Thursday, September 30, 2010

What will future generations condemn us for?

A very interesting piece in the Washington Post by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who notes first the fairly obvious point that perceptions of what is appropriate and good have shifted over the years, and are likely to continue to do so. Where the article becomes interesting is when he asks if there is any way of predicting which contemporary practices might be destined for future condemnation. He suggests three criteria:
"First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn't emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

"Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, "We've always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?")

"And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they're complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. That's why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks."
Appiah then goes on to suggest four possible sets of contemporary practices that our children or grandchildren may well find abhorrent: the prison system (he has his eyes especially on the US situation); industrial meat production; the institutionalisation of the elderly; and our ecologically destructive lifestyles.

I briefly considered this question myself towards the end of this post on morality as distraction, specifically focussing on the issue of whether the church is offering hostages to fortune through our current practices and attitudes.

Are there more examples you can think of that meet his three criteria? In your estimation, which one(s) is (are) most likely to see future shifts in judgement?
H/T Bryan.

Loving our (climate) neighbours

"Acting rightly with respect to the earth is a source of hope, for those who so act give expression to the Christian belief that it is God’s intention to redeem the earth, and her oppressed creatures, from sinful subjection to the domination of prideful wealth and imperial power. Such actions witness to the truth that the history of global warming has gradually unfolded; that those poor or voiceless human and nonhuman beings whose prospect climate change is threatening are neighbours through the climate system to the powerful and wealthy. And Christ’s command in these circumstances is as relevant as ever: 'love your neighbour as yourself.'"

- Michael Northcott, A Moral Climate: the ethics of global warming
(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 285.

Northcott (a professor of Christian ethics here in Edinburgh) articulates a fundamental point for Christian discussions of ecology. That love is our motivation and the criterion of our choices: not greed in seeking profits or power through higher regulations, not fear or self-protection, not enlightened self-interest or guilt. Any Christian discussion of ecological responsibility needs this corrective lest we simply mirror or unthinkingly baptise unbelieving discourse and assumptions.

Note that framing the discussion within the concept of love doesn't necessarily mean that only humans are included within the sphere of our concern. Northcott here suggests, quite radically for some perhaps, that nonhuman beings can also be our neighbours. Much more needs to be said on this, but to suggest animals (and plants?) as neighbours, as fellow members of the community of life and fellow breathers of the divine Spirit, need not imply that there are not ordered relationships between different forms of life, though it does at the very least imply that nonhuman creatures are loved by God for what they are, not simply for what they can be for us humans.

UPDATE: Were the animals also waiting for the coming Messiah?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

China, USA and Australia

This piece from The Age argues that the common claim that China is dependent upon the US consumer market is a flattering piece of self-deception and that China is largely economically dependent upon, well, China. Australia's place in this? Although we used to move in sync with the US economy, now Australian marches to a more Asian drumbeat. Is this good news for Australia when the US is struggling and China booming? Economically (measured in GDP at least) it has been, with Australia being the only OECD country to avoid a recession as the result of 2008 financial crisis.

It is somewhat ironic that Australia and China are two of the richer countries (putting China in the "very rapidly developing" basket and taking its riches collectively rather than per capita) more vulnerable to the ill-effects of climate disruption (and facing increasingly severe problems with water stress and soil degradation), yet our current and possible future shared wealth is significantly dependent upon the exploitation of climate-destroying coal.
However, I've just discovered that we don't export as much coal to China as I thought. It is less than 10% of our total coal market. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that Australian coal exports are huge. This will become more common (as will this).

Where peak oil meets climate change

Unconventional fossil fuels are the great unknown area of overlap between the irresistible force of energy security and the immovable object of climate disruption. If we don't leave the vast majority of the tar sands, oil shale and methane clathrates buried, then we can pretty much kiss any chance of a stable and livable climate for the next few decades, centuries and millennia goodbye. If we don't exploit them as fast as we can, then we're likely find the global economy increasingly squeezed by significant shortages in liquid fuels within the next decade.

It is of course massively oversimplified, but which would we prefer: driving into the side of a cliff, or falling off the edge of one?
NB My analogy with a car crash is intended to signify that these issues are not merely inconveniences, but will likely affect many aspects of the lives of many people on the planet. Not every car crash is fatal, of course, so I'm not saying that we're "doomed". Indeed, that was the point of originally reaching for this analogy. There is a big difference between the necessity of facing the issues (and the likelihood of some significant losses) and the impossibility of doing anything worthwhile.

The impossible dream: or how economists don't understand physics

"Economists and politicians can’t admit it, but the laws of physics apply, no matter what the latest polls tell us. The Earth has finite resources that will someday limit our economic growth. The Earth cannot forever support 7 billion people consuming as much as Americans consume. And yet we’ve staked our future — individually, nationally, and maybe even as a species — on that impossible dream."

- Rex Nuttington, "The economy can't grow forever".

The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. Until we get that into our heads, we are not in a position to begin reflecting upon the challenges of global poverty in the coming decades. There is no healthy response to the needs of the world's poor that does not consider the ecological consequences of our present trajectory and present poverty-reduction strategies. A trickle-down model that relies on continued growth of the whole system driven (largely) by western consumerism may have made some worthy progress (depending how you measure it) over the last six decades or so, but cannot be extended into the future without wishful thinking.

Yet if we are not simply going to ask the poorest to shoulder the largest burden, then it is the richest (i.e. us) who need to. If we are going to leave ecological space for the poorest to get out of stupid and absolute poverty, then the section of the world living at levels of consumption that cannot be shared with all cannot continue on our present path. There will be no healthy response to our ecological and resource crises that does not involve a lower level of consumption for the richest. Joyfully embracing less is not simply a matter of personal preference, nor of "saving the planet", but at its root is an expression of love and concern for justice.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is the economy too important to be left to the economists?

"The questions that the book leaves us with are, I think, primarily these: What kind of culture have we allowed to develop? Not only the subculture of financial institutions and money makers, but the culture in which that happens, the whole culture of our society. What are the sorts of behaviour we reward?

"What are the kinds of human beings we want to see around, that we've encouraged to be around? And that's certainly one of the issues that's come up very sharply in these conversations. Have we not begun to create a kind of human being, whose default setting is really profoundly selfish, profoundly introverted? And how on earth do we build a society on that kind of basis?

