Happy New Year

episcopal-church-2

I wish everyone health and happiness in the year ahead of us. The year 2019 was a time of change, and I expect that 2020 will be no different.

A Theology for Our Times

This year I plan on a series of posts built around the theme of a ‘A Theology for our Times’. We live, as they say, in “interesting times”. At such times we need an intellectual framework that helps us understand and respond to what is going on. For people of faith this means that we need a theology that is relevant to a world of climate change, resource depletion, over-population, pollution and so on.

I approach this topic as an engineer who also has a background in systems engineering and the management of large projects. This experience can, I trust, be of value to professional theologians, seminarians and ordained clergy as they try to figure out a suitable theology for an Age of Limits.

A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. We set up a search committee — a process with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of good Bible knowledge, working well with children, preaching a powerful sermon, and so on were put forward. I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, of course. But I was not joking. An understanding of thermodynamics and other technical topics helps us grasp the root cause of many of our problems  and should be part of a theology for our times.

In order to assist in the process of developing a suitable theology I suggest that the following three points be considered.

  1. Understand and tell the truth,
  2. Accept and adapt, and
  3. Live within the biosphere.

I will unpack these points in future posts — and I very much welcome feedback. But before doing so it is important to examine why a new theology may be needed. After all, isn’t God’s truth as revealed in the Bible sufficient for all times and all places? I would say that the answer has to be, “Yes and No”. The fundamentals do not change, but their application will change under different circumstances.

In this context, three names come to mind. They are: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and John Wesley. We will look at how these men responded to the world of their times, also in future posts. They shared the same fundamental beliefs, but they each developed a way of understanding their world that addressed the situation in which they and other people of faith found themselves.

Even when interpreting the Bible, we need to see issues in context. For example, in Genesis 9, following the flood, God says to Noah and his sons,

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.

Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it has brought us: an over-populated, polluted, depleted world.

Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 are more appropriate to our times.

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

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.

Final Thoughts on 2019

Time magazine’s Person of the Year was Greta Thunberg (GT) — and rightly so. Quite suddenly she started a meme that swept the world. Those who choose to deny that the climate is changing, and that those changes are caused by human beings, are now very much on the defensive.

But it is important to understand the mood of GT and her followers. To put in plainly, they are angry.

Greta Thunberg release hell

Credit: Ugo Bardi

One of the more puzzling aspects of the meme was the response that she received in the Halls of Power. Repeatedly she was applauded and praised  by those who had failed to make the changes that she wanted them to make. Why?

Consider the well-known words from Matthew 8.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

Here is what Thunberg says,

I speak on behalf of future generations. I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science.

Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?

In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us. Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.

You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

Did you hear what I just said? Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.

People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at.

You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.

If we were to use old-fashioned religious language, it as if she is telling us that we have sinned.

Nor is she offering much in the way of forgiveness.

If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

Incidentally, here is what the emissions curve that she talks about looks like.

co2 carbon dioxide concentration 1960-2015

She is right. All the well-meaning rhetoric has achieved nothing.

Let’s compare her words with the following message from the Episcopal Church (USA) from the year 2019. It is structured in the form of three goals.

Goal #1
Create and sustain a network of Episcopalians dedicated to the care and protection of the whole Creation, especially by providing grants and cultivating circles for Story Sharing among  practitioners in local and regional ministries.

Goal #2
Stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable victims of the impact of climate change – particularly women, poor people, and people of color – as part of seeking the liberation and flourishing of all God’s people.

Goal #3
Set climate mitigation benchmarks as individuals and as a church, in order to live more simply, humbly, and gently on the Earth.

The difference in tone between the messages of Thunberg and of the Episcopal Church is unmistakable. The church’s message is one of accommodation and reason; hers is one of condemnation.

Rhetoric

Martin Luther King I have a dream speech

Maybe one reason that GT’s message is so powerful is that, even though English is not her first language, she speaks powerfully and to the point. It puts one in mind of that earlier meme, the one created by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the year 1963. He also spoke about children and the world in which they were growing up.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

As church leaders wrestle with the impact of climate change and other Age of Limits issues, they will need to understand how the intellectual and emotional environments are also changing.

Second Sunday of Advent: Crying in the Wilderness

Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus

Administrative Note

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.

