Jevons Paradox

William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882)

As I look at the church’s responses to the impacts of climate changes I am deeply impressed and moved by the commitment shown by so many people. Yet I am also concerned that some of these efforts may be in vain. They may even be counter-productive. They may be unwitting victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences and of Jevons Paradox (the ‘Coal Question’).

False Savings

My first concern is to do with false savings. Let’s say that your place of work is near to your home. You have been in the habit of driving to work, but now decide to use a bicycle. You save a few gallons or liters of fuel each week. Great! You have done your bit to reduce the use of a scarce resource (oil) and you there are now fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But has that gasoline really been saved? Since it is now available to others it will be used by someone, somewhere. So, the truth is that it has not been saved. It has merely been transferred from one consumer (you) to another (a stranger who could be anywhere in the world).

You may respond by saying that we need to make a gesture, or that cycling to work is good for your health. Fair enough — but the fact is that you have not met your original goal of reducing gasoline consumption and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

In fact, you may have made matters worse than if you had done nothing at all.

The Coal Question

In order to understand this conundrum let us meet that bewhiskered Victorian gentleman, William Stanley Jevons.

Mill Chimneys Victorian industry

Jevons was living at a time when Great Britain was going through a phase of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution, which had started about 150 years earlier, was kicking into high gear.

In the year 1865 he published The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (they went in for long book titles in those days). Even though he was writing 150 years ago, the words he wrote in that book are as relevant now as they were then (just substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’).

Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers.

. . . new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable . . .

I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.

Let us unpack those three paragraphs.

  1. The first paragraph states that coal was the über-commodity of the 19th century because it was the principle source of energy. Substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’ and his words apply to our situation. Without coal, without oil, we are “thrown back into the laborious poverty of earlier times”.
  2. The second paragraph shows the coal and oil not only give us raw power, they give us “molecular power” — the ability to create new products. They are used not only as fuel but also to create basic chemicals that in turn are used to make an enormous range of products such as fertilizers, medications, pesticides and plastics.
  3. But, and there’s always a ‘but’, in the third paragraph Jevons points out that the supply of coal is not infinite. Moreover, it will become ever more expensive to extract future supplies. We will never run out of coal or oil, but, sooner or later, we will run out of affordable coal (and oil). He is actually describing, a hundred years ahead of his time, the problem of declining ERoEI — Energy Returned on Energy Invested. He has a premonition of the Hubbert Curve.

His wonderful phrase, “that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress” pretty much summarizes much of what we are trying to achieve in this blog. There are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. But there are boundaries that will “stop our progress”.

I suppose that there is one other question that can be derived from the above statements. How is it that the quality of our written English has declined so precipitously? Where did we go wrong?

The Paradox

The following two statements summarize his famous paradox.

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Whatever, therefore, conduces to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to augment the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations.

Translated into modern English, he is saying,

  • Coal is being burned with greater efficiency. (There were two reasons for this. The first is technological innovation, the second the economies of scale that ensue when the number of customers is increased.)
  • Hence more factories and power plants use coal since it is now economical to do so.
  • Hence the overall consumption of coal increases.

Apply the same thinking to our situation.

  • People buy fuel-efficient cars to save money.
  • Because their cars are more efficient, they drive more miles.
  • Also, because it is more economical to drive, more people buy cars.
  • Hence the overall consumption of fuel increases.
  • Hence we should all drive 1960 gas guzzlers. What’s not to like?
Red Cadillac gas guzzler
Now that’s an automobile

The Katy Freeway

Katy Freeway 26 lanes
The Katy Freeway

The idea of Jevons Paradox crops up everywhere.

I used to live in Houston, Texas, and frequently drove on the I-10 West (the Katy Freeway). It is a major, badly congested commuter highway. To reduce the congestion the freeway was expanded such that the intersection with Beltway 8 is now 26 lanes across. (There used to be a two-track railroad on the corridor but they tore it up to make room for more traffic lanes).

Once construction was complete, travel was much faster and more convenient for just a few weeks. But now the traffic is as bad as ever. Why? Because more people chose to drive to work, and real estate developers built more homes adjacent to the freeway.

Demand met supply.

Demand Reduction Is Crucial

Jevons Paradox leads us to the conclusion that demand reduction is crucial. Merely saving resources or improving efficiencies will do no more than keep us in one place; indeed, such activities may actually make things worse.

