A Personal Journey Part III: Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World

Dante’s Forest Dark
Dante’s Forest Dark

A Personal Journey

The second chapter of the book A New City of God: Theology in an Age of Limits describes my personal journey through Dante’s “Forest Dark” as I learned more about the changes that are taking place, and as I thought about the theological implications of such changes.

The sections of that chapter are shown below. Every so often I will write a blog to do with one of these topics. In this blog let’s take a look at the third entry (highlighted in red): A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article.

  • A Brief Biography
  • The Machine Stops
  • A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
  • Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
  • A History of Knowledge
  • Twilight in the Desert
  • Down The Hubbert Curve
  • The Archdruid Report
  • Hard Times for These Times
  • Oil Price Collapse
  • Hegelian Synthesis
  • Jevons Paradox
  • Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
  • Peak Prosperity
  • Post Carbon Institute
  • Cassandra’s Legacy
  • Resource Insights
  • Francis I
  • The Last Question
  • The Journey
  • The Ladder of Awareness

Entropy — Into the Greenhouse World

Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World

One of the first books that I read that was to do with ecological destruction was Jeremy Rifkin’s Entropy — Into the Greenhouse World (Rifkin 1989). Although published over 30 years ago, its predictions to do with the ‘Greenhouse World’ have turned out to be useful and accurate. His discussion to do with the deforestation of Europe that occurred in the Middle Ages, described in the previous chapter, particularly resonated with me.

Jacques Turgot (1727-1781)
Jacques Turgot (1727-1781)

Rifkin starts one chapter with an overview of a two-part lecture given by Jacques Turgot at the University of Paris in the year 1750. Turgot argued that history proceeds in a straight line and that each stage of history represents an advance over the previous one. In other words, he developed the idea of what we now call “progress”. We can expect tomorrow to be better (in material terms) than today.

The theme of Rifkin’s book is that this world view, the one of inexorable and unstoppable material progress, is coming to an end.

Though we are largely unaware of it, much of the way we think, act, and feel can be traced back to the . . . historical paradigm that took shape and form during those centuries [ the time of Turgot ] . . It is ironic indeed that only now as that tapestry begins to fray and unwind is it possible to really see the stuff we and our modern world are made of.

The concept of unending material progress would have made no sense to people in Biblical times because the only energy available to them was provided by human and animal labor, supplemented by the energy obtained from burning wood. Their society was basically steady state. Although Turgot probably did not realize it, material progress depends on the availability of fossil fuel energy. We are not in thermodynamic equilibrium with our environment.


40 Million Americans


Colorado river drying up

The Grist site has published an article 40 million Americans depend on the Colorado River. It’s drying up.

The article makes the following points:

  • The Colorado river provides water to 1 in 8 Americans.
  • It irrigates 15% of the country’s agricultural products.
  • Major cities such as Denver and Los Angeles depend on it.
  • In addition to its direct use, the water in Lake Mead and Hoover Dam generate vital electricity for the region.

But, “There’s no longer enough water to go around”.

People talk about “sustainable living”, with the implication that, if we just make adjustments to our lifestyle, we will be able to continue with BAU (Business as Usual).

But, if the Colorado really is drying up, then major disruptions lie ahead for the 40 million Americans living in the southwest.



Out of the Mouths of Teenagers

Greta Thurnberg accusing world leaders of not acting on climate change
Greta Thurnberg (2003 – )

Greta Thurnberg, a 15-year old from Sweden, gave the following speech to the comfortable “adults” at the COP24 Conference in Poland in 2018.

My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden.

I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now.

Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do.

But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference.

And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.

You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.

Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.

Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.
The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.

You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.

We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.

We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.

We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.

Thank you.

So what is this young person telling we “adults”.

