Monday, January 31, 2011

For sale: UK forests?

UK residents may be aware of an issue presently before parliament concerning the proposed privatisation of all or some English forests, a suggestion that 84% of people oppose. I don't currently have to time to offer a full analysis of this issue, but I think it is unwise for numerous reasons. A variety of arguments can be found here.

A critical vote has been scheduled for Wednesday. If you are a UK voter and think this is a bad idea, you can sign a petition which already has some 330,000 names here and from here it is easy to send a message to your local MP.

The logic of the market is all too often that of King Midas' touch. Things may turn into gold, but they die in the process.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

On refusing to vote

"[Refusing to vote] reflects a new recognition of the nature of power. In reality we all have “a say in our future”, every day, with everything we do and everything we don’t. Privileging government as the only means of social change is a concept the gospels call into question. The assumption is that power is concentrated at the top, and the only way to change anything is to change the government or its way of operating.

"This, it seems to me, stands in stark contrast to the way of Jesus. One of his early temptations, in fact, captured in the wilderness narrative, is precisely to this kind of topdown political power. Significantly, it is the devil who offers it to him. Jesus refuses."

- Simon Moyle, Why I don't vote.

Most elections do not change things. The idea that political responsibility means voting once every few years is a bit like thinking that a healthy lifestyle consists in being checked by the GP every few years. Voting is not to be sneezed at (and in the end, I disagree with Simon Moyle, though respect his position, which also represents the considered position of some good friends of mine), but it is not the main game in politics, far less the main game in changing the world.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In case you're short on things to read

Eric ponders Animality and the Word of God: where to draw the boundaries between human and non-human animals and what the theological import of that relationship is. He also posts one of my favourite T. S. Eliot poems, which happens to be relevant to the discussion.

Kevin highlights the real problem with genetically modified (GM) food. It's not that it might be poisonous to our bodies, but that it is toxic to our body politic.

Dana offers a a case study in scientific integrity. Though this is his first foray into the Guardian, I've read quite a bit of Dana's writing and he knows what he's talking about (he's also now posted a further analysis of the replies to his Guardian piece). RealClimate recently published a piece with a similar theme but taking an example from a very different field.

Richard wonders whether individual action is pointless, given the scale of the challenges we face. His answer: our actions may not make a difference, but our example might. An excellent paper going into much more detail on the inadequacy of merely personal lifestyle changes can be found here.
H/T Chris Taylor.

Mongabay asks "What's so wrong with palm oil?", and answers in great detail.

Greenfyre wonders what if there had been no BP oil spill? He offers a perspective which was later mirrored by The Onion: ensuring that all the oil reaches its desired destinations is also an ongoing catastrophe of an even larger scale.

And Jeremy compares our present need for rapid and radical social change with what was achieved in the UK during WWII:
"There is no underestimating the scale and pace of change that happened during the war. Coal use dropped by a quarter, general consumption fell by 16%, car use dropped 95%. Sacrifices were made, but as people ate less and often ate better, levels of health and fitness rose accordingly. Infant mortality and the suicide rate fell, and spending on entertainment was one of the few areas that grew."
See also this piece by Caroline Lucas MP.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Down with Gravity

Yes, the theory of gravity is atheist bunk. Cue intelligent falling.


How much is enough? When is less more? If we've been getting stratospherically richer than we were fifty years ago, why aren't we any happier? What is the secret to contentment? Is it possible joyfully to embrace less?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Swimming in stuff: regifting and post-Christmas regret syndrome

The dust has settled. Advent is over. Christmastide is over. Gifts have found their place. Debts from spending splurges are (possibly) still being paid off.

The volume of stuff that is passed around at Christmas is staggering. While most (at least much) of it is an expression of love and relationship, nonetheless, large numbers of gifts are unwanted by the recipient and are regifted, donated to a charity shop, lie unused in a cupboard or end up as landfill. What do you do with your unwanted gifts? And do you need to tell the giver about the gift's destination? Have you ever refused a gift?

While retailers and manufacturers love it (the more landfill, the better, from their perspective) and have in many cases become dependent upon it, the Christmas splurge can leave people in debt and can unnecessarily increase the burden we are placing on the planet's resources and living systems. Does it have to be this way?

There are a host of culturally-specific social norms around gift-giving. For instance, is it rude or is it actually obligatory to open a gift in front of the person who gave it? Different cultures give opposing answers. And so I'm aware that even raising the question of how (and whether) to do gifts at Christmas may seem rude to some people. But it is important enough to risk being rude, since it is also inconsiderate to let the annual consumerist orgy continue without thought, protest or comment.

