a workshop and sponsored a Resolution to do with single-use plastics. The topics of climate change and environmental stewardship were mentioned many times throughout the conference. Clearly, this is an area in which the church can provide leadership.

The workshop was attended by about 35 people. A message we received was that parishes would like the diocese to provide assistance with complex activities such as installing solar panels and building rain gardens.

Virginia diocese 2019 convention eucharist

Jevons Paradox

William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882)

As I look at the church’s responses to the impacts of climate changes I am deeply impressed and moved by the commitment shown by so many people. Yet I am also concerned that some of these efforts may be in vain. They may even be counter-productive. They may be unwitting victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences and of Jevons Paradox (the ‘Coal Question’).

False Savings

My first concern is to do with false savings. Let’s say that your place of work is near to your home. You have been in the habit of driving to work, but now decide to use a bicycle. You save a few gallons or liters of fuel each week. Great! You have done your bit to reduce the use of a scarce resource (oil) and you there are now fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But has that gasoline really been saved? Since it is now available to others it will be used by someone, somewhere. So, the truth is that it has not been saved. It has merely been transferred from one consumer (you) to another (a stranger who could be anywhere in the world).

You may respond by saying that we need to make a gesture, or that cycling to work is good for your health. Fair enough — but the fact is that you have not met your original goal of reducing gasoline consumption and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

In fact, you may have made matters worse than if you had done nothing at all.

The Coal Question

In order to understand this conundrum let us meet that bewhiskered Victorian gentleman, William Stanley Jevons.

Mill Chimneys Victorian industry

Jevons was living at a time when Great Britain was going through a phase of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution, which had started about 150 years earlier, was kicking into high gear.

In the year 1865 he published The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (they went in for long book titles in those days). Even though he was writing 150 years ago, the words he wrote in that book are as relevant now as they were then (just substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’).

Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers.

. . . new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable . . .

I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.

Let us unpack those three paragraphs.

  1. The first paragraph states that coal was the über-commodity of the 19th century because it was the principle source of energy. Substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’ and his words apply to our situation. Without coal, without oil, we are “thrown back into the laborious poverty of earlier times”.
  2. The second paragraph shows the coal and oil not only give us raw power, they give us “molecular power” — the ability to create new products. They are used not only as fuel but also to create basic chemicals that in turn are used to make an enormous range of products such as fertilizers, medications, pesticides and plastics.
  3. But, and there’s always a ‘but’, in the third paragraph Jevons points out that the supply of coal is not infinite. Moreover, it will become ever more expensive to extract future supplies. We will never run out of coal or oil, but, sooner or later, we will run out of affordable coal (and oil). He is actually describing, a hundred years ahead of his time, the problem of declining ERoEI — Energy Returned on Energy Invested. He has a premonition of the Hubbert Curve.

His wonderful phrase, “that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress” pretty much summarizes much of what we are trying to achieve in this blog. There are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. But there are boundaries that will “stop our progress”.

I suppose that there is one other question that can be derived from the above statements. How is it that the quality of our written English has declined so precipitously? Where did we go wrong?

The Paradox

The following two statements summarize his famous paradox.

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Whatever, therefore, conduces to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to augment the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations.

Translated into modern English, he is saying,

  • Coal is being burned with greater efficiency. (There were two reasons for this. The first is technological innovation, the second the economies of scale that ensue when the number of customers is increased.)
  • Hence more factories and power plants use coal since it is now economical to do so.
  • Hence the overall consumption of coal increases.

Apply the same thinking to our situation.

  • People buy fuel-efficient cars to save money.
  • Because their cars are more efficient, they drive more miles.
  • Also, because it is more economical to drive, more people buy cars.
  • Hence the overall consumption of fuel increases.
  • Hence we should all drive 1960 gas guzzlers. What’s not to like?
Red Cadillac gas guzzler
Now that’s an automobile

The Katy Freeway

Katy Freeway 26 lanes
The Katy Freeway

The idea of Jevons Paradox crops up everywhere.

I used to live in Houston, Texas, and frequently drove on the I-10 West (the Katy Freeway). It is a major, badly congested commuter highway. To reduce the congestion the freeway was expanded such that the intersection with Beltway 8 is now 26 lanes across. (There used to be a two-track railroad on the corridor but they tore it up to make room for more traffic lanes).

