One of the themes of this site is that there is an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership in the rather scary future that awaits us. But first we have to focus on Age of Limits issues, and stop placing gender debates up front and center — see the post Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs.
In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”
These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.
I find it interesting that, unwittingly, I have been following the leadership of these two dynamic young ladies at this blog with my various posts to do with the Green New Deal and Skolstrejk för Klimatet.
This line of argument would suggest that, if the church wants to promote gender equality, then maybe direct advancement of that goal is not the way to go. Instead, we should provide leadership in our search for “intelligent adaptation to scarcity”. In doing so, we may find that much of our leadership will be provided by the likes of AOC and GT.
The image at the top of this post is taken from the cover of a book to be published by Devil’s Due. Of their book they say,
It’s no secret that AOC has become the unofficial leader of the new school, and has sparked life back into Washington and that’s reflected in the enthusiasm on display by the men and women contributing to this project. While we all don’t agree on everything, we share a common excitement for the breath of fresh air the new Congress brings.
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far. This week we are up to the second 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.
Saving the Environment
Some years ago, when global warming was still a new topic for most people, its most prominent feature was that of polar bears standing on floating ice. The bears seemed to be forlorn and literally cast adrift by human actions. We felt sympathy for the polar bears, even though, as far as we know, they contribute little toward human well being. Indeed, most of us would prefer not to meet a polar bear up close and personal.
But now many other species are under threat. For example, in recent months there has been a flurry of reports telling us that the world’s insect population is in serious decline. The response to this situation has been mostly on the lines that we need the insects because they fertilize our crops and so are fundamental to our well being. Bees are particularly important because, not only do they pollinate flowers, they produce the honey that we eat.
You see the little catch? We sympathize with the polar bears for their own sake, but we care only about the insects because of their usefulness to us. So why do we want to “save the environment”? Is it for the sake of the natural world itself, or is it because we need it for our own survival?
Rattlesnakes, Giraffes and Palm-Trees
The other day I borrowed a copy of the book As I Was Saying — A Chesterton Reader from our church library. The book contains some of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, including essays from Generally Speaking, published in the year 1928.
In one of the essays Chesterton muses on our relationship to nature. The essay was written long before the modern environmental movement got under way. But, like E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which I discuss in Chapter 2 of A New City of God, Chesterton’s essay seems to be remarkably prescient — or, at least, it asks the questions that we, in our environmental enthusiasm, sometimes fail to consider.
Here is the paragraph that triggered my interest.
A little while ago an intellectual weekly started an argument among the intellectuals about whether Man has improved the earth he lives on; whether Nature as a whole was better for the presence of Man. Nobody seemed to notice that this is assuming that the end of Man is to grow more grass or to improve the breed of rattlesnakes, apart from any theory about the origin or object of these things. A man may serve God and be good to mankind for that reason or a man may serve mankind and be good to other things to preserve the standard of mankind; but it is very hard to prove exactly how far he is bound to make the jungle thicker or encourage very tall giraffes.
Which brings us the modern environmental movement. Are we trying to save the coral reefs, the Amazon jungle, and the butterflies in our back yards for their own sake, or to ensure that our own needs are met?
All sane men have assumed that, while a man may be right to feel benevolently about the jungle, he is also right to treat it as something that may be put to use, and something which he may refuse to assist indefinitely for its own sake at his own expense. A man should be kind to a giraffe; he should if necessary feed it; he may very properly stroke it or pat it on the head, even if he has to procure a ladder for these good offices. He is perfectly right to pat a giraffe; there is no objection to his patting a palm-tree. But he is not bound to regard a man as something created for the good of the palm-tree.
It is very clear where Chesterton is going with this line of reasoning.
We protect nature, not for its own sake, but for ourselves. If an environmental activity does not directly benefit humans, then that activity need not be carried out.
So, for example, we recognize that we should not use some insecticides to protect our crops because those insecticides also destroy other insects, such as bees, which are beneficial to us. But this is not a moral decision — it is merely a cost-benefit calculation. We do not reduce insecticide usage because we care about bees, but because we care about ourselves.
