Some years ago, my church started a search for a new priest. The search committee developed a list of attributes that they and the members of the congregation would like to see in the successful candidate. These attributes included the normal requirements that the selected person be a powerful preacher, good at financial management, skilled at working with both young and old people, have a deep knowledge of the Bible, and so on — in other words, a perfect person.
I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a thorough understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People thought I was joking — such a requirement they said meant that there would be no priests at all. They were correct, of course. But my suggestion was not a joke; if we are to properly address the challenges that we face in the coming years then leaders of faith will need to have an educated grasp of technical topics, where the word “educated” is used in its Renaissance sense. Church leaders will need to have enough technical knowledge such that they can evaluate the claims and counter-claims that are made on topics such as climate change and crude oil depletion.
The catch is that priests are already fully committed to their ministry, indeed they are usually over-worked. They don’t have time to research these issues in sufficient depth to form a defensible opinion. Moreover, their inherent talents and interests generally lie in other areas, such as working with people.
One of the themes of this blog site is that secular leadership is not actually providing leadership. The reason for this failure is that any effective response requires that we all make substantial sacrifices in our material standard of living. Yet any politician who talks this way soon becomes an ex-politician. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the church to provide leadership.
Another theme is that we need to “Understand and Tell the Truth”. This is hard, very hard. The issues we discuss are extraordinarily complex and difficult to understand. Church leaders simply do not have the time, nor usually the background, to carry out the needed research.
So how are priests and other church leaders to become educated in Age of Limits issues such that they can provide credible leadership? Maybe one approach would be to develop an academy in which people of faith provide an honest and rational explanation as to what is taking place. They would not fall into the trap of “other-sideism” — they would provide clear direction for the faith community. This does not mean that their opinions would always be correct, of course. Discourse would be necessary. But such discourse would avoid hopium and wishful thinking. It would also try to see the truth in a society which is awash in fake news, truthiness, advertising, factoids and outright propaganda. The discourse would be based on an understanding that we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
The above picture was used in a post at the reddit r/collapse site. I don’t know the source of the picture, but I assume that it was actually taken after the Great Depression (the 1930s). After all, it wasn’t until the 1960s that color photography became widespread. (If anyone does know the source, please let me know.)
Regardless of the actual date of the picture, the message it conveyed went viral within that sub reddit. Maybe it got such attention because the redditors at that site live and work in such a different world. Many of them are young, so they probably have jobs with titles such as marketing coordinator, social media consultant or global supply chain VP. Such job titles would have been incomprehensible to grandma, and I suspect that they will be incomprehensible to future generations.
The commentary added to the picture is somewhat misleading. Even in the 1930s supply chains were not all that short. Global commerce may not have been what it is now, but many of the tools that grandma used in her garden were manufactured in other States, and the bread that she and her family ate was made from wheat grown elsewhere. Nevertheless, she was a good deal more self-sufficient than most of us are.
It is important not romanticize those times. My grandparents lived through the Depression in England (they called it “the Slump”). My grandfather was head of accounting for a textile company that went bankrupt. The stress caused him to lose weight — eventually he was down to just nine stone. Their daughter (my mother) won a school competition of such distinction that the award was presented by royalty. But she did not make the trip because the family could not afford the train fare to London. Those were not the good old days.
Nevertheless, people then did have shorter supply lines, and they were more self-sufficient than ourselves. In particular, they were much less dependent on technology: no telephone, television, automobiles, refrigerators, central heating or washing machines.
What is the lesson for us in our time?
In future years our society will become much less complex than it is now. How that change will come about is a topic for much discussion. But it is going to happen — either voluntarily or because the change is forced upon us. Which is why one of the theological points I put forward for consideration is, “Accept and adapt”. In other words, we need to recognize that we cannot prevent the changes that are occurring — indeed many of them have already occurred. Therefore, like grandma, we need to learn “how to do stuff”. (The word “stuff” is important in this context. A journey starts with one step. We are not all going to become self-sufficient, permaculture farmers overnight. But anything that we can do to move toward a simpler and more self-sufficient lifestyle is something that we should be doing.)