Appointed Gospel

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:

  1. Predicaments, Not Problems
  2. Augustine’s City of God
  3. Light Bulbs
  4. The I-10 Freeway
  5. Psychohistory

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.

Production of tight oil since 2005

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.

Theology

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.

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?

 

Proper 22: Slow Walk

Mustard Seeds Luke
Mustard Seeds

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits. All of this week’s readings are to do with faith. I quote the Gospel passage (Luke 17:5-10), but see a similar message in both the Psalm and the Epistle.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

The first paragraph — to do with faith — is always a challenge. It is a particular challenge for those of us who have a decent grasp of the science behind climate change, and related issues. We have the following dilemmas.

  • The science is clear: we are heading into a slow-moving, but inexorable crisis.
  • The project realities are clear: we do not have the time to transition to an economy based on alternative energy and other “green” initiatives.
  • The social background is equally clear: only a tiny fraction of the population has knowledge of these issues, and an even smaller fraction is willing to make significant changes to their lifestyle.

This line of thinking suggests that we need to think through what exactly we are to have faith in. Is our faith that somehow we can maintain our Business as Usual (BAU) lifestyle? Or should we have faith that our world will be a better place spiritually, even if material conditions move inexorably downward?

One of the themes of this series of posts, and of the book A New City of God, is that we need a theology that matches our times. The development of such a theology is much more than a mere academic exercise. It helps us address questions such as, “What are we to have faith in? And how does that faith express itself in daily living in a society that is undergoing wrenching changes?”

Slow Walking

In Proper 15: 2019, I quoted the commenter staggering_god. He or she anticipated that there will be a fairly sudden shift in public perception to do with climate change, based largely on personal stories. But this does not mean that the responses will lead to changes in behavior.

In short, we will have spent 30+ years doing NOTHING. Then we will do SOMETHING. And that will only be the very start. Every inch of ground after that point will be fought over. You’ll never truly weed out the denialists, they will just go underground, slow walk everything, and come up with endless “reasonable” objections.

An excellent example of the slow walking and “reasonableness” just described can be seen in the response of the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, to Greta Thunberg’s  sense of urgency. Australia is probably suffering more from climate change than any other major nation. Yet here is what he says.

“You know, I want children growing up in Australia that feel positive about their future,” the Prime Minister said.

“And I think it’s important that we give them that confidence, that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, but they’ll also have an economy that they can live in as well.”

“Yes, we’ve got to deal with the policy issues and we’ve got to take it seriously, but I don’t want our children having anxieties about these issues,” he said.

Here is a man who either doesn’t understand what the young people are saying, or who is utterly cynical. Thunberg’s entire message is that we need to have “anxieties about these issues”. Her core message is all about urgency.


The Message, Not the Messenger

IPCC Report Global Warming of 1.5°C

Prime Minister Morrison’s reaction to Thunberg’s message illustrates a behavior of which almost all of us are guilty. Virtually every reaction to this young lady has been to do with who she is, not what she is saying.

People who support her make statements such as, “Isn’t it amazing that such a young person can have such an impact?” or “She is really living the message she preaches”. Her enemies are often more personal to the point of being abusive. But virtually no one responds to what she is actually saying, which is,

  • The IPCC Report (2018) tells us that we are approaching a state where global temperatures are 1.5°C above the pre-industrial baseline.
  • At that temperature the consequences to human society are profound.
  • We adults, i.e., those over 20 years old have failed to respond.
  • We are handing a world in crisis to the young people and asking them to take the needed actions.

Of all the responses that I have read, not one person has actually cited the IPCC Report to either support or confute what she says. All the comments are about her, not the situation that we find ourselves in. One has to wonder how many of her supporters and enemies alike have actually read the IPCC Report: 10%? 1%? 0.1%?


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Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences

Refugees trying to enter Hungary
Border Fence — Hungary

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

One of the unexpected side benefits of writing these posts has been that I am more prepared for this week’s sermon or homily, regardless of its focus. Therefore, I have decided to write each post in the context of the coming week’s lectionary, rather than that of the previous week. This means that I will be skipping Proper 20 and the gospel reading to do with the manager who squandered his master’s property. Instead, we will think about Proper 21.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (September 29th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 16:19-31.

