Pontius Pilate and Truth

Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate Questioning Jesus

Jesus says,

“. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

To which Pilate replies,

“What is truth?”

John 18:38

As we think about a theology for an Age of Limits I suggest that one of the bases should be, “Understand and tell the truth”. The key word in that phrase is “understand”. Christians know that they must never lie. They also know that they must always speak and act with integrity.

Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay

James 5:12

Telling the truth can go even further. In his book De Mendacio (On Lying), written around the year 395 CE, Augustine of Hippo says that it is wrong even to tell a white lie.

However, in our extraordinarily complex society it is often very difficult and challenging to determine exactly what is truth. Consider, for example, the effect of the current pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Environmentalists are encouraged that, in spite of the all the problems and tragedies that it has caused, the consequent reduction in economic activity has at least led to an improvement in air and water quality, and also in GHG emissions.

However, it turns out that the climate change benefits of the wrenching changes we are enduring have not been all that great. Greenhouse gas emissions are down by only 5% this year. How can that be? How can the enormous cutbacks and losses that we have endured led to such a small decrease in emissions?

To find an answer, let’s look at which sectors of the economy use fossil fuels. In round numbers they are:

  • Utilities — 45%
  • Industry — 25%
  • Transport — 20%
  • Residential — 5%
  • Other (including agriculture) — 5%

The picture below shows grounded jets at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The transportation industry has gone through wrenching cutbacks. Indeed, the tourist industry has pretty well collapsed. But, as the highlighted number shows, that industry accounts for only 20% of GHG emissions, which is why the fall in overall emissions is less than most people would have expected.

Grounded airplanes at Dallas Forth Worth airport following the COVID-19 shut down.

A 5% cutback reduction in GHG emissions is good, but the cost has been enormous. Not only have tens of thousands of people died in the United States alone, there have been drastic reductions in the number of elective medical procedures, the consequences of which are not yet known. And more than 30 million people have lost their jobs in just two months. Environmentalists like to use the word “sustainable”. Well, what we have gone through in the last two months is unsustainable.

Yet the United Nations tells us that, if we are to stabilize the earth’s temperature, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per year, every year for the next twenty years. The reductions that we have seen this year have been insufficient to meet the U.N. goals in spite of the enormous human and economic cost. Yet, if we are to achieve the U.N. targets, we need to repeat what has happened this year every year for the next twenty years. That does not mean that  we stabilize at current levels of economic activity and unemployment — it means that we repeat what we did this year every year for the next twenty years.

I started this post by posing Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” I suggest that, if the church is to provide the leadership that is so badly needed then people in the faith community need to understand complexities of the type just described. This will be difficult. Most church leaders have a liberal arts background, and have had little training in science, technology or mathematics. Hence, they do not gravitate to the type of analysis just provided. In particular, they rely on qualitative statements and goals. For example, the Episcopal church has published a mission statement to do with climate change. It reads in part,

Our General Convention policy calls on lawmakers to significantly reduce carbon emissions within this century

What is the meaning of the word “significant” in the above statement? We need to apply a number to that word. If the number we select is an annual reduction of 7.6% in GHG emissions per annum, then the mission statement needs to address the drastic economic and human changes that are implied. This is not to say that we should not strive to meet that goal, but it does mean that we understand the quantitative nature of truth.

The New Normal (1) — Community

St. Wilfrid Church Calverley, Yorkshire

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. Even after the disease has run its course society will not return to the way it was — we are entering a “new normal”. This is the first in a series of posts that discusses what that new normal may look like and how the church may respond. The pandemic may , not just to what is taking place now, but also to the long-term impact of climate change.

At the time of writing, the pandemic is still increasing in scope. Countries such as China and Italy may have passed their peak (although there is always the possibility of a second wave). But many other countries are still on a rising curve of infections and mortality. We don’t know yet just how severe the final impact may be, or even how long the pandemic will last. Therefore any estimate as to what the new normal may look like is something of a conjecture. But some aspects are becoming apparent. For example, it is unlikely that the tourist industry will ever fully recover. We take a vacation in order to relax, to have fun and to experience new places. But, since vacations usually involve mingling with large numbers of strangers, many people will choose to take time off near their home because being near to so many strangers makes them uneasy. Such decisions have a ripple effect. For example, I live in a small town. A high proportion of the town’s tax income comes from the hotels and restaurants in the area. So we have to consider how the decline in tax revenue will affect funding of the police department and other local services.

