In addition to my interest in the theological issues to do with the Age of Limits, I am also working with an organization called Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP). It is a non-profit that is researching a new and exciting method of transportation: hyperloop.
There is actually an overlap between my two interests. One of the key benefits of hyperloop over conventional air transportation is that it can move freight and passengers at airplane speeds but without the emissions.
HARP is organizing a Global Hyperloop Conference, July 8-9, 2019 at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. In addition to discussions to do with hyperloop technology itself, there will also be papers and breakout sessions on civil engineering issues, particularly tunneling.
One of the themes of this site is that there is an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership in the rather scary future that awaits us. But first we have to focus on Age of Limits issues, and stop placing gender debates up front and center — see the post Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs.
In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”
These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.
I find it interesting that, unwittingly, I have been following the leadership of these two dynamic young ladies at this blog with my various posts to do with the Green New Deal and Skolstrejk för Klimatet.
This line of argument would suggest that, if the church wants to promote gender equality, then maybe direct advancement of that goal is not the way to go. Instead, we should provide leadership in our search for “intelligent adaptation to scarcity”. In doing so, we may find that much of our leadership will be provided by the likes of AOC and GT.
The image at the top of this post is taken from the cover of a book to be published by Devil’s Due. Of their book they say,
It’s no secret that AOC has become the unofficial leader of the new school, and has sparked life back into Washington and that’s reflected in the enthusiasm on display by the men and women contributing to this project. While we all don’t agree on everything, we share a common excitement for the breath of fresh air the new Congress brings.
It is too early to know if this young lady really has started a movement, but it is interesting to note that she herself cites Rosa Parks as one of the people who inspired her. Maybe she and other young people have started the equivalent of a new civil rights movement.
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far. This week we are up to the second part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.
Saving the Environment
Some years ago, when global warming was still a new topic for most people, its most prominent feature was that of polar bears standing on floating ice. The bears seemed to be forlorn and literally cast adrift by human actions. We felt sympathy for the polar bears, even though, as far as we know, they contribute little toward human well being. Indeed, most of us would prefer not to meet a polar bear up close and personal.
But now many other species are under threat. For example, in recent months there has been a flurry of reports telling us that the world’s insect population is in serious decline. The response to this situation has been mostly on the lines that we need the insects because they fertilize our crops and so are fundamental to our well being. Bees are particularly important because, not only do they pollinate flowers, they produce the honey that we eat.
You see the little catch? We sympathize with the polar bears for their own sake, but we care only about the insects because of their usefulness to us. So why do we want to “save the environment”? Is it for the sake of the natural world itself, or is it because we need it for our own survival?
Rattlesnakes, Giraffes and Palm-Trees
The other day I borrowed a copy of the book As I Was Saying — A Chesterton Reader from our church library. The book contains some of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, including essays from Generally Speaking, published in the year 1928.
In one of the essays Chesterton muses on our relationship to nature. The essay was written long before the modern environmental movement got under way. But, like E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which I discuss in Chapter 2 of A New City of God, Chesterton’s essay seems to be remarkably prescient — or, at least, it asks the questions that we, in our environmental enthusiasm, sometimes fail to consider.
Here is the paragraph that triggered my interest.
A little while ago an intellectual weekly started an argument among the intellectuals about whether Man has improved the earth he lives on; whether Nature as a whole was better for the presence of Man. Nobody seemed to notice that this is assuming that the end of Man is to grow more grass or to improve the breed of rattlesnakes, apart from any theory about the origin or object of these things. A man may serve God and be good to mankind for that reason or a man may serve mankind and be good to other things to preserve the standard of mankind; but it is very hard to prove exactly how far he is bound to make the jungle thicker or encourage very tall giraffes.
Which brings us the modern environmental movement. Are we trying to save the coral reefs, the Amazon jungle, and the butterflies in our back yards for their own sake, or to ensure that our own needs are met?
All sane men have assumed that, while a man may be right to feel benevolently about the jungle, he is also right to treat it as something that may be put to use, and something which he may refuse to assist indefinitely for its own sake at his own expense. A man should be kind to a giraffe; he should if necessary feed it; he may very properly stroke it or pat it on the head, even if he has to procure a ladder for these good offices. He is perfectly right to pat a giraffe; there is no objection to his patting a palm-tree. But he is not bound to regard a man as something created for the good of the palm-tree.
It is very clear where Chesterton is going with this line of reasoning.
We protect nature, not for its own sake, but for ourselves. If an environmental activity does not directly benefit humans, then that activity need not be carried out.
So, for example, we recognize that we should not use some insecticides to protect our crops because those insecticides also destroy other insects, such as bees, which are beneficial to us. But this is not a moral decision — it is merely a cost-benefit calculation. We do not reduce insecticide usage because we care about bees, but because we care about ourselves.