Plastics and Polymer Fibers
Since Chesterton’s time the mood seems to have shifted — we now “preserve nature” (as if “nature” is something external to us) for its own sake.
For example, the chemical industry has manufactured billions of tons of plastics and polymers. When we have finished using these plastics, we throw them away. But there is no “away”. Moreover, these plastics do not degrade quickly — they stay in the environment long after we have finished using them, and many of them wind up in the ocean. Now we are learning that plastics/polymers in the form of tiny threads are being found in the internals of fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. (These threads are microfibers made of polyester, rayon and nylon and are found in laundry effluent. Evidently a single piece of clothing can generate up to 250,000 of these fibers.) So “away” includes the fish that live in the deep oceans.
If our concern is to do with “nature” and all the creatures that inhabit it then we should stop manufacturing polymers for use in clothing and we should revert to wearing clothes made of natural materials such as wool and cotton. Yet the artifical materials allow us to have comfortable, hard-wearing clothing at an affordable price. And even if richer people could afford to switch to natural materials, many people toward the bottom end of the economic scale cannot.
So, should we protect these fish even though very few people have even seen these fish and which, as far as we know, contribute nothing to our health and prosperity? Or should we continue to use polymer fibers, knowing that they are of great benefit to us, particularly less well off people, and let the deep sea fish take their chances?
Similar thought processes can be applied to other types of plastics. For example, shrink wrap film allows us to protect food from contamination, and so contributes to our overall health. But, when discarded, that film winds up in trash heaps, where it remains for many years, and so becomes a chronic environmental problem.
Another factor that has changed since Chesterton’s time is that he did not have to worry too much about resource limitations. For example, up until his time, if people wanted land for farming, they took it. If it so happened that that land was currently being used by wildlife such as giraffes then there was no problem — there was room for both farms and wildlife.
We now realize that there is only a finite amount of land available and that we need to set aside space for the giraffes, otherwise they will cease to exist. But, once more, we need to understand why we are doing this. Are we doing if for the giraffes, or for ourselves? Are we making a moral argument that giraffes have a right to life — even in limited numbers? If so, how much space should be set aside for wildlife, and how much for farmers who are growing much-needed food?
Striking a Balance
So we need to strike a balance between “saving the environment” and providing people, particularly people who have few economic options, with a superior quality of life. On the one hand if we insist that the environment should be protected at all costs then we human beings would have to depart this planet Earth. As long as we are here we are going to impact the environment. The other extreme is to permit unlimited exploitation of natural resources and to dump our waste products wherever we please.
Neither of these extremes is going to happen. So what is the correct balance?
Many environmentalists would argue that this discussion is merely academic, that, in practice, we are so far to the side of favoring consumption of resources that we are not even close to being in balance. But we need to be careful. For example, at the time of writing (early 2019) the State of California has all but given up on its high-speed rail project. Why? Fast trains between metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles not only make economic sense, they helps the environment by taking people out of airplanes that create large quantities of greenhouse gases. Yet the project fell apart partly due to resistance from environmental groups who did not want their land despoiled by this new industrial endeavor.
Another example concerns the abolition of factory farming — a move which is definitely good for nature and for millions of animals. But that decision may not be so good for those people who are already having trouble affording sufficient food.
The Christian Response
Throughout my writing I try to understand how Christian theology should adjust to the world that we are entering.
G.K. Chesterton was a devout Christian and a member of the Roman Catholic church. His attitude is very much in the spirit of Genesis 1:28.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This passage supports Chesterton’s argument that nature is here for our good, not that we are here for nature’s good.
Genesis 9:1-3 is even more outspoken.
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. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”
A theology that is appropriate for an Age of Limits cannot accept the world view put forward in the Genesis passages. Maybe a starting point for Christians is to help people understand that we cannot have our environmental cake and eat it. We cannot “preserve nature” and simultaneously “preserve our standard of living”, let alone hope for a more materially prosperous future.