What is the message for the church? One of the themes of this site is that the church has an opportunity for much needed leadership as we enter the Age of Limits. We are heading into difficult times and we will all need to become more self-reliant. Maybe the church can help with that transition. We are not going to leap straight from our SUVs into a Cistercian monastery. But, the more “stuff” we know how to do on our own and in our local communities the better.
Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.
2 Corinthians 3:5
The picture below is of one set of my grandparents. It was taken around the year 1912. This was before the Slump, so they had personal, motorized transport. (And, no, I don’t know the name of the dog.)
We have started a series of fictional pastoral letters, set in the future, from the priests at Trinity Church, an Episcopal church located somewhere in the United States. This first letter is dated for the year 2020.
This year marks my 15th year serving you as rector of Trinity church. We have had some wonderful times together — worshiping, praying and serving our community. But it has also been a difficult fifteen years; our beloved church, and the Episcopal church overall, faces profound long-term challenges.
One of our parishioners prepared the following chart from data available at the church’s national web site. It shows nationwide membership in the Episcopal church in the United States.
You can see that in the year 2005 — about the time I was called as your rector — the national church had about 820,000 members. Now we are down to 550,000 — a drop of 35% in just 15 years. If this trend continues then we will have no members at all in the year 2045. I know that organizational changes (maybe mergers with other churches) will change that trajectory somewhat. But we have to recognize that the Episcopal church is fading into insignificance.
Here at Trinity we have seen a similar pattern. Our attendance at Sunday worship has drifted downhill, the average age of our parishioners is rising, and our finances are stretched. We are spending an ever-increasing amount of our budget just keeping the building and property maintained instead of serving others in our community. And whatever needs to be done, it seems as if it is always the same volunteers who show up. They are getting tired and discouraged.
Change is needed — both here at Trinity and in the church at large. Therefore, I have decided to hang up my vestments and move into semi-retirement. The time has come for a fresh vision, fresh leadership for Trinity.
Who is the right person to lead our parish in these difficult times? That decision is, of course, up to you — the parishioners and vestry of Trinity. But, as I depart, maybe I could offer a few thoughts.
Let’s start by understanding that our difficulties do not arise from internal disagreements to do with issues such as same-sex marriage. Such topics may matter to us, but they are not the reason for our decline. The real reason that we are in decline is that the world around us is changing, but we are not changing with it.
So how is the world changing? What are the issues that really matter? What do we say when Pilate asked of our Lord, “What is truth?”
I suggest that the issue that has moved to front-and-center in just the last few years is climate change. It matters because it affects everyone, everywhere, all the time. No exceptions. Throughout 2020 bad news to do with the climate kept piling up. What brought that news home to us here at Trinity were the unprecedented floods that covered our farmlands for the second year in a row. These floods were followed, as we are all aware, by three months of drought. We learned — as if we did not already know — that climate change is no longer just about melting icebergs, stranded polar bears and forest fires on the other side of the world. It is something that is affecting members of our parish here and now. Two of our parishioners who own farms had to sell up — and this year’s weekly Farmers Market was the worst that we have ever seen.
So far, our response to this crisis has been to treat it as yet another item to be added to our church’s “To-Do” list. Climate change is not seen as an existential issue at the core of other problems. Our environmental committee has done great work in encouraging the use of biodegradable products, and in researching the possibility of solar panels on the roof of the rectory. But I think that we all know that the issues we face require a more fundamental response.
Although the situation that we face is discouraging, there is hope. Let’s take a look at the image that closed out 2019: Time magazine’s Person of the Year — that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. She and many other young people like her bring just the qualities that our church needs: youth, energy, truth-telling, leadership and a sense of mission.
