The Christian New Deal — Part II

This is the second post in the series ‘The Christian New Deal’.

This is the second post in the series, ‘A Christian New Deal’. (Part I, here, is based on the Pilate’s simple, yet unnerving question, “What is truth?”)

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We now conclude Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey. The chapter provided an overview of how I learned about issues such as climate change and peak oil (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).

The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Respect for Nature

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the early sections, we read that God gave humanity control over nature. For example, Genesis 9 starts with the following words,

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.

The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”
Given the resource, environmental and climate change crises that we, as Noah’s descendants now face, that commandment seems to be out of place. At the very least, if we are to have control over “every creature”, then we need to exert that control responsibly — something we have signally failed to do.

In the New Testament we see a different picture. Jesus frequently talks about the natural world, and seems to be respectful of it. The quotation that I have selected for this post is taken from Matthew 18. Jesus puts himself forward as a “good shepherd”. In the analogy, the sheep represents a person that has strayed. But Jesus uses a natural scene as the basis of his message.

If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
The shepherd is exerting control, but in a responsible manner.

Need for Systems Theology

There are many books, web pages and blogs which discuss topics such as climate change and resource depletion, and that also provide suggested responses. (Some of the faith-based sites are some of which are listed at our Resources and References page.)

A limitation of many of these programs and analyses and is that they consider topics such as climate change and resource depletion in isolation, rather than as part of larger, complex systems. For example, consider the following line of argument,

  • New sources of oil are  costly to develop (the easier sources have already been depleted).
  • Hence the price of oil will go up.
  • Hence people will use less oil.
  • Hence fewer greenhouse gases will be generated and the global warming impact will be lessened.

But maybe it is not so simple. If less oil is available then more coal will be used as a substitute, so the global warming impact will be increased. It’s tricky.

The point is that simple solutions to our problems are often simplistic, they fail to take into consideration all the relevant factors. Indeed, we often find that our actions result in the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ and/or Jevons Paradox.

In a religious context the importance of systems theory means that we need to develop a theology — a ‘religious systems theory’ — that helps us understand what is going on, and how we should act in the new and rather scary world that we are entering.

The Green New Deal

A phrase that has gained considerable attention in recent weeks is ‘The Green New Deal’. This is a political program that proposes radical action to address climate change issues, while simultaneously boosting the economy. We have published various posts that discuss this proposal, including the Green New Deal and the Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg. My conclusions are that we need a Green New Deal, or something like it, if we are to have any chance of navigating the coming crises, but the Green New Deal as written will not work. It fails to meet realistic engineering or project management criteria. What we need is a Christian New Deal.

The Great Chain of Being

Great Chain of BeingIn medieval times, the concept of the “Great Chain of Being” held was used to explain the world, and our place in it.

The Chain consisted of a hierarchy. At the top is God, who is perfect. Below Him are angels. Below them is life on earth; at the top are human beings, below them are animals, then come plants. Below living beings are inanimate objects, with fire — which seems lifelike — being higher than rocks. Each of these links could be divided. For example, at the human step, kings are above aristocrats who in turn are above peasants. Humans can aim to be more spiritual, more like God, and so move up the chain. On the other hand, if they act less spiritually they move down the chain.

Then along came Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Evolution and Progress

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Darwin is often credited with having created the concept of evolution. He certainly advanced our understanding as to how and why species change and develop. But other people had had similar ideas before him. Indeed, farmers of livestock had known for centuries that they could selectively breed desirable characteristics in their animals — thus creating a form of forced evolution. What Darwin did do is explain why natural evolution occurred (he was never able to explain how it happened, the principles of genetics were developed long after his death).

The term “survival of the fittest” is often used in discussions to do with Darwin’s insights. Yet this is not a term that Darwin coined, he used the words “descent with modification”. An even more appropriate phrase would be “Survival of the Adaptable”. This distinction is not a mere quibble — it will be a factor as we consider the world in an Age of Limits. If the term “survival of the fittest” is to be used, then it should refer not just to fitness to survive in the current ecological and environmental conditions, but to fitness to survive when conditions change.

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.

In the words of Tim Radford states, of the Guardian newspaper,

He [Darwin] did not suggest that evolution was a form of progress. For him, an amoeba in a puddle of water was just as suited to its environment as a duck on a lake or a preacher in a pulpit.

Darwin created controversy among some Christians because he challenged their belief that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was also a geological text book. But he had two other insights that were more profound and much more challenging.

First he grasped the meaning of the words, “a long time”. Human memories go back no more than a hundred years or so; historical records are good for just a few thousand years at best. But Darwin understood that, when talking about millions of years, whole species can be created or can go extinct. He did not fall into what Frank Landis in his book Hot Earth Dreams calls the ‘Trap of Big Numbers’.

