Through a glass, darkly

Predicting the Future

At a recent church service the minister giving the sermon said that every preacher has his or her favorite verse from the Bible that they come back to time and time again. I believe that he is correct. In the context of this blog the passage that I keep going back to is from 1 Corinthians 13,12.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

(Scholars tell us that the word “glass” — implying a window that we look through — may be a misleading translation. In biblical times they did not have glass mirrors with a metal backing, as we do. Their mirrors were made of copper. The metal surface was generally uneven, so the mirror rarely provided an exact image.)

The point of the passage is that the apostle Paul is telling us that, in spite of his immense spiritual insights, even he cannot forecast the future in detail. But he can see an outline as to what might happen. He is not totally blind.

Take a look at the image at the head of this post. We are looking through a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But take a closer look. There are some railings (or maybe a window frame), and a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline — and the harder we look the more we see. We see through a glass darkly. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and when we make predictions they often turn out to be wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading.

Another problem to do with predicting the future is selecting the time frame. When talking about the future we first have to determine what we mean by “the future”? Is it tomorrow, a week from now, five years away or a generation out? The further away it is, the less accurate our predictions will be. We can say with confidence that tomorrow will be much like today, and that the world five years from now will not be too different from what we see now (assuming no major calamity such as war). But, beyond that, the future looks increasingly hazy. In fact, the only statement that we can make with confidence is that all predictions that we make will turn out to be wrong. After all, who would have predicted as little as ten years ago the impact that social media and mobile phones have already had on the lives of billions of people?

Climate change is particularly difficult to forecast because it is not an event, it is a process. It started in the 1960s, gained traction in the 1970s and has gained traction ever since. This means that, by definition, we cannot prevent climate change from occurring  — we are too late for that. The best we can do is slow its pace and/or mitigate the consequences. Failing that, we are forced into an adaptation mode.

IPCC Report

IPCC Report Global Warming

The recently published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1) does, however, give us a handle as to what will happen, and when it will happen. This report was prepared for the United Nations and, as such, is authoritative. The scientific findings in the main report are summarized in a 34-page “Summary for Policy Makers,” which was approved by all representatives from 195 nations, including the U.S.

The report is technical, lengthy and not always an easy read, but here are some of its key findings.

Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence)

Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence)

These two quotations note that emissions that have taken place in the past will continue to have a major impact. However, if we could stop all emissions now we would not reach a critical stage.

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). 

This paragraph, and others like it, have been criticized for being too hopeful. They do not spell out the magnitude of the changes that are required, and the enormous impact that such changes would have. The “rapid and far-reaching transitions” that the report alludes to mean that we, as a society, would have to stop using fossil fuels within the next decade or so. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Even if the will to take such action were present, the economic impact on people’s lives would be devastating.

The Impact

Reports such as the one just cited make for rather dry reading. In order to understand where climate changes are taking us it is useful to read articles by writers such as Wallace-Wells (2) and Bendell (3). They provide rather scary insights as to what the future may look like.

Through the Glass, Darkly

To summarize:

  • Actions that we have taken so far will increase global temperatures by 1.5°C. This is baked into the pie. The impact of a 1.5 °C increase is very serious, but does not drive us over a tipping point (that phrase is not included in the report but it probably should be).
  • In order to keep temperature increases to 1.5°C we would have to cut fossil-fuel use by half in less than 15 years and eliminate it almost entirely in 30 years. This means no home, business, or industry heated by gas or oil; no vehicles powered by diesel or gasoline; all coal and gas power plants shuttered; the petrochemical industry converted wholesale to green chemistry; and heavy industry like steel and aluminum production either using carbon-free energy sources or employing technology to capture CO2 emissions and permanently store it.
  • Cutting the use of fossil fuels in such a drastic manner would, of course, lead to a massive economic recession, and suffering for billions of people. Hence no nation is taking such drastic actions, or even coming close.
  • If we do not take drastic action then, by the year 2050 it will be too late to change course.

