Mary Poppins and Hopium

Mary Poppins: A Deus Ex Machina

The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.


Mary Poppins

Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.

As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.

The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.

I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.

Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.


The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)

Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,

The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?

. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.

The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.

The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.

The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.

  1. It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
  2. It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
  3. Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.

So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.

But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.


Overthrowing the Tables of Technology

Jesus overthrowing the tables in the Temple as an analogy for religion overthrowing the authority of science and technology.

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

Matthew 21: 12

We have seen in earlier chapters how the success of science works has marginalized religion‘s role in explaining how the world works. The development of scientific principles, followed by the astounding growth in industry over the course of the last 300 years has firmly established the authority of science and technology as a means of explaining the world around us. Over the course of the last five centuries we have seen the following events such as the following unfold.

  • Galileo said that the earth, the moon and the planets are all made of the same material. There is no quintessence. Later, we learned that we ourselves are also made of earthly materials. We are not special. There is no physical City of God.
  • Copernicus told us that our earth is not at the center of the solar system. We are live on a small planet orbiting an average star. We are not special.
  • Charles Darwin delivered probably the most devastating blow to our self-esteem. He said that we are not the pinnacle of life, nor do we represent the culmination of evolution. We have evolved, just like all other species. Darwin stated that evolution favors the survival of the most adaptable (not the fittest). There is nothing inherently special about having a big brain, or in being able to control fire, or in being able to manage large groups through the use of writing and money. It just so happens that these attributes worked very well for our species during the 10,000 years of the Holocene to such an extent that we have radically altered it. Maybe those attributes will be a handicap in the coming Anthropocene. Species do not evolve toward some type of pinnacle; they merely evolve to meet changing circumstances. We will see how adaptable we are when faced with the world that we have created.

But now, as we enter the Age of Limits, science is losing its prestige.

The over-turning of the tables in the Temple as described in all four gospels provides an analogy. While no one would claim that science and technology are corrupt in the manner of the merchants in the Temple, we nevertheless see that we have corrupted our planet; science and technology have stumbled, and stumbled badly. This gives an opportunity for the religious community to provide leadership in explaining what is going on, and in coming up with responses that work.

In Chapter 2 saw how van Doren explained Augustine’s response to the catastrophic events of the early 5th century by contrasting the City of Man with the City of God. He and the other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of the City of God. In doing so they created the theology of the medieval church. This project culminated in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

What Thomas Aquinas had tried to do was to resolve the question of the two cities, the one of God and the other of Man, which had lain at the heart of theological speculation for a thousand years. Augustine had viewed them as in eternal conflict. Thomas tried to bring them together in peace. In effect, he tried to write a single constitution for both cities that contained no internal contradictions. He tried harder than anyone ever had, and he was the greatest thinker to do so. But he failed.

The great intellectual challenge of the Middle Ages — understanding the nature of the City of God — lost its momentum and was replaced by the energy, insights and excitement of natural science: physics, chemistry and biology. Theology was no longer the Queen of Sciences.

We, in our time, are at a similar juncture. But this time it is the other way around. Science is losing its authority; the sense of never-ending material progress is being challenged on all sides and we are wrecking the environment and do not know how to extract ourselves from the morass that we have created. So maybe the time has come to develop a theology and a way of life that addresses the situation in which we find ourselves. So, maybe now is the time for Christians to show leadership. It has happened before. Leaders such as St. Augustine and Benedict of Nursia led western society through the Dark Ages that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. Can we repeat?


The Stoic Christian


Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). A stoic.

The stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant. But he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all of his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Most of us would be overwhelmed and angry about such an event, but he chose to create a philosophical school in response to his calamity. Others who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa.

One of Zeno’s later followers, Epictetus, said,

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.

For many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to suffer the consequences without complaint.

Stoicism recognizes that we do not control and cannot rely on external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to external events over which we have no control.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is profoundly stoic.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The metaphor that the people of Zeno’s time used was that of an archer firing an arrow at an enemy soldier. The archer must do the best he can to be ready for battle. So, he chooses the best quality bows and arrows, he trains hard, and he maintains his equipment well. These are actions under his control. But, once in the field in front of an enemy, there are issues that he cannot control. He fires his arrow, but it may be knocked off course by a gust of wind, or the enemy soldiers may move. He accepts the result, whatever it may be.

