Saturday, July 31, 2010

Perplexed but not in despair: Christian pessimism II

Last week, I wrote of what Karl Rahner called Christian pessimism. I would like to continue those thoughts as the following quote is one way of understanding what I am trying to do theologically. Rahner is reflecting upon the Pauline text in 2 Corinthians 4.8, where the apostle describes his situation as being "perplexed, but not in despair". Rahner is trying to take seriously this perplexity as more than a passing experience for the apostle, but as a fundamental description of life in a world frustrated by finitude and fallenness, even and perhaps especially for Christians.

...yet not in despair
Yet Rahner wants to do more than describe such a "realistic pessimism". He is concerned lest his critique of idealistic utopian dreams becomes its shadow; "this pessimism cannot be the pretext for a lame and cheap resignation". There is a path that is neither disconnected from reality in its optimism, nor enervated by its despair: "we can act realistically, fight and win partial victories, and soberly and courageously accept partial defeats." Indeed, there is a second half to the apostolic description.
"For Paul not only tells us that, even as Christians, we will never grow out of our perplexities in this world, that we must see them and bear them, but also that in spite of them we are ouk exaporoumenoi (not driven to despair). It is true that as Christians we put our trust in God, and that we are freed and consoled in all our needs and fears by the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that Christianity is a message of joy, courage, and unshakable confidence. All of this means that, as Christians, we have the sacred duty, for which we will be held accountable before God, to fight for this very history of ours joyfully, courageously, confidently. We also have the duty to bring about a foretaste of God’s eternal reign through our solidarity, unselfishness, willingness to share, and love of peace.

“Yet it seems to me that we have not yet mastered the problem of the two existentials put together by Paul. How can we be perplexed pessimists, how can we admit that we are lost in existence, how can we acknowledge that this situation is at present irremediable, yet in Paul’s words “not be driven to despair”? Do these two attitudes not cancel each other out? Are there only two possibilities open to Christians? Do Christians simply capitulate before the insuperable darkness of existence and honestly admit that they are capitulating? Or do they simply ignore their perplexity and become right away persons who have victoriously overcome the hopelessness of life? Is it possible for Christians neither simply to despair nor overlook in a false optimism the bitter hopelessness of their existence? It seems to me that it is not easy to answer these questions theoretically. Yet the questions and their answers are of the greatest importance for Christian life, even if they occur only in the more or less unconscious praxis of life, and even if the very question about this Christian perplexity falls under the law of this same perplexity."

- Karl Rahner, "Christian Pessimism" in Theological Investigations XXII
(trans. Joseph Donceel; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), 159-60.

To note the tension between first and second half of the apostolic phrase is nothing new. But Rahner's placing of the very act of trying to understand this description under the perplexity of which it speaks is insightful. The dynamic in the Christian life between a dark realism that refuses all false hopes in humanly-grounded optimism and a confident trust that will not give way to despair is also present in our very ability to grasp the meaning of the Christian life. In attempting to articulate the contours of this life, we are constantly perplexed, but not in despair. It is a reality that always eludes final formulation, comprehensive grasping, and yet the inability to decisively articulate it is no barrier to the continual attempts to do so. What T. S. Eliot said of his poetry holds true for all theological discourse also: "a raid on the inarticulate/With shabby equipment always deteriorating" (from "East Coker" in Four Quartets). And so attempting to understand and express Christian pessimism is an effort trapped within the perplexity of all existence though that is no reason to abandon it.

Indeed, Paul's description comes in the middle of a string of similar pairings in the famous passage about treasure in jars of clay: "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies." (2 Corinthians 4.7-10)

The treasure of which Paul speaks is "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (v. 6). It is this that provides the positive half in each pair. This is source of the extraordinary power that means that Paul is not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed. The experience of encountering the risen Jesus has not made his life easy or straightforward, quite the opposite. But it has given him an inner resilience to face difficulties, even where the outcome seems hopeless. It is important to note that for Paul, it is specifically his apostolic task that is the cause of most of his afflictions, at least that is the perspective from which he is viewing them in this passage as he defends his calling. And yet I don't think Rahner is inappropriate to find in Paul's self-understanding a model for a more general Christian attitude.

What is it specifically about the "treasure" that means Paul is not worn down, demoralised or paralysed by the aspects of his existence that are like a clay jar? Or, to put this another way, what are the spiritual and theological sources of perseverance and courage in the face of insuperable challenges?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hospitality makes you feel at home

"Be hospitable to one another without complaining." - 1 Peter 4.9.
Mi casa es su casa. Being hospitable is a core Christian practice.* Sharing a home, whether for a meal for a night or for longer is a way of using our blessings to bless others. But something that has struck me over the last few years is that the blessing runs both ways. I don't simply mean that you might receive hospitality in return (that is never the goal), or even that you might have a good conversation or make a new friend, though these are frequently true. Instead, my wife and I have discovered that one of the blessings of sharing our place is that the very act of sharing makes us feel more at home. Put another way, a place only becomes our home when we share it with others.

I heard a statistic a few years ago that I now can't source, but I think was a newspaper report of a study done in Australia. It had been found that the average Australian only has six people into their home each year (including family). Are you missing out on receiving blessings by not sharing more?

That said, this instruction in 1 Peter assumes that complaining is commonly associated with the offering of hospitality. Opening your home takes time, effort and sometimes involves some extra costs. It will not always feel like a blessing. Indeed, frequently, it is not something from which you will gain any immediate reward at all.
[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." - Luke 14.12-14.
*It is probably worth drawing a distinction between hospitality and entertaining. The former is sharing your home life with others (including strangers!); the latter is aiming to impress friends or contacts with a life that is not really yours. Being hospitable doesn't necessarily mean cooking a multi-course gourmet meal or offering a five star hotel bed. And while taking people out to dinner can be a lovely thing to do, I'm not sure that it counts as hospitality.

