No Epiphany

Australian wildfires December 2019
This is not news

Like many churches around the world, our church has just celebrated Epiphany — the time when the magi or wise men visited the baby Jesus.

The word epiphany has been defined in the following ways,

  • An appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being;
  • A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; or
  • An illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

In the Biblical context the magi suddenly realize who it is that they have been directed to visit.  That is their epiphany.

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi
Adoration of the Magi. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The theme of this site is to provide thoughts as to how we might develop a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for the world that we are entering. The three theological points presented for discussion are,

  1.  Understand and tell the truth.
  2.  Accept and adapt.
  3.  Live within the biosphere.

I have highlighted the first of these because it is the one I would like to consider in this post. Specifically, I would like to consider whether or not we, as a society, will have an epiphany regarding climate change. Will there be a moment when people suddenly “get it”, a time when “it clicks” that something is going on, that the world is changing? And, were such an epiphany to occur, would it be followed by decisive action?

Let’s think about these questions in context of this week’s news: the appalling wildfires that are consuming so much of Australia. Have the people of Australia had an epiphany where they, as a nation, understand the threat that climate change poses? Furthermore, has the Australian government recognized the error of its ways such that it is now doing everything that it can to slow down the rate at which the climate is changing? For example, has it stopped the export of Australian coal to other countries? The answers to the above three questions are “No”, “No” and “No”. The fires have not led to a nation-wide “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”? They may have led some Australians to consider a new way of thinking. But there has been no nation-wide change.

Why not? Why has there not been an Australian epiphany? Two possible reasons come to mind.

The first reason is to do with “normalization of the news”. The wild fires in Australia (or California or the Arctic or anywhere else, for that matter) are, by definition, only news when they are new, when they capture people’s attention as being something out of the ordinary. As soon as they become routine or long drawn out affairs they are, by definition, no longer news. Hence, they no longer grab our attention. Once the fire season is behind them, people switch their attention to other matters of more topical concern.

The second reason that the Australian fires are not an epiphany is that the Australian government understands that, were they to restrict coal mining, then many individual Australians would lose well-paid jobs. Even those who understand the magnitude and seriousness of climate change will, for the most part, continue with the same way of life. After all, they have children to raise, mortgages to pay and a retirement to save for. Epiphany or not, most people will not be prepared to make radical personal sacrifice in order to “save the world”. Or, to put it another way, they have not repented, as discussed in a recent post in this series.

So, with regard to the first of the three theological points — Understand and tell the truth — we can conclude that there will be no nation-wide epiphany. There will be not be a time when the world as a whole “wakes up” and “gets it”.

If this conclusion is correct then it is, to say the least, a discouraging conclusion. Maybe this is where people of faith and the church overall can provide leadership. Secular politicians cannot ask people to voluntarily reduce their standard of living. If they do, they soon become ex-politicians. But faith is not about material prosperity — so the leaders of the church can talk about a society in which people make voluntary cut backs in their standard of living for the greater good of all. People of faith can help bring about an epiphany, for at least some members of the population.


Postscript

The day after I published this post Reuters published an article Australia’s leaders unmoved on climate action after devastating bushfires.

While the fires are still burning the ‘Emissions Reduction Minister’ said,

In most countries it isn’t ­acceptable to pursue emission­ reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, ­destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth.

This is a remarkably candid statement — he is not fudging around with “green growth’.

Repentance

Christmas candles
Credit: Pixabay

The post, Repent – Another World is Possible at the Resilience site caught my attention, and seems to fit in with my own Happy New Year discussion.

The author of the post, Vicki Robin, talks about old-fashioned concepts such as sin and repentance (although she does avoid the word salvation). She finds herself drawn to old-fashioned religious imagery; she tries to fit this imagery into a secular framework.
Here are some quotations from her work.