"So the questions about culture run very deep. They are questions about what we think is worthwhile in human behaviour. And unless we really tackle that kind of question, really revive our imagination about what human beings might be and should be, then the whole of our economic structure will not really change.

"Culture change begins, as one contributor to the book says, with behavioural change. And behavioural change begins with a change of vision, a change of horizon. So that the subsidiary question is, not only what have we taught people to value and reward, but what have we taught people to aim at? Have we shrunk their possibilities? Have we drawn in their horizon in a trivial way, a way that does less than justice to what human beings are really capable of?

"The authors of this book ask that question, fully conscious of the way in which the level of reward in the financial sector in recent years has been so enormous as to obscure ethical considerations quite a lot. But it's proved not to be an endless pot of resource, it's proved to be a path of self-contradictory and essentially destructive behaviour in practice.

"We need to recovery integrity, we need to recover a sense of the connection between economics and other things; and that's perhaps the other big question that comes up here. Is economics too important to be left to economists? And finance too important to be left to financiers? Don't economic questions always bring with them questions of value in something more than financial terms? How are we to get that back on the agenda?"

- Rowan Williams, "Crisis and recovery: the cultural roots of the financial collapse".

The panel discussion I mentioned yesterday was very interesting and worth spending 90 minutes on. A video will soon be available here.

Archbishop Williams was his usual complex and lovable self, even managing a reference to Sergei Bulgakov and this excellent essay. The Guardian economics editor, Larry Elliott had many interesting things to say, but it was Tory MP and former ecological journalist, Zac Goldsmith who really connected some important dots. It is good to know that there are some politicians at least who seem to "get" some of the issues and are willing to speak publicly about them. He joked that his political career was likely to be short. If I was in his electorate, I would vote for him.

Give us this day our daily bread

The Coming Famine: The global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it by Julian Cribb. The world has consumed more food than it has produced in nine of the past 10 years and food crises are likely to become more common.

FT: Water in the desert, some Gulf cities are quickly running out. Globally, groundwater depletion rates are accelerating.

NYT: Bleaching is back in fashion, coral bleaching that is, with disastrous effects on already stressed fish populations.

Climate central: Arctic sea ice loss, why does it matter? (though fortunately, there is good news on that front). Rolling Stone also has a good article on the future of ice, including this quote: "If you look at all these dramatic changes, water is doing it all. The vulnerability the ice sheets have to heat from the ocean is the key to all of this. And there's orders of magnitude more than enough heat in the ocean to kill the ice sheet, on whatever time scale the ocean and atmosphere conspire to deliver that heat. It's not at all about subsequent warming or future warming of the oceans. We don't have to warm up the ocean any more at all. The vulnerability is really from climate change altering the atmospheric circulation and how much that's going to alter the ocean circulation. The ice sheets have no defense against warm water. They don't really stand a chance."

Science Daily: Beetle populations responsible for massive pine forest die-off likely to keep rising.

US Clean Air Act has benefits forty times greater than costs of regulation. This Act has some impressive credentials under its belt after forty years, and it inspired a number of other similar bills elsewhere.

Guardian: Good thing the UK has the greenest government in history.

Hot Topic: Have the climate wars begun?

Scared of the dangers of massive untested geoengineering projects? We've been doing them for some time.

SMH: And in Sydney, we've decided to start fracking next to Warragamba Dam. Seriously.

Monday, September 27, 2010

How to be a science journalist

How 95% of all science reporting is done. Don't miss the comments.

Rowan Williams in debate: economics and ethics in a crisis

Rowan Williams has a new book and is to discuss the ideas with an interesting panel tomorrow night from 6.30pm in a live webcast.

"During the ongoing global financial crisis, the values on which our society and economic structures are based have been called into question. In a new book to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Larry Elliott, Economics Editor of The Guardian, have brought together a collection of leading commentators to examine the role of morality and ethics in business. At this event, both discuss these fundamental themes together with Zac Goldsmith MP, Editor of The Ecologist, and Robert Skidelsky, professor of political economy, politician and historian."

The big picture on climate change

Skeptical science, an excellent website run by Australian Christian John Cook that gives very readable and well referenced answers to common sceptic talking points about climate change, has just posted an excellent summary of the big picture on climate change. It expresses very succinctly where the uncertainties do and don't currently lie, with plenty of links for those who want to read more. If you're feeling like you'd rather let the whole climate thing pass you by, or feel confused about where to begin, or just want to get your bearings after reading too many newspaper articles, this post is the one to read.

The site is called Skeptical Science because true science is indeed sceptical, and so John applies this to common "scepticism" about climate change, in order to see where the balance of evidence from the best research lies (see here for a good intro to the idea behind the site). If you have specific arguments that you've come across that seem to "disprove" climate science, here are 122 common sceptic talking points each answered in a single sentence (with links to longer answers). If you are yourself sceptical of the science of climate change, then make sure you read through the list and see if your reasons are already answered in the scientific literature. If you come across people putting forward arguments on other websites, bookmark this page and point people towards it.

Each answer refers to relevant scientific literature for those who want to take the discussion further. John is in the process of turning all his answers into three levels of readership: beginner, intermediate and advanced. The website is also being translated into numerous languages. All this work is done by volunteers, who have come across the site, found it a very useful resource and want to make it even more useful. Neither John nor any of his contributers are paid for what they do (apart from the odd PayPal donation); the site is a true labour of love.

Indeed, John has been quite open about the fact that he is concerned about climate change out of Christian love for his neighbours (especially the poor and future generations). He is doing an excellent job co-ordinating an increasingly popular, complex and useful website (which is now also a free iPhone and Android app) and he does it for love, not money. Praise God for John Cook!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Resilience and community

An interview with Chris Martenson. It goes for over an hour, but raises all kinds of interesting questions about how to pursue personal and communal resilience in a world with an increasingly bumpy outlook.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why does the media do so poorly covering climate disruption?

So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.

- Mark Brayne, former BBC correspondent and editor.

The full discussion is here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jeremy Kidwell on the purpose of fear

[W]e may also grant [our fears] overriding control over our moral lives. Thus, if I fear the financial crisis, i.e. my own financial ruin, at the root of this fear is my own love of money and the economy which secures my wealth. Similarly, fears of environmental destruction may reflect an underlying worship of the patterns I am familiar with, such as a ready supply of tropical fruits or an abundance of consumer products without any indication of their source or true cost. In short, my fear may reflect an underlying reluctance to see change, whatever the source.