  • If you make steam engines more efficient then more factories and power plants will be built and coal consumption will increase.
  • If you add more lanes to freeways then more people will use those extra lanes, and congestion will be as bad as ever.
  • If you drive an economical car then other people will drive more miles and more people will buy cars, thus wiping out your sacrifice.

The lesson is simple:

Reducing consumption or pollution is of no value unless overall demand is reduced. Failure to heed this insight means that all attempts to address our predicaments through improved efficiency or consumption are doomed not only to fail, they may actually make those predicaments worse unless demand elsewhere, all over the world, is reduced correspondingly.

Compassion

Child labour in a Victorian factory

I started this page by alluding to the fact that so many of our church friends are dedicated in their effort to help those who have been hurt, in one way or another, by climate change and related problems.

Jevons was with them. Far from being a cold-hearted economist who had no concern for the needs of those in trouble, he showed compassion. Here is what he said (once more, using a quality of English that one can only envy).

We must begin to allow that we can do today what we cannot so well do tomorrow….

Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us.

Conclusion

Any attempt to “save” energy or to reduce emissions is likely to have limited success unless it is matched with a commensurate reduction in energy consumption and emissions everywhere by everyone.

Now that’s the real challenge.

Happy Motoring Esso 1950s

Proper 27: Complexity

Complexity of Age of Limits issues

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:27-38.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

In his ministry, Jesus tackled many moral and theological issues that seem not to have much relevance to the Age of Limits issues that we discuss in this blog. The above passage from Luke seems to be one of those topics. Jesus does, however, discuss a complex and tricky situation — to whom is the widow married after her death? And complexity is certainly something that we struggle with here.

Aha! Moment #1: Predicaments, Not Problems

Homer Simpson and the Law of Thermodynamics
Homer Simpson with daughter Lisa’s Perpetual Motion Machine. “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

We generally learn about difficult, complex and rather scary future scenarios by reading lengthy reports or by watching well-researched documentaries. Information from these sources is invaluable in helping us understanding what is taking place. But, we often gain a sudden understanding or insight from an Aha! Moment when suddenly we “get it”. Suddenly something “just clicks”.

I have had four of these Aha! Moments. They were,

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.

The first ‘Aha! Moment’ came when I read a post by John Michael Greer in which he said that, “There is no brighter future”. In that post he pointed out that we do not face problems, we face predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.

Climate change is mostly a predicament, not a problem. We have reduced the pH of the oceans (made them more acidic) as a result of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we have generated and that has then dissolved in the seas. Even if we cut CO2 emissions to zero the oceans will remain acidic for millennia. Similarly with the greenhouse gas effect. Some of those gases, such as methane (CH4), will disappear within decades. However, other gas, particularly CO2, will remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

Depleted resources are another predicament. Once we have used the crude oil in the earth’s crust it is gone. It will take millions of years for new reserves to be created. The same argument applies to fresh water; once an aquifer is emptied or a high mountain glacier has melted, that source of fresh water is gone for ever, at least on a human time scale.

Even the manner in which we use phrases such as “renewable energy” reflect a lack of understanding as to the distinction between problems and predicaments. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be saved nor created — it merely exists. Moreover, phrases such as “renewable energy” do not make thermodynamic sense. The second law tells us that whenever we transform energy from one form to another — say by burning coal to generate steam — then the entropy of the overall system will increase. Even when we “save” energy we will increase entropy and so exacerbate the predicament in which we find ourselves. The manner in which we are using energy is creating a predicament.

No “Happy Chapter”

An awareness of the intractability of our problems/predicaments can be seen in the works of authors such as William Patton’s book Overshoot, published in the year 1982. These early books usually ended with a “happy chapter”, a chapter with solutions and responses to help us to avert catastrophe. The catch is that those solutions require a total restructuring of society, and a level of political will that simply does not exist, and that probably never will exist. Therefore, given that there is little evidence that humanity ever will make those changes, later publications from these same authors tend to skip the final “happy chapter”.

Accept and Adapt

It is this understanding of the distinction between problems and predicaments that provides the foundation for my second theological point: Accept and Adapt. We need to accept that our actions to this point have changed the world irreversibly. We cannot go back to the “good old days”; we cannot swim in the same river twice. We have to accept that we live in a new and (at times) rather scary world. This means that we need to adapt to the conditions that are in our collective future.