Let’s return to the Corinthians quotation that started this post. When we look through our fogged-up window we see that climate change is going to have massive impact on society one way or another. Either we, as a society that includes all the countries of the world, take drastic actions that will radically reduce our standard of living and that will disproportionately affect those at the bottom of the economic scale. Or we do nothing and then face the consequences of environmental destruction, which in turn could well lead to economic collapse. The outline is becoming clearer and clearer. And it is not a pretty sight.

Citations

(1) Global Warming of 1.5°C. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. January 2019.(2) Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth. New York Magazine July 2017.
(3) Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. July 2018.

The Christian New Deal: Part I

This blog is the first in a series to do with the nature of a ‘Christian New Deal’. It discusses the nature of truth in the context of the Age of Limits. It starts with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The conclusion is that the truth of the predicaments that we face is complex and hard to understand. Nevertheless it is our responsibility to do the work needed to understand that truth.

The picture at the top of this post is of Pilate questioning Jesus. In John 18 we read,

 . . . Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. One of the writers who has greatly influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues is John Michael Greer. His work is described in the fourth part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).  The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

A Theology for Our Times

The ultimate aim of the posts in this series is to help develop a theology that addresses the issues that we discuss — issues that are collectively the ‘Age of Limits’. Every so often, we will publish a post that provides some thoughts as to what that ideology might look like. Given that the Green New Deal has attracted so much attention, let us call it the Christian New Deal.

This post is the first in that series.

A Committee Meeting

I recently attended a meeting of a church environmental group. It works with individual churches and the larger community on a wide range of programs such as,

  • Eliminating the use of plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash;
  • Management of storm water run-off to minimize the loss of top soil;
  • The development of community gardens; and
  • Writing mission statements and resolutions to do with church policy.

At the conclusion of the meeting we had a round-table discussion at which people were invited to talk about what was on their mind. One person introduced the topic of the recent youth movement (see The Thunberg Meme), another talked about the impact of the Green New Deal. This led to an immediate change in the tone of the meeting. It became apparent that everyone understood that, regardless of actions such as ours, climate change — with all its scary consequences — is happening. And these consequences are not just on the other side of the world. The climate in our own locality has changed (there will be more rain than has been normal).

Programs such as the Green New Deal can be properly challenged on the grounds that they are not realistic, either in terms of engineering or project management. But a more fundamental difficulty with such programs is that they assume that we can have our environmental cake and eat it. If we take the proposed actions then we can have both a remediated environment and maintain our current standard of living. It would be wonderful if this assumption were true, but, alas, such is not the case.

Truth

One of the themes of the posts at this blog is that Christians must always tell the truth, even if the truth is difficult to understand. For example, in Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics we note that not only does it provide us with fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it is also the source of the petrochemicals that create the products that are so fundamental to our way of living. We cannot stop using crude oil without facing wrenching changes to the way in which we live — and people at the lower end of the economic scale will probably be impacted the most.

A much harder truth to accept is that our climate is taking us into a hot-house world that humans have never seen before. An increasing number of people are spelling out the details of this future. Examples are the book Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells and the paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell. The story that they tell is not pretty.

Back to the committee meeting that started this post. Is it enough for Christian groups such as this to focus on actions such as those described? Or should these groups spend at least part of their time and energy on describing our future — no holds barred?

A Theological Response

We have already talked about Augustine of Hippo and his book The City of God. But there is another work of his that it is useful to consider, and that is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine insists that Christians must tell the truth at all times — not even white lies are permissible. Therefore, I suggest that the first step in the development of a new theology is to be totally rigorous about telling the truth about the dilemmas that we face. Such a truth has three parts.

  1. Understanding the nature of truth is difficult. The issues that we discuss are complex and have many feedback loops. This means that, if we are to understand the truth then we need to do our homework.
  2. Telling the truth may cause alarm in others, and may (will) make us less popular. Carriers of bad news are not popular.
  3. The people who will be most affected by all these changes will be those toward the bottom of the economic scale.

I conclude that understanding and telling the truth is the first part of a Christian New Deal.

The Thunberg Meme

Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy has just published The Thunberg Effect Seems to be in Full Swing: Will It Last? He uses Google Analytics to show the effect of her leadership. The blue line shows interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change’; the red line in the topic of ‘Greta Thunberg’.
Thunberg Meme

It is too early to know if this young lady really has started a movement, but it is interesting to note that she herself cites Rosa Parks as one of the people who inspired her. Maybe she and other young people have started the equivalent of a new civil rights movement.