  • Speaking as a young person living in a country with little economic power, she says that she, and people like her, still have power.
  • She speaks clearly — no fudging around about “sustainable growth”.
  • She speaks for the many poor people who suffer disproportionately from the ravages of climate change. She is not self-centered.
  • She sarcastically talks about “green eternal growth”. She seems to have a better grasp of the second law than people three times her age.
  • She makes the obvious statement that a continuation of the bad actions that got us into this mess is not a good idea. She does not use Einstein’s famous remark, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we crated them” — but she could have done.
  • She tells the world “leaders” that they are not mature. They leave all the hard decisions to the young people.
  • She challenges the economic system that benefits the very rich at the expense of the life of the planet.
  • Her comment about how she will talk about people like us when she is 75 is reminiscent of the famous Kitchener proposal (which, incidentally, worked — it persuaded many young men to join the army at the start of World War I).
Kitechener. Your Country Needs You.
Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916)
  • She accuses us of hypocrisy — she says that we don’t love our children enough to make real sacrifices in our lifestyles.
  • She says that “we are running out of time”. In this she is actually incorrect — we have already run out of time. But maybe she was being tactful.
  • Change is coming — like it or not.

Extinction Rebellion and Young Evangelicals

Extinction Rebellion
Two news items caught my eye this week.

Extinction Movement

The first was to do with the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protest movement. The Guardian says,

The Extinction Rebellion climate protest group has expanded to 35 countries and is building towards a week of international civil disobedience in April.

Wikipedia describes the movement as follows,

Extinction Rebellion (sometimes shortened as XR) is an international social movement that aims to drive radical change, through nonviolent resistance in order to minimise species extinction and avert climate breakdown

In an open letter members of the  movement, which was formed this year, say,

The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.

What is interesting about this movement is their use of the word ‘Extinction’. They are not mincing words, or saying, “maybe this, or, on the other hand, maybe that”.

In an open letter they make the following demands,

  • The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
  • The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
  • A national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.

Taking these points one by one,

  • In in his book De Mendacio Augustine stressed that it is the responsibility of Christians to tell the truth at all times — not even while lies are acceptable.
  • Reducing carbon emissions to zero by the year 2025 will not happen. Any attempt to do so will lead to extinction by a different route.
  • Would the Citizens’ Assembly over-ride existing government?

Young Evangelicals

The other item that attracted my attention was this article. It describes how some young, Evangelical Christians are now taking climate change very seriously.

While many evangelicals are preoccupied with the long-term state of human souls and the protection of the unborn, Diego and the other students I met at Wheaton are also considering other eternal implications and a broader definition of pro-life. They are concerned about the lifespan of climate pollutants that will last in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and about the lives of the poor and weak who are being disproportionately harmed by the effects of those greenhouse gases.

I have never really understood why any Christian would oppose the science to do with climate change (and other Age of Limits issues). After all, if people are suffering due to these events then we need to understand what is happening before coming up with “solutions” that are not actually solutions.


Paul Krugman Climate change depravity
Paul Krugman

One of the sections of my book A New City of God is to do with the nature of denial and how we should work with people who irrationally deny climate change. In that section I suggest that we treat all opinions with respect, and not criticize people who hold views that fly in the face of reason and consensus expert opinion. Yet here is a venerable and highly respected publication — the New York Times — publishing an editorial by Paul Krugman entitled The Depravity of Climate Change Denial. He is writing about the response to the National Climate Assessment report, written by members of thirteen government agencies.

He pulls no punches, particularly when it comes to politicians who dance around obvious truths. Krugman writes,

. . . the Trump administration and its allies in Congress will, of course, ignore this analysis. Denying climate change, no matter what the evidence, has become a core Republican principle. And it’s worth trying to understand both how that happened and the sheer depravity involved in being a denialist at this point.

Wait, isn’t depravity too strong a term? Aren’t people allowed to disagree with conventional wisdom, even if that wisdom is supported by overwhelming scientific consensus?

Yes, they are — as long as their arguments are made in good faith. But there are almost no good-faith climate-change deniers. And denying science for profit, political advantage or ego satisfaction is not O.K.; when failure to act on the science may have terrible consequences, denial is, as I said, depraved.

Businesses with a financial interest in confusing the public — in this case, fossil-fuel companies — are prime movers. As far as I can tell, every one of the handful of well-known scientists who have expressed climate skepticism has received large sums of money from these companies or from dark money conduits . . .

And these motives matter. If important players opposed climate action out of good-faith disagreement with the science, that would be a shame but not a sin, calling for better efforts at persuasion. As it is, however, climate denial is rooted in greed, opportunism, and ego. And opposing action for those reasons is a sin.