Having written this post, I've just discovered that Jeremy has written an even better post about hospitality, so let me invite you over to his place for a rich meal of thoughts.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to vote Christianly

As I said on the day of the previous Australian federal election, to vote Christianly is to vote for others, and John Dickson has written an excellent piece in the SMH making that point in more detail. Here is a taste:
"Christians should be willing to change voting patterns after Christian reflection on particular policies. A believer who cannot imagine voting for the 'other side' has either determined that only one party aligns with the will of God or, more likely, is more attached to their cultural context than to the wisdom of Scripture.

"Voting patterns, of believers or otherwise, are sometimes based on little more than family heritage or geography. This is unreflective and sub-Christian.

"Equally inadequate is voting for a candidate simply because he or she is a Christian. This is religious favouritism. Having Christians in Parliament is no guarantee - or even indicator - that our nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion and truth."
Though I do think that Dickson missed two points well worth making. First, Christians will never be content with considerations that stop with national interests. Nationalism is a tragic attenuation of political focus incompatible with the global effects of our actions and the unrestrained extent of Jesus' commands to love our neighbour and our enemy.

Second, the present context demands a serious consideration of the inclusion of the ecological neighbour, both human and otherwise (that is, we are to consider the likely effects of different policies on other humans via their effects on natural ecosystems and the likely effects on those ecosystems in their own right).
H/T Matt Moffitt. Image by Andrew Filmer. The SMH also has a Vote-a-matic tool to help compare policies of the major parties.

Before the last NSW state election in 2007, I also wrote a post about voting Christianly

USA fail

Why the failure of the US Senate to pass a climate bill is worse than the failure at Copenhagen
The Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change was largely a failure, but this was not particularly surprising given the huge range of factors working against an fair, ambitious and binding deal.

However, the recent death of any chance of the US Senate passing (or even voting on) a much watered down climate bill anytime soon was a genuine and more significant failure. This is not only because the passage of a US bill would be the single greatest factor increasing the likelihood of a global deal, but mainly because the opportunity was so much more achievable. Think about the constellation of factors making it possible: a president who had included it as a major part of his campaign, Democrat majorities in both houses, an ever more convincing scientific body of evidence, a catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico highlighting the dangers of addiction to ever more difficult to obtain fossil fuels, a bill that had largely been crafted by a bipartisan team, a core strategy invented by conservatives (i.e. using trading schemes for managing environmental issues), in the middle of what has been so far the hottest year on record at the end of the hottest decade on record, after having repeatedly set the highest twelve month running average on record, with the greatest sea ice volume anomaly on record (plus a range of other climate related records) and a US population who want a price on carbon. Somehow, with all that going for them, they still managed to drop the ball.

If we want to stay below 450 ppm of CO2 (giving only a little better than a 50/50 chance of staying below 2ºC, and so only heavy damage), then each year of delay increases the price of achieving such a risky target by a staggering US$500,000,000,000. Yes, five hundred billion US dollars for each year of delay, because each year we wait, more infrastructure is built that will last for about forty or fifty years. Once another coal-fired power plant is built, it becomes a sunk cost, meaning that those costs are unrecoverable and will most likely continue to be used to the end of its life unless the price of carbon becomes astronomical.

So why did the bill fail? Brian Merchant argues there were seven things that killed the climate bill (in ascending order of importance):

7. Woeful media coverage.
6. Shortsighted action by the US Chamber of Commerce.
5. Archaic fillibuster rules in the Senate (a supermajority is not a constitutional requirement).
4. Barack Obama didn't get it and didn't get into it.
3. Fossil Fuel interests spreading misinformation.
2. Centrist and Coal State Democrats.
1. The Party of No: Republicans deciding that they would rather be opposed to anything from the other side than be willing to seek good solutions together.
The bill in question was far from perfect, and I've voiced my concerns with aspects of cap and trade before, but in this case, something probably would have been better than nothing, especially since it would have introduced a mechanism that could have been ramped up as more people get it. As it is, it looks like China might have to take the lead.

Obama was never going to be the messiah, but when the history of his presidency is written in decades to come, I wonder whether his other achievements will be overshadowed by this episode.

So what should the church be doing? Same thing as always, but more so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Morality as distraction?

"But as for you, teach what is consistent with sound doctrine. Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.

Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behaviour, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.

Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.

Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.

- Titus 2.

Is morality a distraction from the good news?
Some Christians believe that discussions of morality are a distraction from the gospel, a secondary concern that can dilute the focus of the church's attention away from witnessing to God's grace revealed in Christ. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of both morality and the gospel. To understand why, let's look at the Titus passage quoted above.

I don't intend to discuss all of this chapter, and certain instructions probably require further reflection; the words addressed to young women and slaves in particular may have jumped out at some readers. Instead, I would like to consider the reasons given for these moral instructions, what are the motivations put forward to drive readers to adopt or maintain these practices?

First, these exhortations are to be followed in order to be "consistent with sound doctrine". Doctrine is simply another word for teaching. We are to live in accordance with what is true, with the teachings that are sound and reliable; we are not to be in denial of reality.

Second, the teaching passed on between generations includes an account of "what is good". We are to remember and transmit ways of life that are good, that are life-giving, that affirm what is truly valuable and make life worthwhile. Indeed, Jesus Christ "gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity". Sin is not a matter of going against some arbitrary will of God, but is living poorly. Jesus came to set us free not simply from the consequences of our wrongdoing, but from the doing of wrong.

Of course, we may have philosophical questions about the nature of goodness or how we come to know what is true, but these two affirmations, that our actions are guided by what is true and what is good are probably not in themselves particularly controversial.

But there are two more strands here also worth noting. On the one hand is God's coming future: "while we wait for the blessed hope". I have written quite a bit on this blog about Christian hope and its relation to ethics and will not add to that here.

The fourth reason for action is repeated in a few different forms: "so that the word of God may not be discredited", "a model of good works", so that opponents have nothing to criticise, "so that in everything they might be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour". The basic idea of all these reasons is that our behaviours have an influence on others for good or for ill. Our actions are performed in front of a human audience who note them and make evaluations on their basis. We are to do what is true and what is good in light of what is coming, but also what will be a good model for others to copy, what will not distract from the proclamation of good news, what will in fact serve to make it more attractive and intriguing. Seeing a life filled with grace and truth is compelling; living well can be infectious. Morality is linked to credibility.

