This week’s blog post is Sitzkrieg. It refers to the ‘Phoney War’ that took place at the beginning of World War II. The post refers to an article published this week by Leonard Pitts in which he suggests that we are not behaving as if we are at war, both with the COVID-19 pandemic and with climate change. In other words, we ourselves are behaving as if we are in a phoney war.
The situation highlights one of the theological suggestions of the site: Understand and tell the truth.
One of the theological discussion points that forms the basis of what we write here is, “Understand and tell the truth”. But understanding the truth in complex systems is very difficult.
Many people who write and speak about climate change and related topics say that we need to transition from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to alternative energy sources (solar and wind). This is a goal that we can all support. But is it realistic? The project management and financial challenges are formidable, and we don’t have much time.
For the last ten years or so I have been working on issues such as resource depletion, climate change, biosphere loss and population overshoot. I decided to pull the various strands of my work together in a new web site Faith in a Changing Climate at https://www.faithchangingclimate.com/.
Developing the site forced me to think about my goals for what I am trying to achieve, so I developed the following Mission Statement.
To work with people of faith and with churches to provide technically sound leadership in response to the predicaments of a finite world
At the home page of the site I offer the following discussion to do with the above statement. Here is a summary.
People of Faith
The materials at this site, blog and book are directed primarily to people of faith who are aware of the momentous changes that are taking place in the world, mostly to do with climate change. However, they hear so many conflicting messages that they are unsure as to how serious these changes may be and how they and their communities may be affected. They want to know the truth. They also want guidance as to how they can respond, and how they can best provide badly needed leadership.
The response to the predicaments we face can be either bottom-up (people working by themselves or in small groups), or it can be top-down. Both approaches are needed. The top-down approach often means working within existing large organizations, including the church.
The issues we discuss at this site are technically very complex and difficult to understand. Most church leaders do not have a background in mathematics, science or technology. Therefore, there is a danger that they could promote programs that are unrealistic and that cannot work.
The article Episcopal Renewable Energy Proposal provides an example of this concern. In the year 2019 the Episcopal Church (USA) issued a policy statement to do with renewable energy. On its surface, the statement is something that we can all support. However, an analysis of the proposal with regard to energy and project management basics shows that it is not technically feasible. Nor does it recognize project management realities.
A fundamental premise of the work at this site, the book and the blog is that we face predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. It is this way of thinking that lies at the basis of the second theological point, Accept and Adapt.
Finite World / Age of Limits
We live in a finite world. We are using up the earth’s resources such as fresh water, crude oil and fish in the sea. We are also filling up the environment with our waste products. (Of these the most serious is carbon dioxide, CO2, in the atmosphere.) And we are degrading and destroying the biosphere — ranging from coral reefs, to the Amazon rain forest, to iconic animals such as polar bears.
Another term that is used at this site to describe this dilemma is ‘Age of Limits’. Moreover, these limits are linked to one another, often in difficult-to-identify ways. A more detailed description of these issues is provided in the article: Age of Limits.
One topic that is not discussed at this site is social justice. This is not because the subject is not important — indeed, it is of central importance, particularly to people of faith. Those at the lower end of the economic scale are affected the most severely by events such as climate change. Yet the changes that we discuss are going to affect everyone, regardless of their social or economic standing. Our response needs to be for society as a whole.
Additional information to do with the Mission Statement and the goals of the site are provided at the home page. Please take a few moments to visit it and let us have your feedback. Thank you.
This post is the tenth in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ — thoughts to do with the world that may come out of the wrenching changes that we have seen in the first half of 2020.
For years, decades actually, environmental activists have been preaching the message that we need to radically cut back on our use of fossil fuels. This message has been widely ignored and has had little impact. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen quite smoothly, as we see in the chart below.
But suddenly, in a just a few short months, we have witnessed:
The collapse of international tourism and its associated airplane flights;
The demise of the cruise line industry;
The end of the shale oil industry;
A drastic reduction in the amount of commuting;
An enormous cut back in airline travel; and
An equally drastic reduction in the restaurant business.
These are just the sort of actions for which we have been looking for all these years. And it all took place in just a few weeks.
To summarize: a virus that is 100,000 times smaller than a human hair or the period/full stop at the end of this sentence has done far more to mitigate climate change than any number of exhortations and sermons.
This improvement has come at a terrible human cost. In addition to the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions of people in the United States alone are newly unemployed, face eviction from their homes, and are having trouble feeding their families.
