We are entering an Age of Limits. Our resource base is declining, our environment becomes more degraded every year, and economic problems are endemic. These are Predicaments, not Problems (Problems have solutions, Predicaments do not). We need a new theology to meet these frightening challenges.
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”.
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?”
. . . 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.
Greta Thurnberg, a 15-year old from Sweden, gave the following speech to the comfortable “adults” at the COP24 Conference in Poland in 2018.
My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden.
I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now.
Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do.
But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference.
And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.
You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.
Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.
Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.
You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.
Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.
We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.
We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.
We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.
We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.
So what is this young person telling we “adults”.
Speaking as a young person living in a country with little economic power, she says that she, and people like her, still have power.
She speaks clearly — no fudging around about “sustainable growth”.
She speaks for the many poor people who suffer disproportionately from the ravages of climate change. She is not self-centered.
She sarcastically talks about “green eternal growth”. She seems to have a better grasp of the second law than people three times her age.
She makes the obvious statement that a continuation of the bad actions that got us into this mess is not a good idea. She does not use Einstein’s famous remark, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we crated them” — but she could have done.
She tells the world “leaders” that they are not mature. They leave all the hard decisions to the young people.
She challenges the economic system that benefits the very rich at the expense of the life of the planet.
Her comment about how she will talk about people like us when she is 75 is reminiscent of the famous Kitchener proposal (which, incidentally, worked — it persuaded many young men to join the army at the start of World War I).
She accuses us of hypocrisy — she says that we don’t love our children enough to make real sacrifices in our lifestyles.
She says that “we are running out of time”. In this she is actually incorrect — we have already run out of time. But maybe she was being tactful.
The first was to do with the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protest movement. The Guardian says,
The Extinction Rebellion climate protest group has expanded to 35 countries and is building towards a week of international civil disobedience in April.
Wikipedia describes the movement as follows,
Extinction Rebellion (sometimes shortened as XR) is an international social movement that aims to drive radical change, through nonviolent resistance in order to minimise species extinction and avert climate breakdown
In an open letter members of the movement, which was formed this year, say,
The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.
What is interesting about this movement is their use of the word ‘Extinction’. They are not mincing words, or saying, “maybe this, or, on the other hand, maybe that”.
In an open letter they make the following demands,
The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
A national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.
Taking these points one by one,
In in his book De Mendacio Augustine stressed that it is the responsibility of Christians to tell the truth at all times — not even while lies are acceptable.
Reducing carbon emissions to zero by the year 2025 will not happen. Any attempt to do so will lead to extinction by a different route.
Would the Citizens’ Assembly over-ride existing government?
The other item that attracted my attention was this article. It describes how some young, Evangelical Christians are now taking climate change very seriously.
While many evangelicals are preoccupied with the long-term state of human souls and the protection of the unborn, Diego and the other students I met at Wheaton are also considering other eternal implications and a broader definition of pro-life. They are concerned about the lifespan of climate pollutants that will last in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and about the lives of the poor and weak who are being disproportionately harmed by the effects of those greenhouse gases.
I have never really understood why any Christian would oppose the science to do with climate change (and other Age of Limits issues). After all, if people are suffering due to these events then we need to understand what is happening before coming up with “solutions” that are not actually solutions.
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.
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.
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.