Christian moral behaviour is therefore intimately tied to the good news. We are to take account of it as news, as a message that is credible and which contains truths relevant to how we live. We are to take account of the goodness of this news, that it is a summons to a way of living that is itself good, liberating and humanising. We are to take account that this news informs us of God's promised future. And we are to take account of the ways in which our behaviour serves to attract or distract people from paying attention to these glad tidings. Morality is not a distraction from the gospel, but is both included within it and can make it more credible. Indeed, it is immorality that is a distraction, or at least a detraction, from the gospel.

Let us consider the matter of credibility a little further. I've heard that during the Third Reich, a number of German Christian leaders argued that political questions and the treatment of the Jews and other minorities were distractions from the gospel.* Such matters were best left to the discretion of the state authorities whom God had appointed for tasks of that nature.
*I have never seen a reference for this, but have heard it a couple of times. If anyone knows of relevant sources, I'd be interested to hear whether this is an accurate account. Wikipedia has a readable introduction to the Confessing Church, which gives some of the context.

Leaving aside the questions of whether this stance was in accord with sound doctrine (though I think there are some very problematic theological assumptions about the nature and role of the state involved) or whether it was a denial of the goodness of the gospel and of God's promised future, the widespread failure of the church to stand strongly against the persecution of the Jews and other minorities did not put the message of Christ in a positive light and indeed continues to be an active detraction from it to this day. We rely on a relative small number of exemplary figures to show that the apparent moral blindness was not total. Even the Confessing Church (which may have compromised about twenty percent of German Protestantism) placed far more emphasis by and large on state interference with ecclesial matters than on the escalating persecution of minorities. While there were some noteworthy exceptions, with hindsight the general Christian silence appears to have tacitly condoned the oppression, doing no favours to Christian credibility in the process.

Or to select a contemporary example much in the headlines, ongoing revelations of the abuse of children by Christian leaders does all kinds of damage to the credibility of the gospel. Whatever the denominational stripes of the abusers (and I don't think any group has either a monopoly or an entirely clean slate, though there may be significant differences in extent), the abuse itself is horrific and the widespread failure of Christian leaders to discipline abusive pastors has become a further blight on the church's reputation.

These two examples are highly emotional and heavily discussed. I selected them not because they were clichés within easy reach, but because amongst the somewhat relativised ethical assumptions of contemporary western society, these two topics serve as a couple of the most widely-shared ethical agreements left. People reach for child abuse and the horrors of Nazi Germany in order to ground a discussion with the reassurance that "these at least we can agree were truly wrong". In each case, the strength of this shared moral conviction turns the failures of Christians into barriers to hearing the good news.

Are ecological ethics a distraction from the gospel?
I could well be wrong, but it seems to me that the emerging ecological catastrophes of industrial society may well lead in decades to come to another issue where censure is widespread and relatively uncontested. Will the church again be found on the wrong side? Will we have constructed another roadblock to sharing the word of life?

I am not arguing that the church is to be merely responsive to changing social mores, following the prevailing outrages of the day. Nor am I saying that ecological responsibility is only for the sake of appearances. I am simply suggesting a supplement to the concern for what is true, what is right and what is coming (which all ground a robust Christian ecological ethics), namely, the consideration of whether contemporary apathy or disparagement of ecological concerns by some Christian leaders and teachers will increasingly become a stumbling block to a society awakening to the destructiveness of unthinking consumption.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Link love

Peter Singer: Why we must ration health care. H/T Milan.

Bryan offers some lessons from NZ's ETS.

Die-hard contrarian hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham on everything you need to know about global warming in five minutes.

Cartographic conflict: a potted history of WWII.

Ben rants about men's groups.

Paul Krugman asks "who cooked the planet?"

If only gay sex caused global warming, or, why do we pay more attention to some threats than to others?

Monday, July 26, 2010

A crash in slow motion

Perhaps the present ecological and resource crises of industrial civilisation are a little like a car crash unfolding in slow motion. The car has way too much speed and momentum and is already sliding out of control. If we'd started slowing or turning earlier, then we might have been alright, but as it is, there is little the driver (government and business leaders and whomever else exercises authority or influence in society) can do to avoid a collision (I won’t call it an accident because we've had plenty of warning). However, the reactions of the driver during the last few “seconds” (years) prior to the crash can still have a big effect on the nature and severity of the damage. So, I think the driver still has an important role in preventing a multi-car pile up with many fatalities. Quick reactions could hopefully mean just some severe whiplash and a few vehicles written off.

This puts me at odds with those who believe that the crash can be avoided entirely as long as we floor the accelerator and do a little creative navigation. That may or may not be true, but at the very least, everyone ought to make sure they are wearing their seat belts. It's going to be bumpy up ahead.
If you're a passenger and don't trust the driver's reactions, you may have time to try jumping out of the door. Of course, this doesn't guarantee that you'll be any better off than if you make sure the driver is paying attention.

UPDATE: This image is continued and developed here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Economy and ecology in China

"There is still a widespread assumption that one model has proven itself again and again over the past 200 years: the get-rich-first, clean-up-later model. But what worked for Britain in the nineteenth century, for the US in the twentieth century and for Japan and South Korea in the late twentieth century, may not work for China, because of scale and because of timing.

"In a sense, Britain and China may prove to be bookends on this phase of development that will be seen as abnormal in the long-term scale of human development. Britain was one small country producing an awful lot of pollution and extracting and using resources unsustainably. At that point it didn't really have a great planetary impact, but then this moved to Europe, and to the US, and the number of countries that were unsustainable and producing too much got bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, the number of countries left to absorb the impacts gets smaller and smaller. Where does China dump its waste? How does China extract enough from the rest of the world to provide for its people? I believe this is where economic development hits an ecological wall.

"The environment and the economy, which used to run pretty much in parallel, have become so detached from one another. The economists, the governments and the corporations all think the solution to the world's problems is more consumption in China, whereas the environmentalists are all saying: be careful what you wish for. If there is to be any solution, it is in the reattachment of economy and environment."

