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Proper 19: Weeping Jeremiah

Weeping Jeremiah
Weeping Jeremiah

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. Normally, I work with the Appointed Gospel. This week’s gospel reading from Luke 15 is to do with the shepherd finding the lost sheep, and the woman finding the silver coin that she had lost. It’s a powerful and important passage, but the lectionary passage from Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, however, is particularly relevant  to our current situation.

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse– a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

“For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;

they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.

They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good.”

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.

I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.

I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.

I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;

for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.

In my book I compare those of us who “preach” about Age of Limits issues as being modern-day prophets. This idea seems to be  presumptuous, but it may be catching on. For example, the Rev. Susan Hendershot of Interfaith Power and Light has this to say.

I’m reminded of the Hebrew prophets who chose to live in the often-painful reality of their time and place, calling to account those who would oppress the poor because of their greed. They didn’t bury their grief, but instead expressed it openly and vocally to everyone who would listen—and many who wouldn’t.

But the prophets didn’t stop there. They expressed a hopeful vision for the future, like the one in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

BUT, in order to reach this future, according to the prophets, we need to change. We need to come back into right relationship with the sacred, with one another, and with the earth.

We are at such a point now. We can no longer live as if humans are the center, but we must recover our sense of the interconnectedness of all things on the planet. It’s not only our physical existence that is at stake, but our spiritual existence as well.

Here is more from Jeremiah.

Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew.

In spite of its rather melodramatic tone, the above Bible verse does seem to fit our current situation quite well. The “disaster” that Jeremiah talks about in our context is the decline of our fossil-fuel based society. The “foreign gods” are the symbols of material progress that we often worship; the word “burned” certainly applies to the fossil fuel resources that we have gobbled up so cavalierly.

The prophets attributed the tribulations of the Hebrew people to that fact that they had abandoned the true faith and that they were worshiping false gods. They maintained that the only way of averting catastrophe was for the people to forsake those gods. We in our time may not worship false gods in quite the same way. But we do “worship” the idea of material progress. It is what we believe in, and we anticipate material rewards as a result of that belief. Just as the prophets of old said that people needed to return to the God of their heritage, so we need to recognize that material progress for most of us is coming to an end — we need to look for a future that is more spiritual, and a way of life that is more in harmony with the natural world.

In spite of their insights and warnings, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were largely ignored. So it is in our time; the number of people willing to face up to the nature of our current predicaments is small, and the number who are taking action in their personal lives is smaller still.

Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet, nor did he believe that he had the skills to be one. But we are told that the Lord touched his lips, and told him to go out and prophesy. To do this he had to not be afraid, he had to stand up and speak and he had to go where he was sent.

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth”.

Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long.

But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in.


If Only

Two articles caught my attention this week.  The common theme is, “If only we had taken action 40 years ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess now. As it is, here we are — we have to live with the consequences of our inactions.” Readers of the posts at this blog know that I am working on three theological phrases, the second of which is,

Accept and adapt

These two articles fit that way of thought.

Limits to Growth Update

Limits to Growth

The first is article is actually a slide presentation from Dennis Meadows — one of the authors of the seminal “Limits to Growth” report published in the year 1972. The slides were used for a presentation in Ulm, Germany in May 2019.

Here is what his team forecast 47 years ago.

  1. All our scenarios showed growth ending in the period 2010-2050.
  2. The most common behavior pattern was overshoot and decline, not gradual slowing within a limit.
  3. Technology advance did delay the end of growth by a few years, but not eliminate it, and it did not avoid the decline.
  4. Social and economic changes were required to attain the most attractive futures.
  5. Today’s “problems” are not actually problems; they are symptoms. The real problem is physical growth in material and energy flows pressing against the limits of a finite planet.

Let’s take a look at each of those bullet points.

  1. Our economy does continue to grow, but the main beneficiaries seem to be those who are already well-to-do. For most people this forecast seems about right.
  2. We have not observed significant overshoot or decline yet, at least with regards to physical resources such as crude oil.
  3. Technology advances do not seem to be having much of an impact. For example, German’s alternative energy program has run into serious difficulties, and the Chinese, who had been a leader in the development of alternative energy technologies, are reducing their commitments to such programs. (Their annual investment has fallen from $70 billion in 2016 to under $30 billion in 2019.)
  4. There have been no social or economic changes with respect to national or international leadership. (Which is why I say that the current situation provides an opportunity for the Christian church to fill the leadership gap.)
  5. We are indeed pressing against the limits of a finite planet.

The presentation then examines some specific topics such as population growth and government response.

Overall, I would say that Meadows and his colleagues did a good job of predicting back in the year 1972 what was going to happen two generations later. If you listen to a recent video of Meadows he comes over as being downbeat — if only we had listened to what he had to say all those years ago!


Pretending

What if we stopped pretending. New Yorker magazine.

The second article was What If We Stopped Pretending?, written by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker magazine. The subtitle of the article is The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it. The article boils down to a recognition that climate change is happening; we cannot go back to the world that we used to know; and there is not a whole lot that we can do about a continued increase in temperatures.

The article’s money quotations are,

Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.

 . . . a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.

 

Our Sarajevo Moment

Archduke-Ferdinand--Sarajevo
Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914)

This year we spent a few days in Belgium and France visiting various World War I sites, including The Somme and Passchendaele. That war, in which millions of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered, was triggered by a relatively minor incident: the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in the town of Sarajevo in the modern day Bosnia/Herzegovina. For years the great powers of Europe had been building their military capability, both on land and at sea. But it took this apparently random event to trigger the “War to End All Wars”.