So what can we do to reduce the number of unwanted gifts while still expressing thoughtful care for one another? Perhaps it may help if we make explicit the ultimate goal of giving gifts, which isn't (I presume) to keep retailers in business, or multiply the stuff in the world, but to express our love for, relationship with and delight in another. But gifts aren't the only way of doing that. Gifts are only one love language, and in the consumerist frenzy that passes for Christmas in some places, the language of gifts may sometimes send confusing messages. Perhaps it is time for some creative translation?

Perhaps we could deliberately expand the Christmas tradition from gift-exchange to the giving of blessings. This wouldn't rule out gifts, but it would deliberately open up other forms of blessing as legitimate expressions of Christmas generosity. Many of these are already widely acceptable as gifts or gift alternatives, but it is worth listing a few suggestions (feel free to add more in the comments). Some examples:
  • Sharing a poem (written or found)
  • Sharing a significant piece of scripture and the reasons for its significance
  • Writing a letter.
  • Giving a piece of art fashioned by the giver.
  • Sharing a hug or other physical expression of affection (perhaps a holy kiss!).
  • Bestowing a word of encouragement.
  • Promising an act of service (e.g. lawn-mowing, babysitting, repair work, etc.). Some may be able to be performed immediately.
  • Promising an act of joint service (e.g. an invitation to help out at a soup kitchen together).
  • Promising a shared experience: going out together, making something together.
  • Pronouncing a verbal blessing ("The LORD bless you and keep you"). These can be powerful when both parties take them seriously and look each other in the eye.
  • Singing a song for the recipient.
  • Sending a postcard or letter together to absent members of the group or others who need encouragement.
  • Giving a TEAR gift (or equivalent vicarious gift through some other charity).
  • Loaning (or passing on) something precious (e.g. a favourite book or CD).
  • Sharing a favourite recipe.
  • And, of course, giving a physical gift, which could be secondhand, handmade, fair-trade or sustainably sourced.
I am sure there may be all kinds of practical issues around some of these suggestions, but surely Christmas doesn't have to lead to drowning in stuff.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dependence, independence, interdependence

As a parent of an energetic, social and delightful one year old, I have only slightly more than zero experience to offer on the parenting front (this didn't stop me attempting a series of theological reflections on children before she was born, of course!). Nonetheless, I'll risk a brief recommendation. I found this short piece on parenting a toddler very helpful and commend it to others in a similar situation.
H/T Jessica.

The key idea is that neither dependence ("You do it for me") nor independence ("I do it myself") are the goal of parenting, but rather a healthy interdependence ("We do it"). Independence is overrated, both in parenting and in life more generally. I don't want to stand on my own two feet, since such a task is both impossible and undesirable.

What a load of garbage

For Edinburgh residents
If you are ever responsible for creating garbage or live near someone who is, then you're interested in how waste is managed. Edinburgh Council would like five minutes of your time for a survey to help plan for future infrastructure and services. I hope this exercise isn't a waste of time.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

To a Mouse

Tonight is Burns Night, a national evening (week, really) of celebration here in Scotland (and around the globe) in honour of Robert Burns. Below is one of his best known poems and for good reason. It was penned by Burns after his plough had turned over the nest of a small field mouse. Enjoy! (Or repent, as appropriate.)
Translation help for those struggling with Burns' Scots can be gained here.
Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave 'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

- Robert Burns, To a Mouse, 1785.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is God to blame for floods?

Many readers will be aware of the recent serious floods in much of Queensland, which have claimed dozens of lives, devastated tens of thousands of homes and caused billions of dollars worth of damage to crops, buildings and infrastructure across an area the size of Germany and France combined. Victoria is currently experiencing its worst flooding on record, which is causing more damage than the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Disastrous flooding has also struck Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa and Sri Lanka. In each case, scores or hundreds have been killed, tens or hundreds of thousands have been displaced and millions or billions of dollars worth of damage have been sustained. And of course, there are still millions of displaced Pakistanis after flood waters covered more than one fifth of the country in July and are yet to fully recede.*
*The relative level of news coverage concerning these various events is itself a phenomenon worthy of a little reflection.

The suffering from these events lasts much longer than the headlines and the victims in each case can be supported through reputable charities and aid organisations (for example here).

Yet amidst seeking to provide practical help to these situations, such ruinous events open a range of questions for Christians. How are we to understand such events? Are these floods acts of God? Punishments of some kind? Senseless and random natural disasters? After-effects of the fall? Premonitions of some impending apocalypse?