In this first post to do with the new normal I would like to consider the issue of “social distancing”. We have been told by government authorities to keep at least six feet or two meters away from other people so that we do not infect one another. People seem to be heeding this instruction well. (There are exceptions, such as the pastor in Florida who insisted on holding church services. He is now under arrest.)

The instruction has forced churches to stop holding meetings involving more than two or three people. But the fact that we are forced to physically stay away from one another does not mean that we cannot communicate by telephone and video. In some respects, this pandemic seems to have actually improved social interaction within the church community. Indeed, our bishop has asked us to use the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing”. Churches have been forced to conduct worship services on line and, if my own experience is representative, “attendance” at those services has been good. The situation has also encouraged church members to reach out by phone, video and social media to those members who are shut in or who are in forced isolation. Whether this trend toward increased social interaction will continue is anyone’s guess. But it does point to a bigger lesson with respect to climate change and other ‘Age of Limits’ issues. (In my area we had no snow this winter and the month of March was unusually warm — climate change has not gone away.)

In response to the long-term crises to do with climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot I suggest that the most effective response will be to develop local communities and shorter supply chains.

Grandma survived the great depression because her supply chain was local and she knew how to do stuff

The development of community presents an opportunity for the church — particularly those churches that operate on a parish system. The church becomes a center of the community. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs may be — if you live within the physical bounds of the parish then you are part of the community.

The lessons we are learning now about communicating with one another in a time of crisis can provide valuable guidance as to how to build community for the new and rather scary world that is heading our way.

Church of England Climate Resolution

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

The synod of the Anglican church has just passed the following Resolution.

That this Synod, recognising that the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and a fundamental injustice . . . call upon all parts of the Church of England, including parishes, BMOs [Bishop Mission Orders], education institutions, dioceses, cathedrals, and the NCIs [National Church Institutions], to work to achieve year-on-year reductions in emissions and urgently examine what would be required to reach net zero emissions by 2030 in order that a plan of action can be drawn up to achieve that target;

(Additional sections discuss the reporting process.)

The following were my initial thoughts on reading this resolution.

Congratulations #1

Congratulations to the Anglican church on providing desperately-needed leadership. One of the themes of this blog is that climate change and related issues provide an an opportunity for the church. The Anglican church has stepped up to the plate.

Congratulations #2

Congratulations to the Anglican church for leading by example. The church leaders are not saying that you — whoever “you” may be — need to take action. The leaders are saying that we need to live the life we preach.

Zero

But, and there’s always a but —  the devil is to be found in his usual location. What exactly do the church leaders mean by the word “zero”? Consider the following questions that the Resolution raises.

  • Do we prohibit the use of gasoline and diesel-powered automobiles to get to and from church? If so, how do we take care of those who want to come to church, but who are disabled or elderly? Do we need to sell off our church van?
  • Do we prohibit the use of electricity in the church because most electrical power plants use coal or natural gas as their primary source of energy? If we do stop using electricity how are we to have meetings after dusk unless we use candles? Does such a prohibition apply to the church’s telephones and email systems? After all, they use electricity provided by fossil fuels.
  • Do we stop printing church bulletins and newsletters? Computers, printers and “the cloud” are all heavy users of electricity. Moreover, the equipment itself contains large amounts of embedded energy.
  • Do the churches find a new source of fresh, clean water for use in their kitchens and bathrooms give that the water and sewer utilities use fossil fuel energy for their construction, maintenance and operation.

A picture of Thomas Cranmer, one of the founders of the Anglican church, is shown at the head of this post. In his day the industrial revolution had not yet started so society made virtually no use of fossil fuels. If we are to follow the Resolution to the letter then we will need to return to the early days of the Anglican church not just spiritually, but physically. Are people ready for that? There were no flush toilets in his day. It takes (fossil fuel) energy to manufacture the chemicals that ensure our potable water is, in fact, potable, and to pump that water to where it is needed, and then to treat the sewage that we create. (Roughly 10% of a barrel of crude oil goes to make petrochemicals.)

(One response to these questions is that we could use “alternative/green energy”. Leaving aside nuclear power, which has its own environmental baggage, the sources of alternative energy usually referenced are solar panels and wind turbines, along with the massive battery banks needed for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. But these items are not “fossil fuel free” — their manufacture, installation and operation requires the use of existing energy sources.)

Timing

The Resolution calls on church institutions to work out how to reach “zero emissions” by the year 2030. We are now in the year 2020. Given that committee meetings and task forces will all take time to reach their conclusions, this means that the church has about eight years to organize and implement what would be a truly radical program. Is such a goal realistic?

