Proper 28: The City of Man

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is from Luke 21:5-19.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In this passage Jesus is predicting great calamities. Indeed, the Temple was destroyed only 40 years after his death. Many of those who look deeply into climate change reach similar conclusions (the subreddit Collapse is an example of a site populated by people who think this way). Jesus is also saying that many of those who prophesy will come to a sticky end, and that they will be betrayed by many of those that they trust.

As we consider climate change, resource depletion and the other issues discussed at this blog we may anticipate a calamity, such as what happened to the Temple. In fact, our City of Man is more likely to undergo a ragged, stairstep decline (with some periods when conditions may briefly improve). It is unlikely that we will be able to point to a single event — a single point in time “when everything changed”.

Aha! Moment #2: Augustine’s City of God

Augustine of Hippo and the City of God

In last week’s post I suggested that many of us develop an understanding of the issues that face us in a series of Aha! Moments when suddenly we “get it”, something “clicks” with us.  I have had five such moments. They are:

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of a myriad of manufactured goods such as light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.
  5. A reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of science fiction books.

The second of these Aha! Moments, the one that is discussed in this post, is to do with the thoughts and actions of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the early part of the 5th century CE.

He wrote three books that are particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living now. They are: De Mendacio (On Lying), Confessions and, above all, City of God — a book that is particularly important and relevant to us now. It provides us with guidance as to how the Christian church may provide leadership in troubled times, and why it is important to develop an appropriate theology.

This is why I have used the title of Augustine’s most famous work for my own work. Augustine understood that all “cities of men” will eventually fail and disappear, just look at all the failed states in the Hebrew bible. He maintained that the only permanent city was the City of God. Therefore, he and other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of that city — in other words, they developed a theology appropriate for their times, a time when central control was disintegrating and decision-making was devolving to create what was to become a feudal society. I suggest that Christians need to do something similar now. It seems likely that, as we run into limits to do with climate, resources and over-population, that our society will also tend to fragment — large nations, corporations and even churches will break into smaller components. We will move from globalization toward decentralization.

What will that theology look like? As a semi-retired chemical engineer I feel a degree of trepidation about offering thoughts to do with theology — a topic that is the domain of scholars, seminarians and ordained clergy. Nevertheless, I suggest the following three points that may, at the very least, contribute to the work of those professionals.

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

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.

Proper 27: Complexity

Complexity of Age of Limits issues

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:27-38.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

In his ministry, Jesus tackled many moral and theological issues that seem not to have much relevance to the Age of Limits issues that we discuss in this blog. The above passage from Luke seems to be one of those topics. Jesus does, however, discuss a complex and tricky situation — to whom is the widow married after her death? And complexity is certainly something that we struggle with here.

Aha! Moment #1: Predicaments, Not Problems

Homer Simpson and the Law of Thermodynamics
Homer Simpson with daughter Lisa’s Perpetual Motion Machine. “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

We generally learn about difficult, complex and rather scary future scenarios by reading lengthy reports or by watching well-researched documentaries. Information from these sources is invaluable in helping us understanding what is taking place. But, we often gain a sudden understanding or insight from an Aha! Moment when suddenly we “get it”. Suddenly something “just clicks”.

I have had four of these Aha! Moments. They were,

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.

The first ‘Aha! Moment’ came when I read a post by John Michael Greer in which he said that, “There is no brighter future”. In that post he pointed out that we do not face problems, we face predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.

Climate change is mostly a predicament, not a problem. We have reduced the pH of the oceans (made them more acidic) as a result of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we have generated and that has then dissolved in the seas. Even if we cut CO2 emissions to zero the oceans will remain acidic for millennia. Similarly with the greenhouse gas effect. Some of those gases, such as methane (CH4), will disappear within decades. However, other gas, particularly CO2, will remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

Depleted resources are another predicament. Once we have used the crude oil in the earth’s crust it is gone. It will take millions of years for new reserves to be created. The same argument applies to fresh water; once an aquifer is emptied or a high mountain glacier has melted, that source of fresh water is gone for ever, at least on a human time scale.

Even the manner in which we use phrases such as “renewable energy” reflect a lack of understanding as to the distinction between problems and predicaments. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be saved nor created — it merely exists. Moreover, phrases such as “renewable energy” do not make thermodynamic sense. The second law tells us that whenever we transform energy from one form to another — say by burning coal to generate steam — then the entropy of the overall system will increase. Even when we “save” energy we will increase entropy and so exacerbate the predicament in which we find ourselves. The manner in which we are using energy is creating a predicament.