- Jonathan Watts.

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent for the Guardian, has a new book called When a Billion Chinese Jump. The quote is from an interview he recently gave about the book.

China seems to play the role of economic saviour in the minds of many Australians I've talked to. Australian mineral exports (especially coal) to China helped buffer the Australian economy through the financial crisis of 2008 and when Australians think about the huge debts hanging over the US, they often point to China as our get out of gaol free card. But how realistic is this hope?

The future of China's economy and of its ecology are tied more closely than any other nation since the industrial revolution. Of course, this is always true everywhere: the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. It is just that in China, the scale and pace of its economic growth, and the timing of its boom, means that the relationship between the two will be much closer to the surface. This is no particular fault of the Chinese, more an accident of history that it has turned out this way. It is in China where the front line between booming consumerist aspiration and worsening ecological degradation will increasingly collide over the coming years. I don't know enough detail about either China's economy or ecology to make any kind of prediction apart from "watch this space".

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Link love

John wonders whether it might not be better to start a sermon with application.

Failure to understand Black Swans leads to fallacious thinking (Black Swans are the low probability, high impact events that are excluded by most forecasting models).

"12 million hectares of arable land – roughly the size of Greece or Nepal, enough to harvest 20 million tonnes of grain and feed six million people per annum – are lost to desertification each year."

Painting your roof white to cool the planet. Crazy? Not entirely.

Jason ponders forgiveness and eucharist with Williams and loneliness and prayer with Stringfellow.

Sisyphus revisited.

The Jordan river is too polluted for baptisms. The Nile isn't looking so great either.

Climate science in 1979.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gillard's climate inaction and the Citizen's Assembly

As we "move forward" to an Australian federal election on 21st August, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has just announced the ALP's climate change policies.

I'm a little underwhelmed.

Still aiming for endless economic growth, no price on carbon until after 2012, same tiny target (5% down from 2000 levels by 2020. Most of the rest of the world uses 1990 as a benchmark, as agreed at Kyoto. Australia doesn't, or our "reduction" would be revealed as an increase), slight increases on fairly lacklustre funding for alternative energies, more coal power stations (as long as they are "capture ready", which is a little like building a car with a third pedal but no braking system and calling it "breaking ready"), and in what is perhaps the most telling proposal, a Citizen's Assembly held over twelve months to build a bipartisan consensus on the issue that will last longer than an election cycle.

This last idea could be dismissed as a populist move aimed to give sceptics a chance to bury the hatchet or at least air their grievances and vent some steam, but there is more at stake. The perceived need for something like this is based on the observation that in Australia, some kind of legislation involving a price on carbon enjoyed bipartisan support for the last few years until this collapsed suddenly around the end of 2009 with the election of Tony Abbott to lead the Coalition, who has described climate change as "absolute crap" and whose policies even manage to make the ALP look green (which is all the ALP need, basically). Gillard's speech compares the need for such a consensus (which needn't include everyone) to support for Medicare (Australia's public health system), which began life as a partisan issue, but which gradually won widespread public support until it is now politically unthinkable for either side to abandon it.

The Citizen's Assembly will be accompanied by the creation of a Climate Change Commission "to explain the science of climate change and to report on progress in international action". If people think that the CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Physics, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Socities, the Geological Society of Australia, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Australian Coral Reef Society, the Australian Medical Association and the Institution of Engineers Australia are all too political, part of a hoax, taken in by a fraud, in it for the money or whatever other argument people use to ignore the body of scientific opinion on climate change, then I am unsure what contribution another group set up by the government are going to make to building a community consensus.

Building a widespread understanding of the issue is important, and indeed, this was perhaps my largest disappointment with Kevin Rudd, that he abdicated his chance to lead the public debate on the issue, preferring to hang back and let the opposition shoot themselves in the foot over their internal squabbling on the issue.

It is also crucial to distinguish between the climate science (where expert opinion overwhelmingly acknowledges dangerous anthropogenic climate change) and climate policy (where expert opinion is more divided and where more deliberation on the goods of society is required) and to note that though we might agree (at least broadly) on the problem, proposed responses can vary widely for all kinds of legitimate reasons.

Exactly how the proposed Citizen's Assembly will work hasn't been spelled out in detail (or at least, I haven't seen where this has been done) and I can imagine a number of possible pitfalls to this approach. Nonetheless, I applaud Gillard and the ALP for trying something to raise the level of public debate on the ethics and policies of a good national response.

192 steps & 63 pubs

We recently moved house, and our new place is considerably closer to college, meaning I can go home for lunch. There are only 192 steps from my desk to my front door. Our new home has some other benefits, such as being in a listed building as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, being within spitting distance of Scotland's most visited paid tourist attraction,* being next door to a pub that has been in recorded existence since 1516** and being within 500 metres of (at last count) 63 pubs, bars or taverns.***
*Under favourable wind conditions.
**It may be an even older establishment; that is the first record of its name and location.
***No, I haven't been to them all (yet?). The count is based on memory from years walking around the area, supplemented by a couple of minutes looking at Google Maps.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Good and bad growth

"Implied in what has just been said is a recognition of the dangers of 'growth' as an unexamined good. Growth out of poverty, growth towards a degree of intelligent control of one's circumstances, growth towards maturity of perception and sympathy – all these are manifestly good and ethically serious goals, and, as has already been suggested, there are ways of conducting our economic business that could honour and promote these. A goal of growth simply as an indefinite expansion of purchasing power is either vacuous or malign – malign to the extent that it inevitably implies the diminution of the capacity of others in a world of limited resource. Remember the significance of scarcity and vulnerability in shaping a sense of what ethical behaviour looks like."

- Rowan Williams, Ethics, Economics and Global Justice.