His second insight was that there is no such thing as a Great Chain of Being. We do not evolve toward (or away from) anything. Organisms merely adapt to their environment or else they go extinct. No one life form is better or “higher” than any other. The idea of “progress”, as illustrated in the following sketch, is misleading.

Evolutionary “Progress”There is no missing link between ourselves and our “lower” or “more primitive” ancestors such as apes. Each species adapts to the environment in which it lives. If the environment changes, say due to climate change, then existing life forms need to adapt to the new conditions. If they fail to do so, then new species will evolve. Human beings are not the end point of evolution.

The Church’s Response

It is generally taken for granted that the church’s response to Darwin’s work in the mid-19th century was one of condemnation and resistance. Actually, the religious response was mixed. Many devout Christians were quite happy to accept that God created the world and that natural selection was one aspect of that world. Many clerics resisted the idea that the world is much older than the few thousand years calculated from the Hebrew Bible. But others were willing to adapt to the new concepts.

Biology was not the only scientific area that was developing rapidly in Darwin’s time. Geology was also emerging and providing a new view of the world. There was debate as to whether the timeline in the Hebrew Bible was correct, or whether the Earth was actually millions of years old. Many of the people who denied the concept of natural selection were, nevertheless, willing to accept that the Earth was very old. These were the ‘Old Creationists’. Those who followed the biblical timeline were ‘Young Creationists’.

Darwin himself was an Anglican, with leanings toward Unitarianism. He remained loyal to the church throughout his life, although his faith became increasingly lukewarm. His personality was mild and accommodating, so he did not throw down the gauntlet and directly challenge the religious hierarchy.

Consciousness

Evolution and natural selection are impersonal. Living organisms have no choice about what happens to them. But human beings are, in this respect, different and unique — we have a consciousness and we can make free will decisions as to our future, both as individuals and as a society. In principle, we can choose how to evolve. It is this freedom of choice that gives us the Biblical dominion over nature.

Theology

As we try to figure out the nature of ‘The Christian New Deal’ the ideas and thoughts provided in this post suggest that our new way of thinking will (or should) feature the following.

  • Humility
    We humans need to understand that we are not the apex of civilization, we are not the end point of creation, we are not top of the Great Chain of Being (there is no chain, so it has neither top nor bottom).
  • Ruling the Earth
    We do rule the earth. But we have not done so in a responsible manner — we have taken little interest in the fate of other species and of the environment.
  • Living With Nature
    We need to try to live in harmony with nature. This means abandoning the idea of material progress as being the purpose of our lives.

The Christian New Deal: Part I

This blog is the first in a series to do with the nature of a ‘Christian New Deal’. It discusses the nature of truth in the context of the Age of Limits. It starts with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The conclusion is that the truth of the predicaments that we face is complex and hard to understand. Nevertheless it is our responsibility to do the work needed to understand that truth.

The picture at the top of this post is of Pilate questioning Jesus. In John 18 we read,

 . . . Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. One of the writers who has greatly influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues is John Michael Greer. His work is described in the fourth part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).  The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

A Theology for Our Times

The ultimate aim of the posts in this series is to help develop a theology that addresses the issues that we discuss — issues that are collectively the ‘Age of Limits’. Every so often, we will publish a post that provides some thoughts as to what that ideology might look like. Given that the Green New Deal has attracted so much attention, let us call it the Christian New Deal.

This post is the first in that series.

A Committee Meeting

I recently attended a meeting of a church environmental group. It works with individual churches and the larger community on a wide range of programs such as,

  • Eliminating the use of plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash;
  • Management of storm water run-off to minimize the loss of top soil;
  • The development of community gardens; and
  • Writing mission statements and resolutions to do with church policy.

At the conclusion of the meeting we had a round-table discussion at which people were invited to talk about what was on their mind. One person introduced the topic of the recent youth movement (see The Thunberg Meme), another talked about the impact of the Green New Deal. This led to an immediate change in the tone of the meeting. It became apparent that everyone understood that, regardless of actions such as ours, climate change — with all its scary consequences — is happening. And these consequences are not just on the other side of the world. The climate in our own locality has changed (there will be more rain than has been normal).

Programs such as the Green New Deal can be properly challenged on the grounds that they are not realistic, either in terms of engineering or project management. But a more fundamental difficulty with such programs is that they assume that we can have our environmental cake and eat it. If we take the proposed actions then we can have both a remediated environment and maintain our current standard of living. It would be wonderful if this assumption were true, but, alas, such is not the case.