As we look at our world now, we seem to be in a similar situation. However, the danger is not of war per se, but of a tipping point that will trigger a cascade of crises to do with the fact that that we are depleting the world’s finite resources, particularly crude oil. As I write these words a major oil field/refinery in Saudi Arabia is burning as a consequence of an apparently minor event: an attack by just ten drones. Could this be the first domino to fall? No one knows, of course. Probably we will muddle through, just as we have muddled through previous potential crises. But, sooner or later, I suspect that an event such as this week’s attack could indeed be a tipping point, a “Pearl Harbor moment”.

Saudi Arabia oil facilities fire drone attack

Proper 18: Monasticism

Cistercian Nun

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 (September 8th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Monasticism

Benedict by Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)
Benedict. Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)

This is a tough passage. Are we really to hate our family members? Most of us would say, “No”. Yet there is one group of people who have given up their worldly life, including their families: those who live the monastic or “religious” life.

As the western Roman Empire declined we have seen how men such as Augustine provided a spiritual and theological foundation for the church. Another movement that became very important in the waning days of the Empire was monasticism. The name usually associated with this movement is Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE). The first Benedictine monastery was established at Monte Cassino in Italy in the year 529 CE., southeast of Rome

Although he did not found an order, as such, he did set up a system for the monastic life that was widely adopted. The monks live in community under the direction of their Abbot. But they also pursue their own personal, spiritual vocations. Benedict wrote the famous “rule” that still directs life in Benedictine monasteries. The rule is strict, but not harsh. Although deeply spiritual, the order was practical and sensible.

The Benedictine ideals are condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Their way of life is demanding, but not harsh; it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. It is also built around the discipline contained in the words ora et labora: pray and work.

It was these communities that did much to hold the civilization of the old western empire together for the next 500 years or so. They provided cultural continuity following the decline of the western Empire. In particular, they copied religious and secular texts, thus preventing the knowledge in these texts from disappearing.

Although very few people are called to the monastic vocation, Benedict’s guidance is useful for Christians living now in our world — a world that is slowly, but irreversibly slipping into material decline. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once, point that is made by Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option.  Dreher recognizes that the church is no longer at the center of western civilization. Indeed, he refers to the modern church as a, “chaplaincy to a consumer culture”. The book’s sub-title is ‘A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation’. He uses the Benedictine way of life as guidance for all Christians, including those who are not formally part of a monastic community.  (As the Age of Limits starts to bite I anticipate a revival of the monastic movement within the Christian church.)

One of the fundamental challenges faced by Christians when confronted with climate change and all the other issues that we talk about is whether to respond by modifying one’s personal life, or whether to work top-down, i.e., with political systems at national and international levels.  In practice, most of us will do some of each. We will also gravitate to the area that best fits our talents and personalities. The monastic idea provides a good example. The monks lived a strict lifestyle, but they were also part of the larger world.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the third point to do with living within the biosphere. By living simply, those in the monastic community give us an example of how to live well without dominating the world around us.


Article: Climate Change and the Gospel

There is not a lot of literature to do with the theology of climate change, and even less to do with other Age of Limits issues such as resource depletion. However, the article Climate Change and the Gospel written by David Atkinson provides some interesting thoughts and guidance on these lines.

The following quotation will probably resonate with busy church parishioners.

I suspect that underneath some of the lack of urgency among Christians, is a belief that environmental concern, or ‘creation care’ if you prefer, is not really a Christian priority. It is not central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, though it is a worthy thing to do if you have time. So we may have an ‘Environment Sunday’ once a year to ‘do our bit’. Or maybe an extra hour on the already overloaded theological college curriculum to discuss climate change. Perhaps we may try to get the idea of solar panels on our church roof past the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the Victorian Society, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the local brigadier who lives next to the church. But, please, with endless diocesan initiatives  for mission, with assemblies to take in the church school, with a couple of funerals a week, with trying to keep alive our Partnership Link with an overseas diocese, with constant pressure to up our diocesan quota, and with dwindling numbers in the congregation, please do not ask us to do any more!

 I believe that Christian people ought to be leading players in debates and in taking action about climate change. Because what ultimately matters is not scientific knowledge, or technology, or a change to our economic system – vitally important though all those are. What matters is how we see ourselves in God’s world, how we humans relate to the rest of God’s creation. It is about what makes for human flourishing and the wellbeing of all God’s creation, on which our life depends. This is about morality, and spirituality.

David Atkinson refers to the theological concept of the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ (Atkinson, 2015). It is a triangle consisting of God, humanity and the Earth. He says that is implicit in the first chapter of the Bible, when, after the emergence of all other creatures, humanity is created in ‘the image of God’.


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Proper 17: The Place of Honor

Christian humility

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 (September 1st2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:1, 7-14.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Through a Glass Darkly

In this gospel reading we are told to be humble and not to choose the place of honor.

One aspect of the need to be humble is to understand that no one can predict the future accurately. We must understand that any forecast we make should be made tentatively and with an understanding that we could easily be proved wrong. But although we need to be cautious when we talk about what the future holds that does not mean that we cannot see an outline as to where we are going.

I keep coming back to the words of the Apostle Paul.

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.

1 Corinthians 13, 12

Even Paul, with his magnificent intellectual and spiritual gifts did not have a clear picture of the future. But this does not mean that he was blind — he could see and outline of what the future holds.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the first of these three points, Understand and tell the truth. The nature of truth in our highly complex and rapidly changing society is difficult to discern. But that does not mean that we cannot see an outline; we need the courage to understand what is happening, otherwise we will not be able to work out the best response.