The Stordalen

Book Release

Priests in a hurry
Every week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far, including the current Table of Contents. This week we are up to the first part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

The Stordalen

1 stordalen  =  10,491 bacon cheeseburgers

Quantification

As an engineer I like to think in numbers. Hence one of my favorite quotations is from Lord Kelvin (of degrees Kelvin fame) — yet another bewhiskered Victorian gentleman.

Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)
Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

One of the difficulties that many of us face when discussing environmental issues is to do with the units of measurement. We talk about our carbon footprint, but how is that footprint to be measured? Our knowledge is indeed of a “meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.

Saving the Planet

In his post A Wilderness of Mirrors John Michael Greer refers to an article in the Daily Mirror entitled Globe-trotting billionaire behind campaign to save planet accused of blatant hypocrisy. Greer says,

Late last year . . . the mass media trumpeted yet another study proclaiming yet another low-meat diet that would supposedly save the planet. The study was funded by a Norwegian vegan billionaire named Gunhild Stordalen. For a change, reporters actually looked into the story, and turned up the fact that Stordalen’s commitment to the environment apparently begins and ends on her dining table.

Diet aside, she’s got the same colossal carbon footprint as other members of her class; her idea of a modest wedding celebration, for example, included flying a private jet full of friends from Oslo to Marrakesh and back.

(Math isn’t my strong suit, so one of my readers obligingly crunched the numbers, and showed that this little jaunt of Stordalen’s—one of many each year in her globehopping lifestyle, by the way—had a carbon footprint equal to no fewer than 10,491 of the bacon cheeseburgers she insists nobody ought to eat.)

Stordalen-Gunhild Tree Hugger
Gunhild Stordalen: A Tree Hugger

So maybe, if we decide to walk rather than drive to the grocery store, we can determine how the impact of our decision by measuring the number of stordhalens saved.

(One person pointed out that ‘stor’ is Norwegian for ‘large’, whereas ‘liten’ means ‘small’. The stordalen is too large a unit for daily use, but if litendalen is a thousandth of a stordalen then it would be equivalent to 10.5 bacon cheeseburgers — a more practical measure.)

Live the Life Preached

The above is, of course, written somewhat tongue in cheek (although the idea of quantifying environmental impact is a good one). But the point that Greer makes is serious: we must live the life we preach.

He made the same point in an earlier post when talking about Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s book and the matching video introduced many people to the ideas of global warming and climate change. (Gore had been Vice President under Bill Clinton, and came close to winning the presidency himself.)

An Inconvenient Truth
Bennett — reproduced with permission

Although what Gore said was properly researched, his message lost credibility because his lifestyle does not match his message. He lives in a large air-conditioned mansion (and owns other properties), flies around the world in jet airplanes and eats a high meat diet. If he had really wanted to get his message across Gore would have moved to a small home without air conditioning, cut back on long distance travel (and then only by train), and eaten a mostly vegetarian diet.

The Gore Mansion
The Gore Mansion

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez environmental hypocrisy

To bring the topic up to date, consider the reporting of the New York Post to do with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s carbon  footprint. The report states,

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign logged 1,049 car service transactions totaling over $23,000 between May 16, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, The Post found. Her campaign once booked 26 car-service transactions in a single day.

Even though her Queens HQ was just a one-minute walk to the 7 train, her campaign only made 52 MetroCard purchases, spending about $8,300.

And despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her green strategy, the Democratic firebrand took Amtrak 18 times, compared to 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during the campaign season.

Her response:

“I’m just living in the real world”.

Another New York Post article says,

Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly attributed her success in beating Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley to walking the streets of her district, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx.

“I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles,” she tweeted last June, famously donating her worn-out campaign shoes to the Cornell Costume Institute for an exhibit about women and empowerment.

But Ocasio-Cortez and her staff appear to have done much less walking after she vanquished Crowley in the party’s June 2018 primary.

Instead, her campaign embraced the friendly skies, logging 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during campaign season.

