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Proper 26: Be Careful What You Ask For

M. King Hubbert. Peak Oil.
M. King Hubbert (1903-1989)

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:1-10.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This lesson seems to have little direct bearing on the Age of Limits predicaments that we face. But the gospel readings for the last few weeks all seem to feature the need for faith and persistence in hard times. This reading fits that pattern.

Exploration and Production

Time-Magazine-Climate-Change cover

In the year 2019 the topic of climate change received considerable attention — it is now part of the public discourse, even in the mainstream press (such as Time magazine). The basic idea is that our consumption of fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases (principally CO2) that are leading us toward catastrophic climate change. Therefore, it is argued, we need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels, and/or we need to replace said fuels with renewable sources, principally solar and wind power.

An unstated assumption is that we actually have a choice in the matter — we can decide whether or not to reduce our fossil fuel consumption. It’s up to us. But maybe that assumption is incorrect. Could it be that we will be forced to reduce our fossil fuel usage, whether we like it or not? In which case,

Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

In the year 1956, Dr. M. King Hubbert, who was working for the Shell Oil company at the time, published his seminal paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. One of his insights is that we need to find sufficient new sources of crude oil to replace what we are currently using. If we fail to do so then eventually we will run into the phenomenon of ‘Peak Oil’. (He did not use that phrase, but his analysis provided the basis for it.)

Oil companies talk about reserves and production rates, but the fundamental challenge that they face is finding enough new sources of crude oil to replace what is being used now. Hubbert forecast that the replacement rate would peak around the year 1970. After that we would consume more crude oil than we find. His prediction was on the nose — he nailed it.

His work led to the development of the now famous Hubbert Curve, as shown in the sketch below, which is for the production of oil in millions of barrels per year for the lower 48 of the United States. The red line is his 1956 prediction. The green line shows actual production. It can be seen that actual production followed his prediction very well until around the year 2008. Then production increased substantially such that production rates in the year 2018 are close to the 1970 peak. The increase is due mostly to the production of Light Tight Oil (also referred to as Shale Oil), primarily in Texas and North Dakota. But, as explained the post The Return of Peak Oil, it appears as if shale oil production is now at its peak, mostly because it has never been profitable; investors are withdrawing their support.Production of oil and shale oil in the United States

Further information to do with new sources of oil in the United States is provided by Jean Laherrère. The chart below shows that exploratory drilling is at just 5% of the 1981 level. And the number of gas exploration wells seems to have dropped to close to zero.

Oil exploration decline - Laherre

This post started by describing the need to cut back fossil fuel consumption. When we look at the rate at which we are finding new sources of oil it would appear as if we are going to have little choice — fossil fuel consumption will go down, not because of environmental concerns, but because we are not replacing the oil and gas that we are using.

Proper 25: Humility and the Year 2050

Intellectual arrogance

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the context of the Age of Limits this lesson provides guidance to those of us who communicate the predicaments that we face. People who study issues such as climate change and resource depletion are generally well educated and have had sufficient time to research these difficult, complex and emotional topics. This can lead to a situation where they become like the Pharisee in the gospel reading — they feel superior to those who pay no attention to these topics, often because they do not have sufficient time.

Such an attitude is unworthy. Moreover, it is likely to be  ineffective. We need to remain humble and to recognize that others may be making a greater contribution than ourselves, even if they do not talk as much.  In particular, we need to recognize the time and effort made by those who are actually doing something about our situation, rather than merely talking about it.


The Year 2050

Rusting wind turbines

Throughout this blog and in my book I suggest that we consider building a new Christian theology around the following three points.

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

Of these, I suggest that the most difficult to grasp is the first one: Understand and the tell the truth. The world in which we live is extraordinarily complex, with many feedback loops (both positive and negative, many of which are neither identified nor understood) and potential tipping points (once more, often not either identified or understood).  No matter how much research we may have done, and no matter how well educated we may be in there topics, we return to the need for humility.

For the last few weeks we have concentrated on the realities and implications of climate change — partly because that topic has received so much publicity from that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. But climate change is not the only challenge that we face; resource depletion is equally serious. Moreover, the two topics are tightly intertwined with one another. And then we need to add in other issues such as population increase and biosphere collapse. All of these topics interact with one another in complex and difficult-to-understand ways.

