Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen: so what?

My second piece reflecting on Copenhagen has just gone up at the Centre for Public Christianity (a.k.a. CPX). You can read the first one back here. My new piece was written towards the end of last week and attempts to reflect on some of the positive outcomes to this much anticipated gathering, even though at the time it was looking like little of worth was going to come out of it. And it is important to remember, that sadly (but not unexpectedly) that turned out to be largely true.

Baby permitting (we're still waiting, which is quite apt, given that it is Advent), I'll write a third piece in the days ahead that presents a more critical and reflective view on "where to from here?".

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Too late? A genuine possibility

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."
A quote from the debate at the Copenhagen conference yesterday? A speech from a prominent NGO outside? No, it is an extract from this 1967 speech by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and concerned the Vietnam War. The man had a gift with words.

But the sentiment he expressed then about the challenges of his day still apply today to ours. Procrastination still kills. There is no guarantee that our civilisation will escape the fate of those dug up by archeologists. And there is no guarantee that our actions and inactions might not be material contributing causes to that result. As my fifth-grade teacher used to say "It is possible to avoid the consequences of our actions, but not to avoid the consequences of avoiding the consequences". In other words, we shall reap what we are currently sowing.

What of grace? Of forgiveness and the love of God? They are indeed a comfort, removing anxiety over past mistakes and giving us hope to act without full knowledge (to "sin boldly", in the famous exhortation of the older Martin Luther). But they are never an excuse. They give us freedom from guilt and fear, freedom to act, but never freedom from responsibility or the "freedom" to do as we please without consideration of others. This latter "freedom" is merely another kind of slavery, according to Jesus. It is slavery to our selfish desires. The great epistle of freedom is Paul's letter to the Galatians:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

- Galatians 5.13-15

Are we indeed loving our neighbour? Or are we simply consuming and thereby consuming one another? To follow Christ does not give simple answers. While we may find a new centre and coherence to our lives in seeking to love our neighbour, it does not remove the necessity of working out just what it means for us to love one another today.

So let us examine ourselves without any of the false safety nets of misplaced security or simplistic notions of freedom and ask: what are we to do today? Not "what do we want to do today?", nor "what will enable our lives to continue as they have been?" nor even "what must be do to survive?" But simply, what are we to do today? This question is not easy. The pressing needs of the hour do not remove its complexity. The answers are not found in the back of a book. The apparently obvious solutions put forward by so many interests do not remove our responsibilities to pay attention, to deliberate and to act.

May God have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

UK 1; Australia 0: Monbiot vs Plimer on Lateline

A case study in the ancient art of avoiding the question
Yesterday, prominent Australian climate sceptic Ian Plimer debated UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot on ABC's Lateline. The result? UK 1; Australia 0. You can watch it for yourself here.

After some initial conversation about the hacked emails, the discussion turns to two of Plimer's best-known claims, that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human activity and that global temperatures have declined since 1998. Time and again, Plimer sidesteps the questions of both Monbiot and the host Tony Jones when they point to published studies refuting his claims. It grows increasingly comic.

Eventually, Tony Jones asks this in apparent exasperation: "Is it reasonable for journalists to ask questions about something which you repeatedly claim in your book and to actually get answers to those questions?" Plimer's response was, unsurprisingly, to dodge this question about his question-dodging.

Note that Plimer has repeatedly challenged Monbiot to a public debate, but like his evasive answers on Lateline, when Monbiot accepted, Plimer didn't follow through. From yesterday's showing, perhaps we can get some idea why.

UPDATE: Monbiot's summary of the experience.

Copenhagen petition

Already 13 million people have signed a petition to the 110 presidents and prime ministers currently arriving in Copenhagen saying:

We call on each one of you to make the concessions necessary to meet your historic responsibility in this crisis. Rich countries must offer fair funding, and all countries must set ambitious targets on emissions. Do not leave Copenhagen without a fair, ambitious and binding deal that keeps the world safe from catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees.
You can add your voice here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Acting in the dark: climate change and the paralysis of novelty

"[B]eing compelled to make decisions in a situation which remains opaque is our basic condition. [...] We find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge."

- Slavoj Žižek, First as Tregedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 63.

We nearly always act in situations on incomplete or insecure knowledge. We have to do things before we truly know what they mean. Sometimes, this feeling is more acute than others. How is it possible to get married when one has never experienced making such a promise before? How can one have a child while ignorant of how it will affect your life? How can we baptise those who don't yet really know what the way of the cross entails?

The novelty of these situations is personal rather than social. We marry without personal knowledge of what exclusive lifelong commitment means. Yet we do so on trust since we have witnessed others (perhaps our own parents, perhaps some other role model) who live out the blessings and struggles of this reality before us. We may not have firsthand knowledge of the delights and despair associated with raising a child, but perhaps we are already an uncle, or a cousin, or a godfather or in some way know a little of what this has meant for others.

But what about social actions that are historically novel? How is it possible to will a new social situation that has never before been experienced, not just by me, but by anyone? And how is it possible to make political and social decisions in a situation of incomplete and contested knowledge?

That is exactly where we find ourselves today with climate change. Whether we choose to do nothing (or the equivalent of doing nothing through greenwash and weak agreements) and so continue the novelty of our present carbon experiment, or whether we choose to make widespread and untested changes to our global economy, we cannot but choose historical novelty. Our knowledge, based in the science and our estimations of what is thinkable economically and politically, is far from complete. Scientific models can give some sense of likely climate outcomes, or at least a current best estimation of various risks (which should not be sneezed at). Economic models represent some of our best guesses about the costs of action (and inaction!). Political discussion seeks to find the best solutions that it is possible to implement (though it is important not to shut down the possibility of new possibilities opening up due to radical political action: the abolition of slavery or universal suffrage would have been unthinkable economically and politically without decades of more and less radical protest). But we are still left with educated guesses taken on trust in the individuals and institutions offering them.