 

 

The Church of Progress

Mobile phone in a garden
Credit: Pexel

One of the themes of this site is that material progress is coming to an end, like it or not. Another theme is that the predicaments we face provide a wonderful opportunity for the church to show leadership to society at large. However, before the church can provide leadership it will be necessary for most of us to leave the ‘Church of Progress’. Most of us, even those who understand issues such as global warming or resource depletion, nevertheless continue believe (or, at least, we want to believe) in never-ending progress, that tomorrow will be better (materially) than it is today. When we look around us it is becoming harder and harder to hold on that belief. But still, we easily fall back to the assumption that ‘They will think of something’ or ‘Technology will come up with a solution’.

In the context of this discussion, this week’s post from Kurt Cobb is well worth reading. The title of the post is The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress.

I have two takeaways from what he says. The first is that our culture virtually requires us to use the latest technology, such as cell phones, whether we like to or not. We are expected to participate in “progress”. Yet, I when I work in my garden I intentionally do not wear a watch or carry a cell phone; I do not feel that I am not making “progress”.

The second takeaway is Kurt’s request of all of us to find a word that can replace “progress” — a word that identifies a way of living that does not require us to undermine the biosphere.

Going bananas over climate change

Bananas — used in going bananas over climate change post
Credit: Pexel

The correspondence to do with global warming and climate change at the Richmond Times-Dispatch (the principal newspaper for central Virginia) continues. The latest letter (shown below) is from Ms. Monica Lewis. She is writing in response to Mr. Tim Brandon’s original letter and the reply from Mr. Ian Sutton. (The bananas motif stems from the possibility that, if the climate does change significantly, we may be able to grow tropical fruits in the area.)

Ms. Lewis’ letter is shown below. It was published on November 2nd 2019.

Lewis response to letters about climate change (bananas theme)

Various topics are covered in these letters. They include,

  • Accept that the climate is warming and simply taking advantage of that fact.
  • The potential for a move away from globalization toward decentralization of many of our institutions.
  • The value of actions taken by politicians at the national level.
  • The need for mitigation efforts, including carbon pricing.
  • Ms. Lewis refers to the “sixth great extinction event of geological time”.

What all three writers seem to agree on is that the climate is warming. Moreover, we cannot stop the warming — the best we can do is adapt in one way or another.

Proper 25: Humility and the Year 2050

Intellectual arrogance

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the context of the Age of Limits this lesson provides guidance to those of us who communicate the predicaments that we face. People who study issues such as climate change and resource depletion are generally well educated and have had sufficient time to research these difficult, complex and emotional topics. This can lead to a situation where they become like the Pharisee in the gospel reading — they feel superior to those who pay no attention to these topics, often because they do not have sufficient time.

Such an attitude is unworthy. Moreover, it is likely to be  ineffective. We need to remain humble and to recognize that others may be making a greater contribution than ourselves, even if they do not talk as much.  In particular, we need to recognize the time and effort made by those who are actually doing something about our situation, rather than merely talking about it.


The Year 2050

Rusting wind turbines

Throughout this blog and in my book I suggest that we consider building a new Christian theology around the following three points.

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

Of these, I suggest that the most difficult to grasp is the first one: Understand and the tell the truth. The world in which we live is extraordinarily complex, with many feedback loops (both positive and negative, many of which are neither identified nor understood) and potential tipping points (once more, often not either identified or understood).  No matter how much research we may have done, and no matter how well educated we may be in there topics, we return to the need for humility.

For the last few weeks we have concentrated on the realities and implications of climate change — partly because that topic has received so much publicity from that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. But climate change is not the only challenge that we face; resource depletion is equally serious. Moreover, the two topics are tightly intertwined with one another. And then we need to add in other issues such as population increase and biosphere collapse. All of these topics interact with one another in complex and difficult-to-understand ways.

But not only is it difficult to determine what will happen, it is even more difficult to figure out when events will occur. One of our truth-telling responsibilities is to provide a timeline, as best we can, knowing that any predictions we make will turn out to be incorrect. In the section entitled The Sadness of Six Degrees at the post Proper 17: The Place of Honor I note that a shortcoming of an otherwise excellent book is that it does not provide dates. It tells us what the Earth may look like as temperatures increase, but it does not provide any estimate as to when these events will take place.