This discussion will focus on the flooding in Queensland, especially Brisbane, which is where I've read the most analysis, yet I suspect that similar stories could be told about most or all of the other locations.

The causation of floods is a complex matter. Obviously, rainfall patterns are important. Many locations in the affected area of Queensland received record-breaking falls. Indeed, these floods come after the wettest year on record globally and in Queensland, and the third wettest on record for Australia as a whole. It was also equal hottest globally, which is relevant because warmer air holds more moister, and warmer oceans evaporate faster. Indeed, surface water temperatures off the Queensland coast are also the warmest on record. This is all directly related to one of the strongest La Niña patterns on record, but it is also consistent with predicted shifts in the climate system. Attributing extreme weather to climate change is complex, and it is simplistic to say "see, here is climate change", but it is also fair to say that no weather is simply "natural" anymore (more discussion here and here and here).

Yet rainfall alone doesn't determine water volume or speed. Land use changes play a big role in shaping how much run-off contributes to rising rivers - and how quickly. Deforestation generally makes floods worse by removing natural barriers that soak up some moisture and slow down the rest. Urbanisation takes this a step further by replacing absorbent soil with largely impermeable concrete. Although Australia is sparsely populated, the area around Brisbane is the main population centre in Queensland and has seen the most significant land use changes.

Previous erosion (itself linked to deforestation and land use management) has also changed the nature of the river bed through sedimentation. Thus, in significant respects, the Brisbane River is not the same river as in previous floods. This process is ongoing. A number of commentators noted that the images of the floods were striking not only for the destructive power of the torrents, but for the bright red hue of the flow - carrying off yet more valuable and scarce topsoil, Australia's future food.

Human activity has shaped watercourses in more direct and intentional ways too, of course. Dams, such as the massive Wivenhoe, built after the "Big Wet" of the 1974 floods, are intended to reduce the occurrence of minor floods, but as we have seen, can't be guaranteed to prevent the largest ones.

Not just the construction of dams, but their operation is also a factor. The extent to which Wivenhoe could have been managed better to minimise flooding is still disputed and is the subject of commission of inquiry called by Premier Bligh.

Perhaps an even more significant human factor concerns town planning and the location of buildings relative to floodplains. If I build a sandcastle below the high-tide mark, do I experience a natural disaster twice a day when the tide comes in? If I build a house in the bed of an seasonal stream, do I suffer from an act of God each year when my house is inundated? And what if I situate my business on a flood plain? It it worth noting that Brisbane Council has been trying to buy back the most vulnerable land for the last five years but prior to the floods had met with little enthusiasm from owners. I'm sure many are now kicking themselves for this now. To add insult to injury, the resale value of the flooded properties is likely to take a hit, and some may become basically uninsurable, as some Britons have found after the floods of recent years here.

Given the wide variety of ways that human decisions and behaviours have influenced the conditions of possibility for these floods, it seems strange to consider them merely natural disasters. Indeed, there is a sense in which no disasters are purely natural. This is especially true of weather-related disasters in a world where human hands are on the global thermostat.

But can they be considered acts of God? Human agency doesn't necessarily compete with divine agency. That is, human actions are affirmed at times in holy scripture also to be acts of God. So the fact that human decisions contributed to a given disaster doesn't mean God was absent. Yet at the same time, I don't think that divine sovereignty - the good news that God is king - requires or enables us to ascribe all events to the hand and plan of God either. God is not "the secret architect of evil".

Nonetheless, God often (though not always) lets us experience the consequences of our actions. There is no divine promise of universal protection from all harm.

Floods (and most other "natural" disasters) are complex phenomena involving the interactions of a wide variety of human factors with patterns in other aspects of the created order. As with much of the messiness of history, their theological significance is not able to be simply read off from the events. Simplistic attempts to ascribe blame upon God, nature or particular humans represents a short-circuiting of the invitation to deeper observation, reflection and planning that such phenomena represent.

This is particularly true in our current age of growing understanding of the hydrological cycle. Oversimplified accounts that simply shrug the shoulders and notches such disasters up as "one of those things" distract people from the fact that threats like this are not random or unpredictable. Flooding in Queensland is far from unprecedented. Warnings of more intense precipitation events have long been predicted by climatologists. The Australia Bureau of Meteorology had warned some months ago of this La Niña being particularly strong. Brisbane Council had been warning low-lying residents of flood danger for years.