This could be paralysing. But it need not be. The stakes are high; the debate is heated and complex. But how is possible to seek the best options without sticking our head in the sand or waiting until our knowledge is complete? What beliefs and practices keep open such a space for careful deliberation under high pressure?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What does Christianity have to do with climate change?

And specifically, what does the Christian message have to offer to the enormous UN conference currently underway in Copenhagen?

In a number of previous posts, I've mentioned the work of the Centre of Public Christianity (a.k.a. CPX) in Sydney. The high standards of their online work might now be under threat since they just published a short piece I wrote attempting to answer that question, titled "Facing the truth in Copenhagen". I outline two common mistaken answers and their alternatives. Go and check it out. Or at least go and check out the rest of the CPX site.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The problems with cap and trade

I mentioned back here that I'm not convinced that a cap and trade system will actually be effective in reducing atmospheric CO2e levels (which has to the point, doesn't it?). Here is a brief video giving some of the reasons to be hesistant about this proposal, which is at the heart of the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen.

Indeed, James Hansen (the first climatologist to testify to US congressional committees and raise the profile of global warming back in 1988) is also opposed to cap and trade and thinks that it would actually be best for the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen to collapse, since that would leave open the possibility of a more ambitious solution.

Many others who are critical of cap and trade nonetheless suggest that it is the best that it will be possible to do (politically) and so support the negotiations.

It is hard to know what to think about this. Politics is indeed the art of the possible and there is no point destroying an actually obtainable partial solution for the sake of a virtually impossible better solution. However, the questions are: (a) is cap and trade even a partial solution? (b) Will this partial solution still lead to catastrophe and so turn out to be no solution at all? (c) Are other suggestions really superior? (d) And are they truly impossible, or does their impossibility arise from a limited horizon of imagination sustained by powerful status quo interests?

To these questions, I do not currently have answers. But I am still yet to be persuaded that a revenue-neutral carbon tax (or rather, GHG tax) has flaws as serious as those associated with cap and trade.

UPDATE: An interesting opinion piece from James Hansen today critiquing cap and trade and proposing an alternative. And another leading climate scientist says the targets being offered by many of the major players are "token gestures".

UPDATE #2: Now I have finally seen a coherent argument against a carbon tax. It can be found here, although the focus of the piece is a critique of one particular proposal that is aimed at delay. In short, Hamilton argues that cap and trade (for all its faults) is the horse that has already run half the race and we don't have time to go back to the start again.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Barneys new design

I started this blog just days after our long term church home at St Barnabas' Anglican Church, Broadway in Sydney (a.k.a. Barneys) was burned down early one morning by an accidental fire. The building had been about 150 years old and was one of the better known churches near the centre of Sydney. Some of my first posts reflected on the destruction of the building, and I have continued to follow the unfolding story, even though we left Barneys to serve at All Souls Anglican Church in Leichhardt and have since moved on to St Paul's and St George's Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh.

With that brief church bio out of the way, I can get to what I wanted to say, which is that the design for the new Barneys building is complete and approved, and funds are already being raised. You can find out more under raise the roof on the Barneys website. But to get a very quick idea, take a look at this flythrough video:

More details about the design can be found here.
Image by MER.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CRU Hacking: the end of the world as we know it?

Or, on not being able to see the wood for the trees
Although it may still be too early for a final call, the illegally hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit in the University of East Anglia are yet to turn up anything that comes close to justifying the "conspiracy", "smoking gun" and "final nail" headlines doing the rounds. There are plenty of cherry-picked quotes that initially sound bad, but isn't it important to presume innocence until proven guilty? So where is the proof?

Well, having had a week to find incriminating evidence, there is very little substantially proven beyond some rudeness from a few scientists when discussing those who have dismissed, misrepresented and distorted their work. Most of the "smoking gun" emails currently generating traffic are "shop-talk" taken out of context. Thus far, it would appear that the claims being made of a grand collusion are themselves merely one more conspiracy theory.

I could well be wrong. There may be more information to come to light in the coming days and weeks. There may be some elements of genuine concern. The discussion of freedom of information requests may indicate that certain individuals didn't want to spend yet more of their time answering the same old questions from dishonest opponents and (maybe) considered unethical actions to avoid doing so. There may be a couple of embarrassing revelations of too much spin (though I am yet to see one published paper decisively compromised by the scandal, and all the relevant journals are looking into the situation). Calling denialists "idiots" and so forth may not increase these scientists' chances of receiving a Christmas card from them this year. But the bottom line at this point is that there is no smoking gun, because there is, as yet, no bullet-ridden body. That is, there is no evidence that I have seen or heard about so far to indicate that any published papers were compromised, that any illegal activity took place, that any conspiracy exists. Amidst all the fuss, it is important to not lose the wood for the trees here.

What the emails do illustrate is something of the internal workings of all sciences, filled as they are with political feuds, concern for reputation, ongoing criticism of methods and interpretations of data, petty squabbles and everything you'd expect to find amongst any group of sinful humans trying hard to sort out various questions about how our world works with limited time, budgets and patience.

There is an interesting and often insightful discussion of some aspects of the ethics of the situation here, including the emails that discuss spurning partisan journals. And there is further detailed discussion of many of the more quoted emails that allegedly show "data manipulation" here. Perhaps the most quoted phrase about "hiding the decline" has been repeatedly shown to be a storm in a tea-cup (e.g. here and here).