The Democratic firebrand or her staff took Amtrak far less — only 18 times — despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her save-the-world strategy.

Ocasio-Cortez has drawn considerable praise for her Green New Deal proposals, including at our site, and it may be that reports such as the above come from her political opponents. Nevertheless such articles can knock her message badly off course.

Confessions

I have already had much to say about Augustine’s works De Mendacio and City of God. But there is another work of his that is important in this context, and that is his Confessions. In one of the world’s first autobiographies he opens himself to his readers. He knows that that, before telling others how to behave, he has to act correctly himself. He takes very seriously the words from Matthew 7.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

One reason that the way in which we live matters is that none of us have enough time to investigate all the issues that we face. So we tend to base our opinions on the character of the person presenting a point of view. (Advertisers know that the best reference is from a person that you know and trust.)

This idea of living the by the standards that are preached is particularly important for rich and powerful people such as the Stordalens or Al Gore. Otherwise, ordinary people will suspect that they are being asked to sacrifice their standard of living so that the wealthy can continue to live in luxury.

Benedict

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia (480-547)

The principle of living the life preached is one of the foundations of the monastic way of life. This is an important topic, and one that we will discuss in future posts. At this point it is sufficient to say that, when societies decline, there is often a revival of the monastic ideal. In the case of the western Roman Empire the person who embodied this ideal was Benedict of Nursia.

The Benedictine ideals are usually condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Although Benedict’s rule is demanding, it is not a harsh; indeed, it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. The key words are ora et labora: pray and work.

In his book The Benedict Option Rod Dreher suggests that Christians can form Benedict-style communities within the larger secular society. It is not necessary to actually become a monk or nun to follow many of Benedict’s principles.

Book: The Benedict Option

Top-Down Action

The counter-argument to Greer’s point of view is that the actions of individuals and small groups of people are not enough to make a difference. Indeed, Jevons Paradox suggests that whatever we do will be cancelled out by someone else’s actions. For example, we may choose to drive a smaller car to save fuel. But the fuel that we do not use is not really saved — it is simply used by someone else, somewhere else.

Therefore, it is argued, it does not matter if we personally lead a profligate lifestyle, just as long as we are able to change society’s rules and standards. The catch with this argument, as we have just seen, is that it can be perceived as being hypocritical and self-serving.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

The Christian Response

In these posts I always try to come back to what the issues that we discuss mean to today’s Christian church. By doing so we may be able to figure out some aspects of a theology for our times.

The first decision that the individual Christian and that the church overall has to make is whether to work top-down or bottom-up, i.e., whether to take political action to change the actions of governments and large corporations, or whether to concentrate on individual lifestyles.

The ideal answer is that a person will adopt a simple lifestyle and then work with the church overall to change national policies. In practice, the decision will probably depend at least partly on the personalities of the people involved. Some people enjoy working with others who are trying to change policies, others prefer to work by themselves or with small groups.

A Low-Carbon Lifestyle

If we are to live the life that we preach then we need to cut back on those actions that have a large carbon footprint. But this is not always easy or justified. For example, we know that commercial aircraft are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Therefore we should stop flying. But does that mean that a person living 3,000 miles from her children and grandchildren must give up seeing them? We might say that she should take the train, or that she should drive her car. But what if there is no train service, or if her medical condition prohibits long-distance driving?

Or maybe someone with a large garden decides to grow her own vegetables and other produce. This is obviously good for the environment, and it reduces resource consumption. But the seeds that she purchases are delivered to the local nursery using the same supply chains that deliver food to the supermarkets. If the supply chains were to collapse she is in a pickle. So maybe she should save her own seeds. But many of the vegetables we grow now are hybrids so their seeds may not grow true. So now this person is into seed-saving, with all the work that that involves.

None of this is easy.

The point is that it is easy to say that we should live a simply, but such a decision is more difficult to implement than it first appears. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough

Vilfredo Pareto
Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)

I started this post with some comments on the importance of quantification. Continuing with that theme, it is useful to keep in mind the Pareto Principle, often referred to as the 80/20 rule. The Principle was developed by yet another bewhiskered Victorian-era thinker: Vilfredo Pareto — an Italian economist and misanthrope. He noted that most of the wealth of the Italian communities he looked at was not spread evenly — in fact, typically about 20% of any population owned 80% of the wealth.