I offered some reflections of my own on the dangers of pointless growth back here. Not all economic growth is pointless. Stupid poverty remains stupid. But there is such a thing as stupid wealth, and that is a far more relevant issue for most of us.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Perplexed but not in despair: Christian pessimism

"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" - 2 Corinthians 4.8.
This is a verse I have often reflected upon, and it seems to me to justify a certain kind of Christian pessimism. Paul is no triumphalist; he makes no claim that the Christian life will consist of steady improvement or sudden perfection. Affliction, difficulty, confusion, grief, yearning, lament, dissatisfaction, weakness, dying: these all belong to the normal Christian experience. Faith in Christ is not a miracle cure for all of life's ills. In fact, it is what enables one to let go of all such delusions as the inevitability of progress or the impossibility of failure, to embrace one's finitude and acknowledge one's fallenness and the brokenness of the whole created order without being crushed by fear or guilt in the process.

Of course, such pessimism is not the whole story, but it is a very important part. Without it, faith is shallow, or simply in denial. Unless we are willing to lose all our false hopes, then real hope is obscured and diluted. Christian faith means the courage to face the truth about ourselves and our inability to secure the results we most earnestly desire.

Karl Rahner offers these thoughts under the heading of "Christian pessimism" as a reflection on 2 Corinthians 4.8.
“Our existence is one of radical perplexity. We have neither the right nor the possibility to ignore this situation or to believe that we can abolish it in any dimension of our experience. I need not point out, or bemoan in detail, the daily experiences that make us perplexed.

“In the beginning of Scripture God tells us that we must rule over nature and her powers. When we do it we start misusing them. We invent all kinds of social systems, and every one of them turns without fail into an occasion of injustice and abuse of power. We claim that we are looking for peace among all peoples, and we get ready for war in order to find peace. The whole of human history is a perpetual swinging back and forth between individualism and collectivism, and humanity has never succeeded in discovering a permanent and universally acceptable compromise between these basic demands of human nature.

“What matters here however is to understand that, for a Christian anthropology, this perplexity in human existence is not merely a transitory stage that, with patience and creative imagination, might eventually be removed from human existence. It is a permanent existential of humanity in history and, although it keeps assuming new forms, it can never be wholly overcome in history. This is an essential feature of a Christian pessimism. It does not matter here whether we explain this pessimism through the fact that we are creatures, and finite creatures at that, or through an appeal to original sin, or by making our ineradicable sinfulness an argument for pessimism.

“Of course, we cannot say that human finitude and historicity alone explain the fact that history cannot follow its course without friction and without blind alleys. Nor can this Christian pessimism be justified merely by the fact that it is impossible fully to harmonize all human knowledge with its many disparate sources, or to build a fully harmonious praxis on the basis of such disparate knowledge. We might also mention that we can never fully understand the meaning of suffering and death. Yet in spite of all this, the Christian interpretation of human existence says that within history, it is never possible wholly and definitively to overcome the riddles of human existence and history, which we experience so clearly and so painfully. Such a hope is excluded by the Christian conviction that we arrive at God’s definitive realm only by passing through death, which itself is the ultimate and all-embracing enigma of human existence. It is true that Christian hope has the right and the duty to project, in the empirical space of our human existence, an image and a promise of a definitive existence. But ultimately this is only the manner in which we practice faith in the consummation that God alone gives, that God’s self is.

“People are afraid of this pessimism. They do not accept it. They repress it. That is why it is the first task of Christian preaching to speak up for it.”

- Karl Rahner, "Christian Pessimism" in Theological Investigations XXII
(trans. Joseph Donceel; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), 156-57.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Link love

Jeremy ponders how to love his global neighbour in a market-driven world.

Why personal energy efficiency could have a bigger effect than you think.

Twenty-two Australian mammals become extinct during the century leading up to 1960. Now, mammal populations are in freefall in Kakadu, Australia's largest national park. Even in a conservation area, biodiversity is not secure.

Kate ponders whether snowball earth was the trigger for complex life forms.

How to save on accommodation costs by couchsurfing, and create a better world at the same time. H/T Joe. In the past, we've benefitted from a similar organisation called Servas.

Milan points out the somewhat obvious difference between the survival of human civilisation and the survival of the planet.

A brief introduction to survivalism.

The Canadian government recently turn up a report into the impacts of the tar sands development. Here is what they don't want people to know.

Stoneleigh reflects on trade during boom and bust and what a just-in-time supply chain means in an era of greater disruption.

The carbon bath: visualising the climate problem.

If GDP goes down, so what?

"Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God."

- Proverbs 30.8-9.

It has long been known that above a certain level of having basic needs met, increasing material wealth does not correlate with increased happiness or satisfaction with life. An interesting, though brief article in the NYT on rethinking the measure of growth mentions more economists in Asia's growing economies questioning whether the pursuit of ever higher GDP is costing us the earth.

Sometimes ecological concerns are critiqued as patronising or colonialist: developed nations telling developed nations that they can't get as rich as us. Or ecological responsibility is seen as a luxury that only the wealthy can afford: "First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics," wrote Brecht in his Threepenny Opera (1928). But the reality is that developed nations must learn joyfully to embrace less, and developing nations must be liberated from the idea that a western lifestyle is the only life worth aspiring to.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The world is getting smaller. Or is it?

Or, how to listen to people that the people you listen to aren't listening to.
H/T Milan.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Looking ahead: anticipation and prudence

We are generally not very good at responding to long term threats. We are wired to focus on the immediate. Warnings that smoking or obesity might cut years off one's life all too often fall on deaf ears. Or even where the veracity of the claim is acknowledged, there remains a disconnect between this acknowledgement and remedial action.

Many ecological crises share this structure: incremental changes (often as the result of pursuing certain immediate objectives that may well be good or pleasurable in their own right) lead to unforeseen consequences “in the pipeline” that may take years, decades or longer to become fully manifest. Examples include declining biodiversity, habitat loss, soil degradation, ocean acidification and overfishing. Climate change may represent the most complex and difficult example.

The distance between the actions that cause harm and the suffering of that harm is widened in climate change to be not only temporal, but also spatial and relational, meaning that there is no immediate or proximate visibility to the consequences of actions that are only become highly problematic in a cumulative manner. Thus, there are a raft of distraction techniques that can dilute the fierce urgency of now. We can point out the relative size our tiny contribution and the inefficacy of reducing it by ourselves; we can question the consequences that are as yet only forecast; we can lower our ethical horizons to include only what is visible in my neighbourhood.