Now those who were already convinced that one of the most researched and heavily scrutinised fields in contemporary science is all an elaborate conspiracy may see otherwise, but the onus remains on those who think this is much more than a publicity stunt leading up to Copenhagen to give answers to the following questions: What specific studies have these emails discredited? How does even a least charitable reading of these emails, mainly involving around six scientists at one centre, discredit the work of hundreds of contemporary climatologists and other earth scientists related to climate change in dozens of countries? Where are the faults in the more than thirty thousand published papers that comprise the body of work in this science? Answers must be specific and preferably in peer-reviewed journals.*

So what about all those headlines about the end of the world as we know it (for climate research)? Looks like we're back to the end of the world as we know it (for us and our children).
*NB Those who claim that there are four hundred and fifty peer reviewed papers against the generally accepted understanding are once again on very thin ice indeed. The vast majority of these papers are not actually peer reviewed, and/or known to be false, and/or irrelevant, and/or out of date, and/or not supportive of climate change denial. There are of course many legitimate continuing debates about a number of key factors involved in climate change (e.g. cloud formation, glacial movement, feedback mechanisms and more), but these are almost all happening within a widely accepted general framework that accepts alarming anthropogenic climate change.

PS Apologies for the multiple posts on climate change debates recently. It is just that these issues are quite timely with Copenhagen less than two weeks away.

PPS More interesting commentary.

PPPS And a new joint statement from the MET office, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society on the state of climate science.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Soiling our own nest: "ecology" vs "environment"

“More precisely, the crisis is that a now-globalizing culture in nature and wholly of nature runs full grain against it. A virile, comprehensive, and attractive way of life is destructive of nature and human community together – this is the crisis. Soils, peoples, air and water are being depleted and degraded together. (Or, on our better days are being sustained together.) It is not ‘the environment’ that is unsustainable. It is a much more inclusive reality, something like life-as-we-have-come-to-know-it. What we call ‘the environmental crisis’ is a sign of cultural failure, then. It is a failure to submit human power to grace and humility, and to work ‘toward the habitation of the places in which we life’ on terms that respect both human limits and the rest of nature’s. Life-as-we-have-come-to-know-it is eating itself alive. Modernity devours its own children.”

- Larry R. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996), 8.

This is a good short summary of an important point. This is the reason that I generally prefer to use the term "ecology" to "environment". The environment is something around us that perhaps we might be able to imagine is disconnected from our lives. Ecology, on the other hand, comes from the Greek words for "house" (oikos) and "order" (logos), and so speaks of the proper and improper ordering of our home here on earth. Our home is a mess and is falling apart. We are soiling our own nest. We have no other place to go.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why I am pessimistic about Copenhagen

There is a great deal in the media about the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 which will meet in Copenhagen in just over two weeks. A number of people have asked me recently about my take on the matter. While I think that an international agreement of some kind is necessary to reduce global greenhouse gas levels (it won't happen simply by countries acting unilaterally on national interest), my expectations for Copenhagen are pretty low at the moment. Let me briefly outline some of my current perceptions.

• First, it is worth noting that an international treaty of this scale and complexity is a historical novelty. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but it does mean that we're in uncharted waters. I am certainly no expert on international law, but I am aware that the last decades have seen numerous innovations in this field. Yet any treaty that is developed will be something of an experiment, and one unable to be repeated.

• Second, there are deep divisions between the developed and developing world. This was quite predictable. The former have produced by far the lion's share of historical emissions and continue to be much higher per capita emitters than even the industrializing economies of China and India. And while responsibility is not equally shared, neither are consequences. The current effects of climate change are being felt most keenly in developing nations (perhaps Australia will be (or is) the first developed nation to be seriously affected through water shortages during more frequent and severe droughts). These divisions were visible at Kyoto and were part of the reason for the failure of that effort (when the US and other developed nations (e.g. Australia) refused to ratify the agreement that their own negotiators had reached. Despite ten more years of negotiation and massive progress in climate science, these deep divisions remain and were evident in the African bloc of 50 nations boycotting part of the most recent pre-Copenhagen negotiations in Barcelona. They did this due to a perception that the developed world was not really serious about making significant changes.

•Third, there are particular political difficulties associated with the United States. The US has been historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter and continues to be so if consumption of products made elsewhere is included (about a quarter of China's carbon footprint derives from the creation of products for Western markets). And yet for eight years during the Bush administration, it did all it could to stand in the way of any international progress on the issue, refusing to ratify Kyoto and suppressing the warnings of its own agencies. The Obama change-we-could-believe-in has revealed that the US Congress has little faith. There is basically zero chance of any US climate legislation being passed prior to Copenhagen and even when Congress does get around to addressing it, the issue has become increasingly partisan.* The significant Democrat majority in Congress provides no guarantees for Obama's agenda, as demonstrated in the heath care debate. The US is not the only nation to have internal political divisions over the issue, but some of the quirks of the US system ensure that legislation will have particular difficulty in being passed.
*It is quite refreshing to see that it is much less so here in the UK, where the Conservatives are in full support of Gordon Brown's aggressive stance and promising to not make this an election issue (which may be a political move to neutralise a perceived Labour advantage; the actual determination of a (likely) Cameron government to make this a high-priority issue remains to be seen). It is also quite partisan in Australia.

