The New Normal (8) – The Good Old Days

Virtual church service

Last week I attended a nation-wide webinar entitled the ‘Digital Gathering’ organized by the ‘Invite Welcome Connect‘ team. 1,800 people signed up, and around 1,000 attended. The attendees were Episcopalians from the United States and Canada. My estimate is that about half of the attendees were ordained clergy.

The theme of the webinar was to “present best -practices for a welcoming church in our new paradigm”— the new paradigm being the virtual church that has been forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The webinar was built around three panel discussions, each of which had three speakers. Most of the speakers were clergy leading churches, both large and small. The discussions were interesting and useful. But there was a certain wistfulness in them. It seemed as if, by and large, the message was one of,

How do we cope with the present situation until we can get back to normal?

In this context, “normal” would be traditional church services, held in traditional buildings, in which people can mingle with one another as they used to.

But maybe this is the wrong the message, the wrong goal.

Here is the ‘Old Normal’.

The chart shows membership in the Episcopalian church in recent years. The trend line is remarkably steady, with very little scatter. If extrapolated, it suggests that the church will have no members at all by the year 2045, just 25 years from now. In fact, the line will have an asymptote or hockey-stick shape toward the end. But the message is clear: the ‘Old Normal’ is not working, therefore we need to look for a ‘New Normal’. We also need to understand that the pandemic has not created this situation — the decline is a long-term trend.

The pandemic has, in fact, opened up new possibilities.

The following quotation from Fr. Rock Higgins is taken from the June 16, 2020 weekly newsletter of St. James the Less church in Ashland, Virginia.

Both our Sunday and Wednesday Morning Prayers average attendance is TRIPLE those who come when we were doing church in our space face-to-face. What is God doing? We will have to wait and see. Something big is happening. Our Noonday Prayer service was non-existent before this and now averages 67 people a day! I was telling a friend, “I now have a ministry that I did not know I had!” Thanks be to God!

Things have changed so fast and so quickly that no one understands what is going on. But it does seem as if the pandemic has pointed us to what could be an exciting and creative ‘New Normal’. Therefore, instead of hankering after the world that has left us, and that is not returning any time soon (if at all), maybe we should welcome the changes that have been forced upon us; maybe we should welcome the virtual church and the opportunities that it opens up.

The New Normal (7) — Through a Glass Darkly

Foggy window illustrates that we cannot see the future in detail, but we can see an outline.

In last week’s post — The New Normal (6) — Standards — we mentioned that we have added a new chapter to the draft of the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The chapter title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. We look at some of the lessons we can learn from the current COVID-19 pandemic, and how those lessons can be applied to the bigger picture of climate change and resource depletion.

The pandemic is still in its early stages; none of us know what its long-term consequences are going to be — so much depends on whether we can find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment. Applying lessons from the pandemic is very much a work in progress. There is, however, one immediate lesson, and that is the need for humility when making forecasts. This is a subject that we have already touched on in the post The Future Is A Muddle, but it is worth looking at it again. To state the obvious, our world has been totally transformed in just three months. Yet no one saw this coming — it has been a total surprise and shock.

One of my favorite Bible readings is from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul says,

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

The picture at the top of this post shows a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But, on closer inspection, we see that there are railings, a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline — and the harder we look the more we see. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and specific predictions are often (usually) wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading. (Modern translations of the Bible suggest that the word ‘mirror’ would be a better choice than ‘glass’. In Paul’s day most mirrors distorted the reflection. But the conclusion is the same. We can see an outline, but the details are blurred.)

Our failure to have predicted this disease can create a cynical attitude toward all forecasting. As Scott Adams once said,

Methods for predicting the future: 1) read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls . . . collectively known as “nutty methods;” 2) put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer . . . commonly referred to as “a complete waste of time.”

But forecasting the impact of an issue such as climate change is not a “complete waste of time”. We know that it is happening right now, and we have a general sense of what is in store for us. We just need to be very careful about being too detailed or precise in our predictions.

In his post How to Predict the Future: Confessions of a Cassandra Ugo Bardi provides three “rules” for decent predictions. They are,

  1. Always trust thermodynamics;
  2. Always mistrust claims of marvelous new technologies; and
  3. Always remember that the system has unpredictable tipping points.

