The Slow Train

Transition from steam to diesel engines

One of the reasons for writing this blog is to examine some of the views held by environmentalists and climate activists, particularly those “solutions” that are simply not physically feasible. For example, programs to do with “saving energy” and “sustainable systems” do not meet the constraints of either the first or second laws of thermodynamics. We cannot “save energy” — the first law tells us so. Nor, according to the second law, is any activity truly sustainable. All activities within a closed system lead to an increase in entropy.

A second concern is that many of the programs put forward to address the predicaments that we face do not speak to project management realities. The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it can be implemented society-wide — at least not quickly enough to address the predicaments that we face. To illustrate this point, let us take a look at two railway projects. The first is the transition from steam to diesel electric power on American railroads  that took place in the 20th century. The second is the current California high speed rail project.

Steam to Diesel

Diesel and diesel-electric locomotives are attractive economically when compared to steam locomotives, largely because they require much less downtime for routine maintenance and cleaning. Such benefits were evident 100 years ago. Yet it took 50 years for diesel power to replace steam engines in the American railway system.

In November 2019 the Oil & Gas Journal (a leading publications in the energy business) published an article written by Michael Lynch. It was entitled, The oil industry revolution will not be televised. In the article Lynch shows how slowly new technologies are  adopted, even when there is a good economic justification. He uses the United States railroad industry as an example.

Transition from steam to diesel locomotives shows slow pace of adoption of new technologies.The chart, which is taken from his article, shows that the first diesel locomotive was put into service during the First World War. Yet it was not until the year 1937 that a commercial mainline, diesel locomotive was put into service. After that, diesel-electric locomotives steadily replaced steam locomotives. But, even by the year 1955, that replacement was not complete.

So it took nearly half a century to make this relatively simple switch to a new technology. Yet the economic justification was clear, the technology was well established, and the supporting infrastructure, particularly the supply of diesel fuel, was in place. Moreover, all other aspects of the operation, such as track, signals, union contracts, funding mechanisms and maintenance facilities did not require a significant change.

California High Speed Rail

California high speed rail over budget and behind schedule

In the year 2008 the citizens of California approved funding for the construction of a high speed rail service from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Proponents of the project claimed that the new trains would achieve a journey time between the two cities of 2½ hours, and that the ticket would cost around $50.

Here are some key steps in the project’s progress.

  • The ballot measure proposed a $38 billion project that would provide high speed train service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The journey time would be 2½ hours, and the cost of a ticket $50.
  • The schedule called for the project to be complete by the year 2029.
  • Since then, the project has run into considerable delays and cost over-runs. The current scope of the project is to build just the Central Valley section from Merced to Bakersfield.
  • The new trains will not have their own, dedicated tracks — they will have to share with existing Amtrak and freight systems. This change will substantially increase journey times.The latest cost estimate is $77 billion, and rising.

This California high speed rail project is emblematic of virtually all innovative and expensive projects. They always seem to take longer and cost more, a lot more, than originally proposed.

Lessons for Alternative Energy Projects

Climate activists say that “we must” transition away from fossil fuels toward new sources of energy that do not impact the environment so severely. But such statements often fall into the trap of “because something should be done, it can be done”.

There are many reasons why the transition to alternative energy sources will be a challenge, to put it mildly. These reasons include resource limits, finance, real estate constraints, and — above all — political will. And, as this post has shown, the transition to alternative energy is going to run into project management realities. The two projects just discussed — the transition from steam to diesel, and the development of a high speed rail system — are both realistic technologically. Yet the first took decades to implement. I question whether the second will ever be fully implemented. The project is now nearly twelve years old, and not one inch of rail has been laid.

The total decarbonization of our entire society is way more challenging than these railway projects. Yet political leaders continue to say that we need to decarbonize our entire way of life by the year 2050 — just 30 years from now. (These leaders include the Secretary General of the United Nations and all the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.) It’s not going to happen.

Theological Implications

What do the above thoughts mean to those in the Christian community who are trying to address the issues we face clearly and honestly? It will be recalled from previous posts that I have proposed the following three points to provide a basis for a theology that is appropriate for our times.

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

With regard to the first point — Understand and tell the truth — we need to understand project management realities. Given 100 years we could switch to renewable resources in an orderly manner. But we cannot do so within 30 years. We need to understand and tell the truth that, “Just because something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it will be done society-wide”.

Which brings us to the second point: Accept and adapt. If we recognize that a massive energy transition is not going to take place in 30 years then we have two choices. Either we cut back our fossil fuel consumption without having sufficient alternative energy to provide an adequate replacement. Or else we continue to use fossil fuels as we are doing now and then face the dire consequences of climate change.

The Church of Progress

Mobile phone in a garden
Credit: Pexel

One of the themes of this site is that material progress is coming to an end, like it or not. Another theme is that the predicaments we face provide a wonderful opportunity for the church to show leadership to society at large. However, before the church can provide leadership it will be necessary for most of us to leave the ‘Church of Progress’. Most of us, even those who understand issues such as global warming or resource depletion, nevertheless continue believe (or, at least, we want to believe) in never-ending progress, that tomorrow will be better (materially) than it is today. When we look around us it is becoming harder and harder to hold on that belief. But still, we easily fall back to the assumption that ‘They will think of something’ or ‘Technology will come up with a solution’.

In the context of this discussion, this week’s post from Kurt Cobb is well worth reading. The title of the post is The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress.