His principle, which, to the best of my understanding, has no theoretical underpinning, is widely observed to be true in many fields of human activity. It can be expressed by the following equation,

log n     =     c     +     m * log x

where n is the number of items whose value is greater than x; c and m are constants.

Examples of the principle’s applications in an industrial context include:

  • 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its customers.
  • 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of the sales force.
  • 20% of the workers are involved in 80% of the accidents.
  • 20% of the equipment items cause 80% of the facility shutdowns.
  • 20% of a company’s products will account for 80% of the total product defects.

In a church context we generally observe that.

  • 80% of the revenue comes from 20% of the parishioners.
  • 80% of the social services are provided by 20% of the parishioners.
  • 80% of the internal arguments come from 20% of the parishioners.

The practical effect of this rule is that there is no need to be a perfectionist. Just 20% of the effort will achieve 80% of the desired results. We can choose to live more like the Benedictines without having to follow every aspect of their rule.

Conclusions

So, as the Age of Limits closes in, how should individual Christians live, and what should the church’s strategy be in a world of so much uncertainty and anxiety? We know that the option of maintaining BAU (Business as Usual) is not an option. As resources dwindle, and as the climate becomes ever more erratic, we will be forced into a simpler lifestyle — like it or not. It is this knowledge that prompted Greer’s famous remark,

Collapse now and avoid the rush

In other words, prepare for a lower standard of living now. Such a decision does not necessarily mean that we have to suffer hardships. Indeed, many people who adopt a simple lifestyle say that they prefer it to our current, fast-paced way of living.

From the overall church, it will be necessary to work with governments, corporations and other secular bodies to create policies that align with our predictions as to what may take place in the coming years. For example, church leaders need to decide whether they prefer an incrementalist, “realistic” strategy, or whether they should follow a bold approach such as that outlined in the Green New Deal.

Or should the church adopt a different strategy — one of adaptation and resilience, as discussed in The Third Road? None of these decisions are easy.

Three tracks Richmond VA

Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs

Book Release

Priests in a hurryEvery week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. This week it is the second part of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

While working on this blog and on my book A New City of God three events occurred at roughly the same time. They were:

  1. Greta Thurnberg made her speech to the COP24 Conference in Poland. Her words went viral and they have encouraged young people around the world to take action.
  2. The Methodist church in the United States is going through turmoil with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.
  3. I carried out a calculation to do with the membership of the Episcopalian church while writing A New City of God.

Pull these three threads together, and I am reminded of the image at the head of this post, which shows the neatly arranged deckchairs on the doomed Titanic on her fateful journey across the north Atlantic.

The Titanic

Titanic Sinking
Der Untergang der Titanic

The story is familiar. The luxury steamship RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The submerged portion of the iceberg scraped against the hull, tearing a gash along much of her length. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy North Atlantic.

The quotation, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has become a staple of our discourse. It implies futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe. Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic has generated many other aphorisms and oft-repeated quotations such as,

Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable.
Julia Hughes

Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.
Erma Bombeck

. . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight.
Brander 1995

When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident . . . of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.
E.J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic

Captain E.J. Smith — Titanic
Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1907)

The Brander quotation is important. The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives.

Three Events

I started this post by saying that three events had made an impression on me. Let’s take a quick look at each of these events.

The Thurnberg Speech

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

We have already discussed Greta Thurnberg’s clear, honest and courageous speech. It has encouraged thousands of young people to follow her leadership. To state the obvious, these young people (and many of their parents) are interested in staying alive. Consequently they are also highly critical of the actions of the hypocrisy of the generations that have preceded them. Maybe there is a message for the church there.

Climate Change Protest

Methodist Turmoil

united Methodist church

At the time of writing (February 2019) the Methodist Church in the United States was starting a conference at which LGBT and same-sex marriage issues were to be voted on. The result could be a breakup of the church. The USA Today says,

“What the United Methodist church will look like in March will likely be very different than it is today,” said the Rev. Ron Robinson, a chaplain and religion professor at Wofford College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. “This has the most significant potential for major division out of anything in my lifetime.”