But not only is it difficult to determine what will happen, it is even more difficult to figure out when events will occur. One of our truth-telling responsibilities is to provide a timeline, as best we can, knowing that any predictions we make will turn out to be incorrect. In the section entitled The Sadness of Six Degrees at the post Proper 17: The Place of Honor I note that a shortcoming of an otherwise excellent book is that it does not provide dates. It tells us what the Earth may look like as temperatures increase, but it does not provide any estimate as to when these events will take place.

Nevertheless, our political leaders have no hesitation to do with jumping into the fray. Joe Biden, one of the leading candidates in the Presidential election in the United States had this to say,

I guarantee you we’re going to end fossil fuel . . . Before 2050, God willing.

Other candidates have come up with similar goals, so let’s pick on the year that Biden selected — 2050 — to see what the world will look like if his campaign promise materializes.

  • All energy currently provided by fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) will be provided by alternative sources. Vice President Biden does not tell us what those alternatives are, but let us assume that they are a mix of nuclear power (fission), wind and solar.
  • Since the word “fuel” is used, we can assume that oil, coal and gas will continue to be used for the manufacture of the thousands of petroleum-based products, ranging from fertilizers to chemotherapy drugs to computer screens.
  • Implicit in his message is an assumption that no one will be called on to make any type of sacrifice — we will be able to maintain Business as Usual (BAU).

The harsh reality is that, if elected, there is no chance at all that Biden will meet his goal of ending fossil fuel consumption by the year 2050.

We will explore project management and financial realities in future posts. Let’s start with what I consider to be one of the most important articles written this year, Net-Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions By 2050 Requires A New Nuclear Power Plant Every Day written by Roger Pielke and published by Forbes magazine.

Here is the money quotation from that article.

 . . . the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy three . . . nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

. . . some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

It is easy to pick on Joe Biden — we are used to political candidates making promises that sound good but that don’t make mathematical sense. But my concern is to do with well-meaning Christians and church authorities. They have fallen into the same trap. If our message is to be convincing then it must also address thermodynamic and project management realities.

Let’s expand on Pielke’s words to do with wind energy.

  • We need to deploy 1500 wind turbines EVERY SINGLE DAY, starting tomorrow (his article was written a month ago) up until the year 2050.
  • This would require the 300 square miles (78,000 hectares) of land to be converted to wind turbine sites, EVERY SINGLE DAY.
  • Therefore we need to dedicate (300 * (2050-2020) * 365) square miles of land to wind turbines in the next 30 years. This is approximately 3.3 million square miles. The area of the United States is 3.5 million square miles (including Alaska). So, starting right now, we need to plan for an area the size of the United States to be dedicated to wind turbines.
  • But this is just a start. In her article Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work, Gail Tverberg describes the enormous battery power that will have to be deployed (and then maintained) to allow for the fact that the wind does not blow when we need it. We also need to recognize the wind turbines are complex machines that require fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance. Ditto for the electrical grid that they feed into.

If Christians are to provide real leadership in the troubled times that lie ahead, it is vital that they start by understanding the dilemmas that we face. We need to avoid fatalism. But, equally, we need to avoid hopium.

Realistic Hope


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Proper 24: Persistence

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi

Winners never quit, and quitters never win.

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 18:1-8.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent gospel readings have been somewhat paradoxical — particularly the passage in which Jesus commends the corrupt estate manager. This week’s passage also seems to be rather strange; Jesus is comparing God with a corrupt, powerful judge. However, the core message is to do with the widow’s persistence. She keeps demanding that the judge give her justice even though she has been repulsed many times already. (The story does not tell us about the widow’s attitude. Was she tearful and begging for justice, or was she something of a pain in the neck whom the judge simply wanted to get rid of, or was she simply reasonable and polite while making her requests?)

Those of us who work with Age of Limits issues, particularly climate change, are often tempted to give up trying to communicate. So few people understand what is going on, indeed so few people even want to understand what is going on. But the passage from Luke tells us to keep on trying, even though our efforts seem to have so little effect.

The final sentence in the passage returns once more to the issue of faith, a difficult topic that we have looked at in Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences and Proper 22: Slow Walk. It is hard to maintain faith when the world that is seemingly heading toward a slow-motion catastrophe. But, this sentence tells us that the Son of Man will expect us to have kept the faith, no matter how difficult that may be.