(I have tried I try to adopt something of a stoical attitude with regard to the writing of this book. I research the issues, I listen to the advice of other people, I enter it into my prayer life, and I work on the writing, publishing and marketing processes. Then I’m done. I do not need to worry whether people actually buy the book.)

In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes. (This approach is, of course, the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”)

Stoicism does not condone fatalism, nor does it provide an excuse for “hopium”. Stoics do the best they can with the resources that are under their control — they are not passive. In the context of the Age of Limits, the stoic person may take the attitude, “None of us know what is going to happen two generations from now. Maybe global warming will kill us all, or maybe it won’t. . So let’s focus on actions that we can take to take care of problems that we know about, and where we have some measure of control.”

Moreover, stoics are not selfish or self-centered. They knew that any effective action would involve community. For example, in a society where slavery was part of the way of life, he advocated that slaves should be treated well.

Pillars of Stoicism

Three of the pillars of stoicism are shown below. For each I provide some thoughts in the context of the Age of Limits.

  1. Confront fears head on
    If you are worried about the consequences to do living a more basic lifestyle, then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a beautiful air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, certainly. But you will probably survive.
  2. Do not judge
    This precept is difficult for me since I have a strong ‘J’ component in my Briggs-Meyer score. It also is somewhat in conflict with the Platonic approach of ideals. Rather than labeling everything as being either right or wrong, the goal is always to look for the silver lining in all clouds.
  3. Impermanence
    Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

Christian Stoicism

There are, of course, many other aspects to the Stoic response to life’s ups and downs. But my interest here is how it fits with the Christian response to the wrenching changes that are ahead of us, and to what degree it can contribute to a theology for the coming times.

Throughout this book I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

Christianity and Stoicism

Christianity and stoicism have much in common. Four pillars of the stoic way of life are:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage / Fortitude

There is nothing there that a Christian would challenge.

In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find strands of that way of thinking in Christianity. After all, Paul himself came from Tarsus, a place where the stoic philosophy was widely accepted. Scholars debate the degree to which stoicism formed part of Christianity. I have no intention of wading into that debate. But I do believe, as discussed below, that the stoic world view should be an important part of the theology of the Age of Limits.

One of my reasons for saying this is that, throughout this book, I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

The stoic point of view does, however, pose some challenges for Christians.

First, there is a fatalistic streak to stoicism. We are all going to die, eventually the universe is going to die (or so astrophysicists seem to think), no one will remember who we are two or three generations from now, so what’s the point? This is not an attitude that most Christians would endorse.

A second difficulty that Christians may have with stoicism is that people may be tempted to divide their life into two parts.

< Stoicism is > the philosophy of the “inner man” and the “outer man” . . . This became the code of privatism, of the nine-to-five man who keeps back the best part of himself for his private life of feelings, of the arts, of family, and of beauty. His real life takes place after five and on weekends . . .

Stoicism is well suited to a society that could not control or explain ravages of nature, such as plague, fire, war, or holocaust . . .

Cantor (1994)

A third concern is to do with the relationship of God to the world we live in. A stoic sees God as being part of the universe, whereas a Christian sees God as someone who created the universe and is therefore, in some manner, external to what is going on.

But probably the biggest difficulty that Christians have with stoicism is to do with the meaning of our actions. Christianity says that our actions and way of life matter in the long run, whereas stoics say that, in the end, none of this really matters.

  • Stoicism: Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
  • Christianity: Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.

Flynn (2018)

Stoicism in an Age of Limits

In an Age of Limits a stoic response may encourage people to retreat from society. Their retreat can take one of two forms.

The first response is to retreat from society and to try and live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Persons taking this approach will grow their own food, make their own clothes and provide their own entertainments

The approach has much appeal, and should probably be followed, at least in part, by Christians. It aligns with the Greer quotation that we have already discussed (page 58), “Collapse now, and avoid the rush”. His argument is that our current lifestyles are unsustainable, so we would do well to prepare for the inevitable move toward simplicity.

The catch with this approach, at least when taken to extremes, is that, like it or not, we are all part of community, no matter how restricted its scope. No one person can truly be a Robinson Crusoe and live entirely on his or her own resources.

The second type of retreat can only be carried out by wealthy and powerful people. They create their own private reserve, often on an island. They aim to maintain their current lifestyle which they protect with a private security force.