The third of these rules, the one to do with tipping points, has certainly been applicable in the last three months.

The New Normal (6) — Standards

church gargoyle no mask

We are writing a series of posts to do with the ‘New Normal’. They discuss what the world of industrial safety may look like once the current pandemic abates and business  and church activities resume. Previous posts in this series are:

The Episcopal diocese of Virginia has published guidelines for a phased reopening of our churches. There are four phases — we are currently in Phase One. Phases Two and Three call for the use of face masks whenever people meet with others on church property. This is a sensible requirement since preliminary data suggest that masks are the most effective type of protection. One source (unfortunately I do not have the reference) suggests that masks reduce the risk of infection by 80%, all the other factors such as physical distancing are just 20%.

Due to the unavailability of commercially-made masks many people are wearing home-made cloth masks. These are good for protecting other people, and they set the right tone — people who wear masks are sending a message that they care. However, there is no control over the design or effectiveness of these masks. So, while they do provide protection and should always be used, their effectiveness is quite variable.

It has been suggested that the masks we use should meet an industrial standard such as ASTM Level 2, as shown in the following chart.

ASTM Standards for Face Masks

By the time that we are ready to move into Phase Two it is probable that the production of industrial-quality masks will be up to speed and that a requirement to meet standards will be more realistic than it is now. Of course, there will be those who cannot afford to purchase an ASTM-qualified mask, and there will be those who come to church but forget to bring their mask. Therefore, assuming that funds are available, each church should have a supply on hand to take care of these people.


ASTM standards for use in COVID-19 pandemic

The following information was taken from the ASTM web site.

ASTM International is providing no-cost public access to important ASTM standards used in the production and testing of personal protective equipment – including face masks, medical gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizers – to support manufacturers, test labs, health care professionals, and the general public as they respond to the global COVID-19 public health emergency.


Front cover for book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God

Book Update

The book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God is proceeding quite well. The chapter titles are shown below. The full Table of Contents (.pdf file) can be downloaded here. You can see that we have added a new chapter: ‘Chapter 1 — Dress Rehearsal’. In it we consider how the current pandemic may provide lessons to do with long-term issues such as climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot. (Some of the thoughts in this chapter come from the ‘New Normal’ series at this blog.)

  • Chapter 1 — Dress Rehearsal
  • Chapter 2 — An Age of Limits
  • Chapter 3 — The City of Man
  • Chapter 4 — Hubris and Nemesis
  • Chapter 5 — Truth and Consequences
  • Chapter 6 — Predicaments and Responses
  • Chapter 7 — Theology
  • Chapter 8 — The Church’s Response
  • Attachment A — A Personal Journey
  • Attachment B — Thermodynamics
  • Attachment C — Jevons Paradox
  • Attachment D — Denial
  • Further Reading
  • Works Cited
  • Acronyms and Abbreviations
  • Index

We are looking for people to review the book. If you are interested send us an inquiry at https://iansutton.com/contact-sutton-technical-books.

We are also looking for a suitable publisher. If you have any suggestions, let us know. You can use the same comment box.

 

 

Pontius Pilate and Truth

Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate Questioning Jesus

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?”

John 18:38

As we think about a theology for an Age of Limits I suggest that one of the bases should be, “Understand and tell the truth”. The key word in that phrase is “understand”. Christians know that they must never lie. They also know that they must always speak and act with integrity.

Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay

James 5:12

Telling the truth can go even further. In his book De Mendacio (On Lying), written around the year 395 CE, Augustine of Hippo says that it is wrong even to tell a white lie.

However, in our extraordinarily complex society it is often very difficult and challenging to determine exactly what is truth. Consider, for example, the effect of the current pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Environmentalists are encouraged that, in spite of the all the problems and tragedies that it has caused, the consequent reduction in economic activity has at least led to an improvement in air and water quality, and also in GHG emissions.

However, it turns out that the climate change benefits of the wrenching changes we are enduring have not been all that great. Greenhouse gas emissions are down by only 5% this year. How can that be? How can the enormous cutbacks and losses that we have endured led to such a small decrease in emissions?