The evaluation of future threats is neither tea-leaf reading nor an exact science. But wisdom does not fear or dismiss our best attempts to understand causes and fashion responses to such dangers that are commensurate with the scale and likelihood of the threat. Theological reflections offer us no reason to leave our head in the sand, though plenty of reasons to not build our houses upon it.
PS Amidst all the human suffering and loss, spare a thought too for the damage that the floods are likely to cause to the already stressed and threatened Great Barrier Reef.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Don't interrupt me

H/T Dave Lankshear.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Things may unfold faster than you think

Nicole Foss, one of the authors at The Automatic Earth, on the triple challenges of economy, energy and environment (especially climate in this case). She sees energy as the most significant driver of where industrial civilisation heads next, though economics is the way that it will manifest itself with most speed and violence in a debt-driven economy. Her analysis of the effects of peak oil as being an exacerbation and acceleration of economic swings is an important corrective to those who imagine that peak oil simply means ever increasing price spikes. I think she underestimates the long term significance of climate, but her points about resilient communities of trust and the importance of forward thinking prudence in order to avoid toxic and violent responses are well made. Whether she is right about deflation as the way in which the next financial crisis (the continuation of the present financial crisis, depending how you look at it) is above my pay grade (which, given that it is almost zero, isn't saying much).

In short, she thinks it is very important to get out of debt as soon as possible, to prepare mentally for a different and more difficult world within the next few years and to invest in local relationships of trust. As a Christian, I don't see much to disagree with in this advice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"God showed up"

Would you ever use the phrase "God showed up" to describe a church service? Why or why not? If you heard someone say it, what would you think they were referring to?

I've heard this phrase or variations on it a number of times in different contexts and it seems to mean very different things amongst different flavours of Christianity.

High church: we celebrated the eucharist.

Charismatic: we had a really rocking praise and worship time and/or prayer time.

Biblicist: at least two or three of those that attended were gathered in the name of Jesus.

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Barriers are political, not technical

Independent: Feeding 2.4 billion more people without more land. Technically, it might be possible. But then, technically it has been possible for some time to end poverty, switch to a carbon-neutral economy and destroy all nuclear weapons. The barriers in each case are primarily political, not technical.

The Automatic Earth: In the USA, only 47% of working age adults have full-time employment.

NYT: US States on verge of bankruptcy.

NYT: Species on the move due to changing climate. There are physical limits to how far many can go.

Make Wealth History: Bribery isn't just an African problem, not least because the bribes that keep developing countries politically poisonous frequently originate from western corporations.

Bright Green Scotland: Undercover cops: political or commercial? The recent exposure of numerous UK undercover police in green activist groups has raised a host of uncomfortable but important questions about political protest, police surveillance and accountability, the ethics of espionage and the commercialisation of policing and intelligence. This article explores the latter issue.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sustainability in Crisis

Today I received advanced notice of a conference being organised by my friend Colin Bell from the Kirby Lang Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE). The conference, titled Sustainability in Crisis is to be held in Cambridge on 26th-28th September. Below is the blurb and full details can be found here.
Sustainability in Crisis is a three-day cross-disciplinary consultation being held in Cambridge in September 2011, aimed at thought-leaders, academics, campaigners and policy-makers, representing a variety of religious perspectives or none. It will serve as a forum for informed and honest conversation about the challenges we all face and the distinctive contribution religions might make to addressing them.

Confirmed keynote speakers include:
Andy Atkins is Executive Director of Friends of the Earth and heads up the organisation's focus on tackling climate change and the loss of our planet's natural diversity. He has worked in a wide range of international development charities and has a strong track record of campaigning on environmental and social justice issues.
Paul Chambers is a UK government Civil Servant. (Further details to follow.)
Juliet Davenport is founder and Chief Executive of Good Energy, the UK's leading renewable electricity supplier, which has 26,000 customers and supports over 1,500 independent green generators. Its goal is to help the UK to a 100% renewable future. Both Good Energy and Juliet have won several awards for their work, including Juliet being named PLUS Markets CEO of the year 2009 and 2010.
Paul Ekins is Professor of Energy and Environment Policy at the UCL Energy Institute. He was also Founder and Associate Director of Forum for the Future, and has extensive experience consulting for business, government and international organisations. His academic work focuses on the conditions and policies for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy.
Bill McKibben is an American author, environmentalist, and activist. His books include The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a common audience about global warming, and Deep Economy (2007), addressing what the author sees as shortcomings of the growth economy and envisions a transition to more local-scale enterprise. He is the co-founder of, an international climate campaign that organized 10/10/10, the most widespread day of action on global warming in history.
• (to be confirmed) Ann Pettifor is executive director of Advocacy International Ltd and a fellow of the new economics foundation (nef). She is an experienced international speaker and commentator on macro-economics: amongst her publications is The Coming First World Debt Crisis (2006) in which she predicted the global debt-deflationary crisis. From 1994-2001 Ann led the international campaign Jubilee 2000 that resulted in the cancellation of more than $100 billion of debt for 50+ low income countries.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Peak oil in politics

I've just discovered that the UK has an All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, with twenty MPs and one Lord participating. It was set up in 2007 and has just released a report recommending a form of energy rationing, called Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) (here is Jeremy's summary of the idea) to be introduced within the next ten years.