Once construction was complete, travel was much faster and more convenient for just a few weeks. But now the traffic is as bad as ever. Why? Because more people chose to drive to work, and real estate developers built more homes adjacent to the freeway.

Demand met supply.

Demand Reduction Is Crucial

Jevons Paradox leads us to the conclusion that demand reduction is crucial. Merely saving resources or improving efficiencies will do no more than keep us in one place; indeed, such activities may actually make things worse.

  • If you make steam engines more efficient then more factories and power plants will be built and coal consumption will increase.
  • If you add more lanes to freeways then more people will use those extra lanes, and congestion will be as bad as ever.
  • If you drive an economical car then other people will drive more miles and more people will buy cars, thus wiping out your sacrifice.

The lesson is simple:

Reducing consumption or pollution is of no value unless overall demand is reduced. Failure to heed this insight means that all attempts to address our predicaments through improved efficiency or consumption are doomed not only to fail, they may actually make those predicaments worse unless demand elsewhere, all over the world, is reduced correspondingly.

Compassion

Child labour in a Victorian factory

I started this page by alluding to the fact that so many of our church friends are dedicated in their effort to help those who have been hurt, in one way or another, by climate change and related problems.

Jevons was with them. Far from being a cold-hearted economist who had no concern for the needs of those in trouble, he showed compassion. Here is what he said (once more, using a quality of English that one can only envy).

We must begin to allow that we can do today what we cannot so well do tomorrow….

Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us.

Conclusion

Any attempt to “save” energy or to reduce emissions is likely to have limited success unless it is matched with a commensurate reduction in energy consumption and emissions everywhere by everyone.

Now that’s the real challenge.

Happy Motoring Esso 1950s

Proper 28: The City of Man

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is from Luke 21:5-19.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In this passage Jesus is predicting great calamities. Indeed, the Temple was destroyed only 40 years after his death. Many of those who look deeply into climate change reach similar conclusions (the subreddit Collapse is an example of a site populated by people who think this way). Jesus is also saying that many of those who prophesy will come to a sticky end, and that they will be betrayed by many of those that they trust.

As we consider climate change, resource depletion and the other issues discussed at this blog we may anticipate a calamity, such as what happened to the Temple. In fact, our City of Man is more likely to undergo a ragged, stairstep decline (with some periods when conditions may briefly improve). It is unlikely that we will be able to point to a single event — a single point in time “when everything changed”.

Aha! Moment #2: Augustine’s City of God

Augustine of Hippo and the City of God

In last week’s post I suggested that many of us develop an understanding of the issues that face us in a series of Aha! Moments when suddenly we “get it”, something “clicks” with us.  I have had five such moments. They are:

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of a myriad of manufactured goods such as light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.
  5. A reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of science fiction books.

The second of these Aha! Moments, the one that is discussed in this post, is to do with the thoughts and actions of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the early part of the 5th century CE.

He wrote three books that are particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living now. They are: De Mendacio (On Lying), Confessions and, above all, City of God — a book that is particularly important and relevant to us now. It provides us with guidance as to how the Christian church may provide leadership in troubled times, and why it is important to develop an appropriate theology.

This is why I have used the title of Augustine’s most famous work for my own work. Augustine understood that all “cities of men” will eventually fail and disappear, just look at all the failed states in the Hebrew bible. He maintained that the only permanent city was the City of God. Therefore, he and other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of that city — in other words, they developed a theology appropriate for their times, a time when central control was disintegrating and decision-making was devolving to create what was to become a feudal society. I suggest that Christians need to do something similar now. It seems likely that, as we run into limits to do with climate, resources and over-population, that our society will also tend to fragment — large nations, corporations and even churches will break into smaller components. We will move from globalization toward decentralization.

What will that theology look like? As a semi-retired chemical engineer I feel a degree of trepidation about offering thoughts to do with theology — a topic that is the domain of scholars, seminarians and ordained clergy. Nevertheless, I suggest the following three points that may, at the very least, contribute to the work of those professionals.

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

The Slow Train

Transition from steam to diesel engines

One of the reasons for writing this blog is to examine some of the views held by environmentalists and climate activists, particularly those “solutions” that are simply not physically feasible. For example, programs to do with “saving energy” and “sustainable systems” do not meet the constraints of either the first or second laws of thermodynamics. We cannot “save energy” — the first law tells us so. Nor, according to the second law, is any activity truly sustainable. All activities within a closed system lead to an increase in entropy.

