Friday, December 31, 2010

Both sides of the brain: 2010 in retrospect

To complement the twelve doomiest stories of 2010 I linked to a few days ago, Desdemona has now also posted fifty doomiest graphs (for the left side of the brain) and fifty doomiest photos (for the right side). Of course, such links don't highlight various pieces of good news from this year, but they have been relatively few and far between in comparison with our developing grasp on our deteriorating global situation.

Abandoning false hopes is part of what it means to take up our cross and follow the man of sorrows. As 2010 draws to a close and 2011 dawns, possibilities for faith, hope and love remain abundant. But we must pursue them in the real world, which is increasingly filled with groans and sighs - as well as the promise of the coming glory of God.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jaws review: climate denial jumps the shark

The Poe-pushing blog ClimateDenial offers a review of the 70s classic Jaws.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010: the Earth strikes back?

"Earthquakes, heat waves, floods, volcanoes, super typhoons, blizzards, landslides and droughts killed at least a quarter million people in 2010 — the deadliest year in more than a generation. More people were killed worldwide by natural disasters this year than have been killed in terrorism attacks in the past 40 years combined."

- AP: 2010's world gone wild: Quakes, floods, blizzards.

Much of the deadliness can be attributed to human actions: building in dangerous areas, building with inadequate materials, reducing natural mitigation systems (e.g. deforestation in Pakistan worsened the effects of the terrible flooding there) and, of course, disrupting the global climate through our emissions. Perhaps even the year's most deadly single event (the Haiti earthquake) may be linked to deforestation.

It is therefore quite appropriate to question whether such events ought to be called "natural" disasters (far less blamed on an "act of God").

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Twelve doomiest stories of 2010

Twelve doomiest stories of 2010. These are not my selection, but they make for depressing reading.

Top ten environmental stories of 2010. Not all of these are quite so doomy. Four are even primarily good news stories.

Top 10 climate events of 2010 - from a US-centric perspective.

Gaming carbon credits.

Humans consuming more than a quarter of all primary production. That is, more than a quarter of the earth's total productive photosynthetic capacity is devoted to human consumption or use.

Amazon suffers worst drought on record.

Per capita energy use vs GDP. H/T Tim.

The rise of climate refugees.

The great bank heist of 2010.

Invasive species' cost lags growth in globalisation, leaving a legacy to future generations.

Oil and (agricultural) water don't mix. Or rather, they do.

Polar bears are indeed starving due to declining Arctic sea ice (or interbreeding with grizzlies). I generally avoid polar bear discussions as something of a distraction from the weighty and widespread effects of climate change on human society, but this video is heartbreaking. A recent Nature cover story suggesting a slim hope for them was probably misleading.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Never trust a businessman: who said this?

"The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [the business community] ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it."

- quoted in Tim Flannery, Here on Earth: An argument for hope
(Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010), 220.

Without using a search engine, have a stab at the author of this quote.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Banksy's crucifix

As we enter Christmastide, and the whole period between Christmas and Easter, Banksy helps us reflect on their connections. An image for further meditation.

How has the celebration of the coming of one who came to set us free become an occasion for enslavement to our desire to consume? Will we learn joyfully to embrace less in order to be truly rich?

There are only 365 shopping days until Christmas. Use them wisely.
H/T Ben. Ben also links to this annotated Bible, solving the riddle of what Christians ought to do with Santa Claus.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

How to be rich

"For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."

- 2 Corinthians 8.9.

We are rich, wealthy beyond measure, because of the gift of Christ. Born amongst beasts, dying amongst thieves, he came into our poverty to bless us with grace upon grace. We are recipients of life we did not earn, forgiveness we did not deserve, a Spirit who blows where he will, all from a God we cannot control. We share a living planet we did not create, a family we did not choose, a history we did not fashion and a future we cannot determine. We are gifted with divine promises to trust, neighbours to bless and possibilities to imagine and implement. All these treasures and more are ours. We are wealthy beyond measure.

Our riches cannot be placed in a bank, fluctuate with the stock market or depreciate with excessive use. They are multiplied by sharing, accrue interest when given freely away.

One man who seemed to grasp something of this was philanthropist Andrew Carnegie when he said, "To die rich is to die disgraced." Our wealth lies not in what we hoard, not in what we earn, but in what we receive without deserving and what we joyfully share or give away. So pour out your life for others, for it is rich and full and overflowing. Pour it out because the Spirit of Christ has filled you and cannot be dammed. Pour it out because then you walk in the footsteps of Christ and share his blessings. Pour it out and become a child of God who receives every good gift from above.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A white Christmas in a warming world

The answer to Wednesday's riddle ("what has six arms, can swallow farms and a million makes a man?") was snowflakes.