No “Happy Chapter”

An awareness of the intractability of our problems/predicaments can be seen in the works of authors such as William Patton’s book Overshoot, published in the year 1982. These early books usually ended with a “happy chapter”, a chapter with solutions and responses to help us to avert catastrophe. The catch is that those solutions require a total restructuring of society, and a level of political will that simply does not exist, and that probably never will exist. Therefore, given that there is little evidence that humanity ever will make those changes, later publications from these same authors tend to skip the final “happy chapter”.

Accept and Adapt

It is this understanding of the distinction between problems and predicaments that provides the foundation for my second theological point: Accept and Adapt. We need to accept that our actions to this point have changed the world irreversibly. We cannot go back to the “good old days”; we cannot swim in the same river twice. We have to accept that we live in a new and (at times) rather scary world. This means that we need to adapt to the conditions that are in our collective future.

 

 

Proper 25: Humility and the Year 2050

Intellectual arrogance

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the context of the Age of Limits this lesson provides guidance to those of us who communicate the predicaments that we face. People who study issues such as climate change and resource depletion are generally well educated and have had sufficient time to research these difficult, complex and emotional topics. This can lead to a situation where they become like the Pharisee in the gospel reading — they feel superior to those who pay no attention to these topics, often because they do not have sufficient time.

Such an attitude is unworthy. Moreover, it is likely to be  ineffective. We need to remain humble and to recognize that others may be making a greater contribution than ourselves, even if they do not talk as much.  In particular, we need to recognize the time and effort made by those who are actually doing something about our situation, rather than merely talking about it.


The Year 2050

Rusting wind turbines

Throughout this blog and in my book I suggest that we consider building a new Christian theology around the following three points.

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

Of these, I suggest that the most difficult to grasp is the first one: Understand and the tell the truth. The world in which we live is extraordinarily complex, with many feedback loops (both positive and negative, many of which are neither identified nor understood) and potential tipping points (once more, often not either identified or understood).  No matter how much research we may have done, and no matter how well educated we may be in there topics, we return to the need for humility.

For the last few weeks we have concentrated on the realities and implications of climate change — partly because that topic has received so much publicity from that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. But climate change is not the only challenge that we face; resource depletion is equally serious. Moreover, the two topics are tightly intertwined with one another. And then we need to add in other issues such as population increase and biosphere collapse. All of these topics interact with one another in complex and difficult-to-understand ways.

But not only is it difficult to determine what will happen, it is even more difficult to figure out when events will occur. One of our truth-telling responsibilities is to provide a timeline, as best we can, knowing that any predictions we make will turn out to be incorrect. In the section entitled The Sadness of Six Degrees at the post Proper 17: The Place of Honor I note that a shortcoming of an otherwise excellent book is that it does not provide dates. It tells us what the Earth may look like as temperatures increase, but it does not provide any estimate as to when these events will take place.

Nevertheless, our political leaders have no hesitation to do with jumping into the fray. Joe Biden, one of the leading candidates in the Presidential election in the United States had this to say,

I guarantee you we’re going to end fossil fuel . . . Before 2050, God willing.

Other candidates have come up with similar goals, so let’s pick on the year that Biden selected — 2050 — to see what the world will look like if his campaign promise materializes.

  • All energy currently provided by fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) will be provided by alternative sources. Vice President Biden does not tell us what those alternatives are, but let us assume that they are a mix of nuclear power (fission), wind and solar.
  • Since the word “fuel” is used, we can assume that oil, coal and gas will continue to be used for the manufacture of the thousands of petroleum-based products, ranging from fertilizers to chemotherapy drugs to computer screens.
  • Implicit in his message is an assumption that no one will be called on to make any type of sacrifice — we will be able to maintain Business as Usual (BAU).

The harsh reality is that, if elected, there is no chance at all that Biden will meet his goal of ending fossil fuel consumption by the year 2050.

We will explore project management and financial realities in future posts. Let’s start with what I consider to be one of the most important articles written this year, Net-Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions By 2050 Requires A New Nuclear Power Plant Every Day written by Roger Pielke and published by Forbes magazine.

Here is the money quotation from that article.

 . . . the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy three . . . nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

. . . some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

It is easy to pick on Joe Biden — we are used to political candidates making promises that sound good but that don’t make mathematical sense. But my concern is to do with well-meaning Christians and church authorities. They have fallen into the same trap. If our message is to be convincing then it must also address thermodynamic and project management realities.

Let’s expand on Pielke’s words to do with wind energy.