Finding equitable and workable ways to reduce energy consumption is an important component of responding well to our present situation through a planned energy descent. I haven't had a chance to chase up this suggestion in detail but the outline looks promising.

After being ridiculed for more than a decade, the idea of peak oil continues to become mainstream.

Monday, January 17, 2011

McCormack lectures on the death of Christ

As I mentioned back here, Princeton theologian Bruce McCormack is currently at New College giving a series of lectures titled, "Abandoned by God: The Death of Christ in Systematic, Historical, and Exegetical Perspective". Brad Littlejohn has started a detailed and excellent summary of the lectures on his blog. I hope he continues.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

God's press conference

Mockery often reveals more than it expects to. Do any Christians recognise some of our own theology in this? Do we recognise how any impressions held by our neighbours? It is a caricature, but unless we have significantly better responses to these questions, then it's frequently how Christians are heard.

My own take on the problem of evil is outlined in "Is it wicked to solve the problem of evil?".

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How Genghis Khan cooled the planet

Frank ponders how to give an eco-friendly gift, and ends up discussing the difference between hope and stress.

Ben Myers has stopped blogging about faith and theology and has become a short story writer (briefly). And he is frustrating brilliant at that too! It was bugging me that most of his stories seem to be set in the US. I was about to comment on that trend when I came across this one and I felt right at home.

Amidst all the climate records set in 2010, a new melt record for the Greenland ice sheet was set in 2010.

And Mongabay tells of How Genghis Khan and Hernán Cortés cooled the planet (perhaps Christopher Columbus should get the credit). I'm not advocating that we try that particular strategy of geoengineering.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Sometimes, things need to be put into perspective, since our ability to intuit the relative size of very large numbers is generally quite poor.
Video by Information is beautiful. H/T Jeremy, who has also posted a US version.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On the blame game

Brad also has an insightful reflection on the fallout from the recent tragic shooting in Arizona.

Christian tradition has never been content to leave the blame for sin at the feet of the sinner alone. Sin is not simply something that each of us as individuals choose for ourselves; it is a disease we inherit, a poisoned air we all breathe both in and out. While the shooter is not excused or exonerated by such considerations, ruling out any reflection upon the context within which this assault occurred is short-sighted.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Don't touch my stuff

Brad over at The Sword and the Ploughshare has been writing a very interesting series on the theological and exegetical underpinnings of contemporary notions of private property (or lack thereof). So far, he's up to four posts (one, two, three and four), but it sounds like there are plenty more to come.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Climate displacement

“The frequency of natural disasters has increased by 42 percent since the 1980s, and the percentage of those that are climate-related has risen from 50 to 82 percent. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that in 2008, climate-related calamities drove 20 million people from their homes—more than four times the number displaced by violent conflict.”

- Scientific American, Casualties of climate change.

If the floods in Pakistan were related to climate change, then there is twenty million displaced in a single country in 2010, before we've considered anywhere else in the wettest year on record. The whole article is worth reading. Interestingly, it starts by pointing out that the patriarch Jacob/Israel was a refugee, moving his family to Egypt due to drought (Genesis 42-47).
H/T Bryan.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dying birds

Some people have been getting excited about some unexplained mass avian deaths recently. Thousands of birds apparently dropped dead out of the sky. Could it signal the end of the world? Perhaps not. The likely explanation is much more prosaic: new years fireworks startling sleeping birds into flight leading to disorientation and a fatal collision in the dark.

It may turn out to be something more disturbing and newsworthy than this, but such events need to be kept in context. Human actions kill billions of birds each year, primarily through domestic cats, collisions with buildings and habitat destruction. Our collective activity represents the largest threat to other living things on the planet for millions of years.

Sometimes, we are so keen to find things that are new that we get used to living with ongoing catastrophe.

In other news, six more Australian bird species were recently declared extinct.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Are you certain you know what uncertainty means?

I've said before that there is indeed still some significant uncertainty in the scientific literature concerning our ongoing and increasing climate disruption, that is, there is genuine scientific debate between those who argue that climate disruption is likely to be horrendous and those who argue it could well be catastrophic.