The environmental community needs to think through how this sudden and dramatic shift occurred. What were environmentalists doing wrong for all those years? Clearly, the manner in which environmentalists communicate needs to fundamentally change. A paradigm shift is needed.
Here are three initial observations.
Fear seems to be a stronger motivator than the desire to “do the right thing”.
There is a wrenching human cost when we transform the way in which we live and work. So many environmental messages contain within themselves an unstated assumption that we can move to a zero carbon lifestyle without reducing our standard of living. This assumption needs to be challenged.
We are not going back to the ‘Old Normal’. Too much has happened too quickly for that to happen. And maybe we don’t want to go back to the ‘Old Normal’. So what does the ‘New Normal’ look like?
One of the themes of this blog and associated publications is that we need a theology that addresses the issues of our times. One person who worked on a new theology for his times was Augustine of Hippo, whose book City of God was written in response to the sack of Rome in 410 CE. A thousand years later, Martin Luther developed a theological response to the corruption and indolence of the medieval catholic church. Three hundred years after that, John Wesley and his colleagues developed responded to the social tribulations associated with the industrial revolution.
A challenge for today’s church is to work out a theology that addresses the predicaments to do with the Age of Limits. It is likely that the lessons we are learning from the pandemic will help us in that process.
A regrettable feature of today’s world is that we are increasingly polarized. It’s not usually a matter of ideology — it’s just that we do not listen to one another. Communication is breaking down. One reason for this polarization is that we all tend to reside in our social media bubbles and echo chambers. We hear only opinions that we want to hear. Maybe life would improve were we to abstain from social media.
The situation is analogous to what happened in the late 18th century as the industrial revolution developed. Working conditions for many people were utterly miserable. Therefore, they took solace in alcohol, often to excess. The well-known Hogarth cartoon is of Beer Street and Gin Lane, published in the year 1751. The sketch on the right shows destitution of all kinds due to the over-consumption of gin.
In response to this social crisis many religious leaders advocated for temperance — no drinking of alcohol at all. Many Christian denominations continue to ban the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Maybe we need something similar now with regard to social media. It’s a new addition to our culture — we got along fine without it as little as ten years ago. We don’t need it, and it is causing much harm.
However, closer examination of the temperance movement shows that many of its advocates were not in favor of total abstinence. The left-hand panel of the Hogarth cartoon shows that people who drink beer, as opposed to gin, have prosperous and successful lives. We can see the same ambivalence in the works of John Wesley (1703-1791). In the paper Methodist Origins: John Wesley and Alcohol, Ivan Burnett says,
Wesley’s position is not that simple. It is far more complex than later Methodists actually thought. His position appears even contradictory. On the one hand he drank beverage alcohol; on the other he stood for a form of legal prohibition. While sometimes condemning the use of wine, he also held it to be “one of the noblest cordials in nature.” He called spirituous liquors “liquid fire” and those that sold them “poisoners general”; yet he himself said that there was a place even for these stronger liquors. He even wrote a book in which he went so far as to recommend their use. Wesley’s position on beverage alcohol, then, was anything but simplistic . . .
It is probably fair to say that the early prohibitionists were not so much against the consumption of alcohol, as they were against drunkenness, with the consequences that we see in the Gin Lane sketch. Maybe we can apply this lesson to our own lives. Social media has some benefits — not least of which enabling churches to conduct virtual services during the course of this pandemic. But we need to be moderate in our consumption, we need to avoid drunkenness.
Those of us who are concerned about Age of Limits issues such as climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot are faced with a challenge. Should we concentrate our time and effort on “spreading the word” with books, blogs and web pages? Or should we focus on our personal lifestyle and working with others in our community?
Ideally, of course, we do both, but time, energy and money are all in limited supply. This year I have spent most of my time on home and community activities, and have slowed down on writing activities. But communicating with the larger world is important. I consistently say that the dilemmas that we face provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Which means that we need to figure out a theology that is appropriate for our times. That is not something that can be done just at the local level. This week’s post to do with theology in the broadest sense is called ‘Gaia’ — details below.
As time permits, I will attempt to publish two blogs — one on Wednesdays and the other on Fridays. The first blog will consider “big picture” issues, with a particular focus on theology. The second blog, which may actually be a vlog (video log), will be to do with local activities. Since I have been doing a lot of gardening this year, most of these videos will be to do with the lessons learned to do with growing and storing food.
This is an ambitious agenda, but these are important topics, so we will see how it works out. The first blog in this series will be to do with Gaia.
I continue to work on the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The current Table of Contents can be downloaded here.