• Fourth, public opinion about climate change remains in some degree of flux (with the numbers who view it as a serious threat declining in at least the US, Australia and the UK). While elected representatives ought to make their own judgements based on wisdom and available evidence, rather than simply seeing which way the wind is blowing), it only seems to be increasingly true that too many politicians follow rather than lead public opinion. And public opinion in some countries seems to have shifted away from seeing climate change as a real and present danger for various reasons. First, the economic downturn is an immediate distraction from a long-term problem like climate change, and provides a convenient excuse for inaction until economic conditions are better. Second, there is a growing and highly successful misinformation campaign of climate change denial that is muddying the waters with outdated, pseudo-scientific and de-bunked claims (and not just about climatology). This is not to say that there are not plenty of bogus claims made by those who see climate change as a serious issue, but the noise-to-signal ratio on each side is not even close to being equivalent. Of course there is a difference between genuine scepticism and denialism. And of course we ought to weigh important claims that made upon our lives and are right to take most things reported by the media with a grain (or five) of salt. However, Andrew Cameron puts it well when he says, “Too little scepticism is gullible, but there comes a time when too much scepticism is a crippling disconnection from reality.” I intend to write more on this at some stage soon.

As crippling as these four point are, none is entirely insurmountable. Together, they combine to mean that negotiations at Copenhagen are unlikely to reach a binding treaty. Indeed, as a result of these and other obstacles, President Obama has recently stated the increasingly obvious: that Copenhagen will not deliver a legally binding deal. Despite all the momentum and build-up, the talks will now become just another stepping stone rather than a finish-line for climate negotiations. Will this matter? Is a bad deal worse than no deal? Will this cripple the possibility of a treaty or just delay it? All that remains to be seen.

However, I have three more reasons for remaining pessimistic that would still be true even if a miraculous 11th hour deal is reached in Copenhagen.

• Fifth, even the most ambitious targets on the table may well be too modest. There is currently around 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The pre-industrial level was about 275 ppm. Twenty years ago, when the issue started to gain more widespread attention, 550 ppm was seen as an upper limit, but this was basically just a doubling of 275 and was not based on much evidence. The general consensus is currently to try to limit average warming to 2ºC (though even this would have significant negative effects) and most of the recent efforts have focused on stabilizing CO2 levels at 450 ppm as a means towards this (though it is difficult to be precise, it seems 450 ppm only gives about a 50% chance of staying below 2ºC warming). This is what is on the table at Copenhagen. Stabilizing levels at 450 ppm will be extremely difficult and will require massive shifts in economic patterns and expectations. The model proposed by Nicholas Stern in his Stern Report included "overshooting" 450 ppm to peak at 550 and come back down from there. However, more recent studies suggest that even 450 ppm may well lead to runaway warming as feedback effects gain pace and a number of scientists are now calling for a goal of 350 ppm.

• Sixth, I am not currently persuaded that the cap-and-trade market based system proposed as the mechanism driving emission reductions will actually work to reduce CO2 levels. From my limited understanding, a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be better and could also be the subject of international agreements. Solving ecological issues through extending the reach of market logic into more spheres of life seems a little like trying to put out a fire by pouring oil on it.

• Seventh, even if politicians fashion a binding agreement (whether in Copenhagen or some time next year) for 450 ppm, we are very unlikely to get there. The required changes are enormous, the momentum behind business as usual is too large. The economic assumptions of centuries (though note that they only arose during the period of modern industrialization) are too deeply entrenched. No leader is talking about anything other than economic growth as their primary goal. No leader is being honest about the fact that stabilizing levels at even 450 ppm would require massive changes on a scale similar to those experienced in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union (the only example in recent history of a nation dropping its emissions at anything like the rate required). Of course, that was (a) unplanned, (b) lasted only a few years rather than decades, and (c) was still not fast enough.

In summary, the Copenhagen conference is an attempt to reach a novel international agreement in a short time frame despite deep political divisions between and within nations and lagging public support, an agreement which may well be too little, too late, using the wrong mechanism and obscuring the true size of the challenge. So call me an optimist.

Nonetheless, politics is the art of the possible and I do not see the conference as either hopeless or useless. Nor, despite my pessimism, do I believe that such pessimism is self-fulfilling. But these points will have to wait for another day since this post is already way too long.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gregorios on survival in apocalyptic times

Survival is not the central issue, especially for Christians, who believe that history has to come to an end some time or other. For humanity, the perennial enemies are sin and death – death of the race, death of the planet, and personal death–or evil and loss of bring. But these are precisely the enemies which have been faced and overcome by the cross and resurrection of Christ. […] We can face the impasses calmly and without panic; but this does not absolve us from the responsibility to join the fight against the powers of darkness and death. [...]

“Yes the times are apocalyptic. There have been many such in the history of humanity. We have survived them. But our apocalyptic age demands that we not look back with detatched calm, but rather recognize the future as foreboding and therefore act in the present in a creatively new way. We dare not take the comfortable and lazy line: ‘We have been through many such crises before; we will muddle through this one too.’”

- Paulos Gregarios, The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature
(Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1978), 13-14.

These paragraphs, written over thirty years ago, capture something very important about placing our fears of societal breakdown. They are not to be displaced through denial, emplaced by despair, nor placated through unthinkingly desperate activism. Instead, they are to be re-placed by and within faith, love and hope in the God who raised Jesus from the dead and whose Spirit brings new life to us even now.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Make wealth history

Two things I ask of you;
     do not deny them to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
     give me neither poverty nor riches;
     feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
     and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or I shall be poor, and steal,
     and profane the name of my God.

- Proverbs 30.7-9

Poverty is no good thing. But wealth is decidedly dangerous: for one's soul and for the planet. If you are reading this, you are wealthy.

Earn less. Consume less. Be less productive. Live more.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Peak Oil and conspiracy theories

It hasn't gone away
Just when you thought discussion of peak oil had peaked, it's back. For those unfamiliar with the debate and why it is important, you might like to check out this brief introduction to the concept. Written back in 2003, it is one of the best short intros I've seen.

Even though global demand for oil has dropped due to the economic downturn, that doesn't mean that some of the underlying causes behind it hitting US$147 per barrel a couple of years ago are not still around. For those who might be new to this debate, the estimates used by governments are usually based on figures from the International Energy Agency. However, even figures inside the IEA question their own numbers (or if you prefer, there is the SMH version).