  • Haven’t we graduated from the angry Father God of the Israelites?
  • Proscribed rituals in the Talmud would today be diagnosed as OCD and medicated.
  • We are post-modern . . . we are not sinful.
  • How pitiful were the COP25’s flaccid results.
  • Repent is a biblical term for a biblical time, and this is a biblical time.
  • We have sinned against nature.
  • This is the time to repent. To fall on our knees before the enormity of our folly. To face the golden calf we worshiped.
  • I forgot I was part of the community of life.
  • I will never stop thinking — maybe won’t even after I die.

The purpose of this blog, and of the book/video that I am writing, is to help us all figure out a theology appropriate for an Age of Limits. Robin reminds us that creating theology is not merely an intellectual exercise. It includes old-time concepts such as sin, repentance and salvation.

Repentance starts with the recognition that you have thought and acted wrongly in the past and wish to think rightly in the future. But repentance also contains within itself the concepts of sin and salvation. It is a deeply personal issue. The term “Godly Sorrow” comes to mind.

We are at the start of a new year — a time for making predictions. I predict that we will see more articles and posts such as Robin’s. People will be looking for personal meaning in a degraded world; they will come to acknowledge their own role in creating that degraded world and they will be struggling with what it means to repent.

Happy New Year

episcopal-church-2

I wish everyone health and happiness in the year ahead of us. The year 2019 was a time of change, and I expect that 2020 will be no different.

A Theology for Our Times

This year I plan on a series of posts built around the theme of a ‘A Theology for our Times’. We live, as they say, in “interesting times”. At such times we need an intellectual framework that helps us understand and respond to what is going on. For people of faith this means that we need a theology that is relevant to a world of climate change, resource depletion, over-population, pollution and so on.

I approach this topic as an engineer who also has a background in systems engineering and the management of large projects. This experience can, I trust, be of value to professional theologians, seminarians and ordained clergy as they try to figure out a suitable theology for an Age of Limits.

A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. We set up a search committee — a process with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of good Bible knowledge, working well with children, preaching a powerful sermon, and so on were put forward. I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, of course. But I was not joking. An understanding of thermodynamics and other technical topics helps us grasp the root cause of many of our problems  and should be part of a theology for our times.

In order to assist in the process of developing a suitable theology I suggest that the following three points be considered.

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

I will unpack these points in future posts — and I very much welcome feedback. But before doing so it is important to examine why a new theology may be needed. After all, isn’t God’s truth as revealed in the Bible sufficient for all times and all places? I would say that the answer has to be, “Yes and No”. The fundamentals do not change, but their application will change under different circumstances.

In this context, three names come to mind. They are: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and John Wesley. We will look at how these men responded to the world of their times, also in future posts. They shared the same fundamental beliefs, but they each developed a way of understanding their world that addressed the situation in which they and other people of faith found themselves.

Even when interpreting the Bible, we need to see issues in context. For example, in Genesis 9, following the flood, God says to Noah and his sons,

Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.

Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it has brought us: an over-populated, polluted, depleted world.

Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 are more appropriate to our times.

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

Final Thoughts on 2019

Time magazine’s Person of the Year was Greta Thunberg (GT) — and rightly so. Quite suddenly she started a meme that swept the world. Those who choose to deny that the climate is changing, and that those changes are caused by human beings, are now very much on the defensive.

But it is important to understand the mood of GT and her followers. To put in plainly, they are angry.

Greta Thunberg release hell

Credit: Ugo Bardi

One of the more puzzling aspects of the meme was the response that she received in the Halls of Power. Repeatedly she was applauded and praised  by those who had failed to make the changes that she wanted them to make. Why?

Consider the well-known words from Matthew 8.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

Here is what Thunberg says,

I speak on behalf of future generations. I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science.

Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?

In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us. Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.

You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

Did you hear what I just said? Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.

People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at.

You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.

If we were to use old-fashioned religious language, it as if she is telling us that we have sinned.

Nor is she offering much in the way of forgiveness.

If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

Incidentally, here is what the emissions curve that she talks about looks like.

co2 carbon dioxide concentration 1960-2015

She is right. All the well-meaning rhetoric has achieved nothing.

Let’s compare her words with the following message from the Episcopal Church (USA) from the year 2019. It is structured in the form of three goals.