One reason to stay faithful is that there is always the possibility of good news coming at us from totally unexpected directions. In his post The Public Interest in Climate Change Reaches and All-Time High. Greta Thunberg Conquers the Memesphere Ugo Bardi uses Google Trend information to demonstrate the impact of Greta Thunberg’s leadership. He says,

Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.

At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called “experts” on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.

But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!


Complexity

About two months ago, in the post The Return of Peak Oil, I suggested that the topic of ‘Peak Oil’ may come back into public prominence within the next few years. Actually, it never really went away — it’s just that the decision by the investment community to spend billions of dollars on a money-losing project — shale oil — put off our oil reckoning for a few years.

Discussions to do with Peak Oil have been further driven into the background by the recent uptick in concerns to do with climate change, as discussed above. Yet my hunch is that oil shortages will come to dominate our public discourse in a manner not achieved by climate change because those shortages could hit us so quickly. In Proper 14: The Unexpected Hour we took a look at Luke 12: 32-40. Change can come upon us when we are least expecting it. For example, if the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran were to result in a shooting war that closes the Straits of Hormuz we could quickly see long lines at gas stations.

In the context of Peak Oil discussions I would like to point to two posts on this general theme. They are from John Michael Greer and Gail Tverberg (one of the original Oil Drum writers).

John Michael Greer — Peak Oil
John Michael Greer

Greer’s post is Waiting for the Next Panic. The following quotation is written in his  dry, sardonic style.

There were two standard flavors of peak oil activism during the heyday of the movement, from 2008 to 2012 or so.  The first flavor insisted that as the price of oil kept going up, alternative energy sources would become more affordable, and the world’s industrial societies would finally get around to transitioning over to some other energy source. Fans of nuclear power formed one bloc in that wing of the movement, fans of what tended to be lumped together as “renewable energy” (solar, wind, biofuels, and the like) formed another, and the two factions belabored each other with a right good will, each insisting that the other wasn’t economically viable. (For what it’s worth, the evidence suggests that they were both right.)

Then there was the other flavor, which can be described readily enough as warmed-over apocalyptic fantasy using peak oil as an excuse.

 . . . We argued, furthermore, that nuclear power and renewable energy were both hopelessly uneconomical as ways to power either the electricity grid or the transport grid, the two main uses of energy in a modern industrial society, and that the grand plans for an energy transition being brandished by a range of enthusiastic activists would go precisely nowhere.

The background to his post is that around the year 2010 the topic of “Peak Oil” gained prominence. For various reasons, mostly to do with the exploitation of shale oil, production of crude oil in the United States, we were able to continue with Business as Usual, i.e., crude oil supplies were not restricted and prices did not rise much.

The following chart has two lines. The red line is the production of conventional crude oil in the United States. It shows a peak around the year 1970, just as predicted by M. King Hubbert. The green line shows the impact of shale oil production. By the year 2018 production was close to the 1970 value.

If it turns out that shale oil production declines because it is uneconomic then we will revert to the red line, as discussed in the post The Return of Peak Oil.Production of oil and shale oil in the United StatesAnother issue that Greer raises is what he refers to as “apocalyptic fantasies”. I have been rather surprised at how little discussion there has been in the Christian community about Revelation-style, sudden end-of-the-world scenarios.

Gail Tverberg — Peak Oil
Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg’s post is entitled Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work. She takes a deep look at the “alternative energy” scene, and comes up with similar conclusions, i.e., that alternative, “green” energies will play an important role in our future but they will not substitute for fossil fuels; we will not be able to maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle.She concludes her post with the words, “ . . . using an overbuilt renewables system, there is not enough net energy to provide the high salaries almost everyone would like to see.”

The central point of both of these posts is that we cannot go back to the world as it was. You cannot swim in the same river twice. Alternative energy sources are important and should be developed, but they will not allow us to maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle. It is this reality that provides, I believe, an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership.


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The Future Is A Muddle

California-Power-Outage

Last week PG&E, the major utility company in northern California, preemptively shut down electrical service to around 87,000 customers in 12 counties. They did this because high winds were forecast. These winds could cause tree branches to fall on power lines, which, in turn, could start devastating wild fires, such as we saw last year.