Peak Oil and Conspiracy Theories
Peak Oil shares a number of features with conspiracy theories. It is held by a minority who reject the "official" version (in this case, the IEA numbers) as hopelessly partisan or influenced by powerful stakeholders. Telling the truth would unsettle these interests and so those in the know seek to spread the world that the world is darker and scarier than we thought.* Think The Matrix: there is a moral responsibility to face the truth, even if it is less pleasant than the "official" story. This is part of the appeal of accepting the alternative account. By doing so, one joins the ranks of the enlightened and is by default on the side of the angels, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against the powers whose interests are served through the truth remaining suppressed. Such heroic skepticism draws on a variety of powerful western narratives from the myth of Promethius, through one popular account of the Enlightenment as the triumph of reason over tradition, to contemporary celebrations of investigative journalism. We've all been told often enough that we ought not to believe everything we've been told.

In this context, is peak oil simply another loopy conspiracy theory put forward by misguided figures who have lost touch with reality? Perhaps.

Yet the basic concept of global oil production one day reaching a high water mark is more or less widely accepted by all sides; the debate is really about when this is most likely to happen. And even the most optimistic numbers from the IEA and oil companies put this within two to three decades at the very best. The darker option is that we are now at the peak or have just passed it, and the current slump in production due to the global economic downturn may not ever decisively turn around.

Either way, there are huge changes ahead, whether we like it or not. And this is what makes peak oil different from other conspiracy theories. Everyone acknowledges uncertainty about the precise amount of oil able to be recovered (and the rates at which it may be extracted); for all kinds of technical and political reasons, the calculations involve too many unknown variables. Yet all acknowledge that oil is indeed a finite and non-renewable resource that is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary society. And so no one is saying that business-as-usual can continue with oil production in terminal decline. Thus, peak oil is not a typical conspiracy theory and cannot be dismissed as such. Even those with the rosiest outlook acknowledge the need to move beyond oil, more or less urgently.

And this is what the debate is really about: the appropriate degree of urgency. The timing and rate of decline are crucial. A slow decline in a few decades could enable a transition to other forms of energy (though nothing is as powerful and easily transportable as oil). A rapid decline from here on would mean long term economic depression, food shortages, spiraling costs, more wars, social instability and governments collapsing.

Some dismiss peak oil as a bad joke. But as with all jokes, timing is everything.
*Even conspiracy theories that apparently claim the world is lighter and less scary than we thought, like Climate Change scepticism, still assume an enormous world-wide cover-up based on self-interest. I will be writing more on CC denial sometime soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Such is life

"Well may we say 'God save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor-general."

- Gough Whitlam

The eleventh of November is famous in Australia for three reasons: Armistice Day commemorating the end of hostilities on the Western Front of WWI in 1918, the hanging of Ned Kelly in 1880 and the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Comment verification back on

With sadness I've turned comment verification back on. I find it annoying and had lived successfully without it for a couple of years with only an occasional spam comment which I deleted. However, overnight, I've received over 350 new auto-generated comments with links in Chinese characters. I don't have the time to fight this battle manually.

In a fallen world, some doors need locks.

UPDATE: Just in the time it took to write this post (which I wrote before actually turning comment verification back on), I received another 100 comments.

2nd update: Now I have over 700 spam comments. I have turned on comment moderation for comments on posts older than 14 days. I'm curious, how many of my readers can read Chinese characters? If I go by the reader stats that I very rarely look at, less than 1% of my readers are from China.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When to use an apostrophe

It's disappointing that in today's world there's little conception of apostrophes' correct and glorious locations.

Since I list misplaced apostrophes amongst my pet peeves, it is only fair that I offer this link to a simple flow chart in order to give you a fighting chance to avoid my ire (or my silent judgement).
H/T Jason. Speaking of links from Jason, this invisible man is also worth, um, seeing.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The most unusual animal in Bristol Zoo

A description of the most unusual animal found in Bristol Zoo (established 1836). H/T Jason.

This reminds me of going to a nature reserve as a young child on a school excursion and learning about the various animals found locally. At the end of the exhibit was a wooden box with a trapdoor in the lid and a sign next to it saying something like, "The world's most dangerous animal". When you opened the trapdoor, you saw this.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Link love

It's been a while since I showed some link love. Some of these are more recent than others.

Andrew Errington has finished an interesting series on the synoptic Gospels and the nature of Scripture in which he explores what the similarities and differences between the synoptics means for our doctrine of Scripture.

Kim Fabricius argues that faith means thinking outside the box.

Brad asks "Is Jesus actually likeable?".

Doug Chaplin ponders what Rowan could have said to Benedict after the latest development in Anglican-Catholic relations.

Other links
A. N. Wilson argues that we no longer know how to die or to grieve.

A quick surf before breakfast: the interwebs uses 10% of US electricity supply, and 5% of global supply.

Four Word Film Reviews. Hundreds of films reviewed in four words or less. For example, Titanic: "Icy dead people". My favourite, Saving Private Ryan: "Brother gets own bedroom".

Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm there (a smudge in the background around 0:32).

Some say it was the largest single day of political actions on any issue ever. It might depend how you measure it, but last Saturday (which I discussed at length back here) included around four and a half thousand events with a single message conveyed in a wide variety of creative ways. If nothing else, this day was a testimony to the power of the internet to co-ordinate global campaigning.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Thesis question articulation IX: Summary

Series begins back here.
The project is pointedly contemporary in its focus. The perception of inexorable threats to the future of industrial society as it is presently known is the dark background against which we will explore the possibility (and possibilities) of faithful Christian moral thought. However, the deeper issues are in one sense perennial. The fragility and temporariness of political and social orders may be closer to the surface at times, but it is never so distant as to be irrelevant.

