Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The End of Suburbia III

Peak Oil: Denial
As I mentioned recently, I've begun a short series to think theologically about at least one aspect of Peak Oil.
Another good introduction can be found here, and for an excellent and accessible introduction including some Christian reflections, see here.

In my previous post, I briefly laid out the problem - a huge global economic downturn. The assumption of infinite potential growth requires the possibility of ever expanding energy. While there may be many other sources of energy we haven't yet considered or discovered how best to harness,* part of the issue is that there may be insufficient time to develop these. And even if the more optimistic estimates of some oil companies are accurate, we have only a few decades left. Weaning the global economy off oil and changing our assumptions about the extravagant use of energy might take that long. So even if the dire predictions prove false, there are still good reasons to be thinking about this issue today.
*A number of celebrated alternative energy sources actually require more energy input than they yield! Even those that generate a net gain are nowehere near as efficient as oil. There is no silver bullet single solution.

There are many sites that summarise the arguments over this issue (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on),* and many more that make excellent suggestions about practical ways forward (Rev Sam recently composed a list of 11 pledges - worth a look).
*Let me know if I've missed your favourite site. There are many.

These discussions are important and I recommend gaining at least a little knowledge of the key factors involved. However, it is my contention that any 'solution' must first be theological because the problem first raised for most people when faced with some of the hard statistics is either denial or despair. I will deal with the latter in my next post. The former, when accompanied by a willingness to look closely at the arguments, is healthy up to a point, though becomes problematic when it reverts to blind faith in the market or some other talisman of protection.

For Christians, there is of course another kind of blind faith: that God would not let something so catastrophic occur. However, this too is blind faith without scriptural support. The fact is that God has and does allow civilisations to decline or self-destruct. Jeremiah warned against the blind faith of his compatriots in the temple, soon to be destroyed by the Babylonians, along with the nation itself. Jesus had a similar message for nationalists in his day. Many Christians in the time of Augustine believed that the "Christian" Roman Empire could not fail, so he spent much of City of God relativising the pretensions of Rome to immortality. After the fall of the Western empire, populations in many areas of Western Europe halved. The same area again lost between one and two thirds of its population during the Black Death, which was also accompanied by widespread social breakdown. To mention just one more example, perhaps a small-scale parable for Peak Oil can be found in the history of Easter Island. Ongoing de-forestation (amongst other factors) - at least partially to continue the production and installation of the enormous stone statues for which the island is famous - led to the collapse of a thriving civilisation and a population reduction of about 90% over a century.

Just as there is no reason the church ought to jump on the latest bandwagon and endorse every passing fad, there is also nothing pious about blind denial. If 'business as usual' is less the giddy sensation of flying through endless economic growth and more a deadly freefall, then the church ought not to ignore these issues. I am no expert and could be wrong, but I suspect the issues are worth more than a passing glance. Even if there are decades of cheap oil left, rather than years, our present energy-rich lifestyle is both unsustainable and unable to be extrapolated to the rest of the world. Wasteful excess may be passed off by the rich as a celebration of God's provision, but if the rich eat all the food before the poor arrive, then are we 'show[ing] contempt for the church of God and humiliat[ing] those who have nothing'? It is at least worth asking the question.

I have used this quote before, but it is worth repeating:

‘Eschatology is not a doctrine about history’s happy end…. No one can assure us that the worst will not happen. According to all the laws of experience: it will. We can only trust that even the end of the world hides a new beginning if we trust the God who calls into being the things that are not, and out of death creates new life.’

- Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God , 234.

Series so far: I; II; III, IV.
Ten points for the location of this sign.

31 comments:

Linden said...

the corner of Campbell and Little Queen streets, Newtown

michael jensen said...

Hmm, yesyes. Is the theology any different from a reaction to the nuclear threat or to global warming or to Y2K?

byron said...