Goal #1
Create and sustain a network of Episcopalians dedicated to the care and protection of the whole Creation, especially by providing grants and cultivating circles for Story Sharing among  practitioners in local and regional ministries.

Goal #2
Stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable victims of the impact of climate change – particularly women, poor people, and people of color – as part of seeking the liberation and flourishing of all God’s people.

Goal #3
Set climate mitigation benchmarks as individuals and as a church, in order to live more simply, humbly, and gently on the Earth.

The difference in tone between the messages of Thunberg and of the Episcopal Church is unmistakable. The church’s message is one of accommodation and reason; hers is one of condemnation.

Rhetoric

Martin Luther King I have a dream speech

Maybe one reason that GT’s message is so powerful is that, even though English is not her first language, she speaks powerfully and to the point. It puts one in mind of that earlier meme, the one created by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the year 1963. He also spoke about children and the world in which they were growing up.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

As church leaders wrestle with the impact of climate change and other Age of Limits issues, they will need to understand how the intellectual and emotional environments are also changing.

Third Sunday of Advent: Missionaries

Bunyan pilgrim City of Destruction

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 11:2-11.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This passage touches on two themes. The first is that we have a duty to support those who are suffering or who are in need. That duty never goes away. The second is that being a prophet is not much fun — at least not in the short term. These two thoughts bring us to a news item and some thoughts as to why we bother talking about these issues.

Missionaries

The following headline from the Guardian newspaper of December 6th 2019.

Greta Thunberg says school strikes have achieved nothing.

The article goes on to say that, “ . . . in the four years since the [Paris] agreement was signed, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4% and the talks this year are not expected to produce new commitments”.

So here we have a young lady with a truly outstanding gift for communication and public relations saying that her work has achieved nothing.

If she feels this way, what about regular folks (some of whom may be reading these words) who are trying to make a difference? Why not spend our time working only with our families and local community preparing for the seemingly inevitable consequences of what is bearing down on us? What’s the point of going to protests, writing blogs and organizing meetings?

In climate change circles there is much discussion concerning ‘Deniers’ and ‘Delayers’ — those people who do not accept that the climate is changing, or, if it is, that humans are not the cause of that change. What gets far less discussion are the factors that motivate and drive the ‘Missionaries’ — those who spend time, effort and money trying to persuade others that the world is changing, and that we need to take action.

Why do the Climate Change Missionaries do what they do? What’s in it for them? Certainly not money — and probably not fame or reputation. In fact, they are probably more likely to be blamed as things start to go awry: “Shoot the messenger”. As conditions deteriorate, those who preached about these topics will not be thanked; they will be blamed, “You knew about this, you should have told us about this earlier, it’s your fault”.

Returning to Thunberg, she is consistently outspoken about the lack of leadership from elected and business officials. In my view these people will continue to fail to lead because any serious response to the climate crisis requires people to make sacrifices. But any politician who asks for sacrifice soon becomes an ex-politician. And the fundamental goal of any business is to encourage people to consume more, not to cut back.

This leadership vacuum provides an opportunity for the church. In principle, church members and leaders are willing to sacrifice (something about Good Friday). Whether the church will actually step up to the plate remains to be seen. But filling this leadership vacuum is the mission opportunity that the church can offer to both its members and to the community.

Second Sunday of Advent: Crying in the Wilderness

Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus

Administrative Note

An encouraging number of people have expressed an interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change Theology’. Therefore, I will make an adjustment to this weekly post. To date, I have been publishing a post at this site once a week on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. east coast time. Typically the posts have been in two parts. The first part looks at this week’s appointed gospel reading in the context of the Age of Limits (climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot, and so on). This week I struggle with what it means to be a missionary in today’s consumer culture when climate change and related issues are just part of the cacophony. (One unexpected benefit of this writing strategy is that it means that I am prepared for this week’s sermon, regardless of the topic being discussed.)

The second part of a typical post consists of one or more short discussions to do with the dilemmas that we face. For example, last week we looked at my fourth “Aha!” moment: the I-10 Freeway, and at the unreality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per annum for the next two decades, as called for in a recent United Nations report.