Book Progress

Books in the Library of Congress

I am working on a book with the working title A New City of God. Parts of the book are quite detailed, and some are technical. Therefore, in order to keep the book manageable in size, I have created a serious of Supplements. These will be available as .pdf files, and can be downloaded at no cost.

In the meantime, the first of these supplements is entitled The Green New Deal. In it I take a look at the proposal made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues earlier this year from a Christian point of view. I conclude that its aspirations are great but that it does not pass the red face test with respect to engineering and project management realities. Nor does it call upon anyone to make any type of sacrifice — something that will be necessary in coming years.

The Sadness of Six Degrees

Book: Six Degrees

One of the most useful books on climate change is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. The book has six core chapters — one for every 1°C increase in planetary temperatures over the pre-industrial baseline. Unlike many other books in this genre it is quite specific as to what the world will look like in coming years.

The author does not, however, provide dates as to when each degree of temperature rise will take place.  One reason for his hesitation to provide dates is that, when he when he wrote the book, he did not know how human society would respond to the predictions made by scientists such as himself. The book was published in the year 2007 — at that time there was a rather naïve assumption among many people that we, as a society, would react rationally and energetically to the warming of the earth.

The reality, of course, is that there has been no effective response, thus giving the book an air of sadness.

The final chapter is entitled ‘Choosing Our Future’. In it Lynas projects global temperature increases over the pre-industrial baseline, the level of CO2 that would create that increase, and the action that needs to be taken to avoid the increase. Here are some of the figures he uses.

  • One Degree. 350 ppm. Avoidance probably not possible.
  • Two Degrees. 400 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2015.
  • Three Degrees. 450 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2030.

Here are the actual concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Three conclusions can be drawn from this graph.

  1. The increase in CO2 is remarkably steady. In spite of all the conferences, resolutions and statements of good intent, the rate of increase of our emissions has not slowed down. (Indeed, it appears as if the rate of increase of the rate of increase is also positive.) In the year 2020 we will be at 420 ppm. If the trend continues unabated, we reach 450 ppm somewhere around the year 2040.
  2. Assuming that Lynas’ projections of temperature increase are correct, then 420 ppm means that we cannot avoid a 2.5°C increase. At 450 ppm global temperatures are about 3°C above the pre-industrial baseline.
  3. The target dates set by Lynas ten years ago seem now to be just wishful thinking.

I have used the following sketch already, and doubtless will use it again. Our responsibility is to create a sense of realistic hope.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Realistically the earth is going to much warmer than it is now within the lifetime of many people reading this blog. But we should not be fatalistic — a 3°C world is very different from the one that we live in now, but it is livable. At the same time we need to avoid hopium — a vague, unjustified belief that “something will come up” or “they will think of something”.

Creating a Butterfly Garden

Creating a butterfly garden

One of my church colleagues publishes a blog called “Holy Comforter Creation Care”. In it she talks about the importance and value of native plants in our gardens. The latest post is Creating a Butterfly Garden.


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Proper 16: Rearranging the Deckchairs

Deckchairs Titanic neatly arranged
Deckchairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged

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 (August 25th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 13:10-17.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This passage gives us two issues to think about. The first is the miracle that heals the crippled woman, the second is the tension between Jesus and the synagogue leader about how to observe the sabbath laws. It is the second of these that may be able to provide us with guidance to do with our actions in the coming years of climate change and resource depletion.

The synagogue leader is portrayed in a negative light. He is taking a legalistic attitude that, “We all know the rules about keeping the sabbath; we should obey them. No excuses.” Jesus does not argue against the sabbath rule itself — he is simply saying that there are times and circumstances when it is right not to observe that rule.

But there is another way of looking at this story. It may be that the sabbath rule itself needs to be modified. In our time our church leaders tend to focus on issues such as gender equality, same-sex relationships and diversity. These are important issues. But maybe they should no longer be our priority. The leadership of our church, like the synagogue leader, may need to consider the changed circumstances of the world around us.

One of the Attachments to my book A New City of God is entitled, ‘Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Episcopalian Titanic’. It is written tongue-in-cheek, but the point is a serious one. The church’s focus on current issues may help explain why membership in virtually all denominations is declining so precipitously. The chart shows membership in the Episcopal church.

Membership Episcopal church

As recently as the year 2005, membership was over 800,000. Currently it is at approximately 550,000 (the red line); the number of active Episcopalians is now less than 0.25% of the population of the United States. Were this trend line to continue then membership would hit zero around the year 2045. (In fact, the line will probably level out in the 10,000 to 15,000 range, but the general conclusion is the same. The Episcopal church in its present form is likely to become merely a rump organization.) The reality is that the modern Episcopal church has very little influence over the direction that our society is taking. And, unless the church speaks to issues that really matter to society as a whole, its influence will continue to dwindle.

If the Age of Limits issues discussed at this site are as serious as they seem to be then we should focus on them. If we do so, we may find that the membership decline could be stopped, or even reversed.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the second of these three points — Accept and Adapt — because we cannot predict how nations and societies will decline. However, we do need to accept that decline is inevitable, and that we will need to adapt to new, strange and frightening circumstances.