I added a new Chapter 1 a couple of months ago. Its title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. The current pandemic has given us some insights as to how we might react to the long-term crises that we face. Further discussion to do with the ‘New Normal’ is provided in the following posts.
The following material is extracted from Chapter 7 of Faith in a Changing Climate. It discusses the topic of the ‘Earth Mother’. Although the Gaia Hypothesis provides some interesting insights as to how evolution works (it is more cooperative and less competitive than normally considered). or example, the components of a forest (such as trees, bushes, animals, earth and streams) all evolve with one another to benefit the survival and success of the forest. However, I see no need to add a spiritual component; the Gaia effect can be explained by reductionist reasoning.
One topic that is likely to draw theological attention in coming years is the concept of Gaia — a goddess in Greek mythology who was seen as the mother of all life. Her name has been applied to the ‘Gaia Hypothesis/Theory’, articulated by the atmospheric chemist, James Lovelock, in the 1960s, and also by Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan.
The hypothesis or theory has many variations and interpretations. It has also attracted various New Age and Eco-Feminist followers, as seen in this image.
Earth as an Entity
The basic idea behind the Gaia hypothesis/theory is that the Earth, in its entirety, is composed of organs such as forests, wetlands and inorganic materials and life (including human life). Gaia is also composed of all living creatures, including humanity. This way of looking at the Earth is analogous to the human body that is made up organs, sinews, blood vessels and millions of cells, each making a contribution to the overall person.
In the words of Lovelock,
The Gaia Theory proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.
In the year 2001 the European Geophysical Union meeting signed the Declaration of Amsterdam, starting with the statement,
The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological, and human components.
The human body is goal-directed — it is teleological. The goal is to sustain the life of the body and to create offspring. For example, if a person is too hot, he or she sweats in order to cool down, and then drinks water to replace what was lost in the sweat. Without these corrective actions the heat could lead to the death of the body. All the components of that body operate so as to achieve that goal. They act not just to optimize their own conditions, but also the health of the overall organism.
The Gaia theory suggests that the Earth operates in a similar manner. So, for example, if the earth’s surface temperatures rise, Gaia takes the actions needed to reduce those temperatures. This idea explains why the Earth’s surface temperature has stayed within quite a narrow range for millions of years, even though the sun is getting steadily hotter. The same line of thought explains why the ocean salinity has remained at roughly the same concentration for millions of years, in spite of the fact that salts are being added to the oceans all the time. According to this way of thinking, the damage that humans have done to the planet will eventually be corrected, just as the human body will heal damage caused to it.
In Chapter 5 the Foundation series of science fiction books written by Isaac Asimov is introduced. One of the “characters” in his story sequence is Gaia; she takes the form of a young lady, but she actually represents the planet on which she lives. Not only living creatures, but inanimate objects, such as rocks, are a part of her Gaia. (Asimov poses the interesting question as to the nature of food in such a place — after all if someone eats another creature, either animal or vegetable, she is, in effect, eating herself.)
One way in which the Earth control mechanisms work is through evolution. Margulis and Sagan suggested that evolution is not a process in which species develop in a competitive manner, and in which the most successful drive out those which fail to adapt to changing conditions. Instead, they postulate that evolution is a symbiotic process in which species develop together to ensure the health of Gaia.
. . . life is not surrounded by a passive environment to which it has accustomed itself. Rather, life creates and reshapes its own environment.
Margulis defined the term holobiont as an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form a discrete ecological unit. The components of a holobiont are individual species or bionts, while the combined genome of all bionts is the hologenome. Human beings, forests and reefs are all examples of holobionts. Gaia can be considered to be a planetary holobiont. Its component parts evolve together in cooperation, rather than in competition, to keep the planet healthy.
With regard to the human body, it is possible to overwhelm the control mechanisms. For example, if the body is subject to high temperatures and high humidity for too long a time, the person will die of heat stroke. Similarly, the Gaia control mechanisms will finally be overwhelmed. There will come a time when the sun’s heat becomes so intense that the Earth’ temperature control mechanism will break down, and the oceans will boil away. But that fate lies millions of years in the future.
With regard to the Gaia Hypothesis, Lovelock wrote,
. . . the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.
People of faith may find themselves attracted to this point of view. They generally believe that individual human lives have purpose and meaning. The idea that the Earth, as an overall entity can have purpose and meaning, fits their way of thinking.