Truth

One of the themes of the posts at this blog is that Christians must always tell the truth, even if the truth is difficult to understand. For example, in Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics we note that not only does it provide us with fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it is also the source of the petrochemicals that create the products that are so fundamental to our way of living. We cannot stop using crude oil without facing wrenching changes to the way in which we live — and people at the lower end of the economic scale will probably be impacted the most.

A much harder truth to accept is that our climate is taking us into a hot-house world that humans have never seen before. An increasing number of people are spelling out the details of this future. Examples are the book Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells and the paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell. The story that they tell is not pretty.

Back to the committee meeting that started this post. Is it enough for Christian groups such as this to focus on actions such as those described? Or should these groups spend at least part of their time and energy on describing our future — no holds barred?

A Theological Response

We have already talked about Augustine of Hippo and his book The City of God. But there is another work of his that it is useful to consider, and that is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine insists that Christians must tell the truth at all times — not even white lies are permissible. Therefore, I suggest that the first step in the development of a new theology is to be totally rigorous about telling the truth about the dilemmas that we face. Such a truth has three parts.

  1. Understanding the nature of truth is difficult. The issues that we discuss are complex and have many feedback loops. This means that, if we are to understand the truth then we need to do our homework.
  2. Telling the truth may cause alarm in others, and may (will) make us less popular. Carriers of bad news are not popular.
  3. The people who will be most affected by all these changes will be those toward the bottom of the economic scale.

I conclude that understanding and telling the truth is the first part of a Christian New Deal.

Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics

Book Release

Dante Forest Dark
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We are up to the third part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). We take a look at two important authors, Matt Simmons and M. King Hubbert, and their thoughts to do with peak oil and the nuclear power industry. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Fossil Fuel

As young people become increasingly aware of the climate change predicaments that we face, they are taking action. Greta Thurnberg — Out of the Mouths of Teenagers — started the meme. Now young people in western Europe and the United States are following her lead. (By young, we mean less than 20 years old)

One of the slogans chanted at their rallies is, “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” But, as they say, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Do these young people know what they are really asking for? Do they comprehend the utterly fundamental role of crude oil, natural gas and coal to our way of life, a role that goes way beyond merely supplying us with energy?

Prosperity

Writers such as Steven Pinker and Bill Gates point out that humanity has become far more prosperous over the course of the last 300 years than at any time in recorded history. By virtually every measure — life span, infant mortality, safety, peace, knowledge, happiness — there has been steady improvement, not just in the West, but worldwide. Pinker attributes this change to Enlightenment thinking — the development of rational thinking and the use of reason. But a simpler and more obvious explanation for the sudden and extraordinary improvement in the quality of life is that, also about 300 years ago, we learned how to extract and then use the enormous amount of energy available to us in fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and, above all, crude oil.

Thomas Newcomen (1665-1729) inventor who created the atmospheric engine, the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712.
Thomas Newcomen (1665-1729)

 If we have to pick a specific date for that event I would go with the year 1712. It was in that year that Thomas Newcomen developed an “atmospheric/steam” engine for removing water from mines.

The Energy Business

Bottle of crude oil
Crude Oil

The sketch below is a visualization of how many people view the oil industry. A hole is drilled in the ground, oil flows out of that hole; it then flows along a pipeline to a refinery, which separates the oil into various fuel streams such as gasoline, diesel and heating oil.

Oil well pipeline refinery

Proponents of alternative energy propose that we build wind turbines and solar panel farms. They generate electricity, thus replacing the fuel streams. This would then allow us to shut down the fossil fuel industries, particularly the oil business.

Unfortunately, it is not nearly so simple. There are two objections to this far too simplistic scenario.

The first objection is that the energy density of wind, solar and other alternatives is much, much less than that of oil. To generate enough electricity for the United States, for example, much of the southwest would have to covered in solar panels. Which in turn would require an enormous build out of the electric grid. We would also have to replace all forms of transport with their electrical counterparts. (This would exclude airplanes — we are nowhere close to having batteries with sufficient capacity.)

The second objection, and the one that is the focus of this post, is that crude oil contains an enormous number of complex chemicals that provide the chemical feedstocks that are used to manufacture a bewildering array of products — all of which contribute to the prosperity that Pinker talks about.

Petrochemicals

The sketch below is a very simplified schematic of a typical oil refinery.

Oil Refinery schematic
Very Simplified Oil Refinery Schematic

And here is a picture of an actual refinery.

Oil Refinery
One reason that so many processing steps are required is that crude oil, the composition of which varies enormously depending on the source, rarely contains the desired product mix. For example, the gasoline fraction in crude oil is typically around 15%. But the market demand for gasoline is such that many of the lighter and heavier streams are treated so that they can be added to the gasoline pool.