Additional Reading

India drought Chennai

At this blog I do not spend much time discussing reports to do with climate change and related issues. There are many other sites that provide that information. However, one post did catch my eye and that was India staring at a water apocalypse. Other related articles discuss the fact that the city of Chennai in India is facing a near collapse of its fresh water supplies. Moreover, this situation is not temporary — as the climate changes much of the Indian subcontinent will be facing long-term drought.

This information attracted my attention because one of the world’s largest oil companies (Shell) decided some years ago to move many of its financial and administrative functions from the United States to Chennai in order to save money. I wonder if the planning for this move looked at the city’s water supply. Already workers in Chennai are being asked to stay home. If the shortage of water gets worse, as it probably will, Shell may have to consider relocating many of these functions somewhere else.


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The Stordalen

 

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

Matthew 7:1-2

1 stordalen  =  10,491 bacon cheeseburgers

As an engineer I like to think in numbers. Hence one of my favorite quotations is from Lord Kelvin (of degrees Kelvin fame) — yet another bewhiskered Victorian gentleman.

Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)
Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

The catch is that it is difficult to know how we can measure our own contribution to environmental degradation. We talk about our carbon footprint, but how is that footprint to be measured? Our knowledge is indeed of a “meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.

One tongue-in-cheek response to this challenge has been provided by John Michael Greer in his post A Wilderness of Mirrors. He refers to an article in the Daily Mirror entitled Globe-trotting billionaire behind campaign to save planet accused of blatant hypocrisy. Greer says,

Late last year . . . the mass media trumpeted yet another study proclaiming yet another low-meat diet that would supposedly save the planet. The study was funded by a Norwegian vegan billionaire named Gunhild Stordalen. For a change, reporters actually looked into the story, and turned up the fact that Stordalen’s commitment to the environment apparently begins and ends on her dining table.

Diet aside, she’s got the same colossal carbon footprint as other members of her class; her idea of a modest wedding celebration, for example, included flying a private jet full of friends from Oslo to Marrakesh and back.

(Math isn’t my strong suit, so one of my readers obligingly crunched the numbers, and showed that this little jaunt of Stordalen’s—one of many each year in her globehopping lifestyle, by the way—had a carbon footprint equal to no fewer than 10,491 of the bacon cheeseburgers she insists nobody ought to eat.)

Stordalen-Gunhild Tree Hugger
Gunhild Stordalen: A Tree Hugger

So maybe, if we decide to walk rather than drive to the grocery store, we can determine the impact of our decision by measuring the number of stordhalens saved.

(One person pointed out that ‘stor’ is Norwegian for ‘large’, whereas ‘liten’ means ‘small’. The stordalen is too large a unit for daily use, but if litendalen is a thousandth of a stordalen then it would be equivalent to 10.5 bacon cheeseburgers — a more practical measure.)

Greer made the same point when talking about Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s book and the matching video introduced many people to the ideas of global warming and climate change. (Gore had been Vice President under Bill Clinton, and came close to winning the presidency himself.)

An Inconvenient Truth
Bennett — reproduced with permission

Although what Gore said was properly researched, his message lost credibility because his lifestyle does not match his message. He lives in a large air-conditioned mansion (and owns other properties), flies around the world in jet airplanes and eats a high meat diet.

The Gore Mansion
The Gore Mansion

If he had really wanted to get his message across Gore would have moved to a small home without air conditioning, cut back on long distance travel (and then only by train), and eaten a mostly vegetarian diet.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez environmental hypocrisy

To bring the topic up to date, consider the reporting of the New York Post to do with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s carbon  footprint.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign logged 1,049 car service transactions totaling over $23,000 between May 16, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, The Post found. Her campaign once booked 26 car-service transactions in a single day.

Even though her Queens HQ was just a one-minute walk to the 7 train, her campaign only made 52 MetroCard purchases, spending about $8,300.

And despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her green strategy, the Democratic firebrand took Amtrak 18 times, compared to 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during the campaign season.

Her response,

“I’m just living in the real world”.

One reason that the way in which we live matters is that none of us have enough time to investigate all the issues that we face. So we tend to base our opinions on the character of the person presenting a point of view. (Advertisers know that the best reference is from a person that you know and trust.)

This idea of living the by the standards that are preached is particularly important for rich and powerful people such as the Stordalens or Al Gore. Otherwise, ordinary people will suspect that they are being asked to sacrifice their standard of living so that the wealthy can continue to live in luxury.

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia (480-547)

The principle of living the life preached is one of the foundations of the monastic way of life. This is an important topic, and one that we will discuss in future posts. At this point it is sufficient to say that, when societies decline, there is often a revival of the monastic ideal. In the case of the western Roman Empire the person who embodied this ideal was Benedict of Nursia.

The Benedictine ideals are usually condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Although Benedict’s rule is demanding, it is not a harsh; indeed, it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. The key words are ora et labora: pray and work.

The counter-argument to Greer’s point of view is that the actions of individuals and small groups of people are not enough to make a difference. Indeed, Jevons Paradox suggests that whatever we do will be cancelled out by someone else’s actions. For example, we may choose to drive a smaller car to save fuel. But the fuel that we do not use is not really saved — it is simply used by someone else, somewhere else.

Therefore, it is argued, it does not matter if we personally lead a profligate lifestyle, just as long as we are able to change society’s rules and standards. The catch with this argument, as we have just seen, is that it can be perceived as being hypocritical and self-serving. But, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

 

Proper 15: 2019

Calendar 2019

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 (August 18th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 12:49-56.

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The Present Time

I would like to consider the last phrase, “but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” in the context of climate change. One of the frustrations that many feel is that the facts to do with climate change are obvious and not all that controversial. Yet people, by and large, continue to ignore the looming crises  that a changed climate will bring.