A second concern is that many of the programs put forward to address the predicaments that we face do not speak to project management realities. The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it can be implemented society-wide — at least not quickly enough to address the predicaments that we face. To illustrate this point, let us take a look at two railway projects. The first is the transition from steam to diesel electric power on American railroads  that took place in the 20th century. The second is the current California high speed rail project.

Steam to Diesel

Diesel and diesel-electric locomotives are attractive economically when compared to steam locomotives, largely because they require much less downtime for routine maintenance and cleaning. Such benefits were evident 100 years ago. Yet it took 50 years for diesel power to replace steam engines in the American railway system.

In November 2019 the Oil & Gas Journal (a leading publications in the energy business) published an article written by Michael Lynch. It was entitled, The oil industry revolution will not be televised. In the article Lynch shows how slowly new technologies are  adopted, even when there is a good economic justification. He uses the United States railroad industry as an example.

Transition from steam to diesel locomotives shows slow pace of adoption of new technologies.The chart, which is taken from his article, shows that the first diesel locomotive was put into service during the First World War. Yet it was not until the year 1937 that a commercial mainline, diesel locomotive was put into service. After that, diesel-electric locomotives steadily replaced steam locomotives. But, even by the year 1955, that replacement was not complete.

So it took nearly half a century to make this relatively simple switch to a new technology. Yet the economic justification was clear, the technology was well established, and the supporting infrastructure, particularly the supply of diesel fuel, was in place. Moreover, all other aspects of the operation, such as track, signals, union contracts, funding mechanisms and maintenance facilities did not require a significant change.

California High Speed Rail

California high speed rail over budget and behind schedule

In the year 2008 the citizens of California approved funding for the construction of a high speed rail service from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Proponents of the project claimed that the new trains would achieve a journey time between the two cities of 2½ hours, and that the ticket would cost around $50.

Here are some key steps in the project’s progress.

  • The ballot measure proposed a $38 billion project that would provide high speed train service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The journey time would be 2½ hours, and the cost of a ticket $50.
  • The schedule called for the project to be complete by the year 2029.
  • Since then, the project has run into considerable delays and cost over-runs. The current scope of the project is to build just the Central Valley section from Merced to Bakersfield.
  • The new trains will not have their own, dedicated tracks — they will have to share with existing Amtrak and freight systems. This change will substantially increase journey times.The latest cost estimate is $77 billion, and rising.

This California high speed rail project is emblematic of virtually all innovative and expensive projects. They always seem to take longer and cost more, a lot more, than originally proposed.

Lessons for Alternative Energy Projects

Climate activists say that “we must” transition away from fossil fuels toward new sources of energy that do not impact the environment so severely. But such statements often fall into the trap of “because something should be done, it can be done”.

There are many reasons why the transition to alternative energy sources will be a challenge, to put it mildly. These reasons include resource limits, finance, real estate constraints, and — above all — political will. And, as this post has shown, the transition to alternative energy is going to run into project management realities. The two projects just discussed — the transition from steam to diesel, and the development of a high speed rail system — are both realistic technologically. Yet the first took decades to implement. I question whether the second will ever be fully implemented. The project is now nearly twelve years old, and not one inch of rail has been laid.

The total decarbonization of our entire society is way more challenging than these railway projects. Yet political leaders continue to say that we need to decarbonize our entire way of life by the year 2050 — just 30 years from now. (These leaders include the Secretary General of the United Nations and all the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.) It’s not going to happen.

Theological Implications

What do the above thoughts mean to those in the Christian community who are trying to address the issues we face clearly and honestly? It will be recalled from previous posts that I have proposed the following three points to provide a basis for a theology that is appropriate for our times.

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

With regard to the first point — Understand and tell the truth — we need to understand project management realities. Given 100 years we could switch to renewable resources in an orderly manner. But we cannot do so within 30 years. We need to understand and tell the truth that, “Just because something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it will be done society-wide”.

Which brings us to the second point: Accept and adapt. If we recognize that a massive energy transition is not going to take place in 30 years then we have two choices. Either we cut back our fossil fuel consumption without having sufficient alternative energy to provide an adequate replacement. Or else we continue to use fossil fuels as we are doing now and then face the dire consequences of climate change.