A Christian response to such fear, I think, is the act of repentance. In this, we identify the underlying idolatries (or distorted loves) that generate our fears and express regret for the destructiveness these misguided attachments have caused. Next, we detach our loyalties from them, and place our trust instead in the only thing which can correspond to our highest aspirations: the personal God who created us. This redirection offers an entirely new orientation by which we can respond to bad news and conceive of our life within changed circumstances.

- Jeremy Kidwell, "The purpose of fear".

This post by my friend and New College colleague Jeremy makes some very good points about the ways that our fears can reveal our distorted loves. By reflecting on what it is that we fear losing, what we love comes into focus.

Yet not all the loves that are thereby revealed are necessarily distorted. Sometimes, we may discover a new love through becoming aware of a threat. For instance, it is only fairly recently that I have learned how much I love phytoplankton. While some of our fears may uncover the shallowness of our loves, some of the things under threat are not so obviously trivial: the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, the existence of myriad species and scores of ecosystems, the social fabric of trust and co-operation, a functioning healthcare system (and more importantly a functioning sewerage and garbage system), the rule of law, and so on. Of course these too can be loved inordinately, but simply to ignore the fact that these more significant goods are also threatened is (or may be) to once again allow fear to set the parameters of my moral vision, since I may be refusing to see the full extent of the threat lest it disrupt not just my convenient idolatries, but things of real (though still secondary) worth.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Citizens vs the banks

Over the last few days, more than one hundred and fifty thousand Australians have joined the largest class actions in the nation's history against most of the major Australian banks. The first case against against ANZ has been announced and many more will follow. The issue concerns penalty fees, which have allegedly been illegally imposed at punitive rates rather than simply covering the banks' costs. The class action is being brought by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, and funded by IMF, and managed by Financial Redress. GetUp have joined with Choice consumer group and the Australia Institute in supporting the action. It will be a very interesting test case.

If you are an Australian citizen, have been penalised by a bank for a relatively minor action at some point since 2004 and would like to join the action to gain a refund and hold the banks accountable, you can do so here.

Burning Shakespeare's plays

"To claim to love the Creator but to abuse the world in which we live is like claiming to be fans of Shakespeare whilst burning his plays."

- Marika Rose and Jason Fletcher, "Why should Christians care for the environment?"

I recently had a go at a brief explanation of why the Christian gospel results in ecological concern (here, here and here). I've just come across this document from Tearfund, which doesn't do a bad job in six pages. I've been looking for good short resources like this. If you know of others, post them in the comments below.

This is what balancing the US budget without raising taxes would look like

The US has a huge budget deficit (about US$255 billion). This is (more) understandable during a recession, but has been growing in size for the last ten years during the boom years, and is a serious threat to US economic (and political) health. Either taxes need to rise or spending to fall, or (most likely) both. For those who go into anaphylactic shock over tax increases, the Centre for American Progress has put out an interesting report that shows how the budget could be balanced without raising taxes. However, it is not a pretty sight. Cuts include: three quarters of agricultural subsidies; ninety-five billion from defence (including significant reductions for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and reductions in standing nuclear capacity; in all almost a 15% reduction); reductions to social security payments; no new highways; subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear research reduced by 90%; significant reductions to international aid, correctional services, customs and border enforcement, health research, NASA, National Parks, FEMA, agricultural research, EPA and much, much more.

The report conclusion is worth posting:
"Well, that was miserable.

"Perhaps there were moments of joy for you when some particular cut struck a chord, or dealt with a long-disliked program. Maybe you’re a pacifist and reducing the number of men and women in arms and cutting down weapon systems is deeply satisfying. Or perhaps you think that highways ought to be paid for by local governments that put tolls on them or that we spend too much on health research.

"But it’s evident that cuts of the scope and magnitude we have laid out really will do harm to the country, especially for the plans that cut the most. They are cuts that we’ll end up paying for one way or another. We may pay for them in delays at the airport or in the emergence of a new disease without a cure. It may cost us in traffic jams and rough roads or in unsafe food. It may mean lower economic growth as the infrastructure crumbles, education suffers, and investments in research and the technologies of the future languish. Or our armed services may be late-arriving at an international hotspot. Whatever the consequences, and you can go through the list and imagine them, there will be some. And as bad as the consequences might be from what we’ve outlined here, the consequences from the alternatives we considered were, in our view, worse.

"But these are, in fact, the kinds of choices we’re going to have to make. Are we
going to cut or are we going to raise taxes? What cuts? What taxes?"
They challenge anyone who disagrees with what they suggest cutting to come up with equally detailed suggestions. The point is, even the rosiest expectations about growth over the next few years still leaves the US in deep financial trouble. It could well be much worse. It's all very well criticising big government, but if you want it to shrink, you have to be willing to point out precisely where.
H/T Joe.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The most urgent theological task for this generation

"Notably, the question on which the debate between creationists and evolutionists largely centres - 'By what mechanism and in what timeframe did the world come into being?' - is exactly the kind of abstract question in which the Bible displays no interest. This question is abstract because its answer - whatever answer we may accept - imposes no obligation for us to act upon the world in just and honourable ways. As the foregoing discussion implies, it is better to ask, while reading the early chapters of Genesis, 'What does it mean for humans to be creatures among other creatures, all of us radically dependent upon God? What actions are incumbent upon us as a consequence of our status as creatures?' Rowan Williams offers an answer fully congruent with the whole biblical account: 'Being creatures is learning humility, not as submission to an alien will, but as the acceptance of limit and death' (Williams, 2000: 78). Consciously being creatures means discovering the trustworthiness of God, and allowing 'a generosity creation of community to be "enacted" in us' (76). However, his further observation appears somewhat too sanguine now, an ecologically disastrous decade after it was written: 'The discovery of solidarity in creatureliness has obvious consequences, which hardly need spelling out, for our sense of responsibility in the material world; it puts at once into question the model of unilateral mastery over the world' (76; emphasis added).

"In fact, the most urgent theological task for this generation may well be spelling out the material consequences of a sense of self that proceeds from contemplating '"the wise, ordered, gracious and loving mutual correspondence" among creatures' (Williams, 2000: 76, citing St John of the Cross). Surely theologians, professional and lay, will need to do that in conversation with scientists, naturalists, and natural philosophers, including but not exclusively people of biblical faith."