At the end of last month, I raised the question many people in the UK are asking at the moment: where did the global warming go? It started snowing in November and here in Edinburgh there have been numerous significant falls over the last three weeks, with snow continuously on the ground the whole time. I've lost count of the days that have dropped below -10ºC and only one or two have nudged above freezing. Transport in the UK has been thrown into chaos, with trains cancelled or delayed, roads blocked, airports disrupted. Heathrow airport, the largest in the world, was closed or running at reduced capacity for much of the last week.*
*This affected us personally since my sister, who was here visiting us until yesterday, was very unsure whether she would be home for Christmas with her husband and children. As it turned out, her flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow was cancelled, and the train which she took instead was delayed by three or four hours, but she managed to get home.

So far, it is shaping up to be the coldest UK December on record, running about 5ºC below average. The last three years have all been significantly colder than average. Prior to that, the trend was for warming winters, which was quite consistent with the widespread scientific understanding anthropogenic climate change, which predicts more warming at night, at the poles and during winters (all patterns evident in the temperature record and which rule out solar forcing as the main culprit). Indeed, only a couple of years ago, the MET Office infamously predicted, "Children just aren't going to know what snow is". So what happened?

I suggested back in November that a pattern of WACCy weather (Warm Arctic Cold Continents) might help us understand this phenomenon. Where did the warming go? The UK is five degrees colder than usual, but much of Greenland is up to 15 degrees warmer than the long term average, and large parts of the Arctic Ocean are more than 10 above average. Indeed, recent studies suggest a link between declining Arctic sea ice and patterns of cold air for the continents in northern latitudes. With less sea ice over the Arctic ocean, more heat escapes from the water (which is obviously no colder than 0ºC) to the atmosphere (which is, as one would expect during an Arctic winter, generally well below zero). This creates high pressure cells, which disrupt the usual wind patterns and lead to the much-warmer-than-usual-but-still-freezing Arctic air being pushed further south over the continents. When this freezing air coming down over the UK runs into moist air being brought from the Atlantic, we get significant (by UK standards) dumps of snow, bringing the country to a standstill.

All this has been mentioned numerous times in scientific papers and reports from NOAA and NASA (and again), but has barely rated a mention in most mainstream media (Monbiot is a notable exception).

Is this having one's cake and eating it if both warmer and colder winters are evidence of climate change? No, because climatologists have never claimed that every place would be affected in the same way at the same time. Global warming is (a) global and (b) only one of the effects of climate change. Climate change means climate disruption, increasingly dramatic shifts from the relative climatic stability of the Holocene that has nurtured the birth of agriculture and the rise of human civilisation over the last ten thousand years or so. Is using the term "climate change" in preference to "global warming" a con to save face? Not at all, since the terms mean slightly different things and both have been in use for decades. (Or if you'd prefer, here's a video response.)

It is not yet clear whether this pattern is likely to become the new normal UK winter as Arctic sea ice continues its apparent death spiral, or whether other factors will prove more significant. On that question hang billions of pounds in infrastructure decisions.

And so tomorrow in Edinburgh, there will probably be snow on the ground for Christmas: a white Christmas in a warming world.*
*I realise that, technically, bookmakers and the MET Office define a white Christmas as at least a single snowflake reaching the ground somewhere in the UK, but snow on the ground is good enough for this Aussie.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Social Network Christmas

H/T Brendan. I particularly like the music. And you might also like to check out this Kiwi nativity (H/T Jason).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A riddle

We have six arms, can swallow a farm, and a million of us can make a man.

Who are we?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cancùn: the aftermath

"Many commentators have called the Cancún accord a "step in the right direction." We disagree: it is a giant step backward. The text replaces binding mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with voluntary pledges that are wholly insufficient. These pledges contradict the stated goal of capping the rise in temperature at 2C, instead guiding us to 4C or more. The text is full of loopholes for polluters, opportunities for expanding carbon markets and similar mechanisms – like the forestry scheme Redd – that reduce the obligation of developed countries to act."

- Pablo Solon, Bolivian Ambassador to the UN,
"Why Bolivia stood alone in opposing the Cancùn climate agreement".

Having read thousands of words of analysis of the recent Cancùn climate change conference (the next in the series of international meetings that met in Copenhagen last year), I am still undecided as to how to evaluate it. Was it a small step in the right direction, an incremental improvement in international diplomacy that will of necessity be slow or yet another catastrophic failure to act in the face of a worsening crisis? Or both?

Here are a few links to more positive evaluations: a necessary compromise; a good outcome; not the end but a new beginning. Or was it worse than Copenhagen ("Copenhagen without the sense of failure") and as such threatens the life of humankind?

