The climate is undergoing irreversible changes. The most prominent change is global warming. But also included are more frequent extreme events such as droughts, floods, sea level rise and forest fires.
“. . . 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?”
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 CO2per 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.
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”.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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,
Understand and tell the truth.
Accept and adapt.
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.
An encouraging number of people have expressed an interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change Theology’. Therefore, I will make an adjustment to this weekly post. To date, I have been publishing a post at this site once a week on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. east coast time. Typically the posts have been in two parts. The first part looks at this week’s appointed gospel reading in the context of the Age of Limits (climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot, and so on). This week I struggle with what it means to be a missionary in today’s consumer culture when climate change and related issues are just part of the cacophony. (One unexpected benefit of this writing strategy is that it means that I am prepared for this week’s sermon, regardless of the topic being discussed.)
The second part of a typical post consists of one or more short discussions to do with the dilemmas that we face. For example, last week we looked at my fourth “Aha!” moment: the I-10 Freeway, and at the unreality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per annum for the next two decades, as called for in a recent United Nations report.
As time permits (and, like everyone else, I have a life to live) I will add a third section to do with theology.
This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 3:1-12.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The familiar phrase, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” spoke to me. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. We are directed by passages such as this from Mark 16.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”.
Yet preaching about climate change and resource limits seems to have very little impact. We have a situation where it is certain that the world’s climate is going to be radically altered within the lifetime of many (most) people living now. There is even plausible discussion suggesting that climate change may be so drastic as to lead to the end of civilization within a generation or two. Whether you agree with such extreme predictions or not, we still need to address three facts: (1) Age of Limits issues are existential — radical change is on the horizon, and everyone — there are no exceptions — everyone, will be affected, (2) very few people really care, and (3) our national and international leaders are not, in fact, leaders.
Given this background, what are the news media obsessing about? Mostly impeachment, Brexit and this year’s superbowl.
“Aha!” Moment #5: Psychohistory
In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these so far. They are:
This week, I would like to look at the fifth of these: Psychohistory. It came about when I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a set of science fiction stories set at a time when humanity has developed the technology to travel to other planets. At the start of the series all the inhabited planets in the galaxy are part of a single empire. But the Empire is declining in power, wealth and prestige. The hero of the series, a man named Hari Seldon, develops a discipline that he refers to as psychohistory. This discipline, which combines elements of history, sociology and statistics, allows him to understand how societies change and evolve. Based on his analysis, Seldon is able to organize new societal structures that will form the basis of a new empire that will develop quickly and bring a quick end to the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the first empire.
The reason that this book series formed the basis of an “Aha!” Moment is that we need to develop our own theory of psychohistory. The issues that we face — climate change, resource depletion, over-population, to name but a few, are not only inherently complex, but they interact with one another in ways that are very difficult to understand and predict. Some over-arching theory is needed. Such a theory will provide us with an understanding as to what is taking place, and will allow us to develop means of addressing the predicaments that we face.
As an example of the need for systems thinking, consider the call for the elimination of fossil fuels from people such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could be that their message is mostly unnecessary because our use of these fuels, particularly oil, is probably going down anyway, as discussed in the Peak Prosperity post Houston, We Have A Problem. Slide 4 from Art Berman’s presentation is particularly revealing.
The production of conventional crude oil in the United States reached a peak in the year 1970, as predicted by the great M. King Hubbert in 1956. In recent years there has been a surge in the production of Light Tight Oil and Shale Gas, as the slide shows. But there are many indications that tight oil production has reached a peak and that it will decline in the next five years (for example, this this post to do with Chesapeake Energy).
If production does decline as quickly as it ramped up then Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez may be reminded of the proverb, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. Another example of the need for systems thinking, this one to do with the realities of project management, is provided in the post The Slow Train.
This is the first post to do with the topic of Climate Change Theology. As a starting point, I would like to consider the following words from Ecclesiastes 1.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
I chose those words because they seem to express a view of the type of world that we need to create rather than the one that we have created based on what was told to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”.
Do we really need to “be fruitful”, to increase the world’s population? Do we really need to have all other creatures live in “fear and dread” of us?
I started thinking about the need for a theology for our times when a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking the same question. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide meaningful leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual framework, or, in religious terms, a theology.
Theology is to do with seeking truth through God’s word (theos, God, and logos, Word). As a semi-retired chemical engineer you may reasonably ask why I am writing on this topic. Shouldn’t we leave it to the professional theologians, the seminarians and the ordained clergy — people who are trained to understand and interpret God’s word? It’s a good question, one which we will discuss in coming posts.
In the meantime, let us start with the very sensible question that Pontius Pilate asks in John 18:38.
. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.
The correspondence to do with global warming and climate change at the Richmond Times-Dispatch (the principal newspaper for central Virginia) continues. The latest letter (shown below) is from Ms. Monica Lewis. She is writing in response to Mr. Tim Brandon’s original letter and the reply from Mr. Ian Sutton. (The bananas motif stems from the possibility that, if the climate does change significantly, we may be able to grow tropical fruits in the area.)
Ms. Lewis’ letter is shown below. It was published on November 2nd 2019.
Various topics are covered in these letters. They include,
Accept that the climate is warming and simply taking advantage of that fact.
The potential for a move away from globalization toward decentralization of many of our institutions.
The value of actions taken by politicians at the national level.
The need for mitigation efforts, including carbon pricing.
Ms. Lewis refers to the “sixth great extinction event of geological time”.
What all three writers seem to agree on is that the climate is warming. Moreover, we cannot stop the warming — the best we can do is adapt in one way or another.
On October 19th 2019 the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a letter from Mr. Tim Brandon, “Consider the benefits of global warming”. A copy of the letter is shown below.
The gist of the letter is that global warming can be beneficial. One sentence reads,
Maybe soon we will be growing bananas, coconuts, and pineapples in Virginia.
His letter prompted me to reply. My letter was published on October 22nd. I picked up on the bananas theme, and suggested two responses to Mr. Brandon.
The first response is that we will need to be flexible as conditions around us change. None of us know what the future holds, except to say that there is much uncertainty. This means that individuals and businesses will need to emphasize “adaptability” and “flexibility” rather than “efficiency” in response to the current vogue for “just in time” strategies. If bananas are available then we will enjoy them. If they are not available then we will do without.
The second response is that we will need to think and act locally. It is likely that the extraordinarily complex, computer-driven supply chains that allow us to enjoy bananas at any time of the year will be degraded. All aspects of our personal and business lives will become more local and less global.
Both of these responses — adaptability and localization — provide an opportunity for the church to provide much needed leadership.