But it could be that public awareness is shifting. In fact, it may be that the year 2019 has been something of a watershed, at least in the United States. Historians may look back on it as the year when, quite suddenly, climate change went mainstream and gained widespread acceptance.

The following may be reasons for this change.

The Daily News

We are seeing a steady stream of news events to do with the reality of climate change. The following are examples,

High Publicity Events

The climate change movement seems to be building awareness through high profile events such as Greta Thunberg’s decision to sail across the Atlantic. Such actions are likely to have a greater impact than any number of earnest reports written by bespectacled scientists.

Greta Thunberg climate change

Mainstream Acceptance

But of all the trends, probably the most significant is that climate change is becoming part of our background. — something that is increasingly taken for granted. For example, in the August 16th 2019 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch the newspaper’s meteorologist, John Boyer, had an article forecasting the fall weather for the central Virginia area. He says,

. . . over the past century there has been a notable rise in both mean temperature and rainfall across Virginia from September to November, likely influenced by climate change.

What struck me was the almost casual manner in which Boyer, who writes for a  conservative newspaper, took it for granted that climate change is a factor in routine weather forecasting.

China and India

The above comments are mostly to do with the United States and western Europe. Unfortunately, other parts of the world, particularly China and India, are even less committed to making a change than the United Sates although they make a major contribution to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. (Comparative fossil fuel consumption for the top three nations are: China 36%, USA 34%, India 30%.)

Personal Stories

We moved to the Richmond area about six years ago from Houston, Texas. Our choice was made easy because we have family in this area. But another factor was our reading of NASA’s long-range climate forecasts. Our interest was not so much in temperature change (everywhere gets hotter) but in rainfall. NASA predicted that south Texas would get drier (but not to drought levels), that New England and eastern Canada would be very wet , and that rainfall in central Virginia would remain about the same. It looks as if that prediction has worked out quite well so far.

Increasingly, we will have more and more personal stories such as these. They could create a rapid change in perception. One of the commentators (staggering_god) at the reddit Collapse site likely has it right when he said,

More and more, people are going to have stories. True stories about things that have happened to them, their families, or their friends. That’s what will ultimately persuade people–not models, projections, scientific experts, or charts. Like a lot of farmers today, it will start like, “I don’t say it’s climate change, but the growing season is out of whack–something’s gone wrong, and it’s nothing like I remember growing up.”

Eventually, most people are going to have their climate stories. And probably the most important thing people can do is share their person stories of being affected by climate change.

And then, like magic, everybody is going to rewrite the past. And suddenly we will all talk like were all believers all along. Even if you said you were a skeptic two years ago, it will be as if it was decades ago. Corporations will all come out pro-climate action. Politicians will tie it to our deep-rooted American values. Everybody is going to start paying lip service. It’s going to be on t-shirts, mugs, Top 40 radio hits. Everybody is going to feel warm and fuzzy inside because they were part of the movement, always with the “good guys,” always virtuous and moral and good.

And then the next battle will come. Something will be passed. It will be substantial and specific. It will be real. BUT it clearly won’t be enough. And, like all the civil rights battles before, there will be the camp of people who scream that a LOT more needs to be done, that this is problem is systemic and is NOT FIXED. And there will be the other camp who say those people are alarmist, extremist, etc. The ruling class will say, “We’ve given you something. Isn’t that enough? Aren’t you satisfied? Why can’t you be satisfied with what we’ve given you?” It will be the people who think we’ve done enough vs. the people who think we haven’t done nearly enough.

Everybody will claim to be on the pro-climate side, but it will be almost the same battle repeating again–with a kind of soft denialism. Everyone will say they are on board with fixing the climate and taking action, but a good number of people won’t take the science completely seriously. They will consider it a “half-emergency”. It will be denialism but in a different guise. The gradualists vs. the abolitionists.

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. Mostly, the language will change. Everybody will agree that they’ve always been on the right side. In this way, the problem will likely become only more insidious.

In the end, the delays and obfuscations will lead to our utter destruction. But in whatever history we tell centuries hence, we were ALL for Independence. Nobody was ever a royalist. We were ALL with the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln, the whole time. We ALL hated Nazis and supported the Allies. We ALL loved Martin Luther King. And we ALL thought climate change was a big problem and supported significant climate action.

Common Knowledge

This week’s Peak Prosperity site has an article entitled Why Common Knowledge Changes The World. The article is to do with financial issues but the concept of Common Knowledge can be applied equally well to the perception of climate change. There are three steps.

  1. A small number of people with specialist knowledge become aware of the problem. The great majority of people either do not accept that there is a problem or — more commonly — they simply ignore the whole issue.
  2. Then more and more people recognize that there is a problem. Their private knowledge, in this case, goes from denial or ignorance to accepting that “something is going on”. But the crucial point is that this knowledge is private and that they believe that others have yet to change their mind.
  3. Then, suddenly, people become aware that they are not alone or isolated. Hence private knowledge quickly becomes public knowledge.

I suggest that we are currently at Step 2 and that the transition to Step 3 could happen within the next two or three years.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the first of these points. More and more people are gaining an understanding of what is taking place but they feel rather isolated. However, once enough people gain an understanding, and once they talk to one another, the whole public perception of climate change could shift quite quickly.  Whether that change in perception will lead to effective action remains to be seen.

Additional Reading

The American Meteorological Society has released its 325 page report State of the Climate in 2018. Here are some quotations from the Abstract.