Yes, because it is more closely connected with our lifestyle. There are of course many similarities in responding Christianly to the slightly unknown threat of each of these potential dangers. However, there are also significant differences. Y2K was about a minor glitch based on the accidental oversight of a few individuals. Nuclear threat is significantly in the hands of a few ultra-powerful individuals and governments. Even global warming, though more connected to lifestyle and consumption, is about the unexpected consequences of our collective choices, a nasty spin-off of our polluting ways. But energy depletion is much more ubiquitous, much more democratic, much more foreseeable and so much more about whether we will continue to drive over a cliff with our eyes closed.

byron said...

Linden - ten points. This one was really a gift to MTC students, esp those who have lived on these streets.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think the theology is more closely connected to that of global warming than you suggest. But this is a great series. I'm glad you have blogged about it.

Rachel said...

great title and great post Byron!

byron said...

Michael - yes, you're right. There are more links to global warming. I was just thinking about this earlier today.

michael jensen said...

Come on guys? Don't you trust the government?

michael jensen said...

is this a case of 'wars and rumours of wars'? What is your eschatological spin? Shouldn't Christians have expected this kind of thing all along?

michael jensen said...

Actually: here's a thought. I wonder whether Augustine's City of God, written with Rome teetering on the brink of collapse, has resources which will help us to think theologically about the coming decline of 'the West' and its way of life, which has all the shiny appearance of eternity...

byron said...

City of God - once again, you've jumped the gun... :-)

I'm getting there.

Wars and rumours of wars - sure, it might be, but that doesn't mean we don't run away when the soldiers are coming. Jesus encouraged Chrtistians to run when the Romans turned up - and many of them did, and survived the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Taking precautions and evasive action in an impending disaster needn't signify the acceptance of apocalyptic visions of doomsday. Expecting some disasters doesn't mean we don't think about how to prepare for them, or how to care for those adversely affected.

Come on guys? Don't you trust the government?
Which government? The Australian federal senate special committee takes peak oil seriously. As does the PM of NZ and Sweden, as well as Bill Clinton. Both Bush and Cheney have spoken of a coming energy crisis. When you look at their actions, perhaps they speak even louder... (check this 2003 BBC doco: I, II, III.)

michael jensen said...

The government quote was ... a weak joke...

Also, I didn't offer the rumours of wars thing as any more than observation of the eschatological conditions under which we might classify the looming crisis.

I am still interested in what the church should do qua church, as opposed to what any concerned citizen might do. That is, what specifically churchly practice fits the bill here and doesn't just absorb our identity into some wider alliance with general do-gooding in the community. (this is my problem with teh Make Poverty History campaign, and Christian support for it qua campaign)...

Anonymous said...

Hey Byron - looking forward especially to what you have to say about despair - bit of a temptation at the moment, which I am resisting, for the most part (despite what I write on the blog!)

Two things:
1. I've never read City of God, but have now ordered it, so if you go into that in detail, that would be splendid. I'm such a fan of Augustine generally that I'm sure he has a lot to say to this present situation.
2. With regards to what the church can do, I think it's all about showing a different way of life, being signs of the kingdom, resident aliens etc. It's also about taking the Old Testament seriously as a guide to living (including stewardship issues, the ban on usury, all sorts of stuff). That's what my talks are moving onto next, of course.

michael jensen said...

Thanks Rev Sam: that's what I was after. Though: taking the OT seriously as a guide to living? Given the church isn't in possession yet of a particular 'land', how does that work?

There's an arcticle (thesis?!) in this for someone isn't there: Augustine's City of God and the Decline of the Western Way of Life

Anonymous said...

Ah - but as I understand it the whole point is that the land belongs to God not to the Israelites (Ps 24.1). It's the loss of that attitude - and in particular the Baconian embrace of the rape of nature - that has led us into this mess.

If I ever get a chance to do my PhD your title might be a good topic!

J.Skjou said...

One practical note with peak oil, and with its bigger brother global warming, is that Christians will once again be provided a spring board to show the failed eschatology that Modernity’s Enlightenment has put forward.