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

This is a powerful passage that has many lessons for us. In the context of this blog to do with the Age of Limits let’s consider the final verses. The rich man has had plenty of warning to do with his behavior; he knows that he should share his wealth with those less fortunate than himself. But he ignores the admonitions and so suffers the consequences. So it is with us; we, as a society, have received so many warnings that we are destroying the planet, and yet the vast majority of people continue living with the assumption that nothing is going to change, or that, “They will think of something. After all, if we can invent the cell phone surely we can invent new supplies of fresh water to restore the depleted aquifers.”

We also know that our actions to do with climate change and resource depletion will have its greatest effect on those at the bottom end of the economic scale — the Lazaruses of our world. Indeed, we are seeing this already. One of the factors that is causing refugees to flee their homelands is that they can no longer grow enough food for themselves and their families because the climate is becoming more hostile. These refugee problems have already led to political upheavals in the host nations. Examples are the wall on the border between the United States and the rejection of refugees trying to enter Europe. These difficulties are just the thin end of what is going to be a very thick wedge. In my judgment, the arguments that have roiled the church to do with same sex marriage and related issues are nothing to what we are going to see as we face the upcoming refugee problems.

Up to this point many churches and individual Christians have taken the attitude that we should welcome the refugees, regardless of their political status. This attitude will be sorely tested in the coming years as the number of refugees soars. Churches throughout the world will need to develop realistic policies that help the Lazaruses of the world without overwhelming the resources and welcome of the host nations. It’s the lifeboat problem; how many drowning people can be brought on board the lifeboat before it sinks and everyone drowns.


Book Release

Bunyan pilgrim City of Destruction
Christian leaving the City of Destruction

As many of you know, I am working on a book entitled A New City of God, with the subtitle A Christian Response to Climate Change. The current draft content is available for review. It can be downloaded here.

We invite your comments. Please use our Contact Page.


The Big Three

When we look at the challenges to do with the Age of Limits we can be overwhelmed with the number of issues that we face, and the complex manner in which those issues interact with one another. There are so many moving parts it is difficult to know where to start.

My own understanding of what I now refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ began with the topic of ‘Peak Oil’ — a phrase which is currently out of fashion for now, but will probably return. Crude oil is utterly foundational to our civilization, not just for transportation fuels, but also for the petrochemical feedstocks that it provides that are needed to manufacture so many of the products that we use, particularly those made of plastic. However, in spite of the criticality of crude oil, I suggest that the ‘Big Three’ issues are fresh water, food production and computer-controlled supply chains.

The first of these — water — is self-evident. We can envisage a society that operates with severely restricted supplies of crude oil. But, without water to drink and to irrigate our crops, we die. Yet the forecasts for fresh water supplies in many parts of the world look dire. Rainfall patterns are already changing drastically. Millions of people in India are already suffering from severe drought, the desert areas of Australia continue to expand, the aquifers in the heartland of the United States are being irreversibly depleted, and the annual rains have not come to the nation of Zimbabwe. These are not one-time events — they represent long-term trends.

Issues to do with fresh water depletion are a particular concern in the highly populated regions of Asia. Less snow is falling in the world’s high mountain ranges, which means that many glaciers are shrinking. The water from these glaciers is needed to irrigate crops that feed billions of people.

Second of the ‘Big Three’ is food production. As temperatures change, and as rainfall becomes increasingly scarce and/or erratic in many regions of the world, food production will suffer. Moreover, as the climate changes, crops that were suitable for a particular location will no longer grow there. Given enough time the farmers will adapt by growing new crops. But time is not on our side.

Third of the ‘Big Three’ is to do with the extraordinary degree to which our lives are dependent on computer-controlled supply chains. Much of what we eat or use is grown or manufactured in just a few locations in the world. If the sophisticated supply chains that deliver these goods to markets around the world were to fail, say from widespread power failures, then the effect on the world economy and on people’s lives could be devastating. Corporations around the world have focused on efficiency. In future there will need to pay more attention to resilience and adaptability.


Youth Anger

Greta Thunberg release hell
Credit: Ugo Bardi

This week many young people took to the streets to express their outrage. Their attitude is well expressed in the Washington Post article Why baby boomers’ grandchildren will hate them.

Greta Thunberg from Sweden has become the spokesperson for the outrage. Her extraordinary speech at the United Nations How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood should be required viewing for all world leaders. The most disheartening aspect of the speech was the fact that she received so much applause. What on earth are these people thinking?