As time permits (and, like everyone else, I have a life to live) I will add a third section to do with theology.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 3:1-12.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The familiar phrase, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” spoke to me. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. We are directed by passages such as this from Mark 16.

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”.

Yet preaching about climate change and resource limits seems to have very little impact. We have a situation where it is certain that the world’s climate is going to be radically altered within the lifetime of many (most) people living now. There is even plausible discussion suggesting that climate change may be so drastic as to lead to the end of civilization within a generation or two. Whether you agree with such extreme predictions or not, we still need to address three facts: (1) Age of Limits issues are existential — radical change is on the horizon, and everyone — there are no exceptions — everyone, will be affected, (2) very few people really care, and (3) our national and international leaders are not, in fact, leaders.

Given this background, what are the news media obsessing about? Mostly impeachment, Brexit and this year’s superbowl.

“Aha!” Moment #5: Psychohistory

In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these so far. They are:

  1. Predicaments, Not Problems
  2. Augustine’s City of God
  3. Light Bulbs
  4. The I-10 Freeway
  5. Psychohistory

This week, I would like to look at the fifth of these: Psychohistory. It came about when I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a set of science fiction stories set at a time when humanity has developed the technology to travel to other planets. At the start of the series all the inhabited planets in the galaxy are part of a single empire. But the Empire is declining in power, wealth and prestige. The hero of the series, a man named Hari Seldon, develops a discipline that he refers to as psychohistory. This discipline, which combines elements of history, sociology and statistics, allows him to understand how societies change and evolve. Based on his analysis, Seldon is able to organize new societal structures that will form the basis of a new empire that will develop quickly and bring a quick end to the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the first empire.

The reason that this book series formed the basis of an “Aha!” Moment is that we need to develop our own theory of psychohistory. The issues that we face — climate change, resource depletion, over-population, to name but a few, are not only inherently complex, but they interact with one another in ways that are very difficult to understand and predict. Some over-arching theory is needed. Such a theory will provide us with an understanding as to what is taking place, and will allow us to develop means of addressing the predicaments that we face.

As an example of the need for systems thinking, consider the call for the elimination of fossil fuels from people such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could be that their message is mostly unnecessary because our use of these fuels, particularly oil, is probably going down anyway, as discussed in the Peak Prosperity post Houston, We Have A Problem. Slide 4 from Art Berman’s presentation is particularly revealing.

Tight oil production Berman presentation

The production of conventional crude oil in the United States reached a peak in the year 1970, as predicted by the great M. King Hubbert in 1956. In recent years there has been a surge in the production of Light Tight Oil and Shale Gas, as the slide shows. But there are many indications that tight oil production has reached a peak and that it will decline in the next five years (for example, this this post to do with Chesapeake Energy).

If production does decline as quickly as it ramped up then Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez may be reminded of the proverb, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. Another example of the need for systems thinking, this one to do with the realities of project management, is provided in the post The Slow Train.

Theology

This is the first post to do with the topic of Climate Change Theology. As a starting point, I would like to consider the following words from Ecclesiastes 1.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

I chose those words because they seem to express a view of the type of world that we need to create rather than the one that we have created based on what was told to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”.

Do we really need to “be fruitful”, to increase the world’s population? Do we really need to have all other creatures live in “fear and dread” of us?

I started thinking about the need for a theology for our times when a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking the same question. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide meaningful leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual framework, or, in religious terms, a theology.

Theology is to do with seeking truth through God’s word (theos, God, and logos, Word). As a semi-retired chemical engineer you may reasonably ask why I am writing on this topic. Shouldn’t we leave it to the professional theologians, the seminarians and the ordained clergy — people who are trained to understand and interpret God’s word? It’s a good question, one which we will discuss in coming posts.

In the meantime, let us start with the very sensible question that Pontius Pilate asks in John 18:38.

Jesus says,

. . . 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.

To which Pilate replies,

What is truth?

 

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


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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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