Our theology should reflect this reality. To what extent should we make sacrifices, not just for other people, but also for the natural environment? Where do we draw the line? And, if we are to make sacrifices, who do we include in the word “we”? Just those who are already reasonably prosperous, or thos who are already struggling to maintain an adequate life style?
More fundamentally, we need to understand that we are not “over” nature, we are not even separate from it. We are part of nature.
On March 6th of this year our local newspaper, the Ashland-Hanover Local, published an article to do with the building of a solar generating plant in our county. What struck me was the fact that the project is likely to be delayed for many months while it is reviewed by the normal political process.
the “Green New Deal goals” should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization.
The contrast between this ambitious program and the lack of urgency associated with projects such as the solar plant in our community could hardly be greater. If programs such as GND can generate that sense of urgency then more power to them. But so far, it has not happened.
Every week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. This week it is the second part 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.)
While working on this blog and on my book A New City of God three events occurred at roughly the same time. They were:
Greta Thurnberg made her speech to the COP24 Conference in Poland. Her words went viral and they have encouraged young people around the world to take action.
The Methodist church in the United States is going through turmoil with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.
I carried out a calculation to do with the membership of the Episcopalian church while writing A New City of God.
Pull these three threads together, and I am reminded of the image at the head of this post, which shows the neatly arranged deckchairs on the doomed Titanic on her fateful journey across the north Atlantic.
The story is familiar. The luxury steamship RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The submerged portion of the iceberg scraped against the hull, tearing a gash along much of her length. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy North Atlantic.
The quotation, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has become a staple of our discourse. It implies futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe. Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic has generated many other aphorisms and oft-repeated quotations such as,
Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable. Julia Hughes
Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart. Erma Bombeck
. . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight. Brander 1995
When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident . . . of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. E.J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic
The Brander quotation is important. The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives.
I started this post by saying that three events had made an impression on me. Let’s take a quick look at each of these events.
The Thurnberg Speech
We have already discussed Greta Thurnberg’s clear, honest and courageous speech. It has encouraged thousands of young people to follow her leadership. To state the obvious, these young people (and many of their parents) are interested in staying alive. Consequently they are also highly critical of the actions of the hypocrisy of the generations that have preceded them. Maybe there is a message for the church there.
At the time of writing (February 2019) the Methodist Church in the United States was starting a conference at which LGBT and same-sex marriage issues were to be voted on. The result could be a breakup of the church. The USA Today says,
“What the United Methodist church will look like in March will likely be very different than it is today,” said the Rev. Ron Robinson, a chaplain and religion professor at Wofford College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. “This has the most significant potential for major division out of anything in my lifetime.”
Now gender issues are of high importance to many Christians — not only to Methodists, but also those in other denominations. The catch is that such discussions have, as an unstated assumption, that the present physical world will continue more or less in its current form. The passions are strong and deeply felt. But, if Age of Limits issues are going to create wrenching problems, then such discussions do have a flavor of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
While writing my book, I decided to research the status of the Episcopalian Church in the United States. Using 2017 data from the church’s web site I developed the following rather scary chart.
Membership in the church has declined steadily over a period of ten or more years. (Attendance at Sunday services is probably a more important figure than nominal membership. But it shows the same trends. Average parish attendance in the year 2011 was 65; by 2016 it was down to 58.)
While church membership is declining, the nation’s population is growing. The Episcopal church’s membership was 0.28% of the population of the United States in 2005, but had dropped to 0.19% in 2016. So, in the period 2005-2016 church membership fell from 827,000 to 601,000, a 27% drop. But the church’s percentage of the population fell from 0.28% to 0.19%, a 32% drop.
A simple linearization of the line, which has remarkably little scatter, shows that membership is declining by roughly 22,000 per annum. Given that current membership is at around 600,000 we can expect to hit the zero point somewhere around the year 2045. This is not what will actually happen, of course. The line will show an asymptote (hockey-stick effect) near its end; membership will level off at a low level, but it will not hit zero. Or the church may merge with another denomination struggling with a similar data set.
