The Christian New Deal: Part I

This blog is the first in a series to do with the nature of a ‘Christian New Deal’. It discusses the nature of truth in the context of the Age of Limits. It starts with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The conclusion is that the truth of the predicaments that we face is complex and hard to understand. Nevertheless it is our responsibility to do the work needed to understand that truth.

The picture at the top of this post is of Pilate questioning Jesus. In John 18 we read,

 . . . Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. One of the writers who has greatly influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues is John Michael Greer. His work is described in the fourth part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).  The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

A Theology for Our Times

The ultimate aim of the posts in this series is to help develop a theology that addresses the issues that we discuss — issues that are collectively the ‘Age of Limits’. Every so often, we will publish a post that provides some thoughts as to what that ideology might look like. Given that the Green New Deal has attracted so much attention, let us call it the Christian New Deal.

This post is the first in that series.

A Committee Meeting

I recently attended a meeting of a church environmental group. It works with individual churches and the larger community on a wide range of programs such as,

  • Eliminating the use of plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash;
  • Management of storm water run-off to minimize the loss of top soil;
  • The development of community gardens; and
  • Writing mission statements and resolutions to do with church policy.

At the conclusion of the meeting we had a round-table discussion at which people were invited to talk about what was on their mind. One person introduced the topic of the recent youth movement (see The Thunberg Meme), another talked about the impact of the Green New Deal. This led to an immediate change in the tone of the meeting. It became apparent that everyone understood that, regardless of actions such as ours, climate change — with all its scary consequences — is happening. And these consequences are not just on the other side of the world. The climate in our own locality has changed (there will be more rain than has been normal).

Programs such as the Green New Deal can be properly challenged on the grounds that they are not realistic, either in terms of engineering or project management. But a more fundamental difficulty with such programs is that they assume that we can have our environmental cake and eat it. If we take the proposed actions then we can have both a remediated environment and maintain our current standard of living. It would be wonderful if this assumption were true, but, alas, such is not the case.

Truth

One of the themes of the posts at this blog is that Christians must always tell the truth, even if the truth is difficult to understand. For example, in Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics we note that not only does it provide us with fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it is also the source of the petrochemicals that create the products that are so fundamental to our way of living. We cannot stop using crude oil without facing wrenching changes to the way in which we live — and people at the lower end of the economic scale will probably be impacted the most.

A much harder truth to accept is that our climate is taking us into a hot-house world that humans have never seen before. An increasing number of people are spelling out the details of this future. Examples are the book Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells and the paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell. The story that they tell is not pretty.

Back to the committee meeting that started this post. Is it enough for Christian groups such as this to focus on actions such as those described? Or should these groups spend at least part of their time and energy on describing our future — no holds barred?

A Theological Response

We have already talked about Augustine of Hippo and his book The City of God. But there is another work of his that it is useful to consider, and that is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine insists that Christians must tell the truth at all times — not even white lies are permissible. Therefore, I suggest that the first step in the development of a new theology is to be totally rigorous about telling the truth about the dilemmas that we face. Such a truth has three parts.

  1. Understanding the nature of truth is difficult. The issues that we discuss are complex and have many feedback loops. This means that, if we are to understand the truth then we need to do our homework.
  2. Telling the truth may cause alarm in others, and may (will) make us less popular. Carriers of bad news are not popular.
  3. The people who will be most affected by all these changes will be those toward the bottom of the economic scale.

I conclude that understanding and telling the truth is the first part of a Christian New Deal.

Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics

Book Release

Dante Forest Dark
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We are up to the third part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). We take a look at two important authors, Matt Simmons and M. King Hubbert, and their thoughts to do with peak oil and the nuclear power industry. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Fossil Fuel

As young people become increasingly aware of the climate change predicaments that we face, they are taking action. Greta Thurnberg — Out of the Mouths of Teenagers — started the meme. Now young people in western Europe and the United States are following her lead. (By young, we mean less than 20 years old)

One of the slogans chanted at their rallies is, “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” But, as they say, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Do these young people know what they are really asking for? Do they comprehend the utterly fundamental role of crude oil, natural gas and coal to our way of life, a role that goes way beyond merely supplying us with energy?

Prosperity

Writers such as Steven Pinker and Bill Gates point out that humanity has become far more prosperous over the course of the last 300 years than at any time in recorded history. By virtually every measure — life span, infant mortality, safety, peace, knowledge, happiness — there has been steady improvement, not just in the West, but worldwide. Pinker attributes this change to Enlightenment thinking — the development of rational thinking and the use of reason. But a simpler and more obvious explanation for the sudden and extraordinary improvement in the quality of life is that, also about 300 years ago, we learned how to extract and then use the enormous amount of energy available to us in fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and, above all, crude oil.

Thomas Newcomen (1665-1729) inventor who created the atmospheric engine, the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712.
Thomas Newcomen (1665-1729)

 If we have to pick a specific date for that event I would go with the year 1712. It was in that year that Thomas Newcomen developed an “atmospheric/steam” engine for removing water from mines.

The Energy Business

Bottle of crude oil
Crude Oil

The sketch below is a visualization of how many people view the oil industry. A hole is drilled in the ground, oil flows out of that hole; it then flows along a pipeline to a refinery, which separates the oil into various fuel streams such as gasoline, diesel and heating oil.

Oil well pipeline refinery

Proponents of alternative energy propose that we build wind turbines and solar panel farms. They generate electricity, thus replacing the fuel streams. This would then allow us to shut down the fossil fuel industries, particularly the oil business.

Unfortunately, it is not nearly so simple. There are two objections to this far too simplistic scenario.