There will be many ways to minister in time of crisis; but first, we must realize and make abundantly clear to modernity and post-modernity that God, in Jesus our Messiah, has abundantly provided the future that humanity cannot give itself. History has already climaxed with Jesus, there is nothing more to hope for but what God has already provided for in Christ.

“In assuming limitless power over a limitless future of unlimited resources, humanity reached for the eschatological freedom of God and is now discovering the limits only as we collide catastrophically against them.” - Richard Bauckham

michael jensen said...

The Peak has already happened!

byron said...

j.skjou - great quote from Bauckham, and a very important point about critiquing modernity's dream of endless progress. It's also worth exploding modernity's nightmares - amongst them, Peak Oil. Not exploding in the sense of ignoring or assuming that with God on our side it can't happen, but showing how the 'peak' of Christ gives us a new story in which such disasters take their place as dark chapters, not tragic ends.

J.Skjou said...

Thats a good point too, byron; i'll try incorporating the idea to the article i'm working on. Anyhoo, i've been swimming around your blog for the past 7 months or so, and i've enjoyed myself. I appreciate your posts and have been fond of your "Heaven" series. I look forward to what else will be brought through you!

michael jensen said...

You know, this discussion has been a really good example for me of creative group think... thanks everyone!

Dave Lankshear said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave Lankshear said...

Sorry for the delete & repost, I'm having coding trouble.

Sorry I missed so much of this conversation while it was still "live", but has anyone considered a biblical basis for multi-generational equity? I've read of a resources and environmental ethic that requires us to think of the next generation's needs which argues that if we fail to think multigenerationally we are stealing from our grandchildren. If this is true, it seems to be one of the obvious ethical questions to ask in how we consume all our resources, not just oil.

But where is the biblical basis for thinking multi-generationally? EG: Something is there, how long does it have to "stay there" to be "fair"?

Lastly, there is no solution to peak oil, global warming, or the dying renewable systems such as decreasing fisheries (see "Happy Feet" when it comes out!) and depleting freshwater tables if our population keeps expanding. If you cut per capita consumption a massive 20% but increase the population 30%, society is that much closer to suddenly breaking Liebig's law (Try wikipedia) causing a .

This is why Professor
Albert Barlett says, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." (Watch his COMPLETELY BRILLIANT free 57 minute movie here.)

byron said...

Dave - wow, thanks for that. What an amazing lecture.

Made me think: God said to 'fill the earth'; what happens once it's full?

Dave Lankshear said...

There was some discussion on Sydney Anglican's about the bible referring to various regions as "full" in Genesis! That is, maybe there's a hint in scripture that this has already been pretty much achieved.

It seems that there really is no environmental solution to anything unless exponential population growth can be humanely curbed. The humanitarian questions are just too great. So theologically, the dominant themes seem to be the "greatest commandment" as it relates to stewardship. How would a globally focused and loving stewardship ethic respond to the Bartlett lecture?

Dave Lankshear said...

This link goes straight to "Enkers" post on the Genesis verses that may indicate the world was "theologically full" (not ecologically full) by Genesis.

Regards

michael jensen said...

Hmm. Trouble is, I have trouble squaring this with our view of children as a welcome gift.

And Africa, is by any count, not full: they have an AIDS epidemic which will lead to a further shortage of labour.

Dave Lankshear said...

I know Michael, and Gordon hasn't let me forget it. The thing for me is that it's because our children are such an important gift from God that we have to evaluate these matters.

Is there anywhere in the bible that guarantees the Lord will return before the human population is maxing out on the resources? Is there anywhere in the bible that guarantees our civilization will not crash and burn?

The Pultizer Prize winner Jared Diamond won his prize analysing the rise of civilizations (in "Guns, Germs and Steel"). People did not enjoy his sequel, which studied the other side of the story, the collapse of civilizations. He basically concludes collapse occurs when a civilization over-uses the ecological resource it depends on.