In addition to containing the relatively simple molecules (such as octane/gasoline and butane/lighter fluid) that make up the fuel products, crude oil also contains many complex molecules that are refined and sent to petrochemical plants. It is these complex molecules that provide the basis of so much of our modern industrial civilization.

The sketch shows some of the products that a refinery produces. The naphtha stream has been highlighted.

Crude-Distillation-Naphtha

When mixed with various other product streams that contain the complex molecules, naphtha becomes a petrochemical feedstock. This feedstock is sent to chemical plants where it is further treated and used to make the enormous range of products that provide the basis of modern life: plastics, antibiotics, fibers, agrochemicals, inks, packaging, dry cleaning agents, engine coolant, synthetic rubber . . . the list goes on.

So, if “fossil fuels must go”, then so must all the other useful chemicals that our society relies on.

Windmills Cannot Make Anaesthetics

Offshore wind turbines
Our civilization relies almost entirely on crude oil, not only as a source of fuel, but as the foundation of our way of living. This means that, even if we do install an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels to, at least partially, replace the fuels that we use now, we will still need to extract and refine crude oil. to provide petrochemical feedstocks. This is something that windmills and solar panels will never do.

De Mendacio

The goal of the posts at this blog is to try to figure out the parameters of a new theology — one that works in an Age of Limits. Some thoughts as to how to do this comes from looking at the works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). His book City of God provides a basis for my own A New City of God. But Augustine also wrote other important works, one of which is De Mendacio (On Lying), part of a larger book entitled Retractions.

Augustine took the ninth commandment very seriously.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.

In other words, you must always tell the truth.

George Washington and the Cherry Tree

In the context of the Age of Limits, telling the truth is not always as simple as saying, “I cannot tell a lie  . . . I did cut < the cherry tree > with my hatchet”. (It’s a neat irony that the story about George Washington and the importance of telling the truth is not itself true.) In our world, telling the truth means doing the hard work of understanding the nature and complexities of our multiple predicaments.

With regard to coal, natural gas and crude oil, the truth is,

Fossil fuels should not be burned, they should be used only to manufacture petrochemicals.

We can conclude by saying that the slogan “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” is correct, but only if the emphasis is on the word fuel. The complex molecules that are derived from oil, natural gas and coal are truly irreplaceable. We should make every effort not to use them to make useful products, not just burn them.

 

The Third Road

Book Release

Priests in a hurryThis week we release the second section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. It is the first half of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

Three Roads

In last week’s post I described the proposed Green New Deal, and discussed how Christians can respond to this initiative. I have reflected further on this important initiative, and it seems to me that three roads open up to us. They are:

  1. The sensible, cautious and realistic road advocated by leaders such as Nancy Pelosi.
  2. The “reach for the stars” road contained with the Green New Deal.
  3. The road of adaptation.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about these three roads so that we can decide which is best for the Christian community. It’s important.

First Road

The first response is to be “sensible and realistic”. The politician who probably best represents this point of view is the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (1940-)

Her approach reflects the philosophy of Otto von Bismarck when he said,

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.

Or, as we engineers like to say,

Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

This approach to political decisions makes sense when considering normal issues such as health care or trade programs. Using this approach, initiatives such as carbon capture or the use of solar energy may be “attainable” in the human/political sense. In such situations we are negotiating with other human beings. But, political attainability is of little value when faced with an existential issues such as climate change. No amount of “small ball” legislation will enable us to reverse our current trajectory. We can negotiate with other human beings, but we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and thermodynamics. They don’t care what we think or what we want.

Second Road

Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945)

The second road is to take radical, bold action. People in this camp, the Green New Deal sponsors, believe that climate change presents a profound challenge that can only be addressed with drastic action. As the second apparition said to the indecisive Macbeth,

Be bloody, bold and resolute.

The analogy is with the New Deal implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s in response to world-wide economic recession. He did not just tinker around the edges, he came up with a bold vision and then used his influence and authority to implement that vision.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (1989-)

The person who has become the human face for this option is newly-elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and her colleagues are the ones who sponsored the ‘Green New Deal’ Resolution.

Leonard Pitts (1957-)
Leonard Pitts (1957-)

In a Miami Herald editorial entitled Requiem for an American Vision, Leonard Pitts says that the resistance to the Green New Deal indicates that “something vital has seeped out of us”. He notes that criticism of the idea, whether it is from the right or the left, “is simply too big an idea”.

His critique resonated with me. Before I came to the United States I had always been attracted by the nation’s “can do” spirit. But now, that spirit seems to have disappeared. We see it not only with the response to the Green New Deal, but also with regard to the California high-speed rail debacle — dubbed the “No consultant left behind program”. Not only do we not reach for the stars when it comes to addressing climate change and its attendant ills, we cannot even build a railway using 50 year old technology.