The problem is that we are used to making our ethical decisions as though we were walking, where avoiding a pothole or canine faecal incident is only a matter of looking a step or two ahead. But we are no longer walking. Our greater agency through soaring population and technological innovation means that our actions have greater consequences, affecting a wider sphere over a longer period of time. Our consumption and production don't just satisfy our immediate needs and wants but have unforeseen knock-on effects that extend much further than they used to. We are no longer walking. When you drive, you need to look further ahead, observing and anticipating events over a wider field of interactions and responding well ahead of time to possible threats. "Too late" happens surprisingly early. In driving, you need to look further ahead and further afield than when we're walking because the consequences of your actions are so much greater. A mistake while walking means bumping into a stranger and perhaps meeting a new friend. A mistake while driving could mean sending a tonne of metal travelling at superhuman speed into a brick wall, or under a fifty tonne truck coming the other way.
H/T mustakissa for suggesting this analogy.

But we are not even driving. Perhaps a more appropriate image for the scale of our agency and our consequent need to anticipate threats is flying.
Image by Ruth Brigden.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We don't elect a PM

As widely expected, Julia Gillard has called an Australian federal election for the 21st August. As part of making the announcement, she said the following:

Today, I fulfil the pledge I made on the day I became Prime Minister. On that day, I acknowledged it is the right of every Australian to vote for the Prime Minister, and that in the very near future I would ensure all Australians could exercise their right.
This is simply not true. It is not the right of every Australian to vote for the Prime Minister. It is our right (indeed statutory obligation) to vote for a representative in Federal Parliament. It is up to the members of parliament to elect their leaders. It may be the case that in the popular mind we identify with a leader and vote for them, but this is a dangerous oversimplification. For Gillard to use this as the opening of her announcing affirms this misconception in the minds of voters. The problem with this line of thinking is that wise deliberation is further crowded out by personality politics more suited to celebrity magazines. Our system does not mean we elect people to mirror our views, or that MPs are obligated to advocate what the majority of voters want. We elect representatives who deliberate and make judgements on our behalf.

I am also disappointed to note that Gillard seems to be the kind of leader who is happy to allow and reinforce such misunderstandings of our system (and Abbott is no better, by the way). I know I'm fighting a losing battle on this issue, but it frustrates me to see that not even our highest elected official is willing to threaten voters' sense of entitlement (stoked by the popular media) in order to get it right.

By the way, don't forget to enrol or update your details. Ten percent of eligible voters, including about fifty percent of 18 year olds, aren't enrolled to vote and even more are yet to update their details. You can do so here.

UPDATE: Ben has pointed out that Bob Hawke has some typically colourful thoughts on Gillard's collusion with public confusion.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Christianity: a tool of villainy under the banner of progress?

“Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?

"The religion of the Bible, on the contrary, is a religion of the state and the status quo only in brief moments. In practice, it is a religion for the correction equally of people and of kings. And Christ’s life, from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time, as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the “good news” of the gospels. Less is said of the gospel’s bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every “Christian” government the world has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its works, and it would be horrified by him. Surely no sane and thoughtful person can imagine any government of our time sitting comfortably at the feet of Jesus, who is telling them to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you…” (Matt. 5:44).

— Wendell Berry, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation"
in Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community: Eight Essays (full essay available here).

Quotes like this can be hard to hear. It can be tempting to ignore them.

Sometimes, when I talk with people about some of the crises of our times and suggest that Christianity might have something to say to us at this historical moment that is interesting and worth paying attention to, I am told that the church is part of the problem, not the solution.*

I often feel more than a little sympathy for this comment. Christian defence of the indefensible (which is quite different from defence of the defenceless!) or unreflective acquiescence in the status quo are both depressingly common. The Christian church has, for all its noble achievements, also many sad failings.

To be Christian is to recognise that this is nearly always the case, and so to expect that I will very frequently find myself contributing to the problems of the world. This is one implication of the doctrine of sin. However, to be a follower of Christ means also being open to grace: to the word of forgiveness, the task of repentance and the possibility of liberation. Such an openness requires the belief that grace ultimately superabounds wherever sin abounds, and so trusting that sin is not an ultimate reality, and so can be turned away from. It is unnecessary.

This openness requires practices that build into our sense of self the expectation of change and growth. It means remaining open to the wounds of false accusation in case they turn out to be less false than we first thought. And it means immersion in the scriptural narratives until what appears normal about life today is revealed as abnormal.
*The idea that Christian ideas are to blame for ecological degradation has a long history within the environmental movement, arising from Lynn White's seminal paper "The Historical Root of our Ecological Crisis" in which he accused certain elements of the Christian tradition as standing at the root of exploitative attitudes towards the non-human world. I won't add here to the huge amount of commentary on this article (which has its strengths and weaknesses) nor to explore the degree to which these charges stick (short answer: somewhat, but by themselves these ideas are neither necessary nor sufficient as historical explanations for the rise of exploitative attitudes).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The next twenty years

The next twenty years are very unlikely to be like the last twenty years. Most of the time, it is reasonable to expect and plan for the future on the basis of the recent past. This is how we are wired and the force of habits and the power of cultural inertia make this kind of thinking natural.

However, for all the reasons I have listed here (and quite a few more, which include consideration of the present economic situation and a debt-based economy that requires continued growth (or at least the perception of the likelihood of continued growth over the long term) to prevent meltdown), I am fairly pessimistic about the likely economic, social and/or political stability of the coming decades.

I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son and I make no claims to predicting what is likely in a massively complex and historically novel globalised system with all kinds of unexpected feedbacks. It is also very hard to be precise about the level of severity we're talking about it. I expect that we will face more than a recession, and something larger than the credit crunch of 2008.

However, I don't think we're talking Mad Max or The Road anytime soon (unless global tensions reach a point where someone reaches for the nuclear option, in which case all bets are off). But we're also not talking Star Trek or even . I think the possibility of political and/or technological silver bullets to avoid the raft of approaching crises is low enough to make it reasonable to hold a fairly bleak outlook.