Here is an explanation as to why she has been so successful.


Time Magazine

Time-Magazine-Climate-Change cover

Also this week Time magazine devoted its entire issue to climate issues. Good for them — it is well worth reading. But, and there always seems to be a but, it skips over two crucial issues:

  1. We need to reduce the earth’s population.
  2. Each person needs to consume less of the earth’s resources.

This is where the Christian church can provide much needed leadership. An honest response requires sacrifice.


Aha! Moment

In my book I suggest that most people do not gain an understanding as to what is taking place by reading the fine print of reports and analyses. Instead we have one or more “Aha!” moments when suddenly we “get it”.

I have had three of these “Aha!” moments, the third of which occurred The third of these “Aha!” moments occurred when I saw the following photograph. It is a before-and-after picture of the I-10 freeway between Houston and Beaumont, a road I have driven on many times during the course of my business career.

Flooding I-10 Beaumont Texas during hurricane Harvey

The picture on the left is of the road in normal times. The picture on the right was taken during Hurricane Harvey in the year 2017. It is estimated that the storm dropped a million gallons of rain for each resident of south Texas. This picture taught me that climate change is not just something that will happen in the future, it is happening now. Indeed, it is something that started some years ago.

This “Aha!” moment was refreshed when I read about the second of these 1000 year storms that has hit that part of Texas in just two years. And, no, this is not the new normal — it’s the start of a trend. We can expect more and more of these monster storms, and we can expect them to grow in intensity. In fact, what struck me most about the reporting to do with this year’s storm is the lack of reporting. Massive 1,000 year floods are hardly newsworthy any more.


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Proper 16: Rearranging the Deckchairs

Deckchairs Titanic neatly arranged
Deckchairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (August 25th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 13:10-17.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This passage gives us two issues to think about. The first is the miracle that heals the crippled woman, the second is the tension between Jesus and the synagogue leader about how to observe the sabbath laws. It is the second of these that may be able to provide us with guidance to do with our actions in the coming years of climate change and resource depletion.

The synagogue leader is portrayed in a negative light. He is taking a legalistic attitude that, “We all know the rules about keeping the sabbath; we should obey them. No excuses.” Jesus does not argue against the sabbath rule itself — he is simply saying that there are times and circumstances when it is right not to observe that rule.

But there is another way of looking at this story. It may be that the sabbath rule itself needs to be modified. In our time our church leaders tend to focus on issues such as gender equality, same-sex relationships and diversity. These are important issues. But maybe they should no longer be our priority. The leadership of our church, like the synagogue leader, may need to consider the changed circumstances of the world around us.

One of the Attachments to my book A New City of God is entitled, ‘Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Episcopalian Titanic’. It is written tongue-in-cheek, but the point is a serious one. The church’s focus on current issues may help explain why membership in virtually all denominations is declining so precipitously. The chart shows membership in the Episcopal church.

Membership Episcopal church

As recently as the year 2005, membership was over 800,000. Currently it is at approximately 550,000 (the red line); the number of active Episcopalians is now less than 0.25% of the population of the United States. Were this trend line to continue then membership would hit zero around the year 2045. (In fact, the line will probably level out in the 10,000 to 15,000 range, but the general conclusion is the same. The Episcopal church in its present form is likely to become merely a rump organization.) The reality is that the modern Episcopal church has very little influence over the direction that our society is taking. And, unless the church speaks to issues that really matter to society as a whole, its influence will continue to dwindle.

If the Age of Limits issues discussed at this site are as serious as they seem to be then we should focus on them. If we do so, we may find that the membership decline could be stopped, or even reversed.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

  1. Understand and tell the truth.
  2. Accept and adapt.
  3. Live within the biosphere both material and spiritually.

I have highlighted the second of these three points — Accept and Adapt — because we cannot predict how nations and societies will decline. However, we do need to accept that decline is inevitable, and that we will need to adapt to new, strange and frightening circumstances.

Additional Reading

India drought Chennai

At this blog I do not spend much time discussing reports to do with climate change and related issues. There are many other sites that provide that information. However, one post did catch my eye and that was India staring at a water apocalypse. Other related articles discuss the fact that the city of Chennai in India is facing a near collapse of its fresh water supplies. Moreover, this situation is not temporary — as the climate changes much of the Indian subcontinent will be facing long-term drought.