- Ellen F. Davis, "Reading the Bible after Darwin: Creation and a Culture of Restraint" in Theology after Darwin (eds. Michael Northcott and R. J. Berry; London: Paternoster, 2009), 68.

So, here is the original answer to my riddle a couple of days ago. This book is worth reading (almost) in full, containing a collection of very thoughtful pieces on what it means for theology once we take Darwin seriously and stop trying to beat our heads against a wall of denial about our origins. I helped (in very minor ways) to put this volume together (being research assistant to the editors) and was reminded of it after preaching on "Evolution or Genesis?" this Sunday (I didn't pick the title and questioned the "or" in it).

Now that I've distracted you with that context, on to the substance of the quote.

I am sympathetic to both Williams and Davis on this point, though think they both need further nuancing. I have addressed the Williams piece that Davis is discussing at some length in my chapter on his account of creatureliness.

I have said before, I think that the most greatest moral issue of our day is whether we turn to Christ or anti-Christ in faith, to self or neighbour in love, to false hopes or hope that first goes through the cross.

And corresponding to this, I believe that the most important theological task of this (and every generation) is to hear and believe the good news of Christ for us today. This is both paying close attention to the grand announcement passed down in the holy scriptures and proclaimed by the church, and it is listening to this message today. The gospel does not change, but the hearers do, and with them and their contexts, the emphases and insights of the gospel. The gospel proclamation - the reign of God has come near in the crucified and risen Christ - will have different implications for people in different circumstances. And this means that making a generalisation about the particular shape of this task for an entire generation will also nearly always be difficult. Not only will different members of a generation face differing situations, but each will have multiple ways in which the gospel transforms her or his existence. So the theological task is always both singular in focus ("For I resolved to know nothing while I was among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" - 1 Corinthians 2.2) while complex in applications.

Nonetheless, I don't believe it illegitimate to attempt (fallible and partial) interpretations of the aspect or aspects of the gospel that will have particular resonance within a particular historical context. And this is how I read the above claim: that (one of) the highest priorities for Christian theology in a society slowly waking up to the scale of ecological and resource crises resulting from the success of industrialism at reshaping the globe, is an articulation of the human self as creature amidst a community of life.

I think more needs to be said about being a creature in community with Christ, and all kinds of other nuances, but the basic idea is worthy of consideration.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Monbiot gives up on governments

"Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don't want to see. To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power – acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won't. They weren't ever going to do so. So what do we do now?

"I don't know. These failures have exposed not only familiar political problems, but deep-rooted human weakness. All I know is that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise and start facing a political reality we've sought to avoid. The conversation starts here."

- George Monbiot, "Climate change enlightenment was fun while it lasted. But now it is dead".

Perhaps the UK's best known writer on ecological issues, George Monbiot has now given up on a sane institutional response to climate change. This is more or less the same discussion as back here.

My response would still be to say that I agree with Monbiot insofar as expecting governments and other institutions to respond in ways that solve or largely dodge the problem has for some time been wishful thinking, however, it remains the case that their actions over the coming months and years will make significant differences to the lives of millions as we face increasingly difficult situations.

One example of this concerns whether city governments prevent or allow further development on flood plains. Another, whether remaining biodiversity is respected and preserved or trashed for short term gain. Such examples can be multiplied many times over. Even if the cumulative response still falls well short of what is required to prevent very bumpy times ahead, such decisions still make a significant practical difference one way or the other.

To use another (partial) analogy: if I receive a terminal diagnosis and become convinced that nothing can be done to save my life, do I go out and squander my goods (either in a hedonistic spree or on far-fetched miracle cures), or do I make sure that I have a generous and thoughtful will drawn up, and seek to use my remaining days to bless others?
I also agree that part of a healthy response at this stage is to build resilience at whatever levels we can (certainly including, though not limited to, local resilience) and I will say more about this in coming posts. Some call this building lifeboats (or I heard a paper at a Christian Ethics conference recently that called it "ark building"). There are some serious problems with the metaphor, but the basic idea is sound.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Maxing out the credit card

I will return to yesterday's quote soon, though I note with interest the discussion about whether "urgency" is a theological category.

In the meantime, here are two interesting pieces by SMH economist Ross Gittins. The first from a few months ago, argues that "we have been paying off our economic credit card by racking up debt on our environmental credit card", an idea not unrelated to the idea of an ecological credit crunch. The second article, from a few days ago, is about the shortsightedness of government subsidies for middle class status symbols.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What is the most urgent theological task for this generation?

I have just come across a quote that begins: "In fact, the most urgent theological task for this generation may well be...". Before I post the full quote, I'd love to hear how you would finish that sentence.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Are we living in a revolutionary age?

"A good test that anyone can make when his time comes: if a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his accumulated experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age, and is still worth teaching the then-young, then his was not an age of revolution… The world into which his children enter is still his age not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough to allow him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has turned to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise, then we may term the rate and scope of change that overtook him “revolutionary”."

- Hans Jonas.

Sometimes, revolutions can happen without much attention being paid to them.
H/T Andrew Errington.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Choking on coal

Washington Independent: coal related health effects cost the US $100 billion each year, including over 13,000 deaths. I imagine that even prior to considerations of climate change, if the public health effects of burning coal are taken into account, renewable energy is more affordable than such dirty combustion. Meanwhile, the head of BHP Billiton has said that Australia needs to move beyond coal. And finally, images of coal ash in China.

Independent: UK government to adapt to inevitable warming, yet without spending any more money.

Mongabay: Amazon.com vs the Amazon: paper trails and deforestation.

Deep-sea trawling damages an area twice the size of the contiguous USA each year.

And just to show that sometimes simultaneous disasters can dilute rather than amplify each other: Scientific American reports on research showing that hurricanes help save thermally-stressed coral reefs by cooling water temperatures; Skeptical Science points out that in New York, higher rainfall doesn't necessarily mean more flooding due to drier soil from higher temperatures; and NASA satellites reveal that the incidence of wildfires is no higher in dead forests killed by mountain pine beetle infestations (which have reached epidemic proportions due to warmer winters enabling more beetles to survive) since green needles of live trees are more flammable than brown needles of dead ones.