There are three interconnected systems that are currently under grave threat, and the failure or further deterioration of any one of them will have significant knock-on effects on the others. These are economy, energy and ecology, or finances, fuel and flora & fauna (and fresh water and flooding and fires). I've written primarily about the third category, with occasional references to the second (especially regarding peak oil). In more recent weeks I've been learning quite a lot more about the first, and the ways in which the failures of the other two can be magnified and brought home by the financial system.

Two presentations
I plan to say more on this in due time, but I thought I'd flag the development of my thinking and suggest two presentations that might give you a taste of the kinds of things I've been pondering recently. Both are far from perfect and contain material or emphases which I think are wide of the mark, but at a broad level, I suspect they are identifying some of the most pressing issues of our day.

The first is this talk recorded at the Transition movement conference earlier this year by Stoneleigh, one of the authors of The Automatic Earth blog (H/T Sam and more thoughts here).

The second is called the Crash Course by Chris Martenson. This one is quite a bit longer, but most of the meat is in the second half so feel free to skip the explanations of what money is and how credit works if you like.

Both these presentations major on the first of the three crises (i.e economic), not because it is necessarily the most dangerous, but because it is most likely to make itself felt first and most directly. I suspect that the ecological crises which are largely in the background of these presentations will ultimately prove to be larger and more significant in the long term.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Link love

Sam posts a list of Mennonite guidelines for doing conflict in the church, and a timely warning that the future is not what it was. I have been meaning to say more about the issues in this latter post for a while.

Climate Progress has an interesting case study summarising the complex interactions of water, food and energy requirements in China. UPDATE: Another CP post on China's massive investments into clean energy.

Just say no to socialism.

Bobby fashions an anti-creed.

Jeremy wants us to love things (as a matter of justice, no less).

Graham tries to not lose the forest for the trees (or perhaps the climate for the weather).

UK Electoral Reform: a letter to our MP

I have been corresponding with Ian Murray, our local MP here in Edinburgh South, about electoral reform in the UK (amongst other issues), not because electoral reform is the most important or pressing issue facing the UK, but because it is one where improvement seems possible for relatively little effort. I thought I would post my latest message. It is not brilliant or groundbreaking, but I've been thinking about posting more of my letters to politicians as I think seeing examples is a good way of being encouraged to pick up pen or pixels for yourself.

Dear Mr Murray,

Thank you for taking the time to answer my correspondence when I realise you have received many similar messages recently. Thank you also for your reassurances about your opposition to a threshold cap on the referendum.

I agree that the issue is hugely complicated, but believe that there are a number of positive examples around the world of nations that have a better (though still imperfect) system than FPTP. Every system has its drawbacks, but I think that those involved in FPTP are large enough to justify a thorough review and referendum.

I am a little concerned that you think a result which would have led to a different outcome in 27 seats is only "minor". Although it may not have kept Labour in government, such a change would be a significant step forward in its own right.

I share your concern about both the moving goalposts of a vote of no confidence and the potential gerrymandering of electoral boundaries in any attempt to "fix" parliament. As an Australian citizen, I would warmly recommend that the UK investigate Australia's AEC (Australian Electoral Commission) as a moderately successful example of an independent body overseeing electoral redistribution and the entire electoral process. I am not familiar enough with the UK system (though my knowledge is rapidly growing) to know how well the local equivalent functions, but any concern that changes could be politically motivated would be at least partially answered if they came from a body that was genuinely independent in both perception and reality.

I have noted the concern expressed about the ballot being held on the same day as the other elections, however, don't particularly feel the weight of this objection. It seems to save money through only requiring a single electoral event. The idea that English voters are disadvantaged can only be upheld if one grants that they are not concerned enough to go to the polls for something other than an election. First, if that is the case, then we really are in a dangerous position of political apathy. Second, if it is the case, then why would a different polling date increase English participation? If they are in danger of missing out, it is not because Scotland and Wales are holding an election, but due to their own apathy. As for diluting the Scottish and Welsh elections, again, perhaps I have a higher view of the ability of the average voter to hold more than a single idea in their head at the same time. Perhaps I have missed something, but that particular issue feels like a storm in a tea cup to me.

Thanks again for your time and thoughtfulness and for all the work you do on our behalf. May God give you wisdom as you seek justice in this land.

Grace & peace,
Byron Smith

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New ABC Religion & Ethics portal

Augustine identified a similar pathology at work in the Roman elites, who indulged in various forms of luxury and illicit pleasures to distract them from the inevitability of death. He argued that the fear of death - the fear, in other words, that their lives would not be remembered - meant the Roman elites lived in fear of the loss of status and comfort. They were greedy for glory hoping by glory their lives might have significance.

- Stanley Hauerwas, "Can greed be a good?"

The Australian Broadcast Corporation has recently launched a new web portal for religion and ethics. It opens with pieces from Rowan Williams on refugees, Stanley Hauerwas on greed, Paul Griffiths on death and dying and much more. Keep an eye on it.

A rare treat

By Marc Roberston.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Weekly crises links

Over at A few things ill considered, Coby Beck posts an extensive list of links to relevant blogs and news stories on a wide range of topics each week: from every angle of global warming (science, policy, politics, current events), to deforestation, peak oil and energy, water stress and much more. The links come out every Monday and have generally been titled "Logging the onset of the bottleneck years", a reference to the period of widespread transition we are entering in which the trajectory of industrialism (or hyper-industrialism) of the last centuries (or decades) is threatened by an increasing array of resource and ecological crises.

Peak oil continues into the mainstream

Insurance giant Lloyd's of London has released a new report called Sustainable Energy Security: Strategic Risks and Opportunities for Business in which they have added their voice to growing recognition of an imminent energy crisis. Here are some of the headlines from the executive summary.