Nevertheless, our political leaders have no hesitation to do with jumping into the fray. Joe Biden, one of the leading candidates in the Presidential election in the United States had this to say,

I guarantee you we’re going to end fossil fuel . . . Before 2050, God willing.

Other candidates have come up with similar goals, so let’s pick on the year that Biden selected — 2050 — to see what the world will look like if his campaign promise materializes.

  • All energy currently provided by fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) will be provided by alternative sources. Vice President Biden does not tell us what those alternatives are, but let us assume that they are a mix of nuclear power (fission), wind and solar.
  • Since the word “fuel” is used, we can assume that oil, coal and gas will continue to be used for the manufacture of the thousands of petroleum-based products, ranging from fertilizers to chemotherapy drugs to computer screens.
  • Implicit in his message is an assumption that no one will be called on to make any type of sacrifice — we will be able to maintain Business as Usual (BAU).

The harsh reality is that, if elected, there is no chance at all that Biden will meet his goal of ending fossil fuel consumption by the year 2050.

We will explore project management and financial realities in future posts. Let’s start with what I consider to be one of the most important articles written this year, Net-Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions By 2050 Requires A New Nuclear Power Plant Every Day written by Roger Pielke and published by Forbes magazine.

Here is the money quotation from that article.

 . . . the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy three . . . nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

. . . some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

It is easy to pick on Joe Biden — we are used to political candidates making promises that sound good but that don’t make mathematical sense. But my concern is to do with well-meaning Christians and church authorities. They have fallen into the same trap. If our message is to be convincing then it must also address thermodynamic and project management realities.

Let’s expand on Pielke’s words to do with wind energy.

  • We need to deploy 1500 wind turbines EVERY SINGLE DAY, starting tomorrow (his article was written a month ago) up until the year 2050.
  • This would require the 300 square miles (78,000 hectares) of land to be converted to wind turbine sites, EVERY SINGLE DAY.
  • Therefore we need to dedicate (300 * (2050-2020) * 365) square miles of land to wind turbines in the next 30 years. This is approximately 3.3 million square miles. The area of the United States is 3.5 million square miles (including Alaska). So, starting right now, we need to plan for an area the size of the United States to be dedicated to wind turbines.
  • But this is just a start. In her article Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work, Gail Tverberg describes the enormous battery power that will have to be deployed (and then maintained) to allow for the fact that the wind does not blow when we need it. We also need to recognize the wind turbines are complex machines that require fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance. Ditto for the electrical grid that they feed into.

If Christians are to provide real leadership in the troubled times that lie ahead, it is vital that they start by understanding the dilemmas that we face. We need to avoid fatalism. But, equally, we need to avoid hopium.

Realistic Hope


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Proper 23: The Enemy Is Physics

Physics and the Age of Limits

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

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (October 13th 2019, Year C) is taken from Luke 17:11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This passage to do with faith is a continuation of last week’s gospel reading, Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences.

It can be difficult to have faith when we look at our predicaments. So few people seem to understand what is going on, and even fewer are taking action to try and change our direction. But this gospel passage tells us to keep the faith and to be grateful for any progress that is made.

Episcopal Bishops

Many bishops of the Episcopal church joined the recent climate strikes. The following is taken from the church’s web site.


Tens of thousands of young people are mobilizing at this moment in New York and across the United States, standing up for climate action and climate justice. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who electrified the audience at the UN Climate Summit in Poland last year (2018) came by fossil-free boat to join the mobilizing youth. We, a group of Green Bishops of The Episcopal Church have stepped out of our Fall meeting here in Minnesota to voice our support for this youth mobilization.

We Green Episcopal Bishops resolve to support a network of young climate activists in The Episcopal Church, building up to an Episcopal youth presence at the important United Nations Climate Summit in 2020, most likely to be held in the United Kingdom. Called COP (Conference of Parties) 26, the summit in 2020 is so crucial because it will be the 5-year stocktaking of how the world is doing keeping its commitments to the Paris Agreement. Even more importantly, we will all be called upon in 2020 to “raise our ambition” on climate action.

The Episcopal Church is already committed to action that will support a 1.5°C ceiling on global warming above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. We are working from the individual and household level up to regions and to the level of the whole Church to make the necessary transition to a sustainable life.