Now gender issues are of high importance to many Christians — not only to Methodists, but also those in other denominations. The catch is that such discussions have, as an unstated assumption, that the present physical world will continue more or less in its current form. The passions are strong and deeply felt. But, if Age of Limits issues are going to create wrenching problems, then such discussions do have a flavor of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Episcopalian Membership

While writing my book, I decided to research the status of the Episcopalian Church in the United States. Using 2017 data from the church’s web site I developed the following rather  scary chart.

Episcopal Church Membership
Episcopal Church Membership: 2006-2016

Membership in the church has declined steadily over a period of ten or more years. (Attendance at Sunday services is probably a more important figure than nominal membership. But it shows the same trends. Average parish attendance in the year 2011 was 65; by 2016 it was down to 58.)

While church membership is declining, the nation’s population is growing. The Episcopal church’s membership was 0.28% of the population of the United States in 2005, but had dropped to 0.19% in 2016. So, in the period 2005-2016 church membership fell from 827,000 to 601,000, a 27% drop. But the church’s percentage of the population fell from 0.28% to 0.19%, a 32% drop.

A simple linearization of the line, which has remarkably little scatter, shows that membership is declining by roughly 22,000 per annum. Given that current membership is at around 600,000 we can expect to hit the zero point somewhere around the year 2045. This is not what will actually happen, of course. The line will show an asymptote (hockey-stick effect) near its end; membership will level off at a low level, but it will not hit zero. Or the church may merge with another denomination struggling with a similar data set.

But, if the church is to have any meaning for the population at large, this trend must be reversed. I recognize that religious faith is not just a matter of numbers, but numbers do matter.

Related to the  decline in attendance and membership is the fact that the church’s congregations are getting older — not only are more members needed, it is even more important to attract young people.

Assessment

So we have the following situation:

  • Young people are growing increasingly passionate about climate change issues.
  • The church is spending its time and energy on issues that do not seem to be important to those young people.
  • Church membership and attendance is down. In particular, youth participation is dwindling.

And so the conclusion is . . .

Yet most church communities are not responding to climate change issues with the same level of passion as are young people. (After all, we don’t want to be controversial, do we?) This means that, from the point of view of these young people, church leaders are, by and large, simply rearranging the deck chairs on their sinking Titanic. So, unsurprisingly, they have little interest in joining the church. Who can blame them? No wonder that membership curve is declining so precipitously.

Moreover, even when the church does consider climate change, it tends to treat it as  just one concern among many. Most churches have committees to organize activities such as food banks, spiritual retreats and mission trips. So the tendency is to treat climate change, and other Age of Limits issues, as being just one piece of the overall program. (“We will form a committee to take care of that.”) But climate change (and other Age of Limits issues) are existentially important — they are the Titanic. And, if the Titanic sinks, i.e., if the climate is drastically disrupted, then the other activities will sink with it.

Conclusions

If the church is to engage the trust and the confidence of young people growing up in a world that is changing frighteningly fast then Age of Limits issues need to become central to the mission. They are not just one activity among many — they are core to our beliefs and our actions.

Which means that a theology that fits this new world is needed.

Stay tuned.

The Third Road

Book Release

Priests in a hurryThis week we release the second section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. It is the first half of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

Three Roads

In last week’s post I described the proposed Green New Deal, and discussed how Christians can respond to this initiative. I have reflected further on this important initiative, and it seems to me that three roads open up to us. They are:

  1. The sensible, cautious and realistic road advocated by leaders such as Nancy Pelosi.
  2. The “reach for the stars” road contained with the Green New Deal.
  3. The road of adaptation.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about these three roads so that we can decide which is best for the Christian community. It’s important.

First Road

The first response is to be “sensible and realistic”. The politician who probably best represents this point of view is the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (1940-)

Her approach reflects the philosophy of Otto von Bismarck when he said,

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.