Plastics and Polymer Fibers
Since Chesterton’s time the mood seems to have shifted — we now “preserve nature” (as if “nature” is something external to us) for its own sake.
For example, the chemical industry has manufactured billions of tons of plastics and polymers. When we have finished using these plastics, we throw them away. But there is no “away”. Moreover, these plastics do not degrade quickly — they stay in the environment long after we have finished using them, and many of them wind up in the ocean. Now we are learning that plastics/polymers in the form of tiny threads are being found in the internals of fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. (These threads are microfibers made of polyester, rayon and nylon and are found in laundry effluent. Evidently a single piece of clothing can generate up to 250,000 of these fibers.) So “away” includes the fish that live in the deep oceans.
If our concern is to do with “nature” and all the creatures that inhabit it then we should stop manufacturing polymers for use in clothing and we should revert to wearing clothes made of natural materials such as wool and cotton. Yet the artifical materials allow us to have comfortable, hard-wearing clothing at an affordable price. And even if richer people could afford to switch to natural materials, many people toward the bottom end of the economic scale cannot.
So, should we protect these fish even though very few people have even seen these fish and which, as far as we know, contribute nothing to our health and prosperity? Or should we continue to use polymer fibers, knowing that they are of great benefit to us, particularly less well off people, and let the deep sea fish take their chances?
Similar thought processes can be applied to other types of plastics. For example, shrink wrap film allows us to protect food from contamination, and so contributes to our overall health. But, when discarded, that film winds up in trash heaps, where it remains for many years, and so becomes a chronic environmental problem.
Another factor that has changed since Chesterton’s time is that he did not have to worry too much about resource limitations. For example, up until his time, if people wanted land for farming, they took it. If it so happened that that land was currently being used by wildlife such as giraffes then there was no problem — there was room for both farms and wildlife.
We now realize that there is only a finite amount of land available and that we need to set aside space for the giraffes, otherwise they will cease to exist. But, once more, we need to understand why we are doing this. Are we doing if for the giraffes, or for ourselves? Are we making a moral argument that giraffes have a right to life — even in limited numbers? If so, how much space should be set aside for wildlife, and how much for farmers who are growing much-needed food?
Striking a Balance
So we need to strike a balance between “saving the environment” and providing people, particularly people who have few economic options, with a superior quality of life. On the one hand if we insist that the environment should be protected at all costs then we human beings would have to depart this planet Earth. As long as we are here we are going to impact the environment. The other extreme is to permit unlimited exploitation of natural resources and to dump our waste products wherever we please.
Neither of these extremes is going to happen. So what is the correct balance?
Many environmentalists would argue that this discussion is merely academic, that, in practice, we are so far to the side of favoring consumption of resources that we are not even close to being in balance. But we need to be careful. For example, at the time of writing (early 2019) the State of California has all but given up on its high-speed rail project. Why? Fast trains between metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles not only make economic sense, they helps the environment by taking people out of airplanes that create large quantities of greenhouse gases. Yet the project fell apart partly due to resistance from environmental groups who did not want their land despoiled by this new industrial endeavor.
Another example concerns the abolition of factory farming — a move which is definitely good for nature and for millions of animals. But that decision may not be so good for those people who are already having trouble affording sufficient food.
The Christian Response
Throughout my writing I try to understand how Christian theology should adjust to the world that we are entering.
G.K. Chesterton was a devout Christian and a member of the Roman Catholic church. His attitude is very much in the spirit of Genesis 1:28.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This passage supports Chesterton’s argument that nature is here for our good, not that we are here for nature’s good.
Genesis 9:1-3 is even more outspoken.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”
A theology that is appropriate for an Age of Limits cannot accept the world view put forward in the Genesis passages. Maybe a starting point for Christians is to help people understand that we cannot have our environmental cake and eat it. We cannot “preserve nature” and simultaneously “preserve our standard of living”, let alone hope for a more materially prosperous future.
Our theology should reflect this reality. To what extent should we make sacrifices, not just for other people, but also for the natural environment? Where do we draw the line? And, if we are to make sacrifices, who do we include in the word “we”? Just those who are already reasonably prosperous, or thos who are already struggling to maintain an adequate life style?
More fundamentally, we need to understand that we are not “over” nature, we are not even separate from it. We are part of nature.
On March 6th of this year our local newspaper, the Ashland-Hanover Local, published an article to do with the building of a solar generating plant in our county. What struck me was the fact that the project is likely to be delayed for many months while it is reviewed by the normal political process.
the “Green New Deal goals” should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization.
The contrast between this ambitious program and the lack of urgency associated with projects such as the solar plant in our community could hardly be greater. If programs such as GND can generate that sense of urgency then more power to them. But so far, it has not happened.
Every week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far, including the current Table of Contents. This week we are up to the first part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.
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”.
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.
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.