The Third Road

Three roads used to illustrate the choices that we face in an Age of Limits.
The two roads just described — moderate response or full-on attack — are what most people would consider as being our only options.

But there is a third road. Those who travel on it basically accept that there is little that we can do to change our current trajectory. To re-iterate a theme of this site — we face predicaments, not problems. When faced with a predicament, we accept the situation, adapt as best we can and develop systems that are resilient (as distinct from efficient). This is not to say that we should not support “green” initiatives. But we need to recognize that those initiatives can only slow the pace of change and/or ameliorate the consequences. They are not going to cause the predicaments to go away.

The Christian Response

In these posts I always try to consider three questions. The first is, “What should the Christian response be?” The second is, “What’s the theology of all this?”

I suggest that the first road — that of being sensible and of achieving goals that are politically possible — should be discarded out of hand. Not only will it fail to make a serious dent in our climate change trajectory, it could create a feeling of, “Well, we have taken care of that problem, we have done what we could”. It could create a fatal, air of complacency.

The second road — the Green New Deal — has four things going for it.

  1. In spite of the cautionary statements made at sites such as this, it just might work. Age of Limits issues are inherently complex, we all see through a glass darkly, so this approach may pleasantly surprise us.
  2. By presenting climate issues in such stark terms, this approach does at least raise the topic as being urgent and existential, one that cannot be ignored on the grounds that, “they will think of something”. At the very least, it will force the idea’s opponents to think, at least for a brief second, about the realities of physics, thermodynamics and ecology.
  3. If the climate does deteriorate to such an extent that nothing can be done, then people will, to some degree, have been prepared for what is to come.
  4. The Green New Deal is the one program that might, just might, mobilize the nation (and the world) to take drastic action.

The third road — that of Acceptance — is actually the one that is truly realistic. No matter what actions we take, climate change is taking place, and its consequences are increasingly serious. In spite of its boldness the Green New Deal approach is, unfortunately, too little, too late. So we need to work within out communities on programs of acceptance, response and adaptation.

It is the approach that Augustine and other church fathers followed in the early 5th century. They did not attempt to revitalize the western Roman Empire. They accepted the loss of that empire, and focused their efforts on building a new City of God.

I suggest that we choose a combination of the second and third roads. That we work toward the ambitious goals outlined in programs such as the Green New Deal. At the same time we understand that such a program may fail, so we simultaneously quietly work on adaptation.

Realistically (a word that seems to crop up quite a lot in the context of these discussions) we probably cannot simultaneously work toward two such separate goals. But it might be worth a try.

The Green New Deal

Book Release

John Bunyan (1628-1688)
This week we have released the first section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. It is the Introduction to the book — what we refer to as ‘The Author’s Apology’. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

Please let us have your feedback.

The Green New Deal

Green New Deal Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

In February 2019 Democrats in the United States Congress submitted a Resolution entitled, ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’. One of the Resolution’s sponsors is the newly famous Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This resolution is very unlikely to move forward as an actual bill. But it is clearly an opening shot in what promises to be an on-going debate within governments throughout the world.

So how should the church respond to this important initiative?

Well, probably the first thing that we should do is to sit down and actually read the document, rather than listening only to  opinions about it (including mine). The Resolution is available at various web sites such as this one. It is just 14 pages long, and is perfectly readable.

The Resolution

Here are a few of the notes that I took as I read through the Resolution.

  • Page 1.
    Refers to the “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”. The Resolution is grounded in established science. It identifies human activity as being the dominant cause of climate change.
  • Page 2
    • Identifies many of the serious impacts of global warming.
    • Calls for global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 60% by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050.
  • Page 3
    Discusses many issues not directly to do with global warming. These include declining life expectancy, economic inequality and repairing the nation’s infrastructure.
  • Page 4
    References the World War II New Deal.
  • Pages 5-6
    The resolution has five elements. Only the first refers to global warming directly.
  • Pages 7-9
    These pages discuss some of the proposed actions to be taken. They include the use of clean, renewable, zero-emission energy sources, and radical changes to farming and transportation.

Analysis

The Resolution covers an extraordinary swath of issues. Yet it provides essentially no detail as to how these changes are to be made, how they are to be funded or how such massive projects can be implemented in such a short time frame.

Lack of Focus

One of the failures of many environmental movements is that they lack focus — they want to solve the problems of the world, rather than fixing one specific issue. This is a problem with this Resolution. Rather than focusing on just one issue — such as reducing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to say 350 ppm — it covers such a broad range of issues that it loses credibility.