Here we have a glimpse of the future. Consider some of the factors that came into play.

  • PG&E has not invested sufficient funds over the years to maintain the integrity of its systems.
  • California law imposes a high degree of liability on utility companies if their equipment does cause a disaster such as a major wildfire. Maybe the law is excessively onerous — nevertheless, it is what it is.
  • The company’s communications with its customers, including those who depend on the availability of power to keep life-support systems operating, was inadequate. In particular, their web site crashed at critical times because so many people were trying to find out what was going on.
  • Large numbers of people had no contingency plans in place, nor did they have emergency supplies of food, water and batteries. They were caught by surprise.

In other words, the situation was a muddle.

In 1 Corinthians we read,

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.

What this passage is telling us is that even the Apostle Paul, with all of his intellectual and spiritual gifts, could not see the future in detail. But he could see an outline.

The PG&E shutdown does provide us with such an outline, a glimpse as to what the future holds; it will be confusing, uncertain and will have both ups and downs (but with more downs than ups).

In his 2005 paper – How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse – John Michael Greer says,

. . . the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.

We in our times have built up a tremendously complex society; in order to keep that society functioning, we will need to devote more and more of our resources to maintenance. This means that there will be less net energy (money) available for everything else that we want to do such as alternative energy projects. (This problem will be exacerbated by the fact that our ERoEI, Energy Returned on Energy Invested, is also moving inexorably downwards. This means that we need to use more and more of our available energy just to find and extract new sources of energy.)

Society will therefore experience a slow but relentless stepwise decline. We will spend more and more of our resources on maintaining the systems we have built, but those systems will continue to decay. Eventually we will hit bottom and a rebuild process can start.

What lessons can modern-day Christians take from these insights?

  • The Bible talks of an apocalypse followed by sudden end times. We may need to recognize that events will often happen gradually and in no particular order. The word “sudden” may not apply.
  • We need to prepare for difficult times. How this is to be done is a huge topic. But it mostly boils down to living a simpler life and using less energy.
  • We need to be humble. Like Paul, the best we can do is see through a glass darkly.
  • We need to be ready to help others. For example, during a power outage people on life-support systems may only live if we can provide them with our portable electricity generator.

BP and the Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Company Theater

Many of you will be familiar with the recent kerfuffle in which the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to reject financial sponsorship from the oil giant BP. BP had been providing tickets for young people at a deeply discounted priced of £5, equivalent to $6 (US).

There are many angles to this story, but one I would like to consider is the way in which we blame energy companies such as BP for our consumption of oil products. It is true that some of the oil company tactics to do with suppressing climate change information have been less than commendable. But the people who protest BP and the oil industry need to face up to the fact that we — all of us — are “to blame”. Oil  and natural gas are being extracted, refined, burned and turned into thousands of “essential” products because that is what we want and need in order to maintain our current lifestyle.

Do the protestors recognize that there is no way in which a small, island nation can support 55-60 million people without an abundant supply of fossil fuels? The population of the British Isles during Shakespeare’s time was in the region of 5 million. Is it our goal to return to that population level? If so, how? (And no, we cannot transition to alternative fuels and maintain our current lifestyle.)

When I look at the picture of the inside of the theater I see floodlights powered by fossil fuel energy and I see people wearing clothes made of artificial fabrics derived from fossil fuels. Rather than protest BP, would it not be more effective to forbid the use of artificial light and to insist that the audience members wear only homespun clothes?

Many of us are quick to challenge those who deny the realities of climate change and other Age of Limits issues. But maybe we are all of us, to some degree, deniers of one kind of another. I am a member of the Episcopalian church. The focus of our church service is the Eucharist. During that ceremony we hear the words from 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26. But we should also consider verse 28, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.”

 

Proper 23: The Enemy Is Physics

Physics and the Age of Limits

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

Appointed Gospel

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

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

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

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

Episcopal Bishops

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Carbon Trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Proper 22: Slow Walk

Mustard Seeds Luke
Mustard Seeds

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits. All of this week’s readings are to do with faith. I quote the Gospel passage (Luke 17:5-10), but see a similar message in both the Psalm and the Epistle.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

The first paragraph — to do with faith — is always a challenge. It is a particular challenge for those of us who have a decent grasp of the science behind climate change, and related issues. We have the following dilemmas.