These points vaguely remind me of the story of a man who wanted to kill himself and so decided to do a thorough job. He hung himself over a lake after taking poison and brought along a gun to make sure. His shot missed his head and severed the noose, dropping him into the water which diluted the poison. Since all the other methods had failed, he decided he wanted to live after all and so swam to shore and survived. I'm not sure we're going to be so lucky.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ecology, fascism and democracy: imagination and advertising

"The future of environmentalism is in liberating humanity from the compulsion to consume. Rampant, earth-destroying consumption is the norm in the west largely because our imaginations are pillaged by any corporation with an advertising budget."

- Micah White, "An alternative to the new wave of ecofascism".

This is the kind of debate that we need more of. The irony of political agents who fight any ecological protection legislation on principle is that they are likely setting up conditions for more authoritarian regimes in the future when desperation gains a strong hold on the public imagination.

In short, this piece argues that the corruption of desire performed by the dominant strand of contemporary liberal (hyper)capitalism will undermine the conditions of possibility for liberalism. And so only a renewal of the imagination can lead to true reduction of the consumption levels that are choking the life out of the earth. We need a compelling and attractive picture of human life and flourishing that is not predicated on endless acquisition and consumption.

Where on earth can we find the sources for such a renewal of the imagination? I doubt it will be simply be through reclaiming billboards (though the usefulness of creative acts of civil disobedience cannot be ruled out). Perhaps our good news for new times may come from old sources.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pentagon and Bundeswehr on peak oil

I know it's been out for a while, but back in April, the Pentagon released a report on global energy outlook that turned a few heads. Here are some key quotes:
"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.* [...] While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. [...] One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest."
*To get a sense of the scale of this warning, the total global consumption is around 85 million barrels per day.

It is also worth considering the recently leaked draft report of a think tank employed by the German military (known as the Bundeswehr), which advises that in order to maintain its supply, Germany may need to revise its foreign policy: friendlier to Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran; a little less friendly to Eastern Europe and Israel. It also warns of the dangers of restricted supplies of energy in a globalised marketplace, when oil is involved directly or indirectly in the production of over 95% of food and industrial goods: "In the medium term the global economic system and every market-oriented national economy would collapse [... making] room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government."

The challenge of the next two or three decades is going to be avoiding massive political instability and resource wars while expanding global food production in the face of rapidly declining soil health, water stress and an increasingly unstable climate, all with ever increasing shortfalls in energy production. Current rates of oil field decline mean that we need to bring a new Saudi Arabia online every three years just to maintain current production and current rates of demand growth (largely in the developing world) mean that on top of that we need another Saudi Arabia every seven years. If you're banking on Canadian tar sands or US shale oil making up the shortfall, you're dreaming. Or perhaps, starting a nightmare, since these would only cover part of the likely shortfall and would singlehandedly ensure we'd be at the worse end of climate predictions. The extraction of tar sands and shale oil are slower, more energy and water intensive, more expensive and especially more polluting (of both water sources and the atmosphere) than conventional oil extraction.

We face massive technical, economic, ecological, social and political challenges in the coming years. I currently don't see how widespread unrest, price shocks, rising international tensions and increasingly desperate grabs at remaining resources are not going to be a large part of the likely storyline of the next few decades.

If the significant risk of such scenarios is not factored into our thinking, I suggest we're out of touch with reality. It is no virtue to have one's head in the sand.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope"


"From an oceanic perspective, 450 [ppm of CO2] is way too high. [...] The prospect of ocean acidification is potentially the most serious of all predicted outcomes of anthropogenic CO2 release."

This video brings together sea level rises, ocean warming and ocean acidification. It doesn't mention plastic pollution, overfishing or oil spills. We are fighting a war against the oceans and we are winning. If Cousteau is correct, we are lost at sea.

"The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat."

- Jacques Yves Cousteau

Monday, September 13, 2010

Living in apocalyptic times: interview with Robert Jensen

Not Robert Jenson the theologian, but Robert Jensen the professor of Journalism, who is also a Christian. This whole interview is worth reading, but here are some highlights:
"Take a look at any measure of the fundamental health of the planetary ecosystem on which we are dependent: topsoil loss, chemical contamination of soil and water, species extinction and reduction in biodiversity, the state of the world’s oceans, unmanageable toxic waste problems, and climate change. Take a look at the data, and the news is bad on every front.

"And all of this is in the context of the dramatic decline coming in the highly concentrated energy available from oil and natural gas, and the increased climate disruption that will come if we keep burning the still-abundant coal reserves. There are no replacement fuels on the horizon that will allow a smooth transition. These ecological realities will play out in a world structured by a system of nation-states rooted in the grotesque inequality resulting from imperialism and capitalism, all of which is eroding what is left of our collective humanity. “Collapsing” seems like a reasonable description of the world.

"That doesn’t mean there’s a cataclysmic end point coming soon, but this is an apocalyptic moment. The word “apocalypse” does not mean “end.” It comes from a Greek word that means “uncovering” or “lifting the veil.” This is an apocalyptic moment because we need to lift the veil and have the courage to look at the world honestly. [...]

"Maybe it’s natural for people to want to believe that they have hit on the solution to a problem, but I believe that the problems are complex beyond our understanding, and it’s not only unlikely that there’s a single solution but there may be no solutions at all—if by “solution” we mean a way to continue human existence on the planet at its current level. We need experiments on every front that help us imagine new ways of being. [...]

"To borrow a phrase from a friend, I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief. We humans have been given a privileged place in a world that is beautiful beyond description, and we are destroying it and destroying each other. I cope with that by building temporary psychological damns and dikes to hold back that grief. But the emotion comes so powerfully from so many different directions that life feels like a process of constantly patching and moving and rebuilding those damns and dikes. Some of this is intensely personal, but for me the political work is a crucial part of that coping process. If I weren’t politically active, I would lose my mind. The only way I know how to cope is to use some of my energy in collective efforts to try to build something positive.

"At this point, there is no rational approach to the ecological crises that doesn’t start with this recognition: We are going to live in a low-energy world that is powered primarily by contemporary sunlight, not the ancient energy of fossil fuels. As a society we are not prepared, in terms of either physical infrastructure or cultural awareness, to deal with that. Anything that further delays coming to terms with this reality is a threat to life on the planet, not a solution. [...]