The authors of the document probably added the material to do with extraneous issues such as health care and job security to get away from the “gloom and doom” image that climate change discussions often generate. And maybe they had to do this because they are working in a political environment. But, by promising so much, and by plunging into issues such as health care and income inequality that have their own controversies, they have taken their eye off the ball.

Zero Emissions

The concept of zero emissions does not make thermodynamic sense. This is a topic I discuss at some length in Chapter 5 of my book. Take a very simple example. The picture below shows an electrically-powered vehicle (EV). It has no tail-pipe, and so there are zero emissions. What’s not to like?

Electric Vehicle (EV) – no emissions
Zero Emissions?

The catch is that the vehicle does have a tail-pipe — it is the stack of the power plant that generates the electricity that the vehicle needs.

Power plant stack
The EV’s tailpipe

A careful analysis of all aspects of EV technology — including the environmental impact to do with the manufacture and disposal of their batteries — suggests that they are not nearly as “green” as people think. They are certainly not ‘zero emissions’.

Energy Needed for Infrastructure

A radical transformation of the infrastructure, such as is proposed in this Resolution, would require the use of enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy (assuming that such large amounts of fossil fuels are actually available). The transition itself would contribute greatly to global warming.

Project Management

California High Speed Rail

The type of transformation that the authors of the Resolution propose, particularly in such a short time frame, is not realistic. To take one example, on page 9 the Resolution contains the words “high-speed rail”.

In the United States, the biggest high-speed rail project is the one being implemented in California. The project is, as they say, “troubled”. It has been more than twenty years in development, is way behind schedule, over budget by something like $50 billion, and is environmentally disruptive. And not one passenger has yet been taken from Point A to Point B. And that’s just one project that uses well-established technology.

The Resolution refers to the original New Deal, implemented at the start of the Second World War. In a remarkably short time span the United States was able to complete projects such as the building of thousands of Liberty ships, and completing the Manhattan nuclear weapon project. The catch is that, in those days, they did not face the resistance, regulations and the need for “studies” that applies now.

What’s Not There

Our Friend the Atom

The Resolution does not discuss some of the technical responses that many people feel are important. Examples are nuclear power and carbon-capture. (On page 9 there is a reference to low-tech carbon capture, i.e., trees. Once more, the technical reality of such a solution is not considered. There is not enough available land in the United States for the number of trees needed to capture industrial emissions. Moreover, that land is needed for the other low-density energy solutions such as solar panels and windmills.)

Hopium

Maybe the biggest difficulty that I have with this Resolution is that there no acknowledgment that economic and social conditions are likely to deteriorate. Indeed, with its talk of “green jobs” it not only promises that Business as Usual can continue, but that life will get better. This is not hope, it is hopium.

We all recognize that this document is sponsored by professional politicians. And any politician who says, “Vote for me and I will make your life worse” will soon be an ex-politician. But Christians are required to tell the truth. Indeed, one of the themes of this site and of my book is that we are in a time when we really must tell the truth — no matter how difficult that may be. The time for hoping for the best, or for assuming that “they will think of something” is long behind us.

The Christian Response

I try to end each of these posts with some thoughts as to how the church can and should respond, and what lessons we can learn when it comes to developing a new theology. So how is the church to respond to this ambitious, yet technically flawed, document?

One response is to fully support the people who are driving this document forward. Here we have young, energetic people who are at least facing up to the dilemmas that face us. And they do hold a modicum of power. For that reason they deserve our full support. We recognize that their proposal is not realistic. But that’s not the point; this Resolution is a starting point, a stake in the ground. So let’s gather around and support it. The sponsors of this Resolution are to be congratulated on at least getting the ball into play. Moreover, the authors of the document are linking environmental programs with issues of social justice.

A second response is to say that that the Resolution is so far detached from the realities of thermodynamics, physics, ecology and even project management that we should not be associated with it, otherwise our credibility will be lost. At a time of crisis — the decline of the western Roman Empire — Augustine of Hippo was insistent that Christians tell the truth about what was going on. This was the only way, he maintained, that the church could establish auctoritas, the authority it needed to guide society through coming difficult times. This approach requires that proposals such as this must at least pass the red-face test.

St. Wilfred Church, Calverley, Yorkshire

Is there a middle ground? Could the church would work on two fronts? The first front would be to recognize that — materially speaking — the future looks grim. So we work with people at the local level to make our societies as resilient and adaptive as possible. This is the parish concept introduced in the home page of this blog.

The second front would consist of working with  society leaders such as those who sponsored this Resolution on developing a message that lines up with the realities that we face. We show support for what they are doing, but we try to make sure that the message is credible. For example, we would take a honest look at the use of our available land. Do we want to use it from carbon-capturing trees, or for solar panels or for windmills? Pick one.