The Episcopal Church is also committed to climate justice, standing in solidarity with vulnerable people – the Gwich’in People of Alaska, the Standing Rock Tribe, Caribbean island peoples, and the people of Polynesia, and others, all of whose ways of life, and in some cases their very lives, are already threatened and disastrously changed by climate chaos. We recognize that climate change joins other scourges such as social violence and poverty in displacing millions of people worldwide, and we will work to make sure that all immigrants and asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect.

Finally, all we do as Episcopalians following the Way of Jesus is done with prayer, faith and trust. We turn to God for guidance, courage, and compassion.

The reaction of myself and many of my friends in the Episcopal church is to be grateful that our leaders are stepping out and providing much needed leadership. Their message provides a link to the church’s Creation Care web site (many of us are involved in local Creation Care activities at the diocese and parish level). The Anglican Communion has a similar Season of Creation site.

But, and there’s always a but . . . One of the purposes of the posts at this blog and the book New City of God is to take a careful look at the scientific background to statements such as these. After all, Greta Thunberg (G.T.), the young lady who started these strikes, says “listen to the science” and “our enemy right now is physics”.

With these thoughts in mind, I make the following comments to do with the bishops’ statement.

  1. G.T. did not arrive in a “fossil-free boat”. From the look of the boat it appears as if it has carbon fiber sails. The making of such sails, and of the boat’s hull, requires an enormous input of fossil fuel energy per kilogram-kilometer travelled. If we compare the fossil fuels required to take G.T. on a commercial airplane (including the fossil fuels needed to build the airplane and its infrastructure pro-rated for the number of flights) I would be curious to know which is more environmentally friendly. Actually the most energy-effective way to cross the Atlantic is in a spare cabin on a large cargo ship. This would give a very low energy consumption in terms of joules / (kilometer * kilogram of body weight).
  2. If the Episcopal Church is committed to the 1.5°C target how does it propose to get there? Such a goal requires substantial sacrifice on the part of the church members. Has that sacrifice been calculated and explained? Moreover, aren’t the bishops being unrealistic. Given the lack of action at the national and international level, and given that, once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere it stays in the atmosphere, shouldn’t we accept that 1.5°C is going to happen?
  3. The above two points are rather picky, but my third point is of the greatest concern. The statement commits to “climate action and climate justice”. Both goals are, of course, fully in line with Christian mission. But, by splitting the focus, confusion can be created. This is not just a theoretical point. Earlier this year members of Congress proposed a ‘Green New Deal’ based on mitigation of the impacts of climate change. The same document also proposed various social justice goals. What happened was that its opponents sensibly picked on the social justice part to effectively challenge the entire message. They said that the GND was just another way for the government to control our lives. This allowed them to successfully avoid discussing climate change issues. It’s true that addressing climate change will likely help poorer people the most, and that’s good. But I suggest that the focus should be only on climate change such that all people — rich and poor alike — benefit.

My comments may seem to be unnecessarily pedantic and even ungracious. But, if the church is to provide leadership with regard to climate change and other Age of Limits issues, then we need to make sure that we address the scientific, engineering and project management realities correctly.


The Carbon Trap

In his 2012 paper The Ladder of Awareness Paul Chefurka talks about understanding our predicaments as developing in the following five stages.

  1.  Dead asleep;
  2.  Awareness of one fundamental problem;
  3.  Awareness of many problems;
  4.  Awareness of the interconnection between many problems; and
  5.  Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.

He has now written an equally useful piece entitled the Carbon Trap. Here is what he says.

Whether we realize it or not, everyone living on planet Earth today is caught in what I have come to call the “carbon trap”. The nature of the trap is simple, and can be described in one sentence:

Our continued existence depends on the very thing that is killing us – the combustion of our planet’s ancient stocks of carbon.

This unfortunate situation was not intentional, and is no one’s fault.

The trap was constructed well outside of our conscious view or understanding.

Its design came from our evolved desires for status, material comfort and security.

We recognized its seductive promise long before we knew enough science to discover its hidden hook.

It was built with the best of intentions by well-meaning scientists and engineers, whose knowledge of the consequences was both incomplete and clouded by their own evolved desire for a better life.

Most of us, even those who are aware of our predicament, distract ourselves by creating and admiring elaborate and luxurious appointments for our carbon-clad prison.

Many who can see the bars spend their time dreaming of ways to slip through them into the world outside – a world of natural freedom that they can see but never reach.