This approach has deep and fatal drawbacks. A person is only wealthy if he or she has access to electronic banking in order to purchase useful goods. If the computer systems fail, or if the supply chains break down then that person becomes poor overnight. Moreover, a person who retreats in this manner will always be vulnerable to disloyal security personnel, just as the Roman Emperors could never fully trust their own bodyguards.

In conclusion, we see that the stoic response to life’s ups and downs may not be a complete and integrated philosophy, but it can make an important contribution to the theology of the future. And it provides practical guidance and help.

The Christian Stoic

We can draw the following conclusions to do with stoicism — and its fit with Christianity and the Age of Limits.

  1. There are fundamental differences between the Christian and the stoic world views. Nevertheless, stoicism influenced Christian thought.
  2. As we enter the Age of Limits, stoicism can provide practical guidance.
  3. It can also provide one of the pillars of a new theology.

Extinction Rebellion and Young Evangelicals

Extinction Rebellion
Two news items caught my eye this week.

Extinction Movement

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?

Young Evangelicals

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.

Sister, Mother Earth

Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi

One of the most important Christian documents to do with the Age of Limits is, in my opinion, Laudato Si’  (Praise be to You), written by Pope Francis I in the year 2015.


The following are the key points in the encyclical.

  • The science of climate change is clear.
  • Humans are the cause of climate change.
  • We are destroying the Earth and killing ourselves.
  • The world’s poorest people are bearing the worst of it.
  • Most of the blame lies with rich countries and corporations that pursue profit and economic growth with little or no regard for people and the environment.
  • It’s time for a change.

His message is one of morality — he is saying that we are trashing the planet and that this is wrong. Even if the climate were to stabilize we still need to change our profligate ways and to pay particular attention to the situation of poorer people.

Style of Language

Abandoned car
Source: Angelic Warfare Cofraternity

The first thing I noticed about the document was the style of language. In the very first paragraph we find the following quotation from Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) the founder of the order of which the Pope is a member.

Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”

This is not the style of writing typically found in climate change reports, which rarely actually never use imagery about sisters and mothers. What is important about the encyclical is not what is said about technical issues — we can find that on hundreds of web sites. What matters is the tone and framework of the document. Francis is looking at the challenges we face in moral terms.


Francis tells us that it is not just that people, particularly the poor, suffer when the environment is destroyed but that the act of destruction is inherently immoral. For example, in paragraph 53 he states,

These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.

In paragraph 229 we find the following,

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.

The Challenge

Paragraph 102 reads,

Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity”.

The challenge that Francis has set for himself, and for all of us, is to marry the advances and benefits of modern technology with the “awe-filled contemplation of crea­tion which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi.

In a New York Times editorial (June 23rd 2015) David Brooks says,

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

The above statements can, of course, be challenged. We foul the environment to make ourselves rich and then use some of those riches to clean the environment. In that case why foul the environment in the first place? And there are many who would wonder if the rivers and skies are, in fact, getting cleaner. The atmosphere and the oceans are becoming ever more polluted.

Brooks himself states,

The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

Neither Brooks nor Pope Francis tackle the physical limits that are the theme of this series of posts. Neither seems to be willing to accept that our standard of living is likely to decline. Brooks says,

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.


Although I believe that Laudato Si’ is a vitally important statement of Christian faith, there are two areas of concern. They are population pressure and the concept of “sustainable development”.


For many, the biggest weakness of the encyclical is not what it says but what it leaves out — particularly with regard to population control. In the last three hundred years the world’s population has increased from about 0.7 to 7.5 billion.


The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be dif­ferent, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make eco­nomic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the envi­ronment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”

The final sentence is problematical. Many analysts would not accept the phrase, “. . . it must nonetheless be recognized . . .” without supporting evidence — which is not provided.

The Second Law

Although I have great admiration for Francis’s message, there is one aspect of the document that bothers me greatly, and that is the sub-title of the document, On the environment and sustainable development.

What is meant by the term “sustainable development”? If Francis is referring to spiritual and moral development then I am hugely supportive. But if he believes that we can continue with our material “development” in an Age of Limits then the holy father needs to brush up on the second law of thermodynamics.

A Papal Encyclical
A Papal Encyclical


Fires, Predicaments and Fatalism

California Fire November 2018

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.


Example of a predicament

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.

False Optimism

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

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.