Within this context, Michael Tobis points out that arguments highlighting the uncertainty of climate science increase the reasons for taking aggressive policy action. Greater uncertainty means greater risk.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Taking cars off the road

In measuring the impact of various carbon reduction strategies, communicators often reach for expressing the scale of the effort by saying that it is "the equivalent of taking x cars off the road". Using statistics like this, that bring large measurements down into a humanly comprehensible scale, is generally a good thing when trying to communicate incomprehensible figures, such as tonnes of a gas not being emitted.

However, it does make me think: why don't we also actually take cars off the road? Road transport is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (far from the only or even the largest, but it is a significant sector, accounting for around 10-20% of all emissions, depending how you cut the cake). Of course, there are many strategies already aiming at reducing the carbon tyreprint: public transport, cycling lanes, user-pays road tolls, congestion charges, pedestrian-friendly new urbanism, public bicycle sharing systems, improving fuel efficiency standards, car share networks, car pooling websites, electric vehicles, improving intercity rail connections and more.

So, why then, is the "greenest government ever" announcing an end to the "war on motorists"? What does this mean? For a start, it means the removal of various restrictions on parking and other disincentives to driving, as well as a significant lift in the cap on the rate at which rail prices can rise. And it is not as though there was much a war to begin with, except perhaps for rising petrol prices due (amongst other things) to the apparent peaking of conventional oil production. As Jeremy point outs, "the best thing the government could do for motorists is promote buses and trains", since fewer cars means less traffic. As a recent billboard advertisement memorably put it: "You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic."

Driving cars (particularly in cities) seems to be another example of thinking "red", seeking short-term personal gain that leads to everyone losing.

Fortunately, in addition to the policy measures listed above, there is something even more effective we can do to ensure we're not stuck in traffic on a warming world. We can choose to drive less, to make fewer trips, to share journeys with others, to live closer to where we want to go (and to make the places we want to go closer to where we live), to renounce desires to go long distances on a whim, to joyfully embrace less.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Gazing into the crystal ball: prognostications will continue to be popular

Recently, I considered one of the moral dangers of attempting to predict the future, namely, hubris, a mistaken alignment to the future that elides the priority of human receptivity over (re)action. However, there is a further difficulty in picturing the future, particularly at the scale of society: difficulty.

Making concrete predictions of likely or possible global scenarios over the next five, ten, twenty, fifty years is a difficult well-nigh impossible task, yet it doesn't stop plenty of people from trying. For example, The Guardian has just published 20 predictions of the next 25 years. At the moment, there are parts in a number of these scenarios that I find plausible and others I find fairly unlikely (including for instance key elements of the second and ninth). Yet the great problem with predictions of this nature (taking one arena of the present world and trying to explain what it might look like in 25 years) is that no arena is an island. Few of these scenarios seem to have thought deeply about the possible interconnections between some of these fields. How could possible political backlash over deteriorating energy security affect banking? Or how might worsening climate change affect attitudes and policies towards fossil fuels?

Here's Michael Tobis making another attempt at what the next few decades might look like. Michael predicts the collapse of industrial civilisation and is called an optimist for saying it won't be before 2030. Feel free to provide links in the comments to other specific predictions of coming decades.

I reflected back here on the shortcomings and benefits of such activities. However, at the moment I don't think I'm willing to make any predictions more specific than that the next few decades are likely to be very bumpy indeed.

One exception to this I'm happy to make is that such prognostications are likely to continue to be popular for the foreseeable future. And that most of them will be wrong.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

On the impotence of reading the Bible

It's Epiphany. You can take down your Advent/Christmas decorations now.

And yes, the title says "impotence" not "importance". Let me explain.

In a recent post titled The impotence of the liturgical year Halden warns against getting too excited about the Christian calendar and what it might magically achieve if we aligned the temporal spaces of our lives with the rhythm of celebration, commemoration and anticipation traditionally marked through the church seasons and holy days. This critique may well be important for those coming from a tradition in which it is highly valued. But coming from a background where the only non-ordinary times were Easter and Christmas, a similar critique that might be more relevant in the circles with which I'm more familiar can be made of scriptural exposition as a magical activity that will guarantee discipleship and faithfulness amongst the flock. Simply reading and explaining the text does not by itself ensure well-formed Christian lives any more than using the right words or music can ensure that God is truly worshipped when we gather together. God indeed speaks through the pages of holy scripture, but the Spirit blows where he wills. God cannot be put in a box, or a book. Or a tomb - at least for long.