Or, as we engineers like to say,

Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

This approach to political decisions makes sense when considering normal issues such as health care or trade programs. Using this approach, initiatives such as carbon capture or the use of solar energy may be “attainable” in the human/political sense. In such situations we are negotiating with other human beings. But, political attainability is of little value when faced with an existential issues such as climate change. No amount of “small ball” legislation will enable us to reverse our current trajectory. We can negotiate with other human beings, but we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and thermodynamics. They don’t care what we think or what we want.

Second Road

Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945)

The second road is to take radical, bold action. People in this camp, the Green New Deal sponsors, believe that climate change presents a profound challenge that can only be addressed with drastic action. As the second apparition said to the indecisive Macbeth,

Be bloody, bold and resolute.

The analogy is with the New Deal implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s in response to world-wide economic recession. He did not just tinker around the edges, he came up with a bold vision and then used his influence and authority to implement that vision.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (1989-)

The person who has become the human face for this option is newly-elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and her colleagues are the ones who sponsored the ‘Green New Deal’ Resolution.

Leonard Pitts (1957-)
Leonard Pitts (1957-)

In a Miami Herald editorial entitled Requiem for an American Vision, Leonard Pitts says that the resistance to the Green New Deal indicates that “something vital has seeped out of us”. He notes that criticism of the idea, whether it is from the right or the left, “is simply too big an idea”.

His critique resonated with me. Before I came to the United States I had always been attracted by the nation’s “can do” spirit. But now, that spirit seems to have disappeared. We see it not only with the response to the Green New Deal, but also with regard to the California high-speed rail debacle — dubbed the “No consultant left behind program”. Not only do we not reach for the stars when it comes to addressing climate change and its attendant ills, we cannot even build a railway using 50 year old technology.

The Third Road

Three roads used to illustrate the choices that we face in an Age of Limits.
The two roads just described — moderate response or full-on attack — are what most people would consider as being our only options.

But there is a third road. Those who travel on it basically accept that there is little that we can do to change our current trajectory. To re-iterate a theme of this site — we face predicaments, not problems. When faced with a predicament, we accept the situation, adapt as best we can and develop systems that are resilient (as distinct from efficient). This is not to say that we should not support “green” initiatives. But we need to recognize that those initiatives can only slow the pace of change and/or ameliorate the consequences. They are not going to cause the predicaments to go away.

The Christian Response

In these posts I always try to consider three questions. The first is, “What should the Christian response be?” The second is, “What’s the theology of all this?”

I suggest that the first road — that of being sensible and of achieving goals that are politically possible — should be discarded out of hand. Not only will it fail to make a serious dent in our climate change trajectory, it could create a feeling of, “Well, we have taken care of that problem, we have done what we could”. It could create a fatal, air of complacency.

The second road — the Green New Deal — has four things going for it.

  1. In spite of the cautionary statements made at sites such as this, it just might work. Age of Limits issues are inherently complex, we all see through a glass darkly, so this approach may pleasantly surprise us.
  2. By presenting climate issues in such stark terms, this approach does at least raise the topic as being urgent and existential, one that cannot be ignored on the grounds that, “they will think of something”. At the very least, it will force the idea’s opponents to think, at least for a brief second, about the realities of physics, thermodynamics and ecology.
  3. If the climate does deteriorate to such an extent that nothing can be done, then people will, to some degree, have been prepared for what is to come.
  4. The Green New Deal is the one program that might, just might, mobilize the nation (and the world) to take drastic action.

The third road — that of Acceptance — is actually the one that is truly realistic. No matter what actions we take, climate change is taking place, and its consequences are increasingly serious. In spite of its boldness the Green New Deal approach is, unfortunately, too little, too late. So we need to work within out communities on programs of acceptance, response and adaptation.

It is the approach that Augustine and other church fathers followed in the early 5th century. They did not attempt to revitalize the western Roman Empire. They accepted the loss of that empire, and focused their efforts on building a new City of God.

I suggest that we choose a combination of the second and third roads. That we work toward the ambitious goals outlined in programs such as the Green New Deal. At the same time we understand that such a program may fail, so we simultaneously quietly work on adaptation.

Realistically (a word that seems to crop up quite a lot in the context of these discussions) we probably cannot simultaneously work toward two such separate goals. But it might be worth a try.

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.