To find an answer, let’s look at which sectors of the economy use fossil fuels. In round numbers they are:

  • Utilities — 45%
  • Industry — 25%
  • Transport — 20%
  • Residential — 5%
  • Other (including agriculture) — 5%

The picture below shows grounded jets at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The transportation industry has gone through wrenching cutbacks. Indeed, the tourist industry has pretty well collapsed. But, as the highlighted number shows, that industry accounts for only 20% of GHG emissions, which is why the fall in overall emissions is less than most people would have expected.

Grounded airplanes at Dallas Forth Worth airport following the COVID-19 shut down.

A 5% cutback reduction in GHG emissions is good, but the cost has been enormous. Not only have tens of thousands of people died in the United States alone, there have been drastic reductions in the number of elective medical procedures, the consequences of which are not yet known. And more than 30 million people have lost their jobs in just two months. Environmentalists like to use the word “sustainable”. Well, what we have gone through in the last two months is unsustainable.

Yet the United Nations tells us that, if we are to stabilize the earth’s temperature, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per year, every year for the next twenty years. The reductions that we have seen this year have been insufficient to meet the U.N. goals in spite of the enormous human and economic cost. Yet, if we are to achieve the U.N. targets, we need to repeat what has happened this year every year for the next twenty years. That does not mean that  we stabilize at current levels of economic activity and unemployment — it means that we repeat what we did this year every year for the next twenty years.

I started this post by posing Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” I suggest that, if the church is to provide the leadership that is so badly needed then people in the faith community need to understand complexities of the type just described. This will be difficult. Most church leaders have a liberal arts background, and have had little training in science, technology or mathematics. Hence, they do not gravitate to the type of analysis just provided. In particular, they rely on qualitative statements and goals. For example, the Episcopal church has published a mission statement to do with climate change. It reads in part,

Our General Convention policy calls on lawmakers to significantly reduce carbon emissions within this century

What is the meaning of the word “significant” in the above statement? We need to apply a number to that word. If the number we select is an annual reduction of 7.6% in GHG emissions per annum, then the mission statement needs to address the drastic economic and human changes that are implied. This is not to say that we should not strive to meet that goal, but it does mean that we understand the quantitative nature of truth.

The Parable of the Green Car

The Parable of the Green Car

We have been writing a series of posts to do with the ‘New Normal’. No one knows how the current pandemic is going to play out. However, we can safely assume that it will permanently change the world, the ‘Old Normal’ will not return. The situation also provides an opportunity for the church, and for people of faith, to provide badly needed leadership.

However, this week let’s take a break from that discouraging topic. We are working on a book The New City of God: Faith in a Changing Climate. Each chapter starts with a modern parable. Here is the parable that starts Chapter 5 — ‘Predicaments and Responses’. It is “The Parable of the Green Car”.


An environmentalist was invited by the managers of an automobile company to inspect their new factory. The manufacturing process was a green as could be — all the electrical power was supplied by wind turbines and solar panels (with some backup load-leveling from the local nuclear power plant). All water used in the manufacturing process was treated such that the discharge fed into a pond in which goldfish swam. The people working in the factory were provided with free meals, all of which were vegan.

The cars produced at the factory were all electrically powered — even the trucks and forklifts used in and around the factory were electric. The factory managers were keen to point out that no gasoline, diesel, natural gas or any other fossil fuels were used at any stage of the manufacturing process. (Although some oil products had to be used to keep the machinery lubricated, and all of the polymers used to manufacture many of the vehicles’ components came from petrochemicals.)

After the tour, the senior manager proudly asked the environmentalist what he thought, and whether he was impressed. The environmentalist replied, “You make cars”.

The New Normal (5) — Change Is In The Air

We are entering a ‘New Normal’. This is an opportunity for the church to provide leadership, including cutting back on optional activities such as leisure flying.

Boeing 707 start of mass travel for the airline industry

This BBC report to do with the Virgin Atlantic airline raises the question as to whether or not we should bail out large industries with public funds. But specifically with regard to the airlines, is it appropriate to rescue them given the fact that they are a major contributor toward global warming?