This information attracted my attention because one of the world’s largest oil companies (Shell) decided some years ago to move many of its financial and administrative functions from the United States to Chennai in order to save money. I wonder if the planning for this move looked at the city’s water supply. Already workers in Chennai are being asked to stay home. If the shortage of water gets worse, as it probably will, Shell may have to consider relocating many of these functions somewhere else.


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Proper 15: 2019

Calendar 2019

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (August 18th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 12:49-56.

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The Present Time

I would like to consider the last phrase, “but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” in the context of climate change. One of the frustrations that many feel is that the facts to do with climate change are obvious and not all that controversial. Yet people, by and large, continue to ignore the looming crises  that a changed climate will bring.

But it could be that public awareness is shifting. In fact, it may be that the year 2019 has been something of a watershed, at least in the United States. Historians may look back on it as the year when, quite suddenly, climate change went mainstream and gained widespread acceptance.

The following may be reasons for this change.

The Daily News

We are seeing a steady stream of news events to do with the reality of climate change. The following are examples,

High Publicity Events

The climate change movement seems to be building awareness through high profile events such as Greta Thunberg’s decision to sail across the Atlantic. Such actions are likely to have a greater impact than any number of earnest reports written by bespectacled scientists.

Greta Thunberg climate change

Mainstream Acceptance

But of all the trends, probably the most significant is that climate change is becoming part of our background. — something that is increasingly taken for granted. For example, in the August 16th 2019 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch the newspaper’s meteorologist, John Boyer, had an article forecasting the fall weather for the central Virginia area. He says,

. . . over the past century there has been a notable rise in both mean temperature and rainfall across Virginia from September to November, likely influenced by climate change.

What struck me was the almost casual manner in which Boyer, who writes for a  conservative newspaper, took it for granted that climate change is a factor in routine weather forecasting.

China and India

The above comments are mostly to do with the United States and western Europe. Unfortunately, other parts of the world, particularly China and India, are even less committed to making a change than the United Sates although they make a major contribution to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. (Comparative fossil fuel consumption for the top three nations are: China 36%, USA 34%, India 30%.)

Personal Stories

We moved to the Richmond area about six years ago from Houston, Texas. Our choice was made easy because we have family in this area. But another factor was our reading of NASA’s long-range climate forecasts. Our interest was not so much in temperature change (everywhere gets hotter) but in rainfall. NASA predicted that south Texas would get drier (but not to drought levels), that New England and eastern Canada would be very wet , and that rainfall in central Virginia would remain about the same. It looks as if that prediction has worked out quite well so far.

Increasingly, we will have more and more personal stories such as these. They could create a rapid change in perception. One of the commentators (staggering_god) at the reddit Collapse site likely has it right when he said,

More and more, people are going to have stories. True stories about things that have happened to them, their families, or their friends. That’s what will ultimately persuade people–not models, projections, scientific experts, or charts. Like a lot of farmers today, it will start like, “I don’t say it’s climate change, but the growing season is out of whack–something’s gone wrong, and it’s nothing like I remember growing up.”

Eventually, most people are going to have their climate stories. And probably the most important thing people can do is share their person stories of being affected by climate change.

And then, like magic, everybody is going to rewrite the past. And suddenly we will all talk like were all believers all along. Even if you said you were a skeptic two years ago, it will be as if it was decades ago. Corporations will all come out pro-climate action. Politicians will tie it to our deep-rooted American values. Everybody is going to start paying lip service. It’s going to be on t-shirts, mugs, Top 40 radio hits. Everybody is going to feel warm and fuzzy inside because they were part of the movement, always with the “good guys,” always virtuous and moral and good.

And then the next battle will come. Something will be passed. It will be substantial and specific. It will be real. BUT it clearly won’t be enough. And, like all the civil rights battles before, there will be the camp of people who scream that a LOT more needs to be done, that this is problem is systemic and is NOT FIXED. And there will be the other camp who say those people are alarmist, extremist, etc. The ruling class will say, “We’ve given you something. Isn’t that enough? Aren’t you satisfied? Why can’t you be satisfied with what we’ve given you?” It will be the people who think we’ve done enough vs. the people who think we haven’t done nearly enough.