In 2018, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—continued their increase. The annual global average carbon dioxide concentration at Earth’s surface was 407.4 ± 0.1 ppm, the highest in the modern instrumental record and in ice core records dating back 800,000 years.

. . . global surface (land and ocean) temperature was the fourth highest on record, with only 2015 through 2017 being warmer. Several European countries reported record high annual temperatures. There were also more high, and fewer low, temperature extremes than in nearly all of the 68-year extremes record.

. . . Pakistan, recorded its highest temperature of 50.2°C, which may be a new daily world record for April.

. . . The 2018 Arctic land surface temperature was 1.2°C above the 1981–2010 average, tying for third highest in the 118-year record, following 2016 and 2017. June’s Arctic snow cover extent was almost half of what it was 35 years ago. Across Greenland, however, regional summer temperatures were generally below or near average. Additionally, a satellite survey of 47 glaciers in Greenland indicated a net increase in area for the first time since records began in 1999.

. . . On 17 March, Arctic sea ice extent marked the second smallest annual maximum in the 38-year record, larger than only 2017.

. . . For the Antarctic continent as a whole, 2018 was warmer than average. On the highest points of the Antarctic Plateau, the automatic weather station Relay (74°S) broke or tied six monthly temperature records throughout the year, with August breaking its record by nearly 8°C. However, cool conditions in the western Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sector contributed to a low melt season overall for 2017/18.

. . .The deeper ocean continues to warm year after year. For the seventh consecutive year, global annual mean sea level became the highest in the 26-year record, rising to 81 mm above the 1993 average. As anticipated in a warming climate, the hydrological cycle over the ocean is accelerating: dry regions are becoming drier and wet regions rainier. Closer to the equator, 95 named tropical storms were observed during 2018, well above the 1981–2010 average of 82.

. . . Globally, fire activity during 2018 was the lowest since the start of the record in 1997, with a combined burned area of about 500 million hectares. This reinforced the long-term downward trend in fire emissions driven by changes in land use in frequently burning savannas. However, wildfires burned 3.5 million hectares across the United States, well above the 2000–10 average of 2.7 million hectares.


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The Return of Peak Oil

 

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

My interest in issues to do with the Age of Limits started about nine years ago when I was working on an offshore oil and gas project in the nation of Malaysia. At that time my focus was on what was then referred to as ‘Peak Oil’. In the following years I learned more about other issues, such as global warming (which became ‘climate change’), our destruction of the biosphere, and the scary debt bubbles that we are blowing. It all came together in the idea of an Age of Limits.

The Peak Oil story, at the time, seemed so simple.

  • We need to find new sources of oil to replace what we are currently using.
  • Actually we need to find more than what we are using in order to fuel economic growth.
  • Unfortunately we have picked the low-hanging fruit, those sources of oil that provide abundant quantities at low cost. Finding and exploiting new sources is increasingly expensive. The technical term for this issue is Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI). It takes energy to find and exploit new sources of energy. Our ERoEI has been steadily declining.
  • Hence the price of crude oil will increase and supplies will be increasingly prone to interruption.

Absence of Peak Oil

But then, about seven years ago, extensive investments were made in the recovery of shale oil from fields in the United States (mostly in Texas and North Dakota). The impact of these discoveries can be seen in the following chart.

Hubbert Curve Actual

The chart has two lines. The red line is the famous Hubbert curve developed by M. King Hubbert in the early 1950s. Hubbert correctly predicted that production of conventional oil would reach a peak in the year 1970.

The green line shows actual oil production in the United States. Up until the year 1990 actual production followed Hubbert’s prediction closely. But then, starting around the year 2010 production of tight oil/shale oil took off such that overall production in 2018 was not much less than what it was in 1970.

Geologists always knew that the shale oil was there. But it required new (and expensive) technology in the form of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) using high pressure injection fluid consisting of water, sand and other chemicals. The produced oil is generally quite light, hence it is often referred to as Light Tight Oil (LTO).

The production of shale oil is costly. Therefore, it required that investors be willing to pour billions of dollars into this money-losing venture. Because the oil is so difficult to extract, and because there are relatively few sweet spots of high oil concentration, it has been estimated that the price of crude needs to be above $120 / barrel for the shale oil business to be profitable.

The chart shows actual prices (US $/bbl) for West Texas Intermediate. For the last few years the price of oil has mostly been in the $50-60 range — well below what is needed for the shale oil business to make a profit.

Oil Price (West Texas Intermediate)
Oil Price (West Texas Intermediate)

Consumption Continues

In the meantime, our consumption of crude oil and other fossil fuels is climbing quickly. In the recent article Fossil fuel burning leaps to a new record, crushing clean energy and climate efforts published in July in Canada’s National Observer, the author, Barry Saxifrage, cuts through much of the supposed good news to do with fossil fuel usage. He shows that since the year 1990 the rate at which fossil fuels are burned world wide has gone from 7.1 to 11.7 billion tons of oil equivalent (BTOE).  That’s a steady increase of 2.2% per year. Here is the chart.

Fossil fuel consumption since 1990

And here is another chart from the same article showing just how much oil we have used in recent years. Roughly half of the oil ever used by humanity has been used since the year 1980.

cumulative global fossil use since 1750

Climate change and over-consumption are not problems that we can blame on generations past — we are doing it to ourselves in the here and now. We are making the situation worse.  We are not slowing down.