A theme of this series is that we are entering a ‘New Normal’ as a result of the current pandemic. The world has changed irreversibly — there is no going back to the ‘Old Normal’. The situation provides the church with an opportunity to provide much-needed leadership. One aspect of such leadership could be to do with reducing our profligate lifestyle. We know that we are on a non-sustainable trajectory — we are entering an Age of Limits. Resource depletion, climate change, biosphere destruction, population overshoot — the litany is tedious and familiar. (The sketch shows some of the elements of the Age of Limits.)

Elements of the Age of Limits

The airline industry provides a good example of how we might use the current situation to change our trajectory.

Introduced in 1958, the Boeing 707 ushered in the jet age. Air travel was no longer a prerogative of the rich. Families and businesspeople could now routinely travel to distant locations at a reasonable cost. But we have also learned in the intervening years that air traffic is a major contributor toward environmental problems, particularly climate change and noise pollution. We have also learned during this pandemic that we actually don’t need mass air travel — any more than we needed it prior to the introduction of the Boeing 707. Business people have learned that they can conduct much of their work remotely, and families have learned that overseas vacations are something that are nice to have, but far from essential.

What will happen to air travel once the pandemic is brought under control? Will we return to the old ways? We know that airplanes are a major contributor toward climate change — can we take this opportunity to permanently cut back on air travel, and return the industry to where it was before the Boeing 707 and other airplanes created the situation we had immediately prior to the pandemic? We don’t know the future course of the pandemic. But we do know that it would be an enormous shame, even tragedy, if we cannot use this opportunity to live a reduced lifestyle, including less use of air travel.

For people of faith, living a reduced lifestyle should not be a challenge. Indeed, we are still in the Easter season — a time of the ultimate sacrifice. We know that we, as a society, need to cut back pollution and that we need to get to grips with climate change. Maybe we should voluntarily limit our use of air travel to what it was before 1958 — something that is a privilege, not something that we take for granted.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

Matthew 4:1-2

The New Normal (4) — Virtually a Church

Virtual reality church
The church of the future

This is the fourth post in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ that has been thrust upon us by the pandemic. The posts consider how people of faith and churches are being affected by the changes that are taking place, and also the opportunities for church leadership that these changes provide. An assumption behind all these posts is that there will indeed be a ‘New Normal’ — the ‘Old Normal’ is not returning. We cannot suddenly lay off more than 22 million people in just a few weeks in the United States alone and expect our economies simply to snap back to where they were. Moreover, we have to keep in mind that the pandemic is still in its early stages. Some communities may believe that they have peaked, but there is every reason to believe that second and third waves of the disease could follow. (Some of the economic issues to do with the pandemic are discussed in a parallel series of posts entitled ‘The New PSM Normal’, where the letters PSM stand for Process Safety Management. The first post in that series is The New PSM Normal — Deflation.)

The distress, anxiety and economic devastation created by this pandemic provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. As we will discuss in future posts, science and technology seem to have met their nemesis – a new type of leadership and way of living is called for. But it is also interesting to see how the pandemic has affected the church in just a few short weeks, and to think about what the church of the future may look like. Therefore, in this post I would like to consider the sudden and unanticipated rise in the ‘Virtual Church’.

I am a member of a medium-sized Episcopal church. In response to the pandemic our church, like so many others, has totally reorganized its worship services and the manner in which it conducts its internal meetings. Services are transmitted using Facebook Live; meetings are held using Zoom or equivalent software. Our bishop, Susan Goff, has been ahead of the curve from the beginning as described in the post The New Normal (3) — Thrift, Frugality and Fasting. Now the diocese has now instructed us not to use our church premises at all. So, video services (such as this one) are now transmitted from the priest’s home. Participation from the music director and lay readers has been through the use of pre-recorded videos or audio clips that are spliced into the order of worship. (The videos are recorded and edited by the priest’s wife, so there are no physical distancing issues to worry about.)

Rock Higgins noonday service at St. James the Less, Ashland, VA

Virtual church services are not new, of course, but the pandemic has suddenly made them a near-universal fixture. So here’s where we (and so many other churches) stand.

  • Our Sunday morning service is transmitted live from the priest’s study. It  recorded so that people can view it later.
  • Our regular Wednesday morning service continues in the same manner.
  • Each day, except for Sunday, we have a shot noon-time prayer service, also transmitted live.