Another of the themes of this blog site is that we need to understand project management realities (the posts 40 Gigatons and The Slow Train illustrate this point). The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it can be quickly implemented on a national or international scale. Such projects take time, engineering resources, funding and political will. Above all, they require that people willingly reduce their material standard of living.

Conclusions

Once more, congratulations to the leaders of the Anglican church for providing such important and badly-needed leadership. The next step is for them to make it clear to all church members that this Resolution will require everyone to sacrifice many of the conveniences and comforts provided by industrial society.

 

40 Gigatons

Pilate Questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus, “What is truth?”

In the discussions at this site we have suggested that we need to develop a theology that is suitable for the times that we are entering: an Age of Limits. We have further suggested that a foundation for such a theology is that, “We understand and tell the truth”. This is not easy. In this context, telling the truth goes beyond simply not lying — it means taking the time and effort to understand and analyze the immensely complex systems that provide the background to our modern lives. Telling the truth also means that we need to avoid wishful thinking and giving in to “hopium” — a belief that “they will come up with something”.

As an example of wishful thinking, consider the following chart. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The value has risen steadily from 310 ppm in the year 1960 to its current value of 420 ppm.

CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere with overlays of dates of COP meetings and IPCC reports

Overlaid on the chart are the dates of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and the COP (Conference of Parties) meetings. These reports and meetings have been warning us for 30 years that, unless we do something to stop the increase in CO2 concentrations, we are facing a climate catastrophe. We see how effective those efforts have been. No wonder young people are angry.

So we face an uncomfortable truth: We will continue to burn fossil fuels regardless of the consequences. As we saw in the post Two Triangles, moral admonitions are of limited effectiveness.

If we are unable to stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere then the next logical step is to find some means of removing it. (Intuitively, this approach does not make sense. It is always better to avoid catching a disease than to have treatments for the disease once caught.) So we need to investigate the technologies that are grouped under the general heading of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). But that statement brings us to another uncomfortable truth, and that is to do with scalability and project management realities — an issue that we have already discussed in The Slow Train.

As is to be expected, this is a complex topic, involving many different potential technologies. But we have to start somewhere, so let’s use the following parameters.

  • Human activities emit about 40 gigatons (40 billion tons) of CO2 per annum.
    Roughly half of that CO2 comes from point sources such as power plants and industrial facilities. The other half comes from transportation (gasoline, diesel, bunker fuel and jet fuel) and from residential.
  • We need to reduce the emissions of CO2 to zero within the next 20 years.
  • There are various carbon capture technologies that can be used. Many of these have been demonstrated on a small scale, but none of them are established as an industry standard. The technology is still in the development stage.
  • CO2 can be removed either from point sources (the stacks of power plants and industrial facilities) or from the atmosphere.
  • The concentration of CO2 in the flue gas leaving a power plant stack is about 20%.
  • Currently the largest CCS facility can extract 10 megatons (10 million tons) of CO2 per annum from a point source.
  • The CO2 that has been removed is then stored in a subsurface facility, such as a depleted oil well. the power plant and a suitable geological formation in the same location.

There are lots of assumptions and simplifications in the above statements, but they do at least provide a sensible starting point in our quest for finding the truth.

Power plant stack annotated showing CO2 emission

Based on the above assumptions, we can develop the following calculation.

  • We start the program with point source emissions because that is the most cost-effective approach.
  • This means that we aim to remove 20 gigatons of CO2 per annum. This is only half of what needs to be done, but, at least, it’s a start.
  • Given a capacity of 10 megatons per annum per facility, this means that we need (20 * 109) / (10 * 106) = 2,000 facilities in operation.

But CCS technology is still in the development stage, with many unresolved issues such as, “Where do we put the CO2 once we have removed it?”. If it takes say ten years to fully develop this technology, then we need 4,000 of these facilities to be fully operational by the year 2030. Such a program would require an unparalleled, worldwide commitment of financial, engineering and project management resources.

But it becomes even more complicated. There are at least 50,000 power plants throughout the world, most of which use fossil fuels (coal or natural gas). So, maybe we need more than 4,000 CCS facilities.

There are so many unanswered questions and so many assumptions. Nevertheless, when it comes to reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations our first-pass answers to Pilate’s question are,

  • It is very unlikely that we will voluntarily reduce our CO2 emissions.
  • The technology, financing and political will to implement carbon capture technology needs to be created within the next ten years. There are no signs of this happening.

Which leads us to the second of the theological points that we present, “Accept and adapt”.