Indeed, it’s depravity, on a scale that makes cancer denial seem trivial . . .climate change isn’t just killing people; it may well kill civilization. Trying to confuse the public about that is evil on a whole different level. Don’t some of these people have children?

And let’s be clear . . . Republicans don’t just have bad ideas; at this point, they are, necessarily, bad people.

Weeping Jeremiah



Weeping Jeremiah
Weeping Jeremiah

One of the reasons that I started writing this blog, and later the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits, was that I had been studying the Hebrew Bible as part of the Education for Ministry (EfM) program. (This is a four year program. Students attend a weekly class every week and carry out the necessary background reading.) The first year curriculum covers the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. My class colleagues had heard me talk about how the Peak Oil / Climate Change situation creates opportunities for fresh Christian leadership, so they suggested that I become a modern-day prophet. Taking on such a role seemed to be rather presumptuous. Nevertheless, for better or for worse, I decided to give it a go.

Use of the word “prophet” prompted me to take a look at these older prophets. I came up with the following thoughts.

  1. They were not fortune tellers — they make specific predictions about the future — they merely observed what was going on around them and drew some obvious conclusions. For example, in their day three superpowers — Egypt, Assyria and Babylon — were fighting, at different times, for regional dominance. Their armies often clashed in and around the lands occupied by the Hebrews. Therefore one thing was certain — Judah and its capital Jerusalem were going to be in harm’s way. Any other reasonably informed person living at the time would have reached the same conclusion. The prophets were not revealing a secret.
  2. From a material point of view, there was little that the Hebrew people could do to resist their larger and more powerful enemies. Solomon did achieve a brief period of independence, but that was unusual. And, as we know, Jesus often made reference to the superpower of his time: Rome.
  3. The prophets did not offer a way out of the predicaments that they faced. They understood that, by and large, physical resistance was not going to work. We hear the same from Jesus, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17).
  4. But they did call upon the Hebrew people to return to their basic religious principles; their response was spiritual, not physical or material. As I will discuss in future posts, and in the book A New City of God, I suggest that our response to the Age of Limits crises that we face will have to be largely spiritual. After Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.
  5. Nevertheless — surprise, surprise — the prophets were ignored.

The analogy with what is taking place in our time is striking. Taking the above points one by one:

  1. Few of those studying the looming energy and environmental crises make specific predictions as to exactly what will happen or what the timing is likely to be. Like Paul, we can only “see through a glass darkly”. But they do “prophesy” that our modern-day predicaments will have catastrophic consequences. Moreover, anyone who spends just a few hours reading sensible research materials will arrive at generally the same conclusions as the modern-day “prophets”. It’s all fairly obvious. It does not require special insights.
  2. Like the peoples of those ancient times, we also face predicaments.
  3. There are no solutions because predicaments don’t have solutions. When faced with a predicament, all that we can do is respond and adapt. We cannot make the predicament go away.
  4. As I will discuss in future posts, and in the book A New City of God, I suggest that our response to the Age of Limits crises that we face will have to be largely spiritual. After Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.
  5. Modern prophets are also ignored and their prophecies are denied. The number of people willing to face up to the nature of our current predicaments is small and the number who are taking action in their personal lives is smaller still.

Of the Hebrew prophets, probably the best known is Jeremiah. He not only authored the book with his name, but may also have written Kings and Lamentations.

He was called to his prophetic ministry in 626 BCE. He prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed because the people of Israel had been unfaithful to the laws of the covenant and had forsaken the true God by worshiping Baal. He prophesied that his people would face famine, and then be taken as slaves to a foreign land.

It is interesting to note that Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet, nor did he believe that he had the skills to be one. But we are told that the Lord touched his lips, and told him to go out and prophesy. To do this he had to,

  • Not be afraid,
  • Stand up and speak, and
  • Go where he was sent.

Jeremiah was persecuted for his work and was condemned to death. Nevertheless, he survived, and, somewhat ironically, was well treated by the Babylonians — the people who fulfilled his prophecy as to his people being captured.

Nevertheless, he was persistent; he had to speak.

But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in.

Jeremiah 20:9

Jeremiah compared to modern Age of Limits prophets
Vernet’s Jeremiah


Ending with a Whimper

California Fires

Oakland Hills Smoke November 2018
Oakland Hills. Credit: New York Times

This week the wild fires in California are making headlines. Not only has the death toll reached 71 (and that number will presumably go up), but the quality of life in much of California has become miserable. The New York Times article Not Burned, but Suffocated highlights the struggles of many people in the Bay Area as they try to go about their normal lives.