  • The science is clear: we are heading into a slow-moving, but inexorable crisis.
  • The project realities are clear: we do not have the time to transition to an economy based on alternative energy and other “green” initiatives.
  • The social background is equally clear: only a tiny fraction of the population has knowledge of these issues, and an even smaller fraction is willing to make significant changes to their lifestyle.

This line of thinking suggests that we need to think through what exactly we are to have faith in. Is our faith that somehow we can maintain our Business as Usual (BAU) lifestyle? Or should we have faith that our world will be a better place spiritually, even if material conditions move inexorably downward?

One of the themes of this series of posts, and of the book A New City of God, is that we need a theology that matches our times. The development of such a theology is much more than a mere academic exercise. It helps us address questions such as, “What are we to have faith in? And how does that faith express itself in daily living in a society that is undergoing wrenching changes?”

Slow Walking

In Proper 15: 2019, I quoted the commenter staggering_god. He or she anticipated that there will be a fairly sudden shift in public perception to do with climate change, based largely on personal stories. But this does not mean that the responses will lead to changes in behavior.

In short, we will have spent 30+ years doing NOTHING. Then we will do SOMETHING. And that will only be the very start. Every inch of ground after that point will be fought over. You’ll never truly weed out the denialists, they will just go underground, slow walk everything, and come up with endless “reasonable” objections.

An excellent example of the slow walking and “reasonableness” just described can be seen in the response of the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, to Greta Thunberg’s  sense of urgency. Australia is probably suffering more from climate change than any other major nation. Yet here is what he says.

“You know, I want children growing up in Australia that feel positive about their future,” the Prime Minister said.

“And I think it’s important that we give them that confidence, that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, but they’ll also have an economy that they can live in as well.”

“Yes, we’ve got to deal with the policy issues and we’ve got to take it seriously, but I don’t want our children having anxieties about these issues,” he said.

Here is a man who either doesn’t understand what the young people are saying, or who is utterly cynical. Thunberg’s entire message is that we need to have “anxieties about these issues”. Her core message is all about urgency.


The Message, Not the Messenger

IPCC Report Global Warming of 1.5°C

Prime Minister Morrison’s reaction to Thunberg’s message illustrates a behavior of which almost all of us are guilty. Virtually every reaction to this young lady has been to do with who she is, not what she is saying.

People who support her make statements such as, “Isn’t it amazing that such a young person can have such an impact?” or “She is really living the message she preaches”. Her enemies are often more personal to the point of being abusive. But virtually no one responds to what she is actually saying, which is,

  • The IPCC Report (2018) tells us that we are approaching a state where global temperatures are 1.5°C above the pre-industrial baseline.
  • At that temperature the consequences to human society are profound.
  • We adults, i.e., those over 20 years old have failed to respond.
  • We are handing a world in crisis to the young people and asking them to take the needed actions.

Of all the responses that I have read, not one person has actually cited the IPCC Report to either support or confute what she says. All the comments are about her, not the situation that we find ourselves in. One has to wonder how many of her supporters and enemies alike have actually read the IPCC Report: 10%? 1%? 0.1%?


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Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences

Refugees trying to enter Hungary
Border Fence — Hungary

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

One of the unexpected side benefits of writing these posts has been that I am more prepared for this week’s sermon or homily, regardless of its focus. Therefore, I have decided to write each post in the context of the coming week’s lectionary, rather than that of the previous week. This means that I will be skipping Proper 20 and the gospel reading to do with the manager who squandered his master’s property. Instead, we will think about Proper 21.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (September 29th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 16:19-31.

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

This is a powerful passage that has many lessons for us. In the context of this blog to do with the Age of Limits let’s consider the final verses. The rich man has had plenty of warning to do with his behavior; he knows that he should share his wealth with those less fortunate than himself. But he ignores the admonitions and so suffers the consequences. So it is with us; we, as a society, have received so many warnings that we are destroying the planet, and yet the vast majority of people continue living with the assumption that nothing is going to change, or that, “They will think of something. After all, if we can invent the cell phone surely we can invent new supplies of fresh water to restore the depleted aquifers.”