As we started this effort I anticipated that “attendance” at these services would go down; worship depends interaction between people, community singing and on the physical eucharist. I expected that, if people could not meet other people and physically participate in the service, then they would drift away. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Attendance at our virtual church services is much higher than it was when people had to physically show up. An informal review on the internet suggests that our experience is not unusual, many other churches have seen an increase in participation.

I am both encouraged and somewhat surprised at these results. One of the reasons for my surprise is that many of our regular attendees are toward the older end of the age spectrum and so, I would have thought, are not so adept at using video technology. This point of view may be incorrect. Many of these older members have children and grandchildren scattered around the country so they have been using video services to meet with their families for years.

Doubtless many people will be conducting formal studies that examine how the church has changed in the last few weeks. Here are a few initial thoughts.

No Going Back

I started this post by saying that we will not return to the ‘Old Normal’. What the ‘New Normal’ will look like is anyone’s guess, but virtual worship in one form or another is an integral part of our future.

In recent weeks, many organizations have found that working from home is viable for much of what they do. Those organizations whose policies required people to show up at the office are going to be under considerable pressure to reconsider those policies. The same applies to church services and meetings. Until now, virtual church services have, in general, been something of an add-on to the physical service. That will no longer be the case — indeed the opposite may happen. The church building will become more like a studio than a traditional church.

Quality vs. Quantity

Although we can count the number of people who are participating in our virtual services, it is much more difficult to assess the quality of that participation. When someone is sitting in the pews they may not be paying much attention, indeed they may be day-dreaming, but at least we know that they are present. When they attend a virtual service we do not know what else they may be doing. Is he or she also answering emails, playing a video game or browsing the news channels? We don’t know.

The person leading the service can also see which parts of the service are the most popular and meaningful by keeping an eye on the people who are coming and going at different times.

Reduced Expenses

As the church community has shrunk many churches face a chronic challenge: how to finance the maintenance of large buildings that are too big for today’s smaller congregations. Virtual services may provide an answer. Churches will be able to maintain their service and mission to the community without needing those buildings. The church can move into a small office, and conduct its business from there.

Convenience and Practicality

A virtual church can attract those who cannot attend a physical church. They include the disabled, the house-bound, those traveling on business (not such a large group these days), shift workers, caregivers and those without transportation.

The Unchurched

The pandemic is causing many people to think about more fundamental values. Such people may be reluctant to enter a traditional church building — indeed, for many of them such an environment brings back bad memories. But they may be willing to join a virtual service, especially if they feel that they are not just being preached at.

Age of Limits

The posts at this blog are to do with the long-term effects of what we refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ — resource depletion, climate change and population overshoot. The current pandemic has reminded us that we are not in control of the natural world; indeed, “Nature Bats Last”. Yet many aspects of our ‘Old Normal’ have not changed in recent weeks. For example, we still have the electricity we need to power our virtual devices and the raw materials such as lithium that are needed to manufacture those devices are  in supply. If the time comes when resources such as these are not provided then our virtual church will have to shut down, and we will have to revert to physical meetings.

Galilee

Just before the virus hit we toured Israel. Part of the visit was to drive around the Sea of Galilee. This was the area where Jesus conducted much of his ministry. We also visited Qumran and saw the desert areas that are part of the Bible story. As I looked at the hills from which Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount and at the desert areas where he fasted I wondered what he and the other religious leaders of biblical times would have thought about how we are worshiping now. It’s a long way from there to the modern virtual church. Are we doing the right thing?

The hills of Galilee
The Hills of Galilee

Spring is Sprung

We are trying to practice what we preach. We have cut some asparagus this spring. Here a picture of our first fruits of 2020; two radishes. The lettuce, cabbage, peas, potatoes, leek, onions, blueberries and (in the greenhouse) bush beans and tomatoes are looking great. Just don’t tell the critters in our neighborhood.

Radishes community garden


Masks

Home-made masks

If you are making masks, we found the plan provided in the New York Times (and other newspapers) to be useful. We used old pillow cases for the fabric. Medical-quality masks have a metal strip at the top. The NYT design does not, but we found that a pipe cleaner inserted does the job well. (If you don’t smoke a pipe but do have children you may find that they used pipe cleaners in some of their projects.)