Aside from the problems to do with the smoke itself, the following items in the article caught my attention.

    1. Because it is to hard to breathe outside, people use their cars, even “to do simple, nearby errands”.
    2. The most effective air masks are sold out.
    3. Doctors are seeing physiological weaknesses in people are inflamed.
    4. People are driving three hours to spend one day outdoors.
    5. They are buying plane tickets — to anywhere else.

These items all illustrated the fact that Age of Limits issues are complex, and involve unexpected feedback loops and examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences..

The article concludes with the following sobering statement.

We’ve been told for a generation to expect this kind of creeping devastation. Still, it is incredibly troubling to feel it arriving, to hunker in its shadow. People around me are weighing that too, sobered, feeling their eyes burn, hearing the rattling in their lungs.

Paradise California fires
Paradise California. Credit: New York Times.

Some people think that the world may end with a bang. But what we see in places such as California is a gradual, debilitating and dispiriting decline that puts one in mind of Eliot’s famous lines, from the Hollow Men.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

At this web site I will try to draw lessons for the Christian community from events such as those in California. It seems to me that there are two lessons here.

The first, of course, is to do what we can to help people in the here and now.

The second lesson is to do with the long term. We need to understand that what we see in California is not a problem, but a predicament — there are no solutions, we cannot go back to where we were. The opportunity for doing so is decades behind us.

As a community we must learn to live in a world — the world of the Industrial Revolution — that is ending not with a bang, but a whimper.

Failed Preparations

Umbrella being blown away

Many people who are aware of Age of Limits issues have prepared for a sudden crisis. These people are often called “preppers”.

But may be they are not as “prepped” as they thought they were. This article from Peak Prosperity describes how a person living in North Carolina who thought he was well prepared, fared less well than expected when hit by Hurricane Florence in September of this year. The problems that he faced fell into three broad categories:

  1. Climate-related corrosion
    Despite careful efforts to store his emergency gear responsibly, he discovered the humid North Carolina climate had ruined several pieces of equipment.
  2. Incorrect assumptions
    Several components did not work as expected when deployed. The “universal” gas line purchased in advance to connect his collection of camping stoves to a large propane tank simply didn’t fit.
  3. Random Fate

There are two important lessons that we can draw from this person’s experience.

  1. Having an emergency plan is not sufficient. That plan should be tested frequently.
  2. Always have backups for critical equipment.

Christian Climate Action

In Britain, two members of Christian Climate Action have been arrested as result of their protests as part of the “Extinction Rebellion”. One has to admire the courage and sacrifice of Ruth Jarman and Phil Kingston.

It is interesting to see that these Christians are talking very bluntly; they use the word “extinction”, rather than something less dramatic, such as “climate change”. Their demands are:

  • That the UK declares a state of emergency around climate change;
  • That the government takes action to create a zero carbon economy by 2025;
  • That we create a national assembly of ordinary people to decide what our zero carbon future will look like.

They compare themselves with civil rights activists in the United States and with suffragettes in the early 20th century. It seems to me, however, that they face a much greater challenge than those earlier activists. Those people were for increasing the number of people with civil rights — the right to vote, for example. They were not proposing to take anything away from anyone — except maybe feelings of unjustified superiority. But, if we are serious about a “zero carbon economy” just seven years from now, then we are talking about shutting down the world’s economies. Everything that we do is based on the use of fossil fuel energy (coal, oil, natural gas). A “zero carbon economy” would create its own form of extinction.

Unlike the previous activists, the people from Christian Climate Action are demanding enormous sacrifice from those who currently benefit from the current world order. Yet look at the violent response to a simple increase in the tax on diesel fuel sold in France. There’s a disconnect here.

French Fuel Protests 2018-11
Credit: BBC

Which takes us back to a persistent theme of this site — climate change is not a stand-alone issue. It needs to be considered in the context of resources, economics and population, as shown in the following simple Venn Diagram.


And, as the French protests demonstrate, we have to factor in human psychology — there are very few people who will voluntarily reduce their standard of living.