The New Normal (9) — Hubris and Nemesis

Nemesis following the hubris of science and technology
Nemesis, Rethel (1837)

Blog

As time and bandwidth permit, we publish two blog posts each week. The first blog — this one — discusses issues to do with the Age of Limits, and how the faith community can respond. Last week we looked at the relevance of the Gaia Hypothesis to established faith. The second blog, which is generally a YouTube video, focuses on some of the practical responses that we can make at an individual and local community level. In my case, that response is mostly to do with gardening. This week’s blog is a video at the following YouTube address: https://youtu.be/Y6MviVf3HnY.

Book

Front cover for book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God

The book Faith in a Changing Climate is coming along well. If you are interested in having a review copy, please let us know. The current Table of Contents is available here.

The New Normal

It goes without saying that we live in interesting times. The pandemic has changed everything, and it is not finished with us yet. Some of the blog posts are to do with ‘The New Normal’ — what the world may look like after the pandemic dies down, and what lessons we may have learned to do with the manner in which we manage longer term issues such as climate change. The following is a list of the posts so far in this series.

This week’s post is the ninth in this series.

Hubris and Nemesis

About 500 years ago Galileo Galilei pointed his newly invented telescope to the night sky. He declared that the moon and the planets are made of the same material as the Earth — there is no celestial heaven or music of the spheres. Since that time there has been rivalry between religion and science as to which can best explain the physical world in which we live.

Science has generally “won” this competition — and, in the form of technology, it has greatly improved the human condition. Religion has been confined to the role of “mere” spirituality and an advisor of souls. However, science and technology have led us into the predicaments discussed at this blog.

Science is suffering from hubris: excessive pride and self-confidence. But nemesis or retribution always follows hubris. And that is where we are now. Albert Einstein is famous for saying that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So it is with science and technology. They cannot solve the issues discussed in this book.

A new approach is needed — one in which people who have what Aristotle called an “educational acquaintance” with both science and the liberal arts can chart a path forward. This is the opportunity for the church to provide leadership. But, before it can do so, church leaders will need to have an “educational acquaintance” with the laws and principles of science. One example of such a person is Pope Francis, as we can see in the encyclical Laudato Si’. He is not a climate scientist. But that’s just the point; he is able to understand the bigger picture to do with the causes and consequences of climate change.

The section of the book Faith in a Changing Climate that is to do with Hubris and Nemesis closes with the following words.

. . . the last three hundred years have been a time like no other in the history of humanity. It’s as if a person has been living within her current modest income and then is suddenly given a large inheritance. She spends the inheritance and has a wonderful time. But when the money is gone she has, once more, to live on her modest income, but has much greater expenses to take care of. She should, of course, have invested the inheritance such that she could live of the additional income generated without depleting her capital. But she didn’t.

This is the position in which we find ourselves now. Our inheritance was the stored energy contained in fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. We should have invested in learning how to create renewable energy sources. But we didn’t. We should have invested in technologies that prevent us from destroying the planet’s environment. But we didn’t.

Francis I — A Renaissance Man
Francis I

The New Normal (7) — Through a Glass Darkly

Foggy window illustrates that we cannot see the future in detail, but we can see an outline.

In last week’s post — The New Normal (6) — Standards — we mentioned that we have added a new chapter to the draft of the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The chapter title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. We look at some of the lessons we can learn from the current COVID-19 pandemic, and how those lessons can be applied to the bigger picture of climate change and resource depletion.

The pandemic is still in its early stages; none of us know what its long-term consequences are going to be — so much depends on whether we can find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment. Applying lessons from the pandemic is very much a work in progress. There is, however, one immediate lesson, and that is the need for humility when making forecasts. This is a subject that we have already touched on in the post The Future Is A Muddle, but it is worth looking at it again. To state the obvious, our world has been totally transformed in just three months. Yet no one saw this coming — it has been a total surprise and shock.

One of my favorite Bible readings is from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul says,

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.

The picture at the top of this post shows a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But, on closer inspection, we see that there are railings, 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. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and specific predictions are often (usually) wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading. (Modern translations of the Bible suggest that the word ‘mirror’ would be a better choice than ‘glass’. In Paul’s day most mirrors distorted the reflection. But the conclusion is the same. We can see an outline, but the details are blurred.)