Yet, when it comes to climate change, our national and international political leaders are not, in fact, leaders. And they never will be leaders because any honest response to the climate crisis means that we will have to reduce our material standard of living. Talk like that soon makes a politician an ex-politician. But Christians can talk this way because they know that Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday.
So, let’s connect the dots here.
Trinity Church and the national church badly need young people to provide fresh leadership and vision.
Young people are reacting with passion, even anger, when they look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk (where the word “older” means anyone over 20 years of age). Their slogan in 2019 was, “OK Boomer”. This year it seems to be, “Faster than Expected”.
We can provide with them with a faith structure for their passion and work. The Christian church has done it before, it can do it again.
Let’s invite them in and so provide our church with a wonderful opportunity for leadership.
But the above requires a new way of thinking, a new interpretation of scripture. For too many years we have followed the words given to Noah following the flood (Genesis 9).
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.”
Well, we pretty much aced that one. We have indeed been fruitful. In Biblical times the population of the earth was probably around 0.5 billion. Now we are at 7.5 billion and rising. And the beasts, birds and fish certainly live in dread of us. We need a new interpretation of scripture, not one based on our domination of nature, but on living within nature’s rhythms. Let’s try Ecclesiastes 3.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .
. . . As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
I’m not so sure about the phrase, “Everything is meaningless”. But a theology that stresses living within the biosphere, not dominating is what we need.
So, my fellow parishioners, you can see why I have decided to move on. We need a leader who provides realistic hope. He or she will not offer “hopium” — the trap of, “They will think of something”. But the new leader must also provide a means for channeling the energy and anger of our young people so that we do not become fatalistic. He or she will provide our beloved Trinity church with a vision of Realistic Hope.
In closing, I ask us to keep in mind the words from Philippians 4:6,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
In Christ, your friend and pastor,
P.S. Just after writing this letter I heard from the Bishop that our national church is setting up a Council with other denominations to come up with responses to the climate chaos crisis. These responses must be faith-based and workable. I have been asked to serve on that Council, and — maybe this was a mistake — I agreed. So it’s likely that you will be hearing from me again!
An encouraging number of people have expressed an interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change Theology’. Therefore, I will make an adjustment to this weekly post. To date, I have been publishing a post at this site once a week on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. east coast time. Typically the posts have been in two parts. The first part looks at this week’s appointed gospel reading in the context of the Age of Limits (climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot, and so on). This week I struggle with what it means to be a missionary in today’s consumer culture when climate change and related issues are just part of the cacophony. (One unexpected benefit of this writing strategy is that it means that I am prepared for this week’s sermon, regardless of the topic being discussed.)
The second part of a typical post consists of one or more short discussions to do with the dilemmas that we face. For example, last week we looked at my fourth “Aha!” moment: the I-10 Freeway, and at the unreality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per annum for the next two decades, as called for in a recent United Nations report.
As time permits (and, like everyone else, I have a life to live) I will add a third section to do with theology.
This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 3:1-12.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The familiar phrase, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” spoke to me. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. We are directed by passages such as this from Mark 16.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”.
Yet preaching about climate change and resource limits seems to have very little impact. We have a situation where it is certain that the world’s climate is going to be radically altered within the lifetime of many (most) people living now. There is even plausible discussion suggesting that climate change may be so drastic as to lead to the end of civilization within a generation or two. Whether you agree with such extreme predictions or not, we still need to address three facts: (1) Age of Limits issues are existential — radical change is on the horizon, and everyone — there are no exceptions — everyone, will be affected, (2) very few people really care, and (3) our national and international leaders are not, in fact, leaders.
Given this background, what are the news media obsessing about? Mostly impeachment, Brexit and this year’s superbowl.
