Mary Poppins and Hopium

Mary Poppins: A Deus Ex Machina

The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.


Mary Poppins

Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.

As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.

The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.

I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.

Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.


The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)

Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,

The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?

. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.

The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.

The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.

The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.

  1. It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
  2. It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
  3. Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.

So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.

But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.


The Story of 2018

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Throughout the course of 2018 it has seemed to me as if there has been a shift in public opinion to do with climate change. By and large, people seem to grasp that, at the very least, “Something is going on”.

Of course, this is a highly subjective statement, but it is supported by an editorial written in today’s New York Times by David Leonhardt. Its title is The Story of 2018 Was Climate Change. Future generations may ask why we were distracted by lesser matters.

Part of the editorial is addressed to corrupt public officials such as Scott Pruitt or Ryan Zinke. Leonhardt writes, “I often want to ask these officials: Deep down do you really believe that future generations of your own family will be immune from climate change’s damage?”

We see how young people are already challenging the older folk in the post Out of the Mouths of Teenagers.

A similar sentiment is expressed in The Ghost of Christmas Future, published by Chris Martenson at the Peak Prosperity site. He says,

. . . every older person needs to be ready for the day when a younger person walks up to them and asks them two questions:

1. When did you know, and
2. What did you do about it?

When did you know about the many problems and predicaments facing our world today? When did you find out about species loss, and peak oil, the generationally destructive policies of your peers, and the unsustainability of our entire economic model?

And what did you do about any of it? Did you make any changes at all to your behavior, or did you close your eyes and slip into a strategy of false hope? Hope that ‘somebody’ would do ‘something’? Did you fight at all for the things in which you once believed?

These are tough questions. Martenson is going beyond public officials who had the power to make a change but chose not to do so. He is directing the questions at all of us. We all have the power to do something — however little it may seem. We all have some talent to contribute.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

1 Corinthians 12: 4


Fires, Predicaments and Fatalism

California Fire November 2018

When faced with catastrophes such as the California fires (see the post Ending with a Whimper) it is tempting to adopt an attitude of fatalism. After all, there seems to be little that we as individuals can do to stop the ravages of climate change. The situation is bad, and is going to get worse. So what’s the point of trying to make a difference?

Indeed, a central theme of this site is that we are facing predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. Since there is nothing we can do to make the predicament go away, it is tempting just to give up. It is tempting to become fatalistic.


Example of a predicament

Fatalism is a way of thought that accepts that events are fixed in advance and that human beings are powerless to change them. It is a way of thinking is generally seen as somewhat pessimistic, and can be seen as a form of denial. In the words of Socrates,

If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.

Those of us who have been following the world’s response to climate change over the last couple of decades can easily become fatalistic. Certainly, I have gotten to the point where I do not bother to read the almost endless stream of reports that come out telling us that the situation is serious. All that seems to change is the level of urgency that the authors express. One can drift into a cynical point of view that the governments of the world have two responses. The first is to come up with bold plans, and then do nothing. The second is to say that there is nothing to worry about, and then do nothing.

The Oil Patch and Prosperity

In the sub-Reddit ‘Collapse’ one of the responders to a post at that sub writes as follows (it is lightly edited),

Living in Alberta, Canada’s Texas, I came to understand that if people’s jobs are connected in any way to the oil field they don’t want to change. I am one of the very, very few here who oppose pipelines and oil sands.

The moment that I realized no one will change was when I had a long talk with my sister about our whole situation. Me being the doom and gloom, it’s pretty much too late person. Her the ‘we would change if we could BUT what about all those jobs?’ I suggested we use the money we spend propping up the oil industry to teach those workers a new trade. As she was explaining how this is ridiculous and you can’t have that many people without jobs and not being productive, That’s when it hit. We don’t care about the planet. We care about ourselves, our family, and maybe some select friends.

What would these people trained to be? Carpenters to build more houses from more trees? Electricians to make it easier to use more power? Solar experts so we can dig up the last of the lithium, which isn’t even enough to support one sixth of our most modest energy use? Farmers to destroy more habitat? Every move our Capitalist society makes is to take more, make more, consume more. Even if we stop using fossil fuels, we will still consume the rest of the resources.

It also occurs to me that while I write this, I am in a heated home, using a smartphone, with the lights on. All paid for by a job I have in the rail industry. Why don’t I get another job? How can I be such a hypocrite? Because I get paid well, it affords me to have a fridge, a phone, cable, heat. This is how I know we won’t change. Because even as a person who understands the gravity of the situation and abhors what is happening, I am addicted. I know I am addicted, and so do the oil companies.

It’s like if heroin drug cartels ran the government and everyone was addicted to heroin, to try and say ‘hey we shouldn’t do heroin’ but first I need to shoot up so I can think about this more comfortably.

This response is somewhat fatalistic. The writer recognizes that,

  • He is in a comfortable place; he does not want to give up his wealthy lifestyle.
  • All of the alternative jobs that he could do are environmentally destructive. Maybe not as much as the tar sands, but they all have an impact.
  • He compares our present situation to someone who is addicted to a drug.
  • He fully understands that the oil companies, and other large organizations, including the Canadian government, are not going to force a change. Indeed, these organizations are themselves addicted.
  • He appears to feel as if there is nowhere to go.

False Optimism

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

Fatalists can be optimistic. In the post Pilate’s Question we saw how some people hold the view that, in the words of the magnificent Wilkins Micawber, “Something will come up”. These people hope that advances in science and technology will enable us to perform an end run around the laws of ecology, physics and thermodynamics. They may be right, indeed I hope that they are. But it’s getting very late.


I suggest that one reason that people can become fatalistic is that they intuitively understand that many of the actions that they are taking verge on being futile. For example, people conscientiously recycle paper, glass and aluminum. But Jevons Paradox tells us that such actions may not only be ineffective, they may actually be counter-productive, i.e., they could actually make the situation worse. Or people may intuitively sense that attempts to “save energy” are not going to work — the first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be saved.

Therefore, while it is important for Christians not to be fatalistic, it is equally important for them to be realistic.

Throughout this blog and its accompanying book I stress that it is crucial for Christians to tell the truth. But first they must learn what the truth is — they need to make the effort to understand the physical realities of the dilemmas that we face. This is not easy, but it is important. Indeed, it is vital.

Yellow Vests and the End of the Month

One section of the book A New City of God is to do with the topic of “denialism”. It discusses the reasons that people deny current trends, and what form their denial takes.

I was put in mind of the issue of denial when I read about the “Yellow Vest” riots taking place in France. The immediate cause for these riots is that people do not want to pay the additional taxes that are being placed on automobile fuels. But I was also caught by a deeper sense of resentment. The following is from the New York Times of December 1st 2018.

Yellow vests protesting fuel tax

The protestors may not be explicitly denying the fact that the climate is changing. But they are not willing to make further cutbacks to their standard of living in order to prevent long-term climate threats.

We are likely to see more of this type of pushback in future years. As people’s standard of living declines due to resource limits and environmental issues, so they will be less willing to make sacrifices for the common, long-term good.