I have two takeaways from what he says. The first is that our culture virtually requires us to use the latest technology, such as cell phones, whether we like to or not. We are expected to participate in “progress”. Yet, I when I work in my garden I intentionally do not wear a watch or carry a cell phone; I do not feel that I am not making “progress”.

The second takeaway is Kurt’s request of all of us to find a word that can replace “progress” — a word that identifies a way of living that does not require us to undermine the biosphere.

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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Our Sarajevo Moment

Archduke-Ferdinand--Sarajevo
Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914)

This year we spent a few days in Belgium and France visiting various World War I sites, including The Somme and Passchendaele. That war, in which millions of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered, was triggered by a relatively minor incident: the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in the town of Sarajevo in the modern day Bosnia/Herzegovina. For years the great powers of Europe had been building their military capability, both on land and at sea. But it took this apparently random event to trigger the “War to End All Wars”.

As we look at our world now, we seem to be in a similar situation. However, the danger is not of war per se, but of a tipping point that will trigger a cascade of crises to do with the fact that that we are depleting the world’s finite resources, particularly crude oil. As I write these words a major oil field/refinery in Saudi Arabia is burning as a consequence of an apparently minor event: an attack by just ten drones. Could this be the first domino to fall? No one knows, of course. Probably we will muddle through, just as we have muddled through previous potential crises. But, sooner or later, I suspect that an event such as this week’s attack could indeed be a tipping point, a “Pearl Harbor moment”.

Saudi Arabia oil facilities fire drone attack

Proper 17: The Place of Honor

Christian humility

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 (September 1st2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:1, 7-14.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Through a Glass Darkly

In this gospel reading we are told to be humble and not to choose the place of honor.

One aspect of the need to be humble is to understand that no one can predict the future accurately. We must understand that any forecast we make should be made tentatively and with an understanding that we could easily be proved wrong. But although we need to be cautious when we talk about what the future holds that does not mean that we cannot see an outline as to where we are going.

I keep coming back to the words of the Apostle Paul.

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.

1 Corinthians 13, 12

Even Paul, with his magnificent intellectual and spiritual gifts did not have a clear picture of the future. But this does not mean that he was blind — he could see and outline of what the future holds.

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 three points, Understand and tell the truth. The nature of truth in our highly complex and rapidly changing society is difficult to discern. But that does not mean that we cannot see an outline; we need the courage to understand what is happening, otherwise we will not be able to work out the best response.

Book Progress

Books in the Library of Congress

I am working on a book with the working title A New City of God. Parts of the book are quite detailed, and some are technical. Therefore, in order to keep the book manageable in size, I have created a serious of Supplements. These will be available as .pdf files, and can be downloaded at no cost.

In the meantime, the first of these supplements is entitled The Green New Deal. In it I take a look at the proposal made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues earlier this year from a Christian point of view. I conclude that its aspirations are great but that it does not pass the red face test with respect to engineering and project management realities. Nor does it call upon anyone to make any type of sacrifice — something that will be necessary in coming years.

The Sadness of Six Degrees

Book: Six Degrees

One of the most useful books on climate change is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. The book has six core chapters — one for every 1°C increase in planetary temperatures over the pre-industrial baseline. Unlike many other books in this genre it is quite specific as to what the world will look like in coming years.

The author does not, however, provide dates as to when each degree of temperature rise will take place.  One reason for his hesitation to provide dates is that, when he when he wrote the book, he did not know how human society would respond to the predictions made by scientists such as himself. The book was published in the year 2007 — at that time there was a rather naïve assumption among many people that we, as a society, would react rationally and energetically to the warming of the earth.

The reality, of course, is that there has been no effective response, thus giving the book an air of sadness.

The final chapter is entitled ‘Choosing Our Future’. In it Lynas projects global temperature increases over the pre-industrial baseline, the level of CO2 that would create that increase, and the action that needs to be taken to avoid the increase. Here are some of the figures he uses.

  • One Degree. 350 ppm. Avoidance probably not possible.
  • Two Degrees. 400 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2015.
  • Three Degrees. 450 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2030.

Here are the actual concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Three conclusions can be drawn from this graph.

  1. The increase in CO2 is remarkably steady. In spite of all the conferences, resolutions and statements of good intent, the rate of increase of our emissions has not slowed down. (Indeed, it appears as if the rate of increase of the rate of increase is also positive.) In the year 2020 we will be at 420 ppm. If the trend continues unabated, we reach 450 ppm somewhere around the year 2040.
  2. Assuming that Lynas’ projections of temperature increase are correct, then 420 ppm means that we cannot avoid a 2.5°C increase. At 450 ppm global temperatures are about 3°C above the pre-industrial baseline.
  3. The target dates set by Lynas ten years ago seem now to be just wishful thinking.

I have used the following sketch already, and doubtless will use it again. Our responsibility is to create a sense of realistic hope.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Realistically the earth is going to much warmer than it is now within the lifetime of many people reading this blog. But we should not be fatalistic — a 3°C world is very different from the one that we live in now, but it is livable. At the same time we need to avoid hopium — a vague, unjustified belief that “something will come up” or “they will think of something”.

Creating a Butterfly Garden

Creating a butterfly garden

One of my church colleagues publishes a blog called “Holy Comforter Creation Care”. In it she talks about the importance and value of native plants in our gardens. The latest post is Creating a Butterfly Garden.


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