“Aha!” Moment #5: Psychohistory
In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these so far. They are:
This week, I would like to look at the fifth of these: Psychohistory. It came about when I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a set of science fiction stories set at a time when humanity has developed the technology to travel to other planets. At the start of the series all the inhabited planets in the galaxy are part of a single empire. But the Empire is declining in power, wealth and prestige. The hero of the series, a man named Hari Seldon, develops a discipline that he refers to as psychohistory. This discipline, which combines elements of history, sociology and statistics, allows him to understand how societies change and evolve. Based on his analysis, Seldon is able to organize new societal structures that will form the basis of a new empire that will develop quickly and bring a quick end to the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the first empire.
The reason that this book series formed the basis of an “Aha!” Moment is that we need to develop our own theory of psychohistory. The issues that we face — climate change, resource depletion, over-population, to name but a few, are not only inherently complex, but they interact with one another in ways that are very difficult to understand and predict. Some over-arching theory is needed. Such a theory will provide us with an understanding as to what is taking place, and will allow us to develop means of addressing the predicaments that we face.
As an example of the need for systems thinking, consider the call for the elimination of fossil fuels from people such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could be that their message is mostly unnecessary because our use of these fuels, particularly oil, is probably going down anyway, as discussed in the Peak Prosperity post Houston, We Have A Problem. Slide 4 from Art Berman’s presentation is particularly revealing.
The production of conventional crude oil in the United States reached a peak in the year 1970, as predicted by the great M. King Hubbert in 1956. In recent years there has been a surge in the production of Light Tight Oil and Shale Gas, as the slide shows. But there are many indications that tight oil production has reached a peak and that it will decline in the next five years (for example, this this post to do with Chesapeake Energy).
If production does decline as quickly as it ramped up then Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez may be reminded of the proverb, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. Another example of the need for systems thinking, this one to do with the realities of project management, is provided in the post The Slow Train.
This is the first post to do with the topic of Climate Change Theology. As a starting point, I would like to consider the following words from Ecclesiastes 1.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
I chose those words because they seem to express a view of the type of world that we need to create rather than the one that we have created based on what was told to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).
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.”.
Do we really need to “be fruitful”, to increase the world’s population? Do we really need to have all other creatures live in “fear and dread” of us?
I started thinking about the need for a theology for our times when a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking the same question. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide meaningful leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual framework, or, in religious terms, a theology.
Theology is to do with seeking truth through God’s word (theos, God, and logos, Word). As a semi-retired chemical engineer you may reasonably ask why I am writing on this topic. Shouldn’t we leave it to the professional theologians, the seminarians and the ordained clergy — people who are trained to understand and interpret God’s word? It’s a good question, one which we will discuss in coming posts.
In the meantime, let us start with the very sensible question that Pontius Pilate asks in John 18:38.
. . . 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.
This week we enter the Advent season. The lectionary gospel reading is taken from Matthew 24:36-44.
Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Christian thinking to do with the future generally anticipates sudden, one-time events that arrive with little or no warning. “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. We see the same way of thinking in Revelation and in the story of Noah and the Ark.
Such a future does not seem to align with predictions to do with climate change and other Age of Limits issues. Instead we are more likely to see a slow, dreary, inexorable downhill trajectory — with a few bright spots here and there. Indeed, as shown in “Aha!” Moment #4, described below, that downhill trajectory started some years ago.
“Aha!” Moment #4: The I-10 Freeway
In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these “Aha!” moments (at least, so far). They are:
The first three are described in the linked posts shown. This week I take a look at “Aha!” Moment #4 — The I-10 Freeway.
This “Aha!” moment occurred when I saw the following photograph. It is a before-and-after picture of the I-10 freeway between Houston and Beaumont, a road I have driven many times during the course of my business career. The “before” picture shows the freeway and feeder road in its normal state. The “after” picture was taken during tropical storm Harvey. It is estimated that this ‘1 in 1,000 years’ storm dropped a million gallons of rain for each resident of south Texas. (Just two years later, a second ‘1 in 1,000 years’ storm, Imelda, flooded the same area.)