It is at this point that debate starts. Does the Earth maintain its parameters such as surface temperature and ocean salinity merely as a consequence of the laws of science? Or does the Earth have a consciousness, a will to survive, that directs the actions of its component parts? In the limit, Gaia becomes a person-like entity, hence the link to New Age philosophies.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
. . .
that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
The alternative approach to the Gaia hypothesis is to assume that the Earth follows deterministic scientific laws. Like the human body, the Earth is a complex super-organism, just like the human body. But there is no need for the Earth to have a will or a consciousness. Indeed, there is no need for the Gaia Hypothesis at all.
The French scientist Le Chatelier developed a principle to explain how systems that are already in a state of equilibrium respond to disturbances such as to reach a new equilibrium. A simple example is provided by the following chemical reaction.
Two chemicals, A and B, are dissolved in a flask of water. The chemicals react to form C and D, as shown in the following equation.
A + B ↔ C + D
The reaction is reversible, which means that C and D also react with one another to form A and B. The system settles into an equilibrium. If more of chemical A is then added to the solution, some of chemical B is used, and more C and D are created. Eventually, a new equilibrium is established.
When this principle applied more broadly, it can be stated as,
When a settled system is disturbed, it will adjust to diminish the change that has been made to it.
In other words, most systems exhibit negative feedback; they react to a change by adjusting the system so as to return toward the initial conditions.
The self-regulation of the Earth’s temperature can be explained by the same principle. In Chapter 6 we saw how the earth’s systems have responded in previous times when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were high. The CO2 was slowly (and the operative word here is ‘slowly’) was sequestered to form that form carbonates, including the chalk that makes up the white cliffs of Dover. These carbonates are then subsumed at the intersection of tectonic plates. Under the earth’s crust the carbonates break down to form CO2, which enters the atmosphere from volcanoes. The earth’s temperature is regulated by the CO2 concentration. High concentrations increase the surface temperature, which speed up the rate at which carbonates are formed, which results in the CO2 concentration going down. Low temperatures cause the rate of carbonate formation to slow down.
This reductionist approach, one in which evolution is seen as involving both cooperation and competition between species, and in which Le Chatelier’s Principle explains how systems reach equilibrium, is sufficient to explain the Gaia Hypothesis — the idea that the earth is a single entity. There is no need to involve teleological or spiritual philosophies.
Last week I attended a nation-wide webinar entitled the ‘Digital Gathering’ organized by the ‘Invite Welcome Connect‘ team. 1,800 people signed up, and around 1,000 attended. The attendees were Episcopalians from the United States and Canada. My estimate is that about half of the attendees were ordained clergy.
The theme of the webinar was to “present best -practices for a welcoming church in our new paradigm”— the new paradigm being the virtual church that has been forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The webinar was built around three panel discussions, each of which had three speakers. Most of the speakers were clergy leading churches, both large and small. The discussions were interesting and useful. But there was a certain wistfulness in them. It seemed as if, by and large, the message was one of,
How do we cope with the present situation until we can get back to normal?
In this context, “normal” would be traditional church services, held in traditional buildings, in which people can mingle with one another as they used to.
But maybe this is the wrong the message, the wrong goal.
Here is the ‘Old Normal’.
The chart shows membership in the Episcopalian church in recent years. The trend line is remarkably steady, with very little scatter. If extrapolated, it suggests that the church will have no members at all by the year 2045, just 25 years from now. In fact, the line will have an asymptote or hockey-stick shape toward the end. But the message is clear: the ‘Old Normal’ is not working, therefore we need to look for a ‘New Normal’. We also need to understand that the pandemic has not created this situation — the decline is a long-term trend.
The pandemic has, in fact, opened up new possibilities.
The following quotation from Fr. Rock Higgins is taken from the June 16, 2020 weekly newsletter of St. James the Less church in Ashland, Virginia.
Both our Sunday and Wednesday Morning Prayers average attendance is TRIPLE those who come when we were doing church in our space face-to-face. What is God doing? We will have to wait and see. Something big is happening. Our Noonday Prayer service was non-existent before this and now averages 67 people a day! I was telling a friend, “I now have a ministry that I did not know I had!” Thanks be to God!
Things have changed so fast and so quickly that no one understands what is going on. But it does seem as if the pandemic has pointed us to what could be an exciting and creative ‘New Normal’. Therefore, instead of hankering after the world that has left us, and that is not returning any time soon (if at all), maybe we should welcome the changes that have been forced upon us; maybe we should welcome the virtual church and the opportunities that it opens up.