Rumor has it that there was a Virginia law that prohibited anyone from wearing a mask when entering a bank, and that they have had to change the law. It turns out that the rumor is not true; nevertheless it is still a good idea not to be masked like this before going into a bank.

The New Normal (3) — Thrift, Frugality and Fasting

Thrift and frugality

An Example of Church Leadership

One of the themes of this blog is that the crises we face provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. We have an excellent example of such leadership here in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

The State governor, Ralph Northam, is a physician who served as an officer in the Army Medical Corps for six years. Therefore, he understands the peril in which we find ourselves. He was one of the first governors to take aggressive action as the disease started to spread. For example, very early on he shut down the public school and college systems for the remainder of the academic year.

Our bishop, Susan Goff, has been even more assertive. She shut down virtually all church services and meetings even before Governor Northam’s action. This week she closed all church offices, even those that have only one or two people in them.

Governor Northam
Governor Northam
Bishop Susan Goff diocese of Virginia
Bishop Goff

The “New Normal”

This is the third in a series of posts to do with what the “New Normal” may look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, and how the church may provide leadership in the coming recession (possibly depression). The first post in the series — Community — suggested that our economies will become more localized. The church, particularly those churches organized around the parish concept, can help develop such communities. The second post — No Debt — discusses the role that debt plays in our society. It suggests that, if we are indeed entering a Depression, then we may come to regard being in debt as being wrong, even immoral.

Related to the idea of avoiding debt are the concepts of thrift and frugality. I found various definitions for the those words; in this post I will use them as follows.

  • Someone is thrifty is they do not spend more money than they earn. They live within their means.
  • Someone is frugal if they spend significantly less money than they earn. They save money and buy something only when they have sufficient cash to purchase it. Frugality may involve some degree of sacrifice, as during the Lenten season. (An example of frugality is to do with the current shortage of toilet paper. A thrifty person busy only what he or she needs and uses what they have sparingly. A frugal person uses newspaper. It is not as comfortable, neither is it flushable, but it works.)

Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.

Going beyond frugality is the concept of intentional fasting, a feature of most of the world’s religions.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

Luke 4:1-2

Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls
The Wilderness at Qumran — Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the lessons that this virus-induced current recession and its associated mass unemployment has taught us is the importance of having savings. It is estimated that more than half of all Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and about a quarter of Americans have no savings at all. In some cases this lack of savings may be unavoidable. For example, if someone is chronically unemployed for health reasons then they cannot realistically save money. But one has to wonder how many of the people with such low reserves were spending money on discretionary activities such as eating in restaurants or making the payments on a late model automobile. If and when their income returns these people may decide to permanently cut back on some of this discretionary spending.

An internet story illustrates what may happen. Before the crisis one man used to go to the hairdresser twice a month to have his hair cut and trimmed. Now, with physical distancing in force, his wife cuts his hair instead. He is wondering about making this change permanent, thereby saving $40 per month.

I came across an opportunity to be thrifty a few days ago. I was clearing out a small part of our back yard that I had intentionally let go wild. What I had not anticipated was that bamboo plants, which are very invasive, would establish themselves in that area. I decided that they had to be removed before they crowded out all the other plants. Normally I would have cut them down and dumped them in the town’s recycle truck. But, at the same time as I was cutting the bamboo shoots I was also planting English peas. The peas need something to climb on, so I used the bamboo shoots as shown in the picture. Waste not, want not. (Now I have to make sure that those shoots do not put out roots and start to spread.)

Bamboo shoots used to support English peas
“Waste” bamboo shoots used to support English peas

The example of the bamboo shoots illustrates another aspect of thrift. It is not always about large programs and big gestures; it is often to do with small actions, all of which add up to make a bigger picture.

It is unfortunate that our financial systems discourage saving. Interest rates are close to zero, the stock market is erratic (to put it mildly) and bonds can be risky in a time of financial crisis. And there is always the potential for high inflation that would wipe out much of the money that was saved. After all, our governments continue to issue staggering amounts of debt with no plan as how they intend to pay it off. One way of doing so would be to through high inflation. Still, even a difficult savings environment is better than going into debt.

Last week we saw that the Bible does not forbid us from being in debt, but it does discourage the practice. So it is with thrift and frugality. These are practices to be encouraged, if only because they make the occasional lavish expenditure even more noticeable.

Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.