The picture below, which was prepared for the Peak Prosperity site, illustrates our reckless greed. It shows the large amounts of gas being flared from the Bakken Shale fields. This gas is produced along with the oil. There is no system in place for compressing the gas and moving it to potential markets. So, this one-time resource is simply flared. We are in such a hurry to grab the oil that we cannot wait until we have found some way of using or saving the natural gas. Once it is gone, it is gone.

Shale gas flaring — North Dakota

Shale Oil Realities

Going back to the early work of M. King Hubbert, he made it clear that we need to focus on the exploration side of the oil business. It is essential that new reserves be found at a sufficient rate to replace what is being used. He himself did not use the term ‘Peak Oil’, but he developed the concept. Peak Oil does not mean that we run out of oil — it means that we run out of affordable oil. In other words, there comes a point at which it does not make economic sense for companies to continue exploration because the new discoveries cannot be extracted profitably.

In his post The wheels come off shale oil Kurt Cobb states that investors have had enough. He says,

. . . investors at some point would realize that shale oil was a long-term money loser. A former industry CEO did the math and calculated the damage as minus 80 percent for investors in the industry as a whole since 2008. Lately, investors seem to be reacting to facts rather than the hype.

Renewables

The first chart from the National Observer article shows that renewables and nuclear power have also been growing over the same time period. This leads to the good news conclusion that, “Alternative fuels are replacing fossil fuels”. Such a statement ignores two facts. First, our consumption of fossil fuels continues to climb. Second, alternative fuels still constitute only a small fraction of the overall energy picture.

Not only have alternative fuels failed to replace fossil fuels, it could be that the effect is additive — renewables have not replaced oil, they have simply added to the total energy consumption picture.

Also, since the rate at which we are using oil and other fossil fuels continues to increase the impact on the climate becomes ever more severe. Our overall emissions of greenhouse gases continues to rise. The atmosphere does not care about percentages — global warming increases with the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Hence, in spite of all the conferences, articles, meetings and protests that have taken place since 1990 the harsh truth is that we have done nothing to cut back on our use of fossil fuels. In the words of the proverbs. “Fine words butter no parsnips” and “Talk doesn’t cook the rice”.

Conclusions

The situation can be summarized as follows,

  • The production of conventional oil is steadily declining, just as Hubbert said it would, all those years ago. The oil companies are having ever increasing difficulties in finding new reserves.
  • Yet we are consuming oil at ever increasing rates.
  • The production of shale oil is likely to go down. It is a money loser and it appears as if investors have had enough.
  • Alternative energy sources are growing, but they are only a small fraction of the overall energy picture — they are not replacing fossil fuels.
  • “If something cannot go on forever it will stop”. Like it or not, the growth in fossil fuel consumption will come to an end.

All of which suggests that the concept of Peak Oil may be ready to stage a comeback.


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Proper 14: The Unexpected Hour

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

Appointed Gospel

This week’s Gospel reading (August 11th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 12:32-40.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Collapse

Let’s take a look at that last sentence to do with the “unexpected hour”.

As we saw from the discussion to do with last week’s gospel reading, none of us know the future holds. We can make our plans but, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” As they say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. This week’s reading is on the same lines — the Son of Man will come at some unexpected hour. The passage could be interpreted as meaning that there will be a final hour for all of society. Or maybe it means that each of us individually will experience his or her own time when “this night your life will be demanded from you”.

Either way, the passage suggests that, in addition to being unexpected, the ending will be sudden. The anticipation of a sudden end is part of the Christian tradition. Recent examples are the “Rapture” and the “Singularity”. Unfortunately the idea of sudden, lights-out end to the world does not really fit our understanding of decline in an Age of Limits. The image below is from the ‘Limits to Growth’ report first published by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. It shows how factors such as population growth, industrial output and food production vary over time. None of the curves exhibit a sudden step change. Some of the projected changes such as ‘Industrial Output’ change quite quickly but we are talking in terms of decades, not hours.  There is no sudden end time.

Limits to Growth

A central theme of this set of posts is that our national and political institutions have failed to provide leadership in the face of mounting crises to do with climate change, resource depletion, destruction of the biosphere and on-going financial emergencies. This situation provides an opportunity for the Christian church to provide that missing leadership. But our theology will have to move from the idea of collapse being a one-time event. Instead, we are looking at a future that will be muddled and confusing with no single end time.

Where Were You When Global Warming Happened?

The lack of a single end-point is something that we all have trouble grasping. For example, people might ask, “What will the world look like after global warming?” The simplest answer is, “Look around you, global warming started many years ago, hence we are living in a post-warming world.”

But next year the world will look slightly different. And the year after that slightly different again. Wait 50 years and we will have trouble recognizing what we see. But — and this is the crucial point — there is no single “before and after”; global warming, resource depletion, the destruction of the biosphere — they are all processes not one-time events.

So, in response to the question at the head of this section, there is no answer. Global warming is not a single point memorable event such as the attack on the World Trade Center.

Speed of Decline

The book that I am working on has the title The New City of God. I chose that title because Augustine of Hippo wrote his book, The City of God, at a time when the western Roman Empire was visibly declining. (He was living when the City of Rome itself was sacked in the year 410 CE.) Augustine recognized that all human societies and nations collapse sooner or later. For example, the Hebrew Bible is full of “failed states” such as Assyria, Babylon and Ancient Egypt. His insight was that only the City of God is permanent. From this insight, he and other church leaders of his time developed a theology that provided the foundation for the church for the next 900 years.