Inhabiting the collective imagination of many Westerners are apocalyptic images drawn not least from the Bible and Hollywood. For those familiar with the alarming statistics concerning ecological damage to the health of the biosphere, it does not take much effort to picture a cascading series of systemic failures, increasingly widespread shortages in the material conditions required for daily life, a breakdown in civil order and rapid descent into violence and chaos. How can moral thought avoid being paralysed or oversimplified by such apocalyptic nightmares?

There is some similarity between my question and the one adopted by C. S. Lewis in his address “Learning in War Time”. Lewis was speaking to an incoming group of undergraduate students in Oxford about the possibility and importance of any kind of reflection in the bleak period following the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939. He noted the threats to the possibility of learning and articulated both philosophical and Christian reasons for both the necessity and possibility of learning even in war time. My question is both narrower (asking after only ecclesial moral attentiveness) and has what may be a less pressing, but even darker background.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one

Friday, October 23, 2009

Copenhagen and Climate Change: hope and hopelessness

Tomorrow, in at least 177 countries, over 4,600 political actions (many of them involving hundreds or thousands of people) will be taken under a single banner. The banner? A number, three hundred and fifty, referring to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (and equivalents) in the atmosphere. This is the level many leading climate scientists (including the head of the IPCC) now say is required to minimise the likelihood of passing various climate tipping points that trigger positive feedback mechanisms virtually ensuring further destructive changes. The challenge? We're currently at about 390 ppm. Even the most rigorous goal for the Copenhagen negotiations stands at 450 ppm, on the assumption that this gives us a better than even chance of limiting average warming to 2ºC, widely quoted as a threshold beyond which the dangers multiply. But even an average warming of 2ºC will have enormous effects on many aspects of climate, not least precipitation patterns (and so agricultural yields) in some of the world's most food-stressed areas. To avoid this, the 350 campaign brings together a huge number of organisations, individuals, congregations and parties from nearly every country, calling for global leaders who will soon meet in Copenhagen (see clock in sidebar) to reach an agreement that is strong, equitable and grounded in the latest science. Today's Sydney Morning Herald includes this opinion piece by Archbishop Desmond Tutu explaining his support for the campaign.
H/T Matt Moffitt and Geoff Broughton for this link.

Personally (provided we are both over a cold that has been dogging us recently), Jessica and I will be going to one of the Edinburgh events tomorrow in order to add our voices and bodies in support of keeping this issue high on the agenda. You can find an event near you here.

However, political support for a strong deal seems to be waning. New polling shows that only 57% of Americans believe the climate is warming (compared to 77% in 2007) and only 36% accept that the human actions are primarily to blame. In Australia, 68% saw climate change as a threat to Australia's vital interests back in 2006, by last year that was still 66%, but is now only 52%.

With national leaders concerned about national interests, every country is out to minimise its costs, particularly since the primary dangers are decades away, well beyond the term of any of those responsible for current negotiations. Different approaches to sharing the burden are also evident between countries that have historically contributed most to emissions and those whose emissions are currently rising fastest.

And there is worse news. Even if leaders manage to agree in Copenhagen to limiting emissions to 450ppm, reaching some kind of compromise between developing and developed nations, then even the most optimistic assumptions about a best case scenario put the chances of actually sticking to anything like that as almost impossible. Clive Hamilton, one of Australia's best known public intellectuals and Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, a joint centre of the Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne, in a lecture delivered earlier this week, summarises the situation like this:

It is clear that limiting warming to 2ºC is beyond us; the question now is whether we can limit warming to 4ºC [to see what a 4ºC change might look like, see here, or here]. The conclusion that, even if we act promptly and resolutely, the world is on a path to reach 650 ppm and associated warming of 4°C is almost too frightening to accept. Yet that is the reluctant conclusion of the world’s leading climate scientists. Even with the most optimistic set of assumptions—the ending of deforestation, a halving of emissions associated with food production, global emissions peaking in 2020 and then falling by 3 per cent a year for a few decades—we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change.

- Clive Hamilton, "Is it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change?"

The whole article is worth reading. In it, Hamilton argues that things are worse than we thought. Whereas until recently most policy makers assumed that we could limit change to less than 2ºC and that the effects of that change were "worrying but manageable", new research into the likely negative effects of even 2ºC warming and into the extreme (political, economic and social) difficulty of staying below the 450ppm barrier makes even the most aggressive suggestions currently on the table seem at once both beyond our reach and too little in any case.

So why bother at all? Why campaign for a basically impossible target? Why make the (sometimes painful) lifestyle, legislative and policy changes required to reduce our carbon footprint? If all our efforts will be too little, too late, why not "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die"? A longer answer will probably take much of my thesis to articulate. An excellent 11-page answer by Andrew Cameron in his 2007 report to Sydney Anglican Synod on behalf of the Social Issues Executive can be found here.

But the short answer for an already over-lengthy blog post is found in the context of that famous quote ("eat, drink and be merry") in 1 Corinthians 15, namely the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of Jesus is a promise and foretaste of the general resurrection of the dead: for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. The distinctively Christian hope of resurrection includes the belief that God has not given up on creation, nor on humanity, and that even our stupid self-destruction cannot ultimately thwart divine love. If God has not given up, neither can we. Our actions may or may not make a difference. Our society may or may not survive in anything like its present form, but living well, with humility and repentance as responsible members of the community of life, is enough.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

If you don't want your day ruined...

...then please don't read this. Seriously.

I will post more on this later.