  • We need to deploy 1500 wind turbines EVERY SINGLE DAY, starting tomorrow (his article was written a month ago) up until the year 2050.
  • This would require the 300 square miles (78,000 hectares) of land to be converted to wind turbine sites, EVERY SINGLE DAY.
  • Therefore we need to dedicate (300 * (2050-2020) * 365) square miles of land to wind turbines in the next 30 years. This is approximately 3.3 million square miles. The area of the United States is 3.5 million square miles (including Alaska). So, starting right now, we need to plan for an area the size of the United States to be dedicated to wind turbines.
  • But this is just a start. In her article Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work, Gail Tverberg describes the enormous battery power that will have to be deployed (and then maintained) to allow for the fact that the wind does not blow when we need it. We also need to recognize the wind turbines are complex machines that require fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance. Ditto for the electrical grid that they feed into.

If Christians are to provide real leadership in the troubled times that lie ahead, it is vital that they start by understanding the dilemmas that we face. We need to avoid fatalism. But, equally, we need to avoid hopium.

Realistic Hope


If you find this series of posts to be valuable and would like to be on our mailing list please use the following Contact Form. We will not put your name on our list without your written permission.

 

Proper 24: Persistence

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi

Winners never quit, and quitters never win.

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 18:1-8.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent gospel readings have been somewhat paradoxical — particularly the passage in which Jesus commends the corrupt estate manager. This week’s passage also seems to be rather strange; Jesus is comparing God with a corrupt, powerful judge. However, the core message is to do with the widow’s persistence. She keeps demanding that the judge give her justice even though she has been repulsed many times already. (The story does not tell us about the widow’s attitude. Was she tearful and begging for justice, or was she something of a pain in the neck whom the judge simply wanted to get rid of, or was she simply reasonable and polite while making her requests?)

Those of us who work with Age of Limits issues, particularly climate change, are often tempted to give up trying to communicate. So few people understand what is going on, indeed so few people even want to understand what is going on. But the passage from Luke tells us to keep on trying, even though our efforts seem to have so little effect.

The final sentence in the passage returns once more to the issue of faith, a difficult topic that we have looked at in Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences and Proper 22: Slow Walk. It is hard to maintain faith when the world that is seemingly heading toward a slow-motion catastrophe. But, this sentence tells us that the Son of Man will expect us to have kept the faith, no matter how difficult that may be.

One reason to stay faithful is that there is always the possibility of good news coming at us from totally unexpected directions. In his post The Public Interest in Climate Change Reaches and All-Time High. Greta Thunberg Conquers the Memesphere Ugo Bardi uses Google Trend information to demonstrate the impact of Greta Thunberg’s leadership. He says,

Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.

At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called “experts” on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.

But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!


Complexity

About two months ago, in the post The Return of Peak Oil, I suggested that the topic of ‘Peak Oil’ may come back into public prominence within the next few years. Actually, it never really went away — it’s just that the decision by the investment community to spend billions of dollars on a money-losing project — shale oil — put off our oil reckoning for a few years.

Discussions to do with Peak Oil have been further driven into the background by the recent uptick in concerns to do with climate change, as discussed above. Yet my hunch is that oil shortages will come to dominate our public discourse in a manner not achieved by climate change because those shortages could hit us so quickly. In Proper 14: The Unexpected Hour we took a look at Luke 12: 32-40. Change can come upon us when we are least expecting it. For example, if the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran were to result in a shooting war that closes the Straits of Hormuz we could quickly see long lines at gas stations.

In the context of Peak Oil discussions I would like to point to two posts on this general theme. They are from John Michael Greer and Gail Tverberg (one of the original Oil Drum writers).

John Michael Greer — Peak Oil
John Michael Greer

Greer’s post is Waiting for the Next Panic. The following quotation is written in his  dry, sardonic style.

There were two standard flavors of peak oil activism during the heyday of the movement, from 2008 to 2012 or so.  The first flavor insisted that as the price of oil kept going up, alternative energy sources would become more affordable, and the world’s industrial societies would finally get around to transitioning over to some other energy source. Fans of nuclear power formed one bloc in that wing of the movement, fans of what tended to be lumped together as “renewable energy” (solar, wind, biofuels, and the like) formed another, and the two factions belabored each other with a right good will, each insisting that the other wasn’t economically viable. (For what it’s worth, the evidence suggests that they were both right.)

Then there was the other flavor, which can be described readily enough as warmed-over apocalyptic fantasy using peak oil as an excuse.

 . . . We argued, furthermore, that nuclear power and renewable energy were both hopelessly uneconomical as ways to power either the electricity grid or the transport grid, the two main uses of energy in a modern industrial society, and that the grand plans for an energy transition being brandished by a range of enthusiastic activists would go precisely nowhere.