Everybody will claim to be on the pro-climate side, but it will be almost the same battle repeating again–with a kind of soft denialism. Everyone will say they are on board with fixing the climate and taking action, but a good number of people won’t take the science completely seriously. They will consider it a “half-emergency”. It will be denialism but in a different guise. The gradualists vs. the abolitionists.

In short, we will have spent 30+ years doing NOTHING. Then we will do SOMETHING. And that will only be the very start. Every inch of ground after that point will be fought over. You’ll never truly weed out the denialists, they will just go underground, slow walk everything, and come up with endless “reasonable” objections. Mostly, the language will change. Everybody will agree that they’ve always been on the right side. In this way, the problem will likely become only more insidious.

In the end, the delays and obfuscations will lead to our utter destruction. But in whatever history we tell centuries hence, we were ALL for Independence. Nobody was ever a royalist. We were ALL with the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln, the whole time. We ALL hated Nazis and supported the Allies. We ALL loved Martin Luther King. And we ALL thought climate change was a big problem and supported significant climate action.

Common Knowledge

This week’s Peak Prosperity site has an article entitled Why Common Knowledge Changes The World. The article is to do with financial issues but the concept of Common Knowledge can be applied equally well to the perception of climate change. There are three steps.

  1. A small number of people with specialist knowledge become aware of the problem. The great majority of people either do not accept that there is a problem or — more commonly — they simply ignore the whole issue.
  2. Then more and more people recognize that there is a problem. Their private knowledge, in this case, goes from denial or ignorance to accepting that “something is going on”. But the crucial point is that this knowledge is private and that they believe that others have yet to change their mind.
  3. Then, suddenly, people become aware that they are not alone or isolated. Hence private knowledge quickly becomes public knowledge.

I suggest that we are currently at Step 2 and that the transition to Step 3 could happen within the next two or three years.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

  1. Understand and tell the truth.
  2. Accept and adapt.
  3. Live within the biosphere both material and spiritually.

I have highlighted the first of these points. More and more people are gaining an understanding of what is taking place but they feel rather isolated. However, once enough people gain an understanding, and once they talk to one another, the whole public perception of climate change could shift quite quickly.  Whether that change in perception will lead to effective action remains to be seen.

Additional Reading

The American Meteorological Society has released its 325 page report State of the Climate in 2018. Here are some quotations from the Abstract.

In 2018, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—continued their increase. The annual global average carbon dioxide concentration at Earth’s surface was 407.4 ± 0.1 ppm, the highest in the modern instrumental record and in ice core records dating back 800,000 years.

. . . global surface (land and ocean) temperature was the fourth highest on record, with only 2015 through 2017 being warmer. Several European countries reported record high annual temperatures. There were also more high, and fewer low, temperature extremes than in nearly all of the 68-year extremes record.

. . . Pakistan, recorded its highest temperature of 50.2°C, which may be a new daily world record for April.

. . . The 2018 Arctic land surface temperature was 1.2°C above the 1981–2010 average, tying for third highest in the 118-year record, following 2016 and 2017. June’s Arctic snow cover extent was almost half of what it was 35 years ago. Across Greenland, however, regional summer temperatures were generally below or near average. Additionally, a satellite survey of 47 glaciers in Greenland indicated a net increase in area for the first time since records began in 1999.

. . . On 17 March, Arctic sea ice extent marked the second smallest annual maximum in the 38-year record, larger than only 2017.

. . . For the Antarctic continent as a whole, 2018 was warmer than average. On the highest points of the Antarctic Plateau, the automatic weather station Relay (74°S) broke or tied six monthly temperature records throughout the year, with August breaking its record by nearly 8°C. However, cool conditions in the western Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sector contributed to a low melt season overall for 2017/18.

. . .The deeper ocean continues to warm year after year. For the seventh consecutive year, global annual mean sea level became the highest in the 26-year record, rising to 81 mm above the 1993 average. As anticipated in a warming climate, the hydrological cycle over the ocean is accelerating: dry regions are becoming drier and wet regions rainier. Closer to the equator, 95 named tropical storms were observed during 2018, well above the 1981–2010 average of 82.

. . . Globally, fire activity during 2018 was the lowest since the start of the record in 1997, with a combined burned area of about 500 million hectares. This reinforced the long-term downward trend in fire emissions driven by changes in land use in frequently burning savannas. However, wildfires burned 3.5 million hectares across the United States, well above the 2000–10 average of 2.7 million hectares.


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