Now I am not against careful and passionate scriptural exposition, nor creative and faithful observance of a liturgical calendar, nor beautiful music and well-crafted language, but these are all fingers pointing at the moon. They are signs and are only of use insofar as they guide us to our destination: the living God revealed in Christ.

You don't eat the menu.

Enjoy the feast.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Fifteen films meme

From Sam: "The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen films you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes."

I am going to arbitrarily exclude documentaries and I'm not claiming that these are my favourite fifteen, just that they fit this meme.

1. Magnolia
2. Fight Club
3. American Beauty
4. The Lives of Others
5. 3-Iron
6. Pan's Labyrinth
7. The Passion of the Christ
8. Let the Right One In
9. Hero
10. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind
11. The Return of the King
12. The Royal Tenenbaums
13. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
14. The Matrix
15. Millennium Actress
If you own a blog, then consider yourself tagged, unless you hate memes, are way too busy, or find this exercise trite or offensive, in which case, smugly consider yourself above such sillyness.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Two kinds of democracy

There are at least two broad kinds of democracy. A more direct democracy (as seen for example in Switzerland) assumes that the populace themselves are making the decisions and that the entire voting population will have both the requisite knowledge base and wisdom to make effective political judgements. However, a more representative democracy (as exemplified in the historic Westminster tradition) doesn’t conceive of the elected representatives as merely mirroring the opinions of the general population (as though each piece of legislation is to be decided by opinion poll), but as having been selected by their peers and entrusted to make wise political judgements on our behalf, even where these might be unpopular (at least in the short term).

Each system has dangers and drawbacks. The former (Swiss style) is perhaps overly optimistic about the wisdom of the collective population and their time, ability and interest to focus on highly complex policy matters. The latter (Westminster model) is perhaps overly optimistic about the integrity of elected representatives in making wise decisions for the common good without undue influence from corporate lobbyists. I think that the current dominant model in the English-speaking democracies with which I’m familiar is probably the worst of both worlds: populist in tone and yet largely beholden to corporate lobby interests in outcome.

Monday, January 03, 2011

On imagining the future: Human action is reaction

"Come now you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.' Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wishes, will live and do this or that.' As it is, you in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin."

- James 4.13-17 (NRSV).

If making confident assertions of the likely course of my personal life is arrogance that ignores the fact that I am not in control, then expanding such claims to society as a whole seems sheer hubris.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that this passage from James doesn't rule out all expectations of the future playing a role in decision-making. It is not that Christians are forbidden from considering the future or making plans based on such considerations, but that all our plans must be written in pencil, not ink. This requires a certain chastisement of imagination, or perhaps better, imagination's acknowledgement that it is imagination. The future is uncertain; it is an arrogant boast to confuse pictures of a possible future with our desires for the future and assume that we can (or must) ensure the realisation of those desires.

The future is not ours to seize and shape, but God's to give and take. Our role is humble receptivity, trusting thankfulness, loving perception and hopeful prayer.

Does this stance foster passivity, a resignation in the face of suffering and so a complicity in failure to secure liberation for the oppressed? It can and all too often has. But it need not. And a thorough account of human action will be more open, more honest, more creative and more effective for taking the priority of divine grace more seriously. God initiates, we respond. Human action is reaction. That is the lesson of James.

This does not require passivity, rather an openness to the unfolding possibilities of loving God and neighbour, an openness in which we take seriously our situation and take just as seriously the Spirit's power to breathe new life into hearts of stone.

Each of us is thrown into a concrete historical situation that is neither of our choosing nor our fashioning, born within a family and culture that we can only receive. Rejection or reformation are, of course, forms of reception. We do not begin with a blank slate, even if we wish to shatter or erase what is written. We are born amidst a broken glory. Unbidden, we both rejoice and suffer as a result. Our world, our selves and our time are not creatures of our will, to be made into whatever image we desire. We receive them. And we receive them as the gift of God despite the flaws evident in them, giving thanks for what is good, trusting that what is not is not beyond redemption.

No deficiency in my self or my shared world or the span of time for my life is excluded from this trusting acceptance because at the heart of the world, self and time which I receive lies Christ, who is the hope of healing, of new life in the deadest of ends, of space to breathe.

And so the gift received is my life: my self, my world and the time of the former amidst the latter. And the hidden centre of that gift is Christ, who is the image of my true self, the founding principle of creation and the alpha and omega of time. Human action begins in humble receptivity towards and trusting thanksgiving for that gift.