Doubtless this Resolution is the first of many that will be developed as politicians recognize that we are in for some wrenching changes. It is both an opportunity, and a challenge, for the church to help guide the development and implementation of such resolutions.

The Stoic Christian

 

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

The stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno 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 of his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Most of us would be overwhelmed and angry about such an event, but he chose to create a philosophical school in response to his calamity. Others 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.

One of Zeno’s later followers, Epictetus, said,

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

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 suffer the consequences without complaint.

Stoicism recognizes that we do not control and cannot rely on external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to external events over which we have no control.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is profoundly 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.

The metaphor that the people of Zeno’s time used was that of an archer firing an arrow at an enemy soldier. The archer must do the best he can to be ready for battle. So, he chooses the best quality bows and arrows, he trains hard, and he maintains his equipment well. These are actions under his control. But, once in the field in front of an enemy, there are issues that he cannot control. He fires his arrow, but it may be knocked off course by a gust of wind, or the enemy soldiers may move. He accepts the result, whatever it may be.

(I have tried I try to adopt something of a stoical attitude with regard to the writing of this book. I research the issues, I listen to the advice of other people, I enter it into my prayer life, and I work on the writing, publishing and marketing processes. Then I’m done. I do not need to worry whether people actually buy the book.)

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

Stoicism does not condone fatalism, nor does it provide an excuse for “hopium”. Stoics do the best they can with the resources that are under their control — they are not passive. In the context of the Age of Limits, the stoic person may take the attitude, “None of us know what is going to happen two generations from now. Maybe global warming will kill us all, or maybe it won’t. . So let’s focus on actions that we can take to take care of problems that we know about, and where we have some measure of control.”

Moreover, stoics are not selfish or self-centered. They knew that any effective action would involve community. For example, in a society where slavery was part of the way of life, he advocated that slaves should be treated well.

Pillars of Stoicism

Three of the pillars of stoicism are shown below. For each I provide some thoughts in the context of the Age of Limits.

  1. Confront fears head on
    If you are worried about the consequences to do living a more basic lifestyle, then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a beautiful 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, certainly. But you will probably survive.
  2. Do not judge
    This precept is difficult for me since I have a strong ‘J’ component in my Briggs-Meyer score. It also is somewhat in conflict with the Platonic approach of ideals. Rather than labeling everything as being either right or wrong, the goal is always to look for the silver lining in all clouds.
  3. Impermanence
    Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius 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.”

Christian Stoicism

There are, of course, many other aspects to the Stoic response to life’s ups and downs. But my interest here is how it fits with the Christian response to the wrenching changes that are ahead of us, and to what degree it can contribute to a theology for the coming times.

Throughout this book I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

Christianity and Stoicism

Christianity and stoicism have much in common. Four pillars of the stoic way of life are:

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

There is nothing there that a Christian would challenge.

In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find strands of that way of thinking in Christianity. After all, Paul himself came from Tarsus, a place where the stoic philosophy was widely accepted. Scholars debate the degree to which stoicism formed part of Christianity. I have no intention of wading into that debate. But I do believe, as discussed below, that the stoic world view should be an important part of the theology of the Age of Limits.

One of my reasons for saying this is that, throughout this book, I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

The stoic point of view does, however, pose some challenges for Christians.

First, there is a fatalistic streak to stoicism. We are all going to die, eventually the universe is going to die (or so astrophysicists seem to think), no one will remember who we are two or three generations from now, so what’s the point? This is not an attitude that most Christians would endorse.

A second difficulty that Christians may have with stoicism is that people may be tempted to divide their life into two parts.

< Stoicism is > the philosophy of the “inner man” and the “outer man” . . . This became the code of privatism, of the nine-to-five man who keeps back the best part of himself for his private life of feelings, of the arts, of family, and of beauty. His real life takes place after five and on weekends . . .

Stoicism is well suited to a society that could not control or explain ravages of nature, such as plague, fire, war, or holocaust . . .

Cantor (1994)

A third concern is to do with the relationship of God to the world we live in. A stoic sees God as being part of the universe, whereas a Christian sees God as someone who created the universe and is therefore, in some manner, external to what is going on.

But probably the biggest difficulty that Christians have with stoicism is to do with the meaning of our actions. Christianity says that our actions and way of life matter in the long run, whereas stoics say that, in the end, none of this really matters.

  • Stoicism: Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
  • Christianity: Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.

Flynn (2018)

Stoicism in an Age of Limits

In an Age of Limits a stoic response may encourage people to retreat from society. Their retreat can take one of two forms.