The first objection is that the energy density of wind, solar and other alternatives is much, much less than that of oil. To generate enough electricity for the United States, for example, much of the southwest would have to covered in solar panels. Which in turn would require an enormous build out of the electric grid. We would also have to replace all forms of transport with their electrical counterparts. (This would exclude airplanes — we are nowhere close to having batteries with sufficient capacity.)

The second objection, and the one that is the focus of this post, is that crude oil contains an enormous number of complex chemicals that provide the chemical feedstocks that are used to manufacture a bewildering array of products — all of which contribute to the prosperity that Pinker talks about.

Petrochemicals

The sketch below is a very simplified schematic of a typical oil refinery.

Oil Refinery schematic
Very Simplified Oil Refinery Schematic

And here is a picture of an actual refinery.

Oil Refinery
One reason that so many processing steps are required is that crude oil, the composition of which varies enormously depending on the source, rarely contains the desired product mix. For example, the gasoline fraction in crude oil is typically around 15%. But the market demand for gasoline is such that many of the lighter and heavier streams are treated so that they can be added to the gasoline pool.

In addition to containing the relatively simple molecules (such as octane/gasoline and butane/lighter fluid) that make up the fuel products, crude oil also contains many complex molecules that are refined and sent to petrochemical plants. It is these complex molecules that provide the basis of so much of our modern industrial civilization.

The sketch shows some of the products that a refinery produces. The naphtha stream has been highlighted.

Crude-Distillation-Naphtha

When mixed with various other product streams that contain the complex molecules, naphtha becomes a petrochemical feedstock. This feedstock is sent to chemical plants where it is further treated and used to make the enormous range of products that provide the basis of modern life: plastics, antibiotics, fibers, agrochemicals, inks, packaging, dry cleaning agents, engine coolant, synthetic rubber . . . the list goes on.

So, if “fossil fuels must go”, then so must all the other useful chemicals that our society relies on.

Windmills Cannot Make Anaesthetics

Offshore wind turbines
Our civilization relies almost entirely on crude oil, not only as a source of fuel, but as the foundation of our way of living. This means that, even if we do install an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels to, at least partially, replace the fuels that we use now, we will still need to extract and refine crude oil. to provide petrochemical feedstocks. This is something that windmills and solar panels will never do.

De Mendacio

The goal of the posts at this blog is to try to figure out the parameters of a new theology — one that works in an Age of Limits. Some thoughts as to how to do this comes from looking at the works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). His book City of God provides a basis for my own A New City of God. But Augustine also wrote other important works, one of which is De Mendacio (On Lying), part of a larger book entitled Retractions.

Augustine took the ninth commandment very seriously.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.

In other words, you must always tell the truth.

George Washington and the Cherry Tree

In the context of the Age of Limits, telling the truth is not always as simple as saying, “I cannot tell a lie  . . . I did cut < the cherry tree > with my hatchet”. (It’s a neat irony that the story about George Washington and the importance of telling the truth is not itself true.) In our world, telling the truth means doing the hard work of understanding the nature and complexities of our multiple predicaments.

With regard to coal, natural gas and crude oil, the truth is,

Fossil fuels should not be burned, they should be used only to manufacture petrochemicals.

We can conclude by saying that the slogan “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” is correct, but only if the emphasis is on the word fuel. The complex molecules that are derived from oil, natural gas and coal are truly irreplaceable. We should make every effort not to use them to make useful products, not just burn them.

 

The Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg

One of the themes of this site is that there is an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership in the rather scary future that awaits us. But first we have to focus on Age of Limits issues, and stop placing gender debates up front and center — see the post Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs.

Actually, for once, we may be able to have our environmental cake and eat it. In his post When the Going get Tough, Women get Going. “Middle Ages 2.0” Ugo Bardi says,

In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”

These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.

I find it interesting that, unwittingly, I have been following the leadership of these two dynamic young ladies at this blog with my various posts to do with the Green New Deal and Skolstrejk för Klimatet.

This line of argument would suggest that, if the church wants to promote gender equality, then maybe direct advancement of that goal is not the way to go. Instead, we should provide leadership in our search for “intelligent adaptation to scarcity”. In doing so, we may find that much of our leadership will be provided by the likes of AOC and GT.

Greta Thunberg Sweden


The image at the top of this post is taken from the cover of a book to be published by Devil’s Due. Of their book they say,

It’s no secret that AOC has become the unofficial leader of the new school, and has sparked life back into Washington and that’s reflected in the enthusiasm on display by the men and women contributing to this project. While we all don’t agree on everything, we share a common excitement for the breath of fresh air the new Congress brings.

The Thunberg Meme

Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy has just published The Thunberg Effect Seems to be in Full Swing: Will It Last? He uses Google Analytics to show the effect of her leadership. The blue line shows interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change’; the red line in the topic of ‘Greta Thunberg’.
Thunberg Meme

It is too early to know if this young lady really has started a movement, but it is interesting to note that she herself cites Rosa Parks as one of the people who inspired her. Maybe she and other young people have started the equivalent of a new civil rights movement.

10-year National Mobilization

On March 6th of this year our local newspaper, the Ashland-Hanover Local, published an article to do with the building of a solar generating plant in our county. What struck me was the fact that the project is likely to be delayed for many months while it is reviewed by the normal political process.

We have already published posts to do with the Green New Deal at Green New DealThe Third Road  and elsewhere. Part of the program states,

the “Green New Deal goals” should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization.

The contrast between this ambitious program and the lack of urgency associated with projects such as the solar plant in our community could hardly be greater. If programs such as GND can generate that sense of urgency then more power to them. But so far, it has not happened.