John 12:5

National Economies

The above discussion has been to do with the behavior and actions of individuals and of relatively small organizations such as the Episcopal church. But the same need for thrift, i.e., living within one’s means, applies also to national economies. In an April 2020 newspaper article The debt reckoning has finally arrived Robert Samuelson argues that nations should balance their budgets and create a surplus in normal times. Then, when a crisis such as COVID-19 hits, they can use massive debt to bring the economy back to life. But, for the last five decades, the United States government has run large deficits on the “something for nothing” philosophy — we can enjoy the benefits of government spending without needing to raise taxes to pay for those benefits. The upshot is that we do not have the financial reserves needed to pay for the sudden deficit spending needed in crises such as the one we are living through.  We have wasted our ammunition.

Opportunity for the Church

One of the themes of this blog is that the changing and rather scary times in which we are living provide an opportunity for the church to provide much-needed leadership. In this and in previous posts it is suggested that that such leadership will include the following elements,

  1. Develop and lead local communities;
  2. Discourage the use of debt; and
  3. Encourage thrift, and frugality.

We will also need a theology that matches the “New Normal”, the post-COVID-19 world.  The example I keep coming back to that of Augustine of Hippo. He and other church fathers lived at a time when the western Roman Empire was in terminal decline and society was entering a time that we now rather disparagingly refer to as the Dark Ages. In response to this long-term crisis they developed a theology based on the concept of a City of God — an eternal city that is greater than any City of Man. The theologians of our time will need to work out how faith addresses a time of resource depletion, climate change, population overshoot and long-term economic decline.

I also keep thinking of my grandfather who said that going into debt was not just a bad financial decision, it was immoral (The New Normal (2) — No Debt).  He was making a theological statement.

Industrial Safety Management

For those of you who work in industry the corona virus is having an effect as to how we all think of safety. Therefore, I have started another series of weekly posts to do with the New Normal and the discipline of Process Safety Management. The first post is The New PSM Normal (1) — Deflation.

The New Normal (2) — No Debt

U.S. National Debt 1990-2019

This is the second post in a series that discusses what the “New Normal” might look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control. In the first post — The New Normal (1) – Community — I suggested that our economies are likely to become more localized and our supply chains shorter. Should that turn out to be the case then the Church has an opportunity to provide leadership, particularly those churches that are organized around the parish principle.

In this post I would like to consider the issue of debt. My grandfather and his family suffered during the 1930s as the economies of the world entered what the British called the Slump and Americans call the Great Depression. It was a time of deflation, which meant that people’s income dropped, often drastically, but their mortgage payments and other debts remained. Consequently, many people in my grandfather’s generation learned to abhor debt. He felt so strongly its dangers that to him being in debt was not just a risk/reward financial decision, it was  morally wrong.

How the world has changed since his time. The chart at the head of this post shows U.S. federal debt for the last 30 years. In 1990 it was $4 trillion. By 2019 it was up to $23 trillion. What it will be by the end of the year 2020 given all the stimulus programs that are being proposed is anyone’s guess. But it is bound to be a new record — by a large margin. And it’s not just governments that have run up huge financial obligations. Individuals have bought into the same mind set; credit card debt, student debt, mortgages — the list goes on.

We are now entering a time of deflation, similar to that of the 1930s (see Church Leadership). Goods and services will be available. But, because so many people will be unemployed, there will not be sufficient money to buy those goods and services. Hence factories and service companies will cut back some more, hence more people will lose their jobs, and so on and so on. But the debts that we have taken on, both individually and as a society, will not go away. Hard times for all and bankruptcy for some lie ahead.

An additional problem is that the fractional banking system allows banks to use one asset to secure more than one loan. Each asset provides collateral for multiple loans. At a time when many loans are being called in at one time this policy means that it will not be possible to pay them all.

Even before the current crisis we were seeing problems with the effectiveness of debt. Economic growth has to be based on the growth of resources and the efficiency with which those resources are used. In recent years real growth has slowed or even stopped. Therefore, nations all over the world have responded by increasing debt levels. They are using future debt to pay today’s debt. In other words, they are using the wealth of their children to pay for their current life style. No wonder young people such as Greta Thunberg are so angry. Not only are we not paying our own bills, we are accumulating debts for our children to pay with money that they won’t have.