We also know that our actions to do with climate change and resource depletion will have its greatest effect on those at the bottom end of the economic scale — the Lazaruses of our world. Indeed, we are seeing this already. One of the factors that is causing refugees to flee their homelands is that they can no longer grow enough food for themselves and their families because the climate is becoming more hostile. These refugee problems have already led to political upheavals in the host nations. Examples are the wall on the border between the United States and the rejection of refugees trying to enter Europe. These difficulties are just the thin end of what is going to be a very thick wedge. In my judgment, the arguments that have roiled the church to do with same sex marriage and related issues are nothing to what we are going to see as we face the upcoming refugee problems.

Up to this point many churches and individual Christians have taken the attitude that we should welcome the refugees, regardless of their political status. This attitude will be sorely tested in the coming years as the number of refugees soars. Churches throughout the world will need to develop realistic policies that help the Lazaruses of the world without overwhelming the resources and welcome of the host nations. It’s the lifeboat problem; how many drowning people can be brought on board the lifeboat before it sinks and everyone drowns.


Book Release

Bunyan pilgrim City of Destruction
Christian leaving the City of Destruction

As many of you know, I am working on a book entitled A New City of God, with the subtitle A Christian Response to Climate Change. The current draft content is available for review. It can be downloaded here.

We invite your comments. Please use our Contact Page.


The Big Three

When we look at the challenges to do with the Age of Limits we can be overwhelmed with the number of issues that we face, and the complex manner in which those issues interact with one another. There are so many moving parts it is difficult to know where to start.

My own understanding of what I now refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ began with the topic of ‘Peak Oil’ — a phrase which is currently out of fashion for now, but will probably return. Crude oil is utterly foundational to our civilization, not just for transportation fuels, but also for the petrochemical feedstocks that it provides that are needed to manufacture so many of the products that we use, particularly those made of plastic. However, in spite of the criticality of crude oil, I suggest that the ‘Big Three’ issues are fresh water, food production and computer-controlled supply chains.

The first of these — water — is self-evident. We can envisage a society that operates with severely restricted supplies of crude oil. But, without water to drink and to irrigate our crops, we die. Yet the forecasts for fresh water supplies in many parts of the world look dire. Rainfall patterns are already changing drastically. Millions of people in India are already suffering from severe drought, the desert areas of Australia continue to expand, the aquifers in the heartland of the United States are being irreversibly depleted, and the annual rains have not come to the nation of Zimbabwe. These are not one-time events — they represent long-term trends.

Issues to do with fresh water depletion are a particular concern in the highly populated regions of Asia. Less snow is falling in the world’s high mountain ranges, which means that many glaciers are shrinking. The water from these glaciers is needed to irrigate crops that feed billions of people.

Second of the ‘Big Three’ is food production. As temperatures change, and as rainfall becomes increasingly scarce and/or erratic in many regions of the world, food production will suffer. Moreover, as the climate changes, crops that were suitable for a particular location will no longer grow there. Given enough time the farmers will adapt by growing new crops. But time is not on our side.

Third of the ‘Big Three’ is to do with the extraordinary degree to which our lives are dependent on computer-controlled supply chains. Much of what we eat or use is grown or manufactured in just a few locations in the world. If the sophisticated supply chains that deliver these goods to markets around the world were to fail, say from widespread power failures, then the effect on the world economy and on people’s lives could be devastating. Corporations around the world have focused on efficiency. In future there will need to pay more attention to resilience and adaptability.


Youth Anger

Greta Thunberg release hell
Credit: Ugo Bardi

This week many young people took to the streets to express their outrage. Their attitude is well expressed in the Washington Post article Why baby boomers’ grandchildren will hate them.

Greta Thunberg from Sweden has become the spokesperson for the outrage. Her extraordinary speech at the United Nations How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood should be required viewing for all world leaders. The most disheartening aspect of the speech was the fact that she received so much applause. What on earth are these people thinking?

Here is an explanation as to why she has been so successful.


Time Magazine

Time-Magazine-Climate-Change cover

Also this week Time magazine devoted its entire issue to climate issues. Good for them — it is well worth reading. But, and there always seems to be a but, it skips over two crucial issues:

  1. We need to reduce the earth’s population.
  2. Each person needs to consume less of the earth’s resources.

This is where the Christian church can provide much needed leadership. An honest response requires sacrifice.