This picture taught me that climate change is not just something that will happen in the future, it is happening now. Indeed, it is something that started some years ago. And it is not just a matter or reports and blog posts — real people, people I know, are being really affected.
At this blog I don’t spend much time describing current events, including reports and analyses from professional and trustworthy organizations. But I would like to make a few comments on the recent United Nations report which states that fossil fuel CO2 emissions worldwide grew by 2% in the year 2018. The report also states that we are on track for a global temperature increase of 3.9°C by the end of the century. It goes on to say that we must reduce emissions by 7.6% each year, starting next year.
Let’s pick on two of those numbers.
The first is the 3.9°C temperature increase, which we will likely reach well before the end of the century. If we reach that point then the world will be drastically and irreversibly changed. With respect to Europe, and the droughts that will ensue, Mark Lynas, author of the book Six Degrees, evokes Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias,
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Moving on to the second number, the call for a reduction of 7.6% per annum in greenhouse gas emissions, starting now — the effect on the world’s economy would be disastrous. In 2009 worldwide CO2 emissions fell by 6% following the most serious recession since the Great Depression. (If we are increasing emissions by 2% per annum now, then a 7.6% reduction really means that we need to cut emissions by 10% per annum.)
Therefore the UN is suggesting that we cut emissions by an amount that we have never before seen, even during the 2008 recession. And they are also suggesting that we maintain this pace for decades. A reduction on this scale would require a massive restructuring of the world’s industrial and commercial systems. To make such sweeping changes is, as suggested in the post The Slow Train, completely unrealistic if we hope to simultaneously maintain our current lifestyles.
This week’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke 23: 33-43.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is a tough passage. It tells us that Christians can anticipate having to suffer for their faith. But it also tells us that such faith, if it is as strong as that demonstrated by the second criminal, has its reward. In the context of climate change and related issues, maybe the message is that are heading into difficult times, but, if we have sufficient faith, a new world can open up. Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday.
Aha! Moment #3: Light Bulbs
In the posts from the previous two weeks I have described the first two of my “Aha! Moments”. These are times when “something clicks”, when suddenly “we get it”. I have had five of these Aha! Moments. They were:
Predicaments, Not Problems
Augustine’s City of God
The I-10 Freeway
Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory
We took a look at the first two on this list in the posts Proper 27: Complexity and Proper 28: The City of Man. This week I will spend a few moments on Aha! Moment #3: Light Bulbs, which came to me when I was reading an early blog from James Kunstler. In one of his fictional works he describes society in upstate New York fifty years from now. The people are living in a post-industrial society, one in which Peak Oil has occurred, so they are having to live a much more basic lifestyle than they did two generations previously.
The people in the community that he describes have energy generated by alternative energy sources, but they do not have light bulbs. The factories and supply chains needed to supply manufactured goods have broken down. Kunstler’s point is that it is not enough to simply find alternative sources of energy, we also need to develop manufacturing and supply systems that effectively use those energy sources. In his book that goal had not been achieved.
The challenges that we will face go beyond finding and deploying alternative energy sources. We also will need to maintain the extraordinarily complex manufacturing and supply chain systems that we have created. We will have to move from a business mentality of efficiency and Just in Time (JIT) management to a way of thinking that stresses resilience and adaptability. Whether we will be able to do so in time is dubious.
It’s All About ERoEI
I recommend viewing the YouTube video How to Enjoy the End of the World presented by Sid Smith. It lasts for over an hour, but Smith makes some important points as to where we are headed. In particular, he notes that our core predicament is one of declining ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested). It is only about halfway through the video that he even mentions climate change. (An explanation of ERoEI, and of its importance. is provided in our ebook Age of Limits – 1. One of the chapters in that ebook is Alice and the Red Queen. Like the Red Queen, we are running faster and faster just to stay in one place.) Smith shows that alternative sources of energy are not going to replace fossil fuels, at least not on the scale and convenience that we need them to do.