The first response is to retreat from society and to try and live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Persons taking this approach will grow their own food, make their own clothes and provide their own entertainments

The approach has much appeal, and should probably be followed, at least in part, by Christians. It aligns with the Greer quotation that we have already discussed (page 58), “Collapse now, and avoid the rush”. His argument is that our current lifestyles are unsustainable, so we would do well to prepare for the inevitable move toward simplicity.

The catch with this approach, at least when taken to extremes, is that, like it or not, we are all part of community, no matter how restricted its scope. No one person can truly be a Robinson Crusoe and live entirely on his or her own resources.

The second type of retreat can only be carried out by wealthy and powerful people. They create their own private reserve, often on an island. They aim to maintain their current lifestyle which they protect with a private security force.

This approach has deep and fatal drawbacks. A person is only wealthy if he or she has access to electronic banking in order to purchase useful goods. If the computer systems fail, or if the supply chains break down then that person becomes poor overnight. Moreover, a person who retreats in this manner will always be vulnerable to disloyal security personnel, just as the Roman Emperors could never fully trust their own bodyguards.

In conclusion, we see that the stoic response to life’s ups and downs may not be a complete and integrated philosophy, but it can make an important contribution to the theology of the future. And it provides practical guidance and help.

The Christian Stoic

We can draw the following conclusions to do with stoicism — and its fit with Christianity and the Age of Limits.

  1. There are fundamental differences between the Christian and the stoic world views. Nevertheless, stoicism influenced Christian thought.
  2. As we enter the Age of Limits, stoicism can provide practical guidance.
  3. It can also provide one of the pillars of a new theology.

Sister, Mother Earth

Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi

One of the most important Christian documents to do with the Age of Limits is, in my opinion, Laudato Si’  (Praise be to You), written by Pope Francis I in the year 2015.

Summary

The following are the key points in the encyclical.

  • The science of climate change is clear.
  • Humans are the cause of climate change.
  • We are destroying the Earth and killing ourselves.
  • The world’s poorest people are bearing the worst of it.
  • Most of the blame lies with rich countries and corporations that pursue profit and economic growth with little or no regard for people and the environment.
  • It’s time for a change.

His message is one of morality — he is saying that we are trashing the planet and that this is wrong. Even if the climate were to stabilize we still need to change our profligate ways and to pay particular attention to the situation of poorer people.

Style of Language

Abandoned car
Source: Angelic Warfare Cofraternity

The first thing I noticed about the document was the style of language. In the very first paragraph we find the following quotation from Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) the founder of the order of which the Pope is a member.

Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”

This is not the style of writing typically found in climate change reports, which rarely actually never use imagery about sisters and mothers. What is important about the encyclical is not what is said about technical issues — we can find that on hundreds of web sites. What matters is the tone and framework of the document. Francis is looking at the challenges we face in moral terms.

Morality

Francis tells us that it is not just that people, particularly the poor, suffer when the environment is destroyed but that the act of destruction is inherently immoral. For example, in paragraph 53 he states,

These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.

In paragraph 229 we find the following,

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.

The Challenge

Paragraph 102 reads,

Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity”.

The challenge that Francis has set for himself, and for all of us, is to marry the advances and benefits of modern technology with the “awe-filled contemplation of crea­tion which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi.

In a New York Times editorial (June 23rd 2015) David Brooks says,

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

The above statements can, of course, be challenged. We foul the environment to make ourselves rich and then use some of those riches to clean the environment. In that case why foul the environment in the first place? And there are many who would wonder if the rivers and skies are, in fact, getting cleaner. The atmosphere and the oceans are becoming ever more polluted.

Brooks himself states,

The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

Neither Brooks nor Pope Francis tackle the physical limits that are the theme of this series of posts. Neither seems to be willing to accept that our standard of living is likely to decline. Brooks says,

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

Concerns

Although I believe that Laudato Si’ is a vitally important statement of Christian faith, there are two areas of concern. They are population pressure and the concept of “sustainable development”.

Population

For many, the biggest weakness of the encyclical is not what it says but what it leaves out — particularly with regard to population control. In the last three hundred years the world’s population has increased from about 0.7 to 7.5 billion.

World-Population-1
World-Population-1

The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be dif­ferent, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make eco­nomic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the envi­ronment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”

The final sentence is problematical. Many analysts would not accept the phrase, “. . . it must nonetheless be recognized . . .” without supporting evidence — which is not provided.

The Second Law

Although I have great admiration for Francis’s message, there is one aspect of the document that bothers me greatly, and that is the sub-title of the document, On the environment and sustainable development.

What is meant by the term “sustainable development”? If Francis is referring to spiritual and moral development then I am hugely supportive. But if he believes that we can continue with our material “development” in an Age of Limits then the holy father needs to brush up on the second law of thermodynamics.

A Papal Encyclical
A Papal Encyclical