City of God by Augustine of Hippo

But nations and societies do not all fail in the same way or the same rate. Indeed, it could be argued that the Roman Empire never completely failed. The eastern part of the Empire survived for a thousand years after the time of Augustine. Even the western part did not disappear completely. The City of Rome became site of the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, the Latin language became the basis for many modern languages such as Italian, Spanish and French, and the Roman legal system is still in use in many parts of Europe.

Other civilizations, however, have completely disappeared, leaving hardly a trace of their existence, except maybe in the ruins of monumental structures such as pyramids and buildings. Here is an artist’s impression as to what the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon looked like in Biblical times.

Babylon hanging gardens

And here is a picture of what they looked like when being excavated.

Babylon hanging gardens

Global Collapse

There is, however, one huge difference between Augustine’s time and ours. The Roman Empire, was large, but it did not encompass the whole world. There were societies and nations in Persia, Africa and northern Europe that may have influenced the Romans, but that were not part of the Empire. There were also whole societies in Asia and Latin America about which the Romans knew nothing.

Such is not the case in our time. The issues to do with climate change, resource depletion and all the rest are global — there are no parts of the world that are not affected. Which means that, as the protestors say, “There is no Planet B”.

How severe our collapse will be, what it will look like and how quickly events will unfold remain to be seen. In the words of the Apostle Paul, we can only see through a glass darkly. Two of the people that I follow on the Internet are Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy and John Michael Greer at Ecosophia. They tend to see the future differently. Bardi talks about a fairly quick collapse using a model that he refers to as the Seneca Cliff. Greer sees a future of a ragged, gradual descent. But neither of these two writers anticipates a moment in time when everything will come to an end.

Ugo Bardi Seneca Cliff

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am attempting to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It is based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the second of these three points — Accept and Adapt — as the theme of this week’s blog. As the Gospel reading tells us, we need to be dressed for action and to have our lamps lit. But we need to be ready for a process of change, not for a one-time event.


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Proper 13: The Stoic Christian

 

 

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). A stoic.

The Episcopal church publishes a lectionary which tells us which passages of scripture are to be our focus for each week. As time permits, I will look at the prescribed reading — usually the Gospel — in the context of the Age of Limits. It is important to understand that I am merely a retired chemical engineer; I am not a theologian, ordained cleric or seminarian. But, even though I am a loyal Episcopalian, I feel that I also belong to Luther’s “priesthood of all believers”. At the very least I hope that what I write may be of assistance to professional theologians.

Appointed Gospel

The Gospel lesson for this week (August 4th 2019, Year C) is Luke 12:13-21. In it God says to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” (The meaning and sadness of these words was brought home to all of us when we learned just two days later that one of the members of our congregation passed away suddenly — to our knowledge her health had been good up until then.)

This Gospel also speaks to those of us who understand that climate change will have drastic, even catastrophic, effects on our way of life. Our way of life will not end in a single night, but it is coming to an end. Many Christians are working diligently to slow down the pace of change and/or mitigate the consequences. But, when we look at the magnitude of the predicaments that we face and at the overall feebleness of our political response, these actions often feel futile. (This loss of hope — even a feeling of despair — can be seen in web sites such as reddit’s Collapse. The writers at such sites may be exaggerating the scope of our difficulties, but their attitude is real.)

A danger with this way of thinking is that it could lead people to develop a sense of fatalism, a feeling that that events are fixed in advance and that human beings are powerless to change the future. In the words of Socrates,

If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever.

Which brings us to this week’s Gospel reading.

The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

We see that Jesus recognized and understood the fatalistic approach to life. But the above passage makes the point that we should not just give in to fate, we must actively pursue a more spiritual life in such time as is left available to us. Specifically in the  context of the Age of Limits, we should have two responses to this passage.

First, we should not just give in — we should do what we think is the right thing to do when faced with the dilemmas of climate change, resource depletion, biosphere destruction and over-population. The second response is not to give in to the siren call of ‘hopium’ with an attitude of “they will think of something”.  It is our responsibility as Christians to understand the scary implications of the phrase, “It is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet.”

The philosophy of stoicism provides a middle ground between despondency and hopium. It is a way of thought that was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant but he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Others, including Christians, who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa. In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire, with the City of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul’s hometown, being one of its centers. Scholars debate the extent to which the writings of the Apostle Paul were influenced by the stoicism.

One of Zeno’s followers, Epictetus, summarized this way of thinking when he said,

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.

In the year 2017 the following image from the Second World War went viral. It was prepared in the year 1939 by the British government in anticipation of air raids of cities by the German air force. It is stoic.

Keep Calm and Carry On. An example of Stoic thinking.

Or, as Hamlet put it, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes — an approach that is the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius himself said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

Stoicism also recognizes that we do not control external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to those external events. Indeed, for many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to accept the consequences without complaint. Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known serenity prayer is stoic.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Stoics urge us to confront fears head on. So, if you are worried about the consequences of living a more basic lifestyle as a result of resource depletion and climate change then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a modern air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, but you will survive. And you will be better prepared if the power should go down for a long period of time. In other words, “Collapse now and avoid the rush”.

The four pillars of the stoic way of life are:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage / Fortitude

Most Christians would accept these four tenets with little debate. However, there is one important difference between stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism says, “Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?” Christians say, “Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.” (Flynn 2018).

The Christian message is one of realistic hope — lying somewhere between fatalism and hopium.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I have tried to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

This week’s post is to do with the second of these three elements: “Accept and Adapt”. We accept that there are forces out of our control, but we try to responsibly adapt to those forces.


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