The background to his post is that around the year 2010 the topic of “Peak Oil” gained prominence. For various reasons, mostly to do with the exploitation of shale oil, production of crude oil in the United States, we were able to continue with Business as Usual, i.e., crude oil supplies were not restricted and prices did not rise much.

The following chart has two lines. The red line is the production of conventional crude oil in the United States. It shows a peak around the year 1970, just as predicted by M. King Hubbert. The green line shows the impact of shale oil production. By the year 2018 production was close to the 1970 value.

If it turns out that shale oil production declines because it is uneconomic then we will revert to the red line, as discussed in the post The Return of Peak Oil.Production of oil and shale oil in the United StatesAnother issue that Greer raises is what he refers to as “apocalyptic fantasies”. I have been rather surprised at how little discussion there has been in the Christian community about Revelation-style, sudden end-of-the-world scenarios.

Gail Tverberg — Peak Oil
Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg’s post is entitled Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work. She takes a deep look at the “alternative energy” scene, and comes up with similar conclusions, i.e., that alternative, “green” energies will play an important role in our future but they will not substitute for fossil fuels; we will not be able to maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle.She concludes her post with the words, “ . . . using an overbuilt renewables system, there is not enough net energy to provide the high salaries almost everyone would like to see.”

The central point of both of these posts is that we cannot go back to the world as it was. You cannot swim in the same river twice. Alternative energy sources are important and should be developed, but they will not allow us to maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle. It is this reality that provides, I believe, an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership.


If you find this series of posts to be valuable and would like to be on our mailing list please use the following Contact Form. We will not put your name on our list without your written permission.

Proper 23: The Enemy Is Physics

Physics and the Age of Limits

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 (October 13th 2019, Year C) is taken from Luke 17:11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This passage to do with faith is a continuation of last week’s gospel reading, Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences.

It can be difficult to have faith when we look at our predicaments. So few people seem to understand what is going on, and even fewer are taking action to try and change our direction. But this gospel passage tells us to keep the faith and to be grateful for any progress that is made.

Episcopal Bishops

Many bishops of the Episcopal church joined the recent climate strikes. The following is taken from the church’s web site.


Tens of thousands of young people are mobilizing at this moment in New York and across the United States, standing up for climate action and climate justice. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who electrified the audience at the UN Climate Summit in Poland last year (2018) came by fossil-free boat to join the mobilizing youth. We, a group of Green Bishops of The Episcopal Church have stepped out of our Fall meeting here in Minnesota to voice our support for this youth mobilization.

We Green Episcopal Bishops resolve to support a network of young climate activists in The Episcopal Church, building up to an Episcopal youth presence at the important United Nations Climate Summit in 2020, most likely to be held in the United Kingdom. Called COP (Conference of Parties) 26, the summit in 2020 is so crucial because it will be the 5-year stocktaking of how the world is doing keeping its commitments to the Paris Agreement. Even more importantly, we will all be called upon in 2020 to “raise our ambition” on climate action.

The Episcopal Church is already committed to action that will support a 1.5°C ceiling on global warming above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. We are working from the individual and household level up to regions and to the level of the whole Church to make the necessary transition to a sustainable life.

The Episcopal Church is also committed to climate justice, standing in solidarity with vulnerable people – the Gwich’in People of Alaska, the Standing Rock Tribe, Caribbean island peoples, and the people of Polynesia, and others, all of whose ways of life, and in some cases their very lives, are already threatened and disastrously changed by climate chaos. We recognize that climate change joins other scourges such as social violence and poverty in displacing millions of people worldwide, and we will work to make sure that all immigrants and asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect.

Finally, all we do as Episcopalians following the Way of Jesus is done with prayer, faith and trust. We turn to God for guidance, courage, and compassion.

The reaction of myself and many of my friends in the Episcopal church is to be grateful that our leaders are stepping out and providing much needed leadership. Their message provides a link to the church’s Creation Care web site (many of us are involved in local Creation Care activities at the diocese and parish level). The Anglican Communion has a similar Season of Creation site.

But, and there’s always a but . . . One of the purposes of the posts at this blog and the book New City of God is to take a careful look at the scientific background to statements such as these. After all, Greta Thunberg (G.T.), the young lady who started these strikes, says “listen to the science” and “our enemy right now is physics”.

With these thoughts in mind, I make the following comments to do with the bishops’ statement.