Those who are fully aware of the trap also understand that we now need it to survive; that leaving it (if that were even possible) would be as fatal as staying inside. We are victims of what complex systems scientists call “path dependence” – where we came from and how we got here puts strict limits on what is now possible for us to do.

One of the things we can’t do is simply open the door and leave. Even the fact that our carbon-barred prison is now on fire can’t change the cold equations. We are condemned to wait here until the walls burn down, when a few soot-blackened survivors may stumble out into the blasted and barren landscape left behind by our self-absorbed construction project.

This is why I believe that the one quality most needed in the world today is compassion.

Our fossil fuel dependence started 300 years ago. (I select the year 1712 — that was when Thomas Newcomen invented his atmospheric/steam engine for pumping water out of mines.) Many people say that, when our fossil fuel supply declines and/or we simply cannot add more carbon to the atmosphere, then we will simply revert to an earlier lifestyle, the way that people lived in Biblical times.

Chefurka is saying that this is not the case; we cannot go back. The pre-industrial world is gone and will never return. You cannot swim in the same river twice. If and when the fossil fuel dependency comes to an end he is saying that we will be living in a totally different world — one consisting only of “soot-blackened” survivors.


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We’re In This Together

st james church richmond
St James Church, Richmond

The following is a guest post from Monica Lewis of St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond. It supplements our earlier post Climate Rally, Richmond Virginia.


Monica Lewis St. James Richmond VAOn Friday, September 20, young people around the world participated in the Climate Strike called for by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish climate activist who has spoken so movingly on our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If you are not yet familiar with her, ask around. Chances are, people you know and love have seen photos of her, with her plain, simple braids, online. They will know that this unassuming, mildly autistic girl has credibility and power.  She has inspired many European youths to spend Fridays at governmental buildings with signs and posters that ask for “System Change Not Climate Change” and “The Planet Over Profits.” When some have chastised the teens for skipping school, Greta has asked, “why study for a future which may not exist?”

September 20 was the day when many in Richmond and around the world – adults and youth – stand up for climate instead of attending school and work as usual. It kicked off a week of events coordinated to coincide with the UN Climate Summit in New York City, where Greta will be, following her just-completed zero carbon sailboat trip across the Atlantic.

Teachers, school administrators, religious leaders, and employers,– in short, everyone — honored the courage of Greta and her fellow activists, to stood with them and acknowledged the challenge before us. Sure, it is possible to look the other away and be resistant, as adults often are, of youth’s “disruptive behavior.” But, it would be better to carve a way forward in this unprecedented time of rapid, extreme change. We should recognize that an important aspect of teen maturation is learning to speak up and participate in community.  After all, we want teens to be able to carry on after they take our places. They have to start participating in the political process and learning the ropes. So, let’s listen to their concerns; they are responding to the scientists’ warnings about the Earth’s limits.  Can we assure them that we want a safe future, too, and that we are working towards it by implementing changes? Solving global warming is what is really important here – not how many unexcused absences some kids have – so let’s shine light on the innovations that will help all of us. Let’s make improvements to our energy infrastructures that save money and resources. Let’s teach our children and learn from them as well. Let’s lift each other up.

It is worth noting that Greta and her fellow activists have turned to striking because they feel that climate, as an issue, has not been addressed by society’s institutions.  An official statement on the crisis could go a long way in re-establishing trust between generations and keeping morale high.

There are so many ways adults and young people could participate in Climate Week together. How about a “teach in” to explain how pollution traps heat in the atmosphere?  Hang an art show that conveys this information in creative, visual ways. Host a guest speaker to present on technology that shows promise in reducing carbon emissions, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and EVs. Or gather a group together to write letters to our governmental officials. Put academic learning into use engaging in real-world problem solving. Provide the addresses, envelopes, and stamps so that those letters really get mailed! Or go digital with tweets, selfies, and hashtags such as #OurClimateStory, #GrassrootsClimate, and #PriceOnPollution. The time you spend together need not be a matter of everyone in complete agreement, but rather about conversation and a willingness to listen.

Are we going to choose to stand with students on Sept. 20 and join them in acknowledging the urgency of the environmental crisis? Or are we going to ask them to sit down, be quiet, and let us handle things, which, up until now, has been to “mishandle” things? Stand with our youth, choose the health of our planet, and choose the future. As Greta has said, “Act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”