But, if the church is to have any meaning for the population at large, this trend must be reversed. I recognize that religious faith is not just a matter of numbers, but numbers do matter.
Related to the decline in attendance and membership is the fact that the church’s congregations are getting older — not only are more members needed, it is even more important to attract young people.
So we have the following situation:
Young people are growing increasingly passionate about climate change issues.
The church is spending its time and energy on issues that do not seem to be important to those young people.
Church membership and attendance is down. In particular, youth participation is dwindling.
And so the conclusion is . . .
Yet most church communities are not responding to climate change issues with the same level of passion as are young people. (After all, we don’t want to be controversial, do we?) This means that, from the point of view of these young people, church leaders are, by and large, simply rearranging the deck chairs on their sinking Titanic. So, unsurprisingly, they have little interest in joining the church. Who can blame them? No wonder that membership curve is declining so precipitously.
Moreover, even when the church does consider climate change, it tends to treat it as just one concern among many. Most churches have committees to organize activities such as food banks, spiritual retreats and mission trips. So the tendency is to treat climate change, and other Age of Limits issues, as being just one piece of the overall program. (“We will form a committee to take care of that.”) But climate change (and other Age of Limits issues) are existentially important — they are the Titanic. And, if the Titanic sinks, i.e., if the climate is drastically disrupted, then the other activities will sink with it.
If the church is to engage the trust and the confidence of young people growing up in a world that is changing frighteningly fast then Age of Limits issues need to become central to the mission. They are not just one activity among many — they are core to our beliefs and our actions.
Which means that a theology that fits this new world is needed.
The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.
Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.
As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.
The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.
On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.
I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.
Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.
The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)
Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,
The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?
. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.
The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.
The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.
The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.
It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.
So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.
But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.
Throughout the course of 2018 it has seemed to me as if there has been a shift in public opinion to do with climate change. By and large, people seem to grasp that, at the very least, “Something is going on”.
Part of the editorial is addressed to corrupt public officials such as Scott Pruitt or Ryan Zinke. Leonhardt writes, “I often want to ask these officials: Deep down do you really believe that future generations of your own family will be immune from climate change’s damage?”
. . . every older person needs to be ready for the day when a younger person walks up to them and asks them two questions:
1. When did you know, and
2. What did you do about it?
When did you know about the many problems and predicaments facing our world today? When did you find out about species loss, and peak oil, the generationally destructive policies of your peers, and the unsustainability of our entire economic model?
And what did you do about any of it? Did you make any changes at all to your behavior, or did you close your eyes and slip into a strategy of false hope? Hope that ‘somebody’ would do ‘something’? Did you fight at all for the things in which you once believed?
These are tough questions. Martenson is going beyond public officials who had the power to make a change but chose not to do so. He is directing the questions at all of us. We all have the power to do something — however little it may seem. We all have some talent to contribute.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Each week I aim to publish two posts at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday mornings. (They posts are supplemented by occasional “newsy” items such as the recent Out of the Mouths of Teenagers.)
The first post can cover any topic. This week it is A Personal Journey Part III: Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World. The second post is directed toward the Christian community. This week I thought that I might say a few words about Monasticism and the Age of Limits.
It is probable that, as our own society enters its own extended period of decline, that we will see a revival of the monastic ideal. It has happened before. For example, as the western Roman Empire declined, and what we refer to as the Dark Ages commenced, Benedict of Nursia and others started a powerful monastic movement.
Their ideals are usually condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience.
Few of us will choose to join such a community. Nevertheless, the monastic ideals can be adopted by everyone, at least in modified form — particularly that of poverty, which can be construed as being living a simple life within the physical constraints of the environment. In other words, as far as possible to live in equilibrium with natural systems, and to minimize the use of fossil fuels and other finite resources.
As the Roman Empire declined, monastic foundations in both halves of the empire helped maintain cultural institutions. They also helped save valuable texts, which would otherwise have been destroyed in the chaos of the times. It is reasonable to suppose that monastic institutions in our future will also help preserve the memories and culture of our society.