  • Market dynamics and environmental factors mean business can no longer rely on low cost traditional energy sources
  • We are heading towards a global oil supply crunch and price spike
  • Energy infrastructure will become increasingly vulnerable as a result of climate change and operations in harsher environments
  • Lack of global regulation on climate change is creating an environment of uncertainty for business, which is damaging investment plans
  • To manage increasing energy costs and carbon exposure businesses must reduce fossil fuel consumption
  • Business must address energy-related risks to supply chains and the increasing vulnerability of 'just-in-time' models
The third last one is ironic. One of the reasons for the failure of global regulation on climate change has been uncertainty about the effects on business of taking action. This report points out that taking no action is actually making the problem worse - not just the actual climate problem, but the economic problem!

When an insurance group decides it needs to tell businesses to cut their energy use, you know that this is no longer just the concern of nutters and conspiracy theorists.
H/T Graham.

Immigration and asylum seekers in Australia: links

"Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land." - Genesis 12.10.
The topics of immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers seem to be gathering some attention in Australia at the moment. Here are three pieces I've come across worth pondering. First, a SMH article with some relevant statistics. Second, another SMH article listing various historical people smugglers whom we admire and appreciate (this doesn't mean that they are all like that, it is simply making a negative case that universal condemnation of people smuggling is too simplistic). And finally, for those who prefer to gain their commentary through humour, Clarke and Dawe bring some perspective to the discussion (H/T Nigel).

I expect that the next few decades will see significant increases in the number of ecological, economic and conflict refugees around the world. Australia will not be exempt.
"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." - Exodus 22.21.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The difficulty of love

"Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real."

- Iris Murdoch.

According to Jesus, we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. I take it that he means we are to love our neighbours in the same way that we love ourselves, rather than directing us to love the neighbour as an extension of ourselves. Love requires open eyes to the needs and opportunities of the neighbour. I cannot assume my neighbour is just like me but have to go through the sometimes painful process of recognising and understanding our differences.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Addressing climate change is (not) fun

What is the best way to motivate people? Should we be offered carrots or sticks? Should the benefits of a low carbon society be emphasised or the dangers of climate change highlighted? Should the focus be on the benefits and costs to me, or to those who will feel them first and hardest? Or should responsible action be put forward simply because it is the right thing to do (as this video does so humourously)?
H/T Dave Taylor.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Coming soon to a ballot box near you

GetUp are at it again.

Don't forget to enrol. I'm just going to print off my application form for overseas registration now.

Link love

Milan hits the mark on another punctuation pet peeve and asks "how cynical should Obama make us?". There is also a good conversation (with plenty of links) happening on his blog about police and black bloc activity in Toronto during the recent G20 meeting.

Sam reminds us that we have one defender, so don't need to defend ourselves.

Matt quotes Williams on the need for science to be human. Very timely.

The jellyfish are coming: "All around the world, jellyfish are behaving badly—reproducing in astonishing numbers and congregating where they’ve supposedly never been seen before."

PhD on calling for papers.

Prof Eleonore Stump on the problem of suffering and divinely sanctioned violence in the OT.

Jason has a Stringfellow quote on nationalism and patriotism.

And Halden links to the best review ever.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Beyond the profit motive: why we don't just chase money

People respond better to motives other than pure profit. Autonomy, mastery and making a contribution are better motivators than a bigger pay packet. This seems intuitively right to me (as well as having studies to back it up). Many of the smartest people I know are not going into the highest paying jobs, but are becoming scientists, academics, ministers, teachers and all kinds of other things in order to serve a purpose that is larger than their wallet. It's not rocket science.

Resting my eyelids during the sermon

This cartoon by Dave Walker originally appeared in the Church Times.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Climate science vindicated again

A couple of hours ago the Muir Russell inquiry into the hacked CRU emails was published. Here are the key findings from the executive summary (emphases original).

13. Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

14. In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policymakers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.

15. But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the university and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.
The full text (120 pages) is here. This is basically what I said back in November and confirms the earlier two inquiries into the CRU emails and also stands with the two-part PSU inquiry into the conduct of Michael Mann, who was also decisively vindicated. Claims of a whitewash need to take this into account. This latest finding also needs to be put together with a recently published Dutch review of the IPCC 4th report, which found only minor faults.

If this all makes no sense to you, then you are fortunate for not having been following the media circus over the last few months. If you don't believe a word of any of these independent vindications of climate science, then perhaps you need to think about the nature of conspiracy theories. If you're wondering why this even matters, it is because what we do with what we know is important.

Keeping our feet on the ground

"For there is a sense in which the absence of oil only has one real effect. It will give back to us a proper sense of our creaturely limitation, as little embodied animals who can only walk a few kilometres a day. Our spatial limitations have always been what give us a sense of a ‘place’, or neighbourhood, in which we live. Oil has temporarily tricked us, making these constraints hidden in plain sight, deluding us into thinking that we can soar unencumbered like the angels just because someone can fly us to Phuket or because we can drive interstate. The absence of oil will only throw us back onto what was always the case, and what still remains the case for the majority of the world’s population: we are a people who dwell in neighbourhoods, villages and towns, making the best of interdependency with others in the same place. We cannot abstract away our createdness forever."

- Andrew Cameron, "The peak oil society".

Oil lets us fly. Good theology keeps our feet on the ground. More generally, the very spectacular success of our present industrial system has enabled the illusion of autonomy and independence. That this system is facing a series of dire threats from its own runaway achievements is an excellent chance to rediscover the goodness of our interdependence.

Dave recently reminded me of this piece by Andrew Cameron, written back in 2007 (I mentioned it back here). It is almost certainly the best thing I've read about peak oil, and indeed by extension probably the best short piece responding to all the various challenges we face. Read it.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Prosperity without growth

"Here is the story of [...] our consumer society. It is a story of us being encouraged, persuaded perhaps, to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about - or worse still, who don't care about us. [...] It's a pathological system."

- Tim Jackson, 2010 Deakin lecture.

How can our economy continue to expand on a finite planet? Tim Jackson is author of Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet. A longish report with a similar title that I assume is related to the book can be downloaded for free from here. I haven't read much on this topic and haven't yet read Jackson's argument to know whether it is plausible, but unless we can wake up from the dream of endless growth (which turns out to be a nightmare), then we're toast.

"The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around." - Gaylord Nelson.
H/T Matt Moffitt.