Two Triangles

Book: Two Triangles by Ken Pye

The book Two Triangles: Liverpool, Slavery and the Church describes the trans-Atlantic slave trade that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book also discusses the church’s involvement in this terrible practice. Some church leaders provided theological justification for what was taking place, but others, including many in the Anglican church and the City of Liverpool, helped bring about the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. (Two Triangles can be purchased from the Liverpool Cathedral bookshop here.)

Although the events of the book seem now to be “just history”, the book’s message is surprisingly relevant to us now in our Age of Limits — for two reasons. The first reason is to do with the theological arguments to do with the morality of slavery, and their relevance to our use of fossil fuels. The second reason is that the slaves were needed to provide the energy needed to develop and operate the Caribbean plantations. We need the energy provided by coal, oil and natural gas if we are to maintain our current, abundant lifestyle.

The Triangle

The triangle that the book refers to was to do with trade ships that made journeys between three nodes of a trade triangle: Liverpool, Africa and the Caribbean. On the first leg a ship carrying rum, textiles and manufactured goods would sail south from Liverpool, England to ports in west Africa. Having unloaded its cargo it would be packed with slaves captured from the African hinterland. The ship would then sail west to the Caribbean using the trade winds. In the Caribbean the slaves would be sold and the ship loaded with raw materials such as sugar, cotton and tobacco. It would complete its journey by following the Gulf Stream and returning to Liverpool.

Slave triangle book Two Triangles

The descriptions in the book of the second leg of the passage — the transport of slaves from their homes in Africa to the Caribbean — were tough reading. ‘Nuff said.

Slave ship in book Two Triangles

Theological Justification

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Colossians 3:22

The book provides an important discussion to do with theological tension between the verses in the Bible that endorse slavery and the Christian spirit of love for all human beings. We can see this same discussion playing out now with regard to climate change. There are those who want to do the right thing, i.e., reduce carbon emissions, even if that action means a reduction in our standard of living. And there are those who want to make money now, regardless of the morality of their actions.

Energy

Patrick Henry and slavery
Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

Many of the people living at the time of the slave trade recognized the immorality of what was going on, but they saw it as a necessary evil. One of the leaders of the American Revolution was Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death!”. In the year 1773, a time when the slave trade was at its height, he wrote,

Would any one believe that I am master of slaves by my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not — I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.

Do those words sound familiar?

Indentured labor of various types was needed to provide the energy that their society needed to function. Henry, and the other prosperous people of his time, needed that energy to run their society and to maintain their standard of living. They knew that what they were doing was wrong, but they could see no way out of their dilemma. The analogy with what is taking place now is stark — we know that burning fossil fuels is creating many predicaments, but we need those fuels to maintain our way of life.

For both ourselves, and for Patrick Henry, the way out of the dilemma was “alternative energy”. In his case, during the 18th century a new source of energy was coming along: coal. The energy supplied by coal was so abundant that there was less need for the human energy. Later on, we found an even better source of energy: oil.

Is it coincidence that two things happened at about the same time? In the year 1859 Colonel Drake (who wasn’t a colonel) drilled his first successful oil well. The technology that he used — a drill string inside casing — is still in use now. Just a few years later, slavery in the United States was abolished. (In the picture, Drake is the person on the right in the stovepipe hat.)

Drake first oil well source of energy

Theology and Technology

Two Triangles emphasizes the moral component to do with the abolition of slavery. This is something that is needed now with regard to climate change. One of the consequences of climate change is that the people who suffer the most from its impact are the people who are least responsible for it happening. And it is not just people. The massive fires that have recently occurred in Australia led not just to people losing their lives and their homes, it also resulted in an enormous loss of wild life.

But moral and theological pushback by itself is insufficient. We need to find new sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. This is turning out to be very difficult. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of people of faith not only to make moral arguments, but also to understand how technology can help us find responses to the predicaments in which we find ourselves.

 

 

Essential Petrochemicals

Ruthenium — Used to convert CO2 to methane

A theme of the posts at this site is that society will have to reduce its use of energy and raw materials. There is no way of getting around an Age of Limits. This leads to a subsidiary theme that our faith in technology is misplaced. In spite of our best hopes, they will not “come up with something”.

Nevertheless, it is worth keeping an eye on technological advances that can help us reduce the impact of the predicaments we face, or that can slow down the speed with which they are taking place. In particular, it is worth looking at developments in “carbon sequestration” — the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. This CO2 can then either be stored, or converted to another chemical.

I am dubious about such proposed technological advances because they cannot get around the basic of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. No system is truly sustainable; all the actions that we take will lead to an overall increase in system entropy. Nevertheless, this is an area we should keep an eye on.