"Capitalism is the most wildly productive economic system in history, but the one thing it cannot produce is meaning. Even more troubling is the way, through its promotion of narcissism and mindless consumption, that capitalism undermines the larger culture’s ability to create real meaning. Virtually all of what is good in society—solidarity, compassion, creativity, ethics, joy—comes from outside capitalism, giving the illusion that capitalism is a civilized system. It’s a cliché, but important enough that we sing it over and over: Money can’t buy you love. Capitalism cannot create a healthy human community, and it undermines the aspect of human nature rooted in solidarity and love.

"The other obvious failure of capitalism is its contribution to the erosion of the health of the ecosystem. Humans have been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet since the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, but that process has intensified dramatically in the capitalist/imperialist/industrial era. Our culture is filled with talk about the success of capitalism even though that system degrades our relationships and threatens our existence. That’s an odd definition of success."

- Robert Jensen, interview with Alex Doherty at the Oil Drum.

I know I've been posting some seriously dark material recently. I make no apologies for that. Unless we remove our heads from the sand and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed now, we will be overwhelmed soon enough when faced with critical decisions on short timeframes. An initial feeling of shock can be healthy, as are certain kinds of fear and anger, and the godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

Followers of Jesus Christ are to keep our eyes fixed on two things: our neighbour in peril and the crucified and risen Lord. Looking at one without the other means we simply are not paying attention. And looking at one will lead us to the other.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is climate change good for us? Deutsche Bank: Nein!

A new report from Deutsche Bank (PDF) says that “Human-made climate change is already happening and is a serious long term threat.” The report runs through many of the typical sceptic talking points - it's not happening, it's not us, it's not bad - and debunks them in turn (in the style of John Cook's excellent Skeptical Science site). One of the most interesting answers concerns the common claim that since humanity has survived many climate changes in the past, there is nothing to worry about:
"Although adaptation is possible, historical shifts in climate have never occurred under conditions of such high human population numbers. Natural resources and ecosystems are already taxed and further climate perturbation is likely to be disruptive. Climate shifts in the past have frequently been accompanied by collapse of governments or extensive mortality. Increasing population pressure exacerbates the likelihood of pandemics and the destabilization of food-insecure regions can lead to failed states and threats to global security. Humans have survived numerous past changes in climate, but survival of the species is a poor measure of the true consequences and costs associated with adaptation to climate change."
The threat of complete human extinction gets too much attention in some circles. There is plenty for us to be concerned about before we reach that stage - indeed, there are 6.8 billion reasons for concern prior to getting that far.

And it is worth repeating the point that humanity has never faced a situation quite like this before; the threats are on an unprecedented scale. We have never had anywhere near this many people, with anywhere near this amount of infrastructure investments to protect, with anywhere near this level of consumption, with anywhere near this level of firepower to hurt ourselves if things turn pear-shaped geopolitically. Climate change is far from the only issue we face, but it is a threat multiplier in a world already under incredible and growing stresses. We are living in a historically novel period for all kinds of reasons and the stakes are higher than they have ever been.

In praise of... government regulation

What does rat faeces have to do with climate change? Both are instances of the goodness of government regulation, argues history lecturer Kelly Mandia in a guest post at her husband's blog.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Sword and the Ploughshare

I'm very aware that I haven't been keeping my blog links updated (indeed, that my entire sidebar and much of my current layout requires extensive revision). So I thought I'd take one small step towards a remedy by recommending the blog of a fellow New Collegian, Brad Littlejohn.

In recent posts, Brad suggests we ought to be more understanding towards the prevalence of dualism in historical Christian thought, asks who makes money and gives primers on Christian citizenship and economics. His posts are long, but are all well worth the effort.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The collapse of complex societies: Joseph Tainter

Joseph Tainter wrote the classic text on societal collapse, called The Collapse of Complex Societies in 1988. Tainter is an archeologist who wanted to answer the question why human history has been characterised by ever-increasing social complexity punctuated locally by periods of rapid shifts back towards greater simplicity (i.e. collapse). His answer is simple yet profound: societies become more complex to solve their problems, yet investments in increasing complexity yield declining marginal returns, until the increasing marginal costs of greater complexity becomes enough of a liability that collapse (shifting to a simpler society) becomes the best way of solving the problem. That is, there is point where greater investment in complexity actually makes things worse.

In this interview, Tainter applies his theory to perhaps the best known societal collapse in history: the Western Roman Empire. And then to the most complex society in history: ours. Compelling listening; God has made no promises of civilisational survival.
Sam Norton has written a very useful summary and review of the book here.

This storm is what we call progress

By the end of the century, ocean acidification will have passed a biological tipping point.

SMH: Australian native mammals in sharp decline. On current trends, many are likely to be extinct in twenty years.

Twenty one percent of Africa's freshwater plants and animals are threatened with extinction.

Land grab: we're turning forests into food (see also here for another take on the same story).

Ocean dead zones on the rise.

Trouble ahead for developed world: "Pretty soon the U.S. will be spending more on debt service than national security. ... That's a tipping point for any global power."

BBC: Don't let the bed bugs bite: "we are on the threshold of a bed-bug pandemic."

Hot Topic: Widespread sacrifices amongst developed nations for ecological stability will never happen. Or will they?

CP: Why healthcare is less important than climate and energy policy.

The title of this post comes from this quote.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

On blessing enemies and burning books

I recently mentioned the plans of a small church in Florida to commemorate the attacks of 11th September 2001 by burning a Qur'an, in order to send a warning to radical Islam: "If you attack us, if you attack us, we will attack you." This is the heart of the rationale offered by Pastor Terry Jones, who plans to carry out this act on Saturday's anniversary.

In my previous post I mentioned the words of Christ in Luke 6 about loving enemies as one obvious response to this proposal. Loving enemies means the only retaliation we can condone is repaying cursing with blessing, hatred with love, and violence with vulnerable peacemaking. God retaliated against the death of his son by raising him to new life, and by commissioning messengers with the gospel of forgiveness and peace in his name. Burning a book is indeed a powerful form of communication, but the message that is intended by this action is a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

Indeed, there is a deeper and even more worrying assumption behind this action, which is brought to light by asking after the identity of the "we" in Pastor Jones' quote above. Who is it who will bring repay attack for attack? The obvious candidate is the US military acting on behalf of the US government. As well as ignoring the teaching of our Lord, this pastor seems to have confused the church of Jesus Christ with his nation and its military.