In a November 2018 Forbes article A Worldwide Debt Default Is A Real Possibility John Maudlin talks about the failure of ‘debt productivity’.

. . . debt is losing its ability to stimulate growth. In 2017, one dollar of non-financial debt generated only 40 cents of GDP in the US. It’s even less elsewhere. This is down from more than four dollars of growth for each dollar of debt 50 years ago.

This has seriously worsened over the last decade. China’s debt productivity dropped 42.9% between 2007 and 2017. That was the worst among major economies, but others lost ground, too. All the developed world is pushing on the same string and hoping for results.

Now, if you are used to using debt to stimulate growth, and debt loses its capacity to do so, what happens next? You guessed it: The brilliant powers-that-be add even more debt. This is classic addiction behavior. You have to keep raising the dose to get the same high.

His conclusion is that there will be what he calls a Great Reset.

. . . we will have to deal, one way or another, with the largest twin bubbles in the history of the world: global debt, especially government debt, and the even larger bubble of government promises. We are talking about debt and unfunded promises to the tune of multiple hundreds of trillions of dollars – vastly larger than global GDP.

The Bible does not tell us that being in debt is always a sin. But it does warn us about the dangers of debt and its part in the sin of worshiping money.

The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.

Proverbs 22:7

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Matthew 6:24

Maybe my grandfather was more radical than he need have been. But, it does seem to make sense that we should stay out of debt as much as we can in the coming years.

Grandfather Parker on the occasion of his Golden Wedding (50th Anniversary)
Grandfather Parker on the occasion of his Golden Wedding (50th Anniversary)

The New Normal (1) — Community

St. Wilfrid Church Calverley, Yorkshire

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. Even after the disease has run its course society will not return to the way it was — we are entering a “new normal”. This is the first in a series of posts that discusses what that new normal may look like and how the church may respond. The pandemic may , not just to what is taking place now, but also to the long-term impact of climate change.

At the time of writing, the pandemic is still increasing in scope. Countries such as China and Italy may have passed their peak (although there is always the possibility of a second wave). But many other countries are still on a rising curve of infections and mortality. We don’t know yet just how severe the final impact may be, or even how long the pandemic will last. Therefore any estimate as to what the new normal may look like is something of a conjecture. But some aspects are becoming apparent. For example, it is unlikely that the tourist industry will ever fully recover. We take a vacation in order to relax, to have fun and to experience new places. But, since vacations usually involve mingling with large numbers of strangers, many people will choose to take time off near their home because being near to so many strangers makes them uneasy. Such decisions have a ripple effect. For example, I live in a small town. A high proportion of the town’s tax income comes from the hotels and restaurants in the area. So we have to consider how the decline in tax revenue will affect funding of the police department and other local services.

In this first post to do with the new normal I would like to consider the issue of “social distancing”. We have been told by government authorities to keep at least six feet or two meters away from other people so that we do not infect one another. People seem to be heeding this instruction well. (There are exceptions, such as the pastor in Florida who insisted on holding church services. He is now under arrest.)

The instruction has forced churches to stop holding meetings involving more than two or three people. But the fact that we are forced to physically stay away from one another does not mean that we cannot communicate by telephone and video. In some respects, this pandemic seems to have actually improved social interaction within the church community. Indeed, our bishop has asked us to use the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing”. Churches have been forced to conduct worship services on line and, if my own experience is representative, “attendance” at those services has been good. The situation has also encouraged church members to reach out by phone, video and social media to those members who are shut in or who are in forced isolation. Whether this trend toward increased social interaction will continue is anyone’s guess. But it does point to a bigger lesson with respect to climate change and other ‘Age of Limits’ issues. (In my area we had no snow this winter and the month of March was unusually warm — climate change has not gone away.)

In response to the long-term crises to do with climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot I suggest that the most effective response will be to develop local communities and shorter supply chains.

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

The development of community presents an opportunity for the church — particularly those churches that operate on a parish system. The church becomes a center of the community. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs may be — if you live within the physical bounds of the parish then you are part of the community.

The lessons we are learning now about communicating with one another in a time of crisis can provide valuable guidance as to how to build community for the new and rather scary world that is heading our way.