Summary of O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations

Oliver O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology is often regarded as a difficult and dense read. And it is. But it is worth it. For those who would like a brief summary to guide their reading (or to get a sense if the book could be worth the effort), there is quite a good one here, written by Alex Abecina, who is a Masters student at Regent College in Vancouver.
H/T Ben.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thesis question articulation VIII: Possibility

Possibility: part one
Series begins back here.
Finally, we arrive at the beginning and find that it is the centre. The possibility of: these first words of the sub-title are critical, as they designate the sharp focus of this project, limiting its scope, directing its attention and making it, I believe, original research.

The project is not attempting to answer “what ought we (as Christians) to do now?” (i.e. under these modern conditions of perceiving a predicament of societal unsustainability), which is a much broader question of daunting scope and complexity, demanding careful and multifaceted answers. Its answers will develop and shift according to both the further development and understanding of our situation over time and according to our particular social location in the world with the opportunities and threats we find ourselves facing. It is also a question that has received much consideration from both within and without the Christian church.

This project is also not attempting to answer one subset of this broader question, namely “what ought we to think now?”. This too is critical and complex. An analysis of the cultural patterns of both behaviour and thought that have led us into this mess and suggestions for new conceptions or for the recycling of old ones are pressing needs of the hour. And once again, Christian and non-Christian thinkers are making interesting suggestions on these matters.

Instead, this project asks “under what theological conditions is moral thought even possible today?”. It will investigate the threats to reflection upon the question “what ought we to do (and think) now?”, the ways in which the process of attempting to answer it might be short-circuited or the moral landscape flattened out such that genuine moral though is attenuated. It is asking after the theological space that enables moral reflection to take its time without being hurried into an answer by the threat of contemporary or imminent crises. What is the character (rather than content) of moral thought during a predicament such as the one we presently face? How does the Christian gospel shape and provide for the moral self at this time? What is it about the good news that enables the possibility of moral attentiveness even (and perhaps especially) in today's adverse and apparently hopeless conditions?

Finally, the project is interested not only in the possibility of, but also the possibilities for Christian moral attentiveness. That is, not just about the preservation of Christian moral attentiveness against the various threats that may numb it, but also about how this predicament may even be a source of spiritual and moral renewal.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Peter Jensen on living in apocalyptic times

"What with Global Warming, the War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis, we may well think that we live in apocalyptic times."
So began Archbishop Peter Jensen's presidential address to Synod. The bulk of the speech concerned the particular financial and organisational issues that have arisen as the result of very significant losses in Diocesan wealth over the last twelve months, but his opening sought to say something about living with the perception of being in apocalyptic times.

Jensen affirmed that "we are always in apocalyptic times", that elements of crisis and threat are a perennial feature of human experience and that "we are always only one step away from the end of all things". And so the lessons to be learned include the ubiquity of human folly (and hence the folly of utopianism), the necessity of hard work in facing contemporary challenges (while relativising the importance of all human projects) and accepting that "the ordinary human feeling that we are powerful creatures who live in a stable world and a stable universe, is deluded." In short, our response ought to be "neither paralysis nor pain, [but] persistent active faith".
The full address can be found here. H/T to John Shorter for sending me the link.

For those unfamiliar with the peculiar flavour(s) of Sydney Anglicanism, Archbishop Jensen and evangelical Anglicanism in Sydney were the subjects of the latest episode of Compass, the ABC's religious affairs program. Of course there will always be more to say and this is a brief snapshot, but it is not entirely inaccurate.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Thesis question articulation VII: Christian

Christian: part one
Series begins back here.
Who is the subject of moral reflection? Who is it who must awaken and be attentive? Although this issue could be broadened to the more general question of moral attentiveness in the predicament of ecologically-threatened industrialism, this project is primarily concerned with the Christian moral subject. The Christian moral subject is one whose life is shaped by the Christian gospel of the life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus the Messiah. This project will be grounded in this narrative and take various Christian thinkers as dialogue partners.

Taking this lens for our investigation need not be of narrow interest only to Christian believers as Christians have generally claimed that the life of Jesus is relevant to all human individuals and societies.

I had considered modifying moral attentiveness with ecclesial rather than Christian to emphasise that the moral subject is always formed in community and indicate that I am interested in social rather than purely personal ethics. Indeed, this issue is an important one because the crisis we face is not simply a threat to society, but a threat to sociality. The kinds of scenarios haunting the collective apocalyptic imagination are of the bonds of affection being loosened or broken. Fear can either isolate individuals or turn a society into a mob, giving them a false unity. I shall argue that the Christian church at its best is a model, or a promise, of a society capable of sustaining moral attentiveness, of sustaining genuine sociality, without being overwhelmed by fear. Nonetheless, I have retained the more general term Christian rather than the more specific ecclesial.

It is also worth stating that the relevant subject of moral attentiveness is not merely professional moral theologians or ethicists, but all Christian believers and communities.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Camus on turning thirty

"Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd."

- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (trans. Justin O'Brien, London: Penguin, 1975 [1942]), 20.

Today is my birthday. I am not thirty and do not assert my youth. But I am indeed absurd.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thesis question articulation VI: Moral attentiveness

Moral attentiveness: part two
Series begins back here.
Uniting all three responses is a deep fear of loss and death. Facing this predicament may be the first time some people are faced with their own mortality and impotence to prevent loss. But the threat is broader than personal demise or suffering; broader even than family and loved ones also being in danger. If the present form of society comes to an end or undergoes radical transformation to a lower level of complexity, then the loss encompasses an entire cultural identity: familiar places and rituals; narratives that make sense of the world; feelings of belonging; a sense of self.