  1. G.T. did not arrive in a “fossil-free boat”. From the look of the boat it appears as if it has carbon fiber sails. The making of such sails, and of the boat’s hull, requires an enormous input of fossil fuel energy per kilogram-kilometer travelled. If we compare the fossil fuels required to take G.T. on a commercial airplane (including the fossil fuels needed to build the airplane and its infrastructure pro-rated for the number of flights) I would be curious to know which is more environmentally friendly. Actually the most energy-effective way to cross the Atlantic is in a spare cabin on a large cargo ship. This would give a very low energy consumption in terms of joules / (kilometer * kilogram of body weight).
  2. If the Episcopal Church is committed to the 1.5°C target how does it propose to get there? Such a goal requires substantial sacrifice on the part of the church members. Has that sacrifice been calculated and explained? Moreover, aren’t the bishops being unrealistic. Given the lack of action at the national and international level, and given that, once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere it stays in the atmosphere, shouldn’t we accept that 1.5°C is going to happen?
  3. The above two points are rather picky, but my third point is of the greatest concern. The statement commits to “climate action and climate justice”. Both goals are, of course, fully in line with Christian mission. But, by splitting the focus, confusion can be created. This is not just a theoretical point. Earlier this year members of Congress proposed a ‘Green New Deal’ based on mitigation of the impacts of climate change. The same document also proposed various social justice goals. What happened was that its opponents sensibly picked on the social justice part to effectively challenge the entire message. They said that the GND was just another way for the government to control our lives. This allowed them to successfully avoid discussing climate change issues. It’s true that addressing climate change will likely help poorer people the most, and that’s good. But I suggest that the focus should be only on climate change such that all people — rich and poor alike — benefit.

My comments may seem to be unnecessarily pedantic and even ungracious. But, if the church is to provide leadership with regard to climate change and other Age of Limits issues, then we need to make sure that we address the scientific, engineering and project management realities correctly.


The Carbon Trap

In his 2012 paper The Ladder of Awareness Paul Chefurka talks about understanding our predicaments as developing in the following five stages.

  1.  Dead asleep;
  2.  Awareness of one fundamental problem;
  3.  Awareness of many problems;
  4.  Awareness of the interconnection between many problems; and
  5.  Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.

He has now written an equally useful piece entitled the Carbon Trap. Here is what he says.

Whether we realize it or not, everyone living on planet Earth today is caught in what I have come to call the “carbon trap”. The nature of the trap is simple, and can be described in one sentence:

Our continued existence depends on the very thing that is killing us – the combustion of our planet’s ancient stocks of carbon.

This unfortunate situation was not intentional, and is no one’s fault.

The trap was constructed well outside of our conscious view or understanding.

Its design came from our evolved desires for status, material comfort and security.

We recognized its seductive promise long before we knew enough science to discover its hidden hook.

It was built with the best of intentions by well-meaning scientists and engineers, whose knowledge of the consequences was both incomplete and clouded by their own evolved desire for a better life.

Most of us, even those who are aware of our predicament, distract ourselves by creating and admiring elaborate and luxurious appointments for our carbon-clad prison.

Many who can see the bars spend their time dreaming of ways to slip through them into the world outside – a world of natural freedom that they can see but never reach.

Those who are fully aware of the trap also understand that we now need it to survive; that leaving it (if that were even possible) would be as fatal as staying inside. We are victims of what complex systems scientists call “path dependence” – where we came from and how we got here puts strict limits on what is now possible for us to do.

One of the things we can’t do is simply open the door and leave. Even the fact that our carbon-barred prison is now on fire can’t change the cold equations. We are condemned to wait here until the walls burn down, when a few soot-blackened survivors may stumble out into the blasted and barren landscape left behind by our self-absorbed construction project.

This is why I believe that the one quality most needed in the world today is compassion.

Our fossil fuel dependence started 300 years ago. (I select the year 1712 — that was when Thomas Newcomen invented his atmospheric/steam engine for pumping water out of mines.) Many people say that, when our fossil fuel supply declines and/or we simply cannot add more carbon to the atmosphere, then we will simply revert to an earlier lifestyle, the way that people lived in Biblical times.

Chefurka is saying that this is not the case; we cannot go back. The pre-industrial world is gone and will never return. You cannot swim in the same river twice. If and when the fossil fuel dependency comes to an end he is saying that we will be living in a totally different world — one consisting only of “soot-blackened” survivors.


If you find this series of posts to be valuable and would like to be on our mailing list please use the following Contact Form. We will not put your name on our list without your written permission.

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.


If you find this series of posts to be valuable and would like to be on our mailing list please use the following Contact Form. We will not put your name on our list without your written permission.