Given this background my attention was caught by an article published in this month’s Chemical Engineering Progress magazine. The title of the article was Transforming a Carbon-Based Economy. It discusses the use of a rare element, ruthenium (Ru), as a catalyst to convert CO2 in the atmosphere to methane (CH4). I was particularly caught by the following two quotations in the article,

We are a hydrocarbon-based economy, and we have been for 100-something years . . . So, at least as a bridge to technology for the next generation, we’re going to have to stay largely with hydrocarbons.

We still need plastics, carbon materials, and other commodity chemicals that are carbon-based.

What proponents of programs such as the Green New Deal fail to recognize is that about 10% of a barrel of oil is used as a feedstock used to make the thousands and thousands of chemicals that are essential to modern life. The list includes plastics, detergents, lubricants, packaging, carpets, structural foam, rubber, clothing, penicillin, chemotherapy drugs, food preservatives, fertilizers, pesticides, dyes, clothing, contact lenses, and so on and so on. Even if it were realistic to run our society on clean, renewable sources of energy within the next 20 years (which it isn’t), we would still need fossil fuels to make those chemicals.

The authors of this article recognize this dilemma. Their research is pointing toward a solution whereby we can use CO2 in the atmosphere as a petrochemical feedstock.

No Epiphany

Australian wildfires December 2019
This is not news

Like many churches around the world, our church has just celebrated Epiphany — the time when the magi or wise men visited the baby Jesus.

The word epiphany has been defined in the following ways,

  • An appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being;
  • A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; or
  • An illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

In the Biblical context the magi suddenly realize who it is that they have been directed to visit.  That is their epiphany.

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi
Adoration of the Magi. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The theme of this site is to provide thoughts as to how we might develop a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for the world that we are entering. The three theological points presented for discussion are,

  1.  Understand and tell the truth.
  2.  Accept and adapt.
  3.  Live within the biosphere.

I have highlighted the first of these because it is the one I would like to consider in this post. Specifically, I would like to consider whether or not we, as a society, will have an epiphany regarding climate change. Will there be a moment when people suddenly “get it”, a time when “it clicks” that something is going on, that the world is changing? And, were such an epiphany to occur, would it be followed by decisive action?

Let’s think about these questions in context of this week’s news: the appalling wildfires that are consuming so much of Australia. Have the people of Australia had an epiphany where they, as a nation, understand the threat that climate change poses? Furthermore, has the Australian government recognized the error of its ways such that it is now doing everything that it can to slow down the rate at which the climate is changing? For example, has it stopped the export of Australian coal to other countries? The answers to the above three questions are “No”, “No” and “No”. The fires have not led to a nation-wide “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”? They may have led some Australians to consider a new way of thinking. But there has been no nation-wide change.

Why not? Why has there not been an Australian epiphany? Two possible reasons come to mind.

The first reason is to do with “normalization of the news”. The wild fires in Australia (or California or the Arctic or anywhere else, for that matter) are, by definition, only news when they are new, when they capture people’s attention as being something out of the ordinary. As soon as they become routine or long drawn out affairs they are, by definition, no longer news. Hence, they no longer grab our attention. Once the fire season is behind them, people switch their attention to other matters of more topical concern.

The second reason that the Australian fires are not an epiphany is that the Australian government understands that, were they to restrict coal mining, then many individual Australians would lose well-paid jobs. Even those who understand the magnitude and seriousness of climate change will, for the most part, continue with the same way of life. After all, they have children to raise, mortgages to pay and a retirement to save for. Epiphany or not, most people will not be prepared to make radical personal sacrifice in order to “save the world”. Or, to put it another way, they have not repented, as discussed in a recent post in this series.

So, with regard to the first of the three theological points — Understand and tell the truth — we can conclude that there will be no nation-wide epiphany. There will be not be a time when the world as a whole “wakes up” and “gets it”.

If this conclusion is correct then it is, to say the least, a discouraging conclusion. Maybe this is where people of faith and the church overall can provide leadership. Secular politicians cannot ask people to voluntarily reduce their standard of living. If they do, they soon become ex-politicians. But faith is not about material prosperity — so the leaders of the church can talk about a society in which people make voluntary cut backs in their standard of living for the greater good of all. People of faith can help bring about an epiphany, for at least some members of the population.


Postscript

The day after I published this post Reuters published an article Australia’s leaders unmoved on climate action after devastating bushfires.

While the fires are still burning the ‘Emissions Reduction Minister’ said,

In most countries it isn’t ­acceptable to pursue emission­ reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, ­destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth.

This is a remarkably candid statement — he is not fudging around with “green growth’.