Now, overpopulation and ecological balance are enormous themes and my poor brain has only just come to terms with peak oil. But it is simply mathematically inevitable. IF we keep growing our populations exponentially, we quickly eat into and defeat any progress in any other environmental or resource issues.

Surely we owe it to our kids to get this one right?

Dave Lankshear said...

I've thought further on this...

JRI in "Is Religion bad for the environment?" says...

What does ‘sustainable development' mean in practice? It certainly can NOT mean ‘sustainable growth'. The only way for growth to occur is by adding new resources (or substituting new assets for existing ones – such as when renewable energy from wind, wave, tide or ‘biomass' replaces fossil fuels). A vivid picture of sustainability is given by the idea of an ‘ecological footprint'

This is simply not the whole picture. The other way economic growth can continue is by raising the "capita", not the "per capita".

This BBC piece says...

Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental "footprint", the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.

Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.


and then states...

Rare indeed are the opportunities for religious leaders, philosophers, moralists, policymakers, politicians and indeed the "global public" to debate the trajectory of the world's human population in the context of its stress on the Earth system, and to decide what might be done.

I've thrashed this one around on Sydney Anglicans and it led to quite some debates! ;-) The bible seems silent on it, much as the bible is silent on gambling. But hey, there's plenty of first principles with which to approach gambling. :-)

Louis said...

I'm happy to find Christian folks seriously considering environmental issues - I've long wondered why the only Christian circles (and I'm not talking about those who have long sice abandoned the faith) that I've come accross where the environment is taken seriously are Catholic / Orthodox?! Especially in the American context. Does the preponderance of evangelical individualism lead to this? Or has American evangelicalism become a subset of The American Dream / Republican party?

What is the situation there in Australia regarding the conservative / reformed / evangelical folks with regard to the environment? The South African situation seems to mirror the American.

Why the absence of a significant number of "Green Christians", especially among the evangelicals?

Dave Lankshear said...

I don't know Louis, maybe it's because of some of the paranoia over various ultra-greenies that seem to hate God, human beings, and everything not "natural". They are out there, and quite vocal. Many of these anti-Christian ultra-greenies see peak oil as some kind of "judgment day" when only the true-permaculture peakniks will survive, and nature will 'judge' the rest.
These people exist. I was in a forum called ROEOZ that was dominated by neo-primitivists that thought our greatest folly was to adopt agriculture 10 thousand years ago, and if only we'd go back to Hunter and Gatherer everything would be OK! ;-)

Such is the very diverse state of the peak oil and broader "greenie" movement, and because there are some nutters in there many Christians have over-reacted and gone totally right wing. For more on this see Byron's other great thread, "Don't vote Christian!"

On the other hand, you have some quite sane and respectable people like Byron here who are considering some of the potential humanitarian and economic effects of peak oil and how to mitigate it. Even better, how to prepare our Christian brothers and sisters for it, and respond to it biblically. I think the whole question of sustainability falls under both careful stewardship theology, and more basically, our theology of love. What is the most "loving" way to use our resources? To build our cities? To plan our lives for the next generation?

When I used to hear the word "Sustainable" I always thought that meant "nice to the flowers and some national parks, and less CO2". I now realize that if something is unsustainable, it is prone to either slow deterioration, or sudden and spectacular and anarchic collapse! Surely "love" demands that some of our church leadership speak out against the potential horrors to our children if we don't change course now?

For more information Richard Heinberg reviews Jared Diamond's epic, "Collapse" in "Meditations on Collapse". Enjoy. ;-)

Dave Lankshear said...

Archbishop on overpopulation and even peak oil?

God had created us to rule the world under him. We could have learned to live with the world instead of against it. All sorts of things such as overpopulation and building housing where it is unwise and the exploitation of non-renewable resources would have been avoided by a morally good creature. When we criticise God’s creation we must remember that we do so from a perspective thoroughly warped by human sin.