Aha! Moment

In my book I suggest that most people do not gain an understanding as to what is taking place by reading the fine print of reports and analyses. Instead we have one or more “Aha!” moments when suddenly we “get it”.

I have had three of these “Aha!” moments, the third of which occurred The third of these “Aha!” moments 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 on many times during the course of my business career.

Flooding I-10 Beaumont Texas during hurricane Harvey

The picture on the left is of the road in normal times. The picture on the right was taken during Hurricane Harvey in the year 2017. It is estimated that the storm dropped a million gallons of rain for each resident of south Texas. 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.

This “Aha!” moment was refreshed when I read about the second of these 1000 year storms that has hit that part of Texas in just two years. And, no, this is not the new normal — it’s the start of a trend. We can expect more and more of these monster storms, and we can expect them to grow in intensity. In fact, what struck me most about the reporting to do with this year’s storm is the lack of reporting. Massive 1,000 year floods are hardly newsworthy any more.


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We’re In This Together

st james church richmond
St James Church, Richmond

The following is a guest post from Monica Lewis of St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond. It supplements our earlier post Climate Rally, Richmond Virginia.


Monica Lewis St. James Richmond VAOn Friday, September 20, young people around the world participated in the Climate Strike called for by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish climate activist who has spoken so movingly on our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If you are not yet familiar with her, ask around. Chances are, people you know and love have seen photos of her, with her plain, simple braids, online. They will know that this unassuming, mildly autistic girl has credibility and power.  She has inspired many European youths to spend Fridays at governmental buildings with signs and posters that ask for “System Change Not Climate Change” and “The Planet Over Profits.” When some have chastised the teens for skipping school, Greta has asked, “why study for a future which may not exist?”

September 20 was the day when many in Richmond and around the world – adults and youth – stand up for climate instead of attending school and work as usual. It kicked off a week of events coordinated to coincide with the UN Climate Summit in New York City, where Greta will be, following her just-completed zero carbon sailboat trip across the Atlantic.

Teachers, school administrators, religious leaders, and employers,– in short, everyone — honored the courage of Greta and her fellow activists, to stood with them and acknowledged the challenge before us. Sure, it is possible to look the other away and be resistant, as adults often are, of youth’s “disruptive behavior.” But, it would be better to carve a way forward in this unprecedented time of rapid, extreme change. We should recognize that an important aspect of teen maturation is learning to speak up and participate in community.  After all, we want teens to be able to carry on after they take our places. They have to start participating in the political process and learning the ropes. So, let’s listen to their concerns; they are responding to the scientists’ warnings about the Earth’s limits.  Can we assure them that we want a safe future, too, and that we are working towards it by implementing changes? Solving global warming is what is really important here – not how many unexcused absences some kids have – so let’s shine light on the innovations that will help all of us. Let’s make improvements to our energy infrastructures that save money and resources. Let’s teach our children and learn from them as well. Let’s lift each other up.

It is worth noting that Greta and her fellow activists have turned to striking because they feel that climate, as an issue, has not been addressed by society’s institutions.  An official statement on the crisis could go a long way in re-establishing trust between generations and keeping morale high.

There are so many ways adults and young people could participate in Climate Week together. How about a “teach in” to explain how pollution traps heat in the atmosphere?  Hang an art show that conveys this information in creative, visual ways. Host a guest speaker to present on technology that shows promise in reducing carbon emissions, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and EVs. Or gather a group together to write letters to our governmental officials. Put academic learning into use engaging in real-world problem solving. Provide the addresses, envelopes, and stamps so that those letters really get mailed! Or go digital with tweets, selfies, and hashtags such as #OurClimateStory, #GrassrootsClimate, and #PriceOnPollution. The time you spend together need not be a matter of everyone in complete agreement, but rather about conversation and a willingness to listen.

Are we going to choose to stand with students on Sept. 20 and join them in acknowledging the urgency of the environmental crisis? Or are we going to ask them to sit down, be quiet, and let us handle things, which, up until now, has been to “mishandle” things? Stand with our youth, choose the health of our planet, and choose the future. As Greta has said, “Act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”