We scientists don’t know how to do that

I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Gus Speth Canadian Club of Rome
Gus Speth

Information and analysis to do with climate and resource issues comes mostly from the scientific community. Scientists are rational, so they tend to go where the data takes them. For a generation or more they have believed that a simple presentation of the facts is all that is needed. When presented with these facts governments, companies, churches and individuals will, it is assumed, take the necessary action.

But that has not happened . Most people continue to live their lives as normal; they have done little or nothing to address climate change issues. Indeed, many people continue to deny the very validity of the scientists’ claims.

Even when they do take action, people and organizations will generally attempt to have their environmental cake and eat it. With few exceptions, people are not willing to voluntarily reduce their standard of living in order to achieve a higher goal. And no politician will run on the platform of, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living”. Such a program is a sure way of becoming an ex-politician. Politicians simply cater to our demands.

Which brings us to the quotation at the top of this post. (It is from the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome.) The problems (actually predicaments) that we face are the consequences of human action. Simply stating that we have a problem achieves nothing unless it leads to a change in behavior — the “cultural and spiritual transformation” described in the quotation.

Achieving such a transformation may seem like a hopeless task. But isn’t it what the church has been trying to achieve for the last two thousand years? (And not just the Christian church — many other faiths have similar goals.) All that has changed is that the goals have changed.

If this is the case then the church needs to be a leader in persuading people to make serious cuts in their standard of living. It is not enough to have environmental committees that promote activities such as recycling, the creation of community gardens, advocating for changes in government policy and installing solar panels on the roof of the church. These are all worthy activities, but they tend to occur in intellectual isolation. We need a theology for our times — a theology that faces up to the harsh dilemmas that confront us.

George Mobus, author of Question Everything blog
George Mobus

The limitations of the rational/scientific approach were further reinforced by a recent post from George Mobus, a retired professor from the University of Washington Tacoma.  He says,

I honestly did not expect to be a witness to the end of civilization when I started blogging those many years ago. Though I thought I could clearly see where the trends (energy, climate, social) were heading and tried to lay out the arguments for why we needed to change our ways, I thought that the really bad outcomes would post-date my life. I grieved for my children, of course. But never really thought I would be witness to the end game itself.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact I think that recent developments in climate science, energy science, and political science make it clear that we have entered the end game already.

. . .

We will not be able to save civilization as we know it by any kind of technological magic. The rate of onset of climate change (notice the weather anomalies of late?) and the catastrophic collapse of fossil fuel energies (fracked wells are falling in production as we speak) not to mention the collapse of fisheries, soil depletions, and the insane left-vs-right political strife all mark the clear signatures of collapse, but this time on a global scale. 

. . .

I’m calling the game over. I just cannot see a solution that has humanity going on in any kind of lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to in the 21st century.

. . .

My advice is head for the hills.

. . .

And, good luck.

Mobus has, for many years, represented the rational, scientific way of thought. In this post he seems to have given up hope that human society, at least in its present form, is going to “make it”. The only hope that he offers is to suggest that humanity may develop sufficient wisdom in coming years to, in effect, start again. And we do this through an understanding of systems science.

Basically I argue that we evolved to pass a threshold of cognitive capacity that makes us humans unique animals. It isn’t intelligence, but the capacity to develop wisdom over a lifetime. Except that the average human being is just above that threshold, so their capacity is yet weak.

What I sincerely hope is that some of the survivors will attempt to preserve knowledge, key knowledge (as in systems science) with which to restart the social process

And what is theology but Christian “systems theory”?

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.

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.