Sam Norton has suggested that the popular reaction to this story has been misguided, on the basis that the offensiveness of burning a Qu'ran, or the potential harm it might bring to US soldiers are not properly Christian reasons. It is not the place of the church to ensure the safety of soldiers occupying a foreign country, nor is the giving of offence itself a problem. On these points, he is correct. He goes on to suggest that the burning could be seen as an act of protest or resistance against idolatry. I am not opposed to symbolic actions that expose the hollowness and violence of idolatry. But I don't think this action does that. Not only does Jones' explanation fail to conform to anything like the Christian gospel, but the very act of burning a book - not least the sacred text of a minority community in his society - does not speak of fearlessness, hope or joy. It is a punitive action that attempts to silence speech and intimidate a group already the focus of hostility and suspicion.

As one of Sam's commentators (revsimmy) points out, "In the only New Testament example of book-burning (Acts 19:19) at Ephesus these were books being burned by people who were renouncing their former beliefs and practices (not the case in Pastor Jones' case). Later on in Ephesus, when the silversmiths stir up a riot against Paul, the town clerk is able to claim, with apparent credibility, that Paul and his companions have never spoken against their temple or blasphemed their goddess." This too is an important point. Whatever we make of the book-burning in Acts chapter 19, it was undertaken voluntarily by those who had formerly practiced idolatry as a symbolic, costly and effective break with their old lives. The action planned by Terry Jones for this Saturday, by contrast, is more akin to the destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban. The overthrow of idolatry is not through the weapons of this world (whether explosives or cigarette lighters, outrage or censorship), but through preaching, purity and prayer.

The first idolatry that needs to be addressed in this story is not the attitude of Muslims to the Qu'ran, but of Christians to militarism and nationalism. The good news is that liberation from such empty idols is possible in Christ.

UPDATE: It seems that Pastor Jones may have decided to cancel the burning. Or put it on hold. Or something. He seems like quite a confused man.

A typically good reflection on the whole matter from Andrew Cameron in the Social Issues Briefing. He asks "what would St Paul do?" and his answer is that prior to the Damascus Road, Saul of Tarsus would have joined in and led the burning. After meeting Christ, not so much.

The coming financial crisis and peak oil: two interviews

"I think a lot of governments are taking it very seriously but they are not mostly talking about it in public because nobody wants to frighten anybody. [...] But I think they understand perfectly well that peak oil is a reality."

- Nicole Foss (a.k.a. Stoneleigh from The Automatic Earth).

This podcast makes for sobering listening. It consists of two interviews. The second, and cheerier, one is with Antony Froggatt, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, who lays out the key trends in global energy resources. Froggatt helped to write a recent white paper by Lloyd's of London, titled "Sustainable energy security: strategic risk and opportunities for business" (executive summary can be found here).

From the forward: "We have entered a period of deep uncertainty in how we will source energy for power, heat and mobility and how much we will have to pay for it. [...] The bad times have not yet hit." In the interview, Froggatt discusses the problems with an economy based on just-in-time supply in a world that is no longer able to rely on cheap energy. He believes we may be heading for more supply crunches like 2008 in which the price spiked to almost US$150 (a five-fold increase in a matter of years). He then partially attributes the following economic downturn to this spike.

He points to three fundamental trends in the energy sector:

(a) Declining oil output from existing wells: "the current output from existing oil production globally is decreasing by about 4% per year. So just to maintain the current output for oil will require the discover and exploitation of a new Saudi Arabia every three years."

(b) Surging energy consumption in emerging economies: "If we carried on using energy in the same way we do at the moment, we would need 40% more of it by 2030."

(c) Increasing international recognition of the threat of climate change largely due to fossil fuel combustion.

All three combine to mean that "the age of cheap oil is over. [...] The current energy system will have to change". The only questions are when and how abruptly and smoothly this energy transition occurs. Previously, a transition on anything like this scale has only been achieved about once per century, and with momentous social and economic implications. We have mere years to achieve a larger transition than we've managed in the past only with concerted effort over many decades.

But that is the optimistic interview.

The first interview (transcript here) is with Nicole Foss (her background and credentials are summarised here), who calls herself a "big picture person". She also speaks of possible interactions between a further financial crisis and peak oil. However, rather than seeing rising oil prices undermining global economic growth, she sees a dangerous relationship in the other direction. She expects the next few years will witness a larger global credit crunch leading to a "greater depression" in which we'll look back at the 1930s as the good old days. She argues that the various government stimulus packages in 2008 merely postponed and made worse the inevitable deflationary period.

She is also very concerned about peak oil, but believes the timeframe for finance is shorter than for energy and so "finance is going to re-write the energy debate. [...] Demand collapse is going to set up a supply collapse. [...] Low prices are going to mean no investment, no exploration, no maintenance." So she predicts a double-whammy: a financial crisis for the next few years, which in turn will set up a longer and larger energy crisis. And she reminds us that being in debt during a major credit crisis isn't likely to be pretty: "When you have a large amount of indebtedness, the civilised methods of getting out of debt are likely to disappear." She is primarily talking about the US situation, but we live in a globalised world.

Listen with a grain of salt, but I'm not sure we can safely ignore these warnings.
The German article mentioned briefly in both interviews is here.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The logic of retaliation and the logos of God

A Florida church is intent to go ahead with plans to burn a copy of the Qur'an on the 11th September in order to send a message to radical Islam: "If you attack us, if you attack us, we will attack you".

"But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you." - Luke 6.27-31.
I'm surprised that no one thought to put this quote to the pastor in question. Just goes to show how biblically illiterate many journalists are. The senselessness of this pastor is an easy target, but it's worth mentioning because what has become explicit in this tiny church is implicit in the thinking of too many Christians. Even if it were true that "they" are out to get you (whether "they" are radical Islam, the government, the eco-fascists, the religious right or your in-laws), this fact is justification for nothing but love in response.

BP Gulf disaster caused by combination of human and mechanical failure

Human error and cost-cutting played a crucial role in the disastrous BP Gulf crisis earlier this year. More details are here, including the five human errors that combined to make a mechanical failure catastrophic.