Yet I am also called to account for what becomes of my self, my world and my time. The gift brings responsibility. Not only is the gift to be received, but understood, entered into and explored. The gift invites not mere submission of the will, but the delight of the heart, the joyful harmonising of the affects. Coming to know this gift involves not simply the intellect but crucially love. Only a participation in God's passionate concern for his creation (whether or not this is how we conceive it) enables us to see what is actually around us. The dispassionate observation of objective inquiry is frequently a necessary step in this process, but it is a limiting of focus that occurs within a broader framework of care. We learn about the world and ourselves and the time available to us because we care what happens, who we are to become. We are responsible for the gifts we have received.

And having become responsible, we therefore care about possible futures, about paths that open before us, about the destiny of the good things entrusted to us. We face future prospects because we cannot do otherwise without closing our hearts and hands. And faithful imagination requires the abandonment of false hopes, as well as the rejection of myopic assumptions that things must remain as they are. The pursuit of responsible care for the gifts we have received may require of us the rejection of utopian fantasies, but also the questioning of the status quo. What we may hope for along the way is neither ease nor comfort, but that the road we walk will not, ultimately, be a dead end, that our labours of love will not be in vain.

The future is not ours to seize and shape, but God's to give and take. Our role is humble receptivity, trusting thankfulness, loving perception and hopeful prayer.

The path of faith, hope and love - that is, the path of true human action in the way of the crucified and risen Christ - is narrow, dangerous and often not immediately perceptible. It can only be walked with prayerful dependence and an ongoing openness to correction and further guidance. But it is a journey into life.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The vulnerable future of large cities

"We often think of future wars in apocalyptic terms - nuclear weapons slamming into city centres and such like. But our modern cities are so brittle that far less spectacular attacks could bring them to ruination. In this they are very different from the London that withstood the blitz. Today's cities rely upon highly sophisticated and easily disrupted technology to deliver water, goods, fuel and power to populations of ten million or more, in a just-in-time manner. Imagine a city like New York or London without a functioning electricity grid. People living in high-rise buildings would probably be trapped. With water pumps not working, both the removal of sewage and the supply of clean water would immediately become problems. Communications would be cut, traffic flows and rail services paralysed, and with no refrigeration food would quickly spoil. At night the streets would be plunged into darkness. Local generators might keep hospitals and other vital infrastructure going for a while, but within weeks the city would have to be abandoned. Where would the millions go? If the disruption were sufficiently prolonged it's fair to question whether the city would ever be reoccupied."

- Tim Flannery, Here on Earth: An argument for hope
(Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010), 230.

Having rejected the apocalyptic image of the nuclear device detonating over a city centre, Flannery nonetheless indulges in an equally apocalyptic image of an immediate and irreversible cessation of an entire megacity's electrity grid lasting weeks or longer. While his point about the vulnerability of large modern cities with complex supply chains is probably quite valid, his example is far-fetched and insufficiently justified. What could cause such an event? As far as I am aware, no megacity is supplied by a single power station. No megacity grid has a single central and irreplaceable piece of infrastructure. No megacity with a major blackout would not have an army of hundreds or thousands of workers to attempt to fix such a problem as soon as it arises. Most high-rise buildings have fire stairs and emergency exits. Even the bleakest (non-nuclear) post-apocalyptic future would see the ruins of the great cities as vast depositories of resources. Medieval huts were built amongst (and from) the ruins of ancient Rome.

Flannery's illustration itself illustrates a lack of imagination in contemplating a more difficult future. Very large cities already face a range of problems in which they struggle under the weight of their own complexity and this is highly likely to increase in the bumpy decades ahead. No city prior to the widespread exploitation of fossil fuels supported a population much above a million. The fate of megacities in a world of increasingly expensive energy is unclear. However, the kind of scenario that Flannery paints is a lazy shorthand for the incredibly complex series of questions faced by political authorities, communities and individuals as our largest infrastructure investments - our cities - become increasingly problematic. The staggering sunk cost that cities represent means that decline or abandonment will likely be piecemeal rather than sudden.

Sunk costs of existing infrastructure also provide a very high incentive to make things work. For instance, in a future where just-in-time agribusiness-to-supermarket supply chains become less reliable and so threaten food security, I doubt it would take long for suburban lawns to be converted to gardens.

Even great catastrophes such as that experienced by New Orleans in 2005 do not suddenly wipe a city clear of inhabitants. It may well be the case that the population never recovers to pre-Katrina levels as the cost of building levees will rise faster than sea levels, making more and more of the city uninhabitable. And the precise conditions faced by each city are unique. Not every coastal city is as threatened as New Orleans by rising seas.

Whether it is wise to live in a very large city is a complex question. Yet such judgements are not aided by visions of the future based on simplistic assumptions or apocalyptic nightmares.