Our failure to have predicted this disease can create a cynical attitude toward all forecasting. As Scott Adams once said,

Methods for predicting the future: 1) read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls . . . collectively known as “nutty methods;” 2) put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer . . . commonly referred to as “a complete waste of time.”

But forecasting the impact of an issue such as climate change is not a “complete waste of time”. We know that it is happening right now, and we have a general sense of what is in store for us. We just need to be very careful about being too detailed or precise in our predictions.

In his post How to Predict the Future: Confessions of a Cassandra Ugo Bardi provides three “rules” for decent predictions. They are,

  1. Always trust thermodynamics;
  2. Always mistrust claims of marvelous new technologies; and
  3. Always remember that the system has unpredictable tipping points.

The third of these rules, the one to do with tipping points, has certainly been applicable in the last three months.

The New Normal (6) — Standards

church gargoyle no mask

We are writing a series of posts to do with the ‘New Normal’. They discuss what the world of industrial safety may look like once the current pandemic abates and business  and church activities resume. Previous posts in this series are:

The Episcopal diocese of Virginia has published guidelines for a phased reopening of our churches. There are four phases — we are currently in Phase One. Phases Two and Three call for the use of face masks whenever people meet with others on church property. This is a sensible requirement since preliminary data suggest that masks are the most effective type of protection. One source (unfortunately I do not have the reference) suggests that masks reduce the risk of infection by 80%, all the other factors such as physical distancing are just 20%.

Due to the unavailability of commercially-made masks many people are wearing home-made cloth masks. These are good for protecting other people, and they set the right tone — people who wear masks are sending a message that they care. However, there is no control over the design or effectiveness of these masks. So, while they do provide protection and should always be used, their effectiveness is quite variable.

It has been suggested that the masks we use should meet an industrial standard such as ASTM Level 2, as shown in the following chart.

ASTM Standards for Face Masks

By the time that we are ready to move into Phase Two it is probable that the production of industrial-quality masks will be up to speed and that a requirement to meet standards will be more realistic than it is now. Of course, there will be those who cannot afford to purchase an ASTM-qualified mask, and there will be those who come to church but forget to bring their mask. Therefore, assuming that funds are available, each church should have a supply on hand to take care of these people.


ASTM standards for use in COVID-19 pandemic

The following information was taken from the ASTM web site.

ASTM International is providing no-cost public access to important ASTM standards used in the production and testing of personal protective equipment – including face masks, medical gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizers – to support manufacturers, test labs, health care professionals, and the general public as they respond to the global COVID-19 public health emergency.


Front cover for book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God

Book Update

The book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God is proceeding quite well. The chapter titles are shown below. The full Table of Contents (.pdf file) can be downloaded here. You can see that we have added a new chapter: ‘Chapter 1 — Dress Rehearsal’. In it we consider how the current pandemic may provide lessons to do with long-term issues such as climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot. (Some of the thoughts in this chapter come from the ‘New Normal’ series at this blog.)

  • Chapter 1 — Dress Rehearsal
  • Chapter 2 — An Age of Limits
  • Chapter 3 — The City of Man
  • Chapter 4 — Hubris and Nemesis
  • Chapter 5 — Truth and Consequences
  • Chapter 6 — Predicaments and Responses
  • Chapter 7 — Theology
  • Chapter 8 — The Church’s Response
  • Attachment A — A Personal Journey
  • Attachment B — Thermodynamics
  • Attachment C — Jevons Paradox
  • Attachment D — Denial
  • Further Reading
  • Works Cited
  • Acronyms and Abbreviations
  • Index

We are looking for people to review the book. If you are interested send us an inquiry at https://iansutton.com/contact-sutton-technical-books.

We are also looking for a suitable publisher. If you have any suggestions, let us know. You can use the same comment box.

 

 

Pontius Pilate and Truth

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

Jesus says,

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

To which Pilate replies,

“What is truth?”

John 18:38

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

Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay

James 5:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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