In last week’s post — The New Normal (6) — Standards — we mentioned that we have added a new chapter to the draft of the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The chapter title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. We look at some of the lessons we can learn from the current COVID-19 pandemic, and how those lessons can be applied to the bigger picture of climate change and resource depletion.
The pandemic is still in its early stages; none of us know what its long-term consequences are going to be — so much depends on whether we can find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment. Applying lessons from the pandemic is very much a work in progress. There is, however, one immediate lesson, and that is the need for humility when making forecasts. This is a subject that we have already touched on in the post The Future Is A Muddle, but it is worth looking at it again. To state the obvious, our world has been totally transformed in just three months. Yet no one saw this coming — it has been a total surprise and shock.
One of my favorite Bible readings is from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul says,
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
The picture at the top of this post shows a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But, on closer inspection, we see that there are railings, a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline — and the harder we look the more we see. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and specific predictions are often (usually) wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading. (Modern translations of the Bible suggest that the word ‘mirror’ would be a better choice than ‘glass’. In Paul’s day most mirrors distorted the reflection. But the conclusion is the same. We can see an outline, but the details are blurred.)
Our failure to have predicted this disease can create a cynical attitude toward all forecasting. As Scott Adams once said,
Methods for predicting the future: 1) read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls . . . collectively known as “nutty methods;” 2) put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer . . . commonly referred to as “a complete waste of time.”
But forecasting the impact of an issue such as climate change is not a “complete waste of time”. We know that it is happening right now, and we have a general sense of what is in store for us. We just need to be very careful about being too detailed or precise in our predictions.
“. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
To which Pilate replies,
“What is truth?”
As we think about a theology for an Age of Limits I suggest that one of the bases should be, “Understand and tell the truth”. The key word in that phrase is “understand”. Christians know that they must never lie. They also know that they must always speak and act with integrity.
Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay
Telling the truth can go even further. In his book De Mendacio (On Lying), written around the year 395 CE, Augustine of Hippo says that it is wrong even to tell a white lie.
However, in our extraordinarily complex society it is often very difficult and challenging to determine exactly what is truth. Consider, for example, the effect of the current pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Environmentalists are encouraged that, in spite of the all the problems and tragedies that it has caused, the consequent reduction in economic activity has at least led to an improvement in air and water quality, and also in GHG emissions.
However, it turns out that the climate change benefits of the wrenching changes we are enduring have not been all that great. Greenhouse gas emissions are down by only 5% this year. How can that be? How can the enormous cutbacks and losses that we have endured led to such a small decrease in emissions?
To find an answer, let’s look at which sectors of the economy use fossil fuels. In round numbers they are:
Utilities — 45%
Industry — 25%
Transport — 20%
Residential — 5%
Other (including agriculture) — 5%
The picture below shows grounded jets at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The transportation industry has gone through wrenching cutbacks. Indeed, the tourist industry has pretty well collapsed. But, as the highlighted number shows, that industry accounts for only 20% of GHG emissions, which is why the fall in overall emissions is less than most people would have expected.
A 5% cutback reduction in GHG emissions is good, but the cost has been enormous. Not only have tens of thousands of people died in the United States alone, there have been drastic reductions in the number of elective medical procedures, the consequences of which are not yet known. And more than 30 million people have lost their jobs in just two months. Environmentalists like to use the word “sustainable”. Well, what we have gone through in the last two months is unsustainable.
Yet the United Nations tells us that, if we are to stabilize the earth’s temperature, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per year, every year for the next twenty years. The reductions that we have seen this year have been insufficient to meet the U.N. goals in spite of the enormous human and economic cost. Yet, if we are to achieve the U.N. targets, we need to repeat what has happened this year every year for the next twenty years. That does not mean that we stabilize at current levels of economic activity and unemployment — it means that we repeat what we did this year every year for the next twenty years.
I started this post by posing Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” I suggest that, if the church is to provide the leadership that is so badly needed then people in the faith community need to understand complexities of the type just described. This will be difficult. Most church leaders have a liberal arts background, and have had little training in science, technology or mathematics. Hence, they do not gravitate to the type of analysis just provided. In particular, they rely on qualitative statements and goals. For example, the Episcopal church has published a mission statement to do with climate change. It reads in part,
Our General Convention policy calls on lawmakers to significantly reduce carbon emissions within this century
What is the meaning of the word “significant” in the above statement? We need to apply a number to that word. If the number we select is an annual reduction of 7.6% in GHG emissions per annum, then the mission statement needs to address the drastic economic and human changes that are implied. This is not to say that we should not strive to meet that goal, but it does mean that we understand the quantitative nature of truth.