Part of what justifies the negative evaluation of these responses is the deleterious effect they have on the clarity of moral attentiveness. I am drawing here on some of Professor O’Donovan’s recent work articulating the character of moral thought as attentiveness. He argues that there is a process of moral awakening in which we are called to pay attention in order to understand and respond well. We must pay close attention to our situation in the world, to the time in which we live, and to ourselves as moral agents lest our actions fail to grasp the goods that lie before us.

Therefore, the topic speaks of attentiveness rather than merely attention. Everyone pays heed to this or that at various times and so attention can simply refer to the latest distraction. Attentiveness, on the other hand, is a habitual disposition, a comportment of coherent focus. Moral attentiveness is a way of being in the world that seeks to understand action.

The focus of moral vision is not generally helped by apocalyptic fears of the imminent end of society (at least as we know). On the contrary, social breakdown is often imaged to mean the suspension of morality for the sake of survival. An aphorism attributed to Mao Tse Tung articulates this widespread sentiment: “Food before ethics”. In other words, survival is the highest good, coming before all other moral considerations. Perhaps particularly when the situation is not simply personal survival, but the dynamic interaction between personal survival and the continuation of society, then the possibility of moral thought declines further. When collective survival is at stake, all other bets are off and all means justify that overarching end.

Indeed, Hans Jonas has made this the centre of his ethics of responsibility. This is the one truly categorical imperative: to keep human society alive. To this, all other ethical impulses, principles and insights are to submit (including the impulse to protect one’s own life). This is one way of attempting to avoid the panicked fragmentation of moral thought in the face of grave societal danger, but in the end it treats all other ethical norms as distractions from the single unifying survival imperative.

This project seeks a different and more nuanced kind of coherence through relativising the importance of survival (both personal and societal), believing that moral attentiveness is a more complex (and important!) phenomenon than merely the pursuit of continued existence.

The reasons for rejecting the false coherence of survivalism and the possibility of a different kind of coherence are found in the term modifying moral attentiveness.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sick of being green? Christians and ecology

Why does the Church of England recycle its sermons? Having just quoted Archbishop Williams in my previous post, this article argues that the Church of England has jumped on the ecology bandwagon for lack of anything else to get excited about. Ecological sins are an easy preach and green tips are a simple application.

There is indeed such a thing as saying too much about a particular ethical issue, whether it be sexual or ecological. There is, of course, also such a thing as saying too little. A church that never mentioned ecology would be as deficient in its discipleship as one that never mentioned sex or money. As I read the article, my first thought was that few Sydney churches that I know of could be accused of talking too much green!

Our church here in Edinburgh has an eco-group as one of its many (forty-one at last count) special interest ministries. So you can pick between improving the music, supporting AIDS orphans in Africa, helping to walk beside locals struggling with debt or saving the planet one lightbulb at a time.

Now the ecclesial body has many members, each of which has its own function and not everyone can be involved in every cause or need. So I am not against churches having specialist groups. My question is this: what is it about a church eco-group that is specifically Christian? Presumably, like a sub-committee of various corporations, such a group will be counting carbon and cutting footprints, trying to encourage the larger group to change behaviours and modify assumptions. But what difference does the good news of Jesus make? How do specifically Christian responses to ecological destruction differ from mainstream secular ones? Merely in motivation? In putting the cause into a larger context? In placing ultimate trust in God as we act? Yes, all of these, but are there other differences?
Don't worry, I will be returning to my series in which I am outlining my thesis question. These three little posts are a brief interlude. Normal transmission will resume shortly.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Someone's been reading my blog...

The threat posed by climate change and environmental degradation tends to make us think about survival and look for solutions that will guarantee survival. That's a reasonable response to any threat; but the sheer complexity of this situation and the continuing uncertainty about some of the precise detail (how late is it? have we reached the 'tipping point?) make us especially vulnerable. We are bound to realise sooner or later that easy solutions are not at hand and that there is no one cause of the whole crisis that will allow us to point to some single scapegoat. This in turn makes us vulnerable to panic on one hand, apathy on the other, and the illusion that someone will both take the blame and assume the responsibility of finding a solution – usually meaning a series of grand technological solutions requiring massive investments of money nobody seems to have.

- Rowan Williams, "The Climate Crisis: Fashioning a Christian Response"

Either we're both barking up the wrong tree, or we're displaying similar bark because we belong to the same tree. Either way, at least I'm not alone.

This address, given just days ago in Southwark Cathedral contains many important insights and claims. To pick just some of them, I agree with Williams that the first casualty of ecological degradation is the human soul, that we can't damage what is not us without also damaging ourselves. And I also agree that we are in need a reality check about the meaning of being human, that we need re-examine the ways in which many of our cultural assumptions about affluence and consumption lead us away rather than towards human flourishing.

However, we depart company when he says "To be human, in the biblical world view, is to be given a responsibility for the future of life." I do not think that it is our obligation (nor, contra Williams, was it Noah's) to keep something (even ourselves) alive. We are to care for life, and respect it, and nurture it. But it is God who gives life and in the end it is also God who takes it away or preserves it. God may and does call us to a role of responsibility for one another and his good world. But to believe that we bear the full burden of the future of life is another form of human hubris, and like all hubris, it will eventually crush us.

UPDATE: I should have pointed out that Sam Norton has also been responding to the Archbishop's address here and here and we share much in common on this topic. I would affirm almost everything he says in his second post. However, perhaps the most significant difference between us would be that I believe national governments can still have a significant effect (for good and ill) on the effectiveness of the "airbag" and "seat-belts" and so national political action is not irrelevant (though it is by no means either primary or a "solution"). To shift Sam's car-off-the-cliff metaphor, perhaps if we think of a car that has lost traction and is sliding off the road, then even though a crash cannot be avoided, the actions of the driver can still make a major difference.