The narrative of greedy oil companies shirking their responsibilities for the sake of maximising profit is once again decisively illustrated. By law, corporations are responsible first to their shareholders, and this means that any well-functioning company will do all it can to maximise profits. If this involves risk to the common good, passing off costs onto third parties (externalities) or even undermining the stability of society, then as long as such actions can be hidden or spun away, they will be done for the sake of profit. Companies that break the law and hide their mistakes are only following the logic of the system that created them.

Images of Alberta's tar sands

This is for those who look to Canada's enormous (and enormously dirty) tar sands to solve peak oil.

Mozambique food riots: the "true face" of climate change

This is the kind of thing I was talking about back here, namely, climate change as a multiplier of existing threats to food security. Such problems are not caused exclusively (or even necessarily primarily) by climate change, but they are likely to become increasingly common in many parts of the world. Climate change means we'll be sailing ever closer to the wind in all kinds of ways, with less spare capacity in the system to respond to shocks.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Advice needed: focus of newcomers' course

St Barnabas' Anglican Church, Broadway (a.k.a. Barneys) in Sydney is where Jessica and I were members for over six years after getting married. I served as a catechist for four years while studying at MTC. One of my good friends in my year at college, Michael Paget, has recently been appointed the new Barneys rector, an exciting piece of news I neglected to mention a few weeks ago (mainly because most of those interested would already know about this from other sources). Michael has asked me to post this question and he'd love to hear any feedback in the comments.
"St Barnabas' Broadway in Sydney is an urban church with a substantial body of uni students. Every year we know the ebb and flow of semesters. On the one hand, this makes things far more simple: our mission field is clearly visible. On the other, it means there are certain seasons when we have a rush of visitors to integrate into the life of the community.

"We've decided to once again run a short course/community group at various times, in order to introduce newcomers to our identity, passions and purpose. For various reasons, 5 weeks seems an appropriate length. So here's a shout-out to all our friends (and any interested strangers) out there: what would/do you do with 5 weeks of membership or partnership course? What topics would you cover? And, most of all, why?"

Gillard to continue as PM: Australian hung election resolved

Given the announcements of all the independents and minor party MPs, it appears that the ALP have the support of 76 MPs and can now go to the Governor General with a credible claim to be able to form Australia's next government. After an election result that gave 72 seats to each side, six figures were left holding the balance of power. The last seventeen days have seen intense negotiation between these six figures, each acting separately, and both major parties.

Of the independents and minor party members, Tony Crook (Nationals WA) and Bob Katter (Ind.) both backed the Coalition, while Adam Bandt (Greens), Andrew Wilkie (Ind.), Tony Windsor (Ind.) and Rob Oakeshott (Ind.) all offered their support to Labor, making it 76-74. Interesting, I don't think any of these figures have pledged to vote with their respective "side" on every issue, simply given their commitment to not support reckless no confidence motions or block supply. Hence, every issue will need to be debated on its merits (as it ought to be).

The final two figures to announce their intentions, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, mentioned three considerations as crucial in their decision: Labor's broadband policy (which is seen to favour rural Australia), the possibility of stability for the next three years (given Greens balance of power in the Senate and the recent swing against the ALP, they judged that Abbott was more likely to go to another vote sooner rather than later, which would be likely to remove their balance of power) and Labor's (slightly) stronger stance on climate policy.

So Prime Minister Gillard has avoided adding to her record as Australia's first female PM the dubious distinction of being one of its shortest-lived. Whether the ALP can govern with its herd of cats in support remains to be seen, but I'm not entirely cynical. It is a chance for much needed reforms in parliamentary processes, and will hopefully improve the quality of debate in the House as well as the Senate. But I'm not holding my breath on anything radically new emerging as a result.

In any case, I expect that governing will increasingly become a poisoned chalice as more of the serious global challenges of the next few decades continue to bite. It remains to be seen whether our political system can generate leaders willing to admit these difficulties honestly or whether we'll simply oscillate between alternative sides offering rosy visions of "progress resuming shortly".

I'd love to hear any other thoughts or reflections on this outcome.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Meaty matters with Monbiot: can we eat meat and be ecologically responsible?

In his latest piece for the Guardian, George Monbiot has retracted an earlier article in which he claimed that veganism (or at least vegetarianism) was the only possibly ecologically responsible diet. Having read a new book by Simon Fairlie called Meat: a benign extravagance, Monbiot has admitted that he has been repeated various statistics that don't add up.

The book points out that the real enemy is not meat consumption or production per se but the ecologically disastrous industrialised meat production that comprises over 95% of all the meat eaten in western countries (and an increasing share of the rest of the world too). Such "factory farms" typically involve grain feeding, total confinement systems with liquefied manure, heavy use of hormones and feeding of antibiotics.
Not only are factory farms worse for the planet, they also generally involve much higher levels of animal cruelty.

And so, ecologically speaking, all flesh is not created equal in its impact. The kind of meat and the methods used to raise it are crucial. For instance, there is a huge difference between eating meat from animals culled due to overpopulation (such as kangaroo in Australia, or venison in Scotland) and eating industrially farmed beef or pork. Similarly, there are huge differences between different fish species, some of which are overfished and approaching extinction, while others are carefully managed.

As I've discussed before, I think there is a strong ethical case for serious reductions in the average meat consumption of westerners. This article has reminded me that it is particularly factory farmed meat that is the real culprit (see also here and this book).
How can you tell if the meat you're eating has been industrially farmed? If you have to ask the question, then it almost certainly is. This piece has some good basic suggestions for how to find non-factory meat.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

If the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?

Scientific American: If the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?. This is known as the environmentalist's paradox.

While the precise contribution of anthropocentric climate change to Pakistan's devastating floods continues to be debated, they were indeed made worse by human actions. And the toll continues to rise. You can give online here (or in many other places).

Oil Drum: Nine challenges for renewable energy.

Nature: Not all disruptions associated with climate change involve things getter hotter. A recent anomalous cold snap in Bolivia has contributed to what is possibly the largest short-term ecological disaster in its history.

Water stress in western USA.

New mega-dam in Brazil looks set to go ahead.

The archeological consolations of drought: hundreds of ancient sites revealed in England during a dry summer.

Ecopsychology: BP Gulf disaster and despair.

ABC: West Antarctic ice shelf may be "much less stable than previously thought".