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


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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.


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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.


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