If you have read any interesting analyses, post the links in the comments.
Image by Bree.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On not seeing the woods for the trees

We now know, thanks to the junior environment minister Jim Paice's frank evidence to a recent House of Lords select committee, that the government is considering the sale of not just "some", or even "substantial", amounts of woodland as the public was originally led to believe, but of all state-owned English trees across the commission's 635,000-acre Forestry Commission estate. This includes many royal forests, state-owned ancient woodlands, sites of special scientific interest, heathland, campsites, farms and sporting estates.

- John Vidal, "For sale: all of our forests.
Not some of them, nor most of them – the whole lot"

Not happy? Sign the petition. Write to your MP.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Famous last words: David Suzuki's Legacy

This is one delivery of the final address of one of the great public communicators of our age, hosted recently in Perth (the Australian version).

Suzuki mentions many themes I've discussed at various times: the spiritual sources of ecological failure, the cancerous nature of endless growth, the dependence of economy (management of the household) on ecology (the principles of the household), the staggering novelty of scale that human impacts on the biosphere have reached in recent decades and the necessity of political, not merely personal, responses to our present path of ecological self-destruction.

I found his reflections on air and breathing particularly fascinating. We all share the breath of life, a community of living beings sustained by God's Spirit.

And some readers may be delighted to hear that he told Bob Brown that the Australian Greens ought not to exist.
Suzuki starts at 4:15 into the video. More information on the talk can be found on the ABC site as well as a four minute highlights video.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


From The Cartoons of Marc Robertson.
Another recent one I liked.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On avoiding eco-scare stories

From The Cartoons of Marc Robertson.
Marc creates strips about ecological issues, particularly climate change. The humour is frequently quite dark, but even more often on the money. Ern is the rich, young and cheery capitalist generally in denial and Frank is the grouchy old environmentalist who usually represents the authorial voice, though also comes in for occasional ribbing himself.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A manifesto of sorts

We have enough.
We can share what we have.
If we used less, it would be fine.
We can move ourselves.
The economy does not need to grow in order for us to thrive.
Business can be ethical and fair.
Business can express and nurture cultural values.
Health is the care of humans.
Public space belongs to humans.
We can meet at the market face to face.
We can have humane relationships with the animals we depend on.
We can work with Earth's systems.
We can build our homes and buildings to last for 600 years.
We look upstream to manage our waste.
We derive wealth from our waste.
We protect and restore what nature creates.
We listen to what Earth's complex systems tell us.
Our leaders listen to us and derive power from the mana of ethical behaviour and decisions.
The powerful protect the weak.
We are becoming indigenous.
We are weaving all the threads together.
The most important people in our village are those who will be us some day
and we are listening to them.

- From a statement adopted at the Signs of Change conference.

Are there any of these that particularly stand out to you? Any with which you violently agree or politely disagree (or vice versa)?
H/T Tom.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How would Jesus blog?

Jeremy Kidwell reflects on how his faith affects his approach to blogging. I broadly agree, though my reflections are in the comments.

As always, I welcome feedback on any aspect of my blogging, either in the comments or by email (or even in person if you have to!). Specifically, after reading Jeremy's post, I'd like to hear reflections on the volume (or perhaps velocity) of material on this blog.

Update: Jeremy has written a follow up post with a series of questions that I hope to answer at some stage.

Top ten climate science stories of the year

Well, actually nine climate stories and one biodiversity story with a climate link.

How many of these did you hear about? If you heard about them, how many did you hear through mainstream media sources? How can the mainstream media spend so long on trivia and fail to mention some of the most significant risks facing our society identified over the last twelve months? Is it because we don't want to know? Insert head (A) into sand (B). Repeat.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Skeptical about climate change?

"There’s not just a consensus of scientists - there’s a consensus of evidence."
This is an excellent resource for those unsure, confused or hostile to the idea that human activities are dangerously disrupting the climate. John Cook, with the help of a number of climate scientists and other helpers, has put together a free document titled, The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism (pdf here). It is well illustrated, clearly written, brief and to the point, addressing some of the most common queries and misunderstandings.

If your question isn't covered by the guide, the rest of John's site, Skeptical Science, has responses to more than one hundred common arguments concerning climate change (with plenty of links to published peer-reviewed scientific papers, or just short simple answers for beginners). I have recommended this excellent and highly informative website before, but let me do so again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"The next twenty years will be completely unlike the last twenty"

This is the first of six videos taking a total of 45 minutes to outline the ideas in Chris Martenson's "Crash Course". I don't agree with everything he says (for instance, he reduces "the environment" to "resources", making no mention of climate change or biodiversity decline) and some of the analysis is simplified (what do you expect in 45 minutes?), but this isn't a bad summary of the three interlocking crises on the horizon: economy, energy and ecology (I prefer the term ecology over "the environment").

I would love an economist to evaluate his analysis of debt and how money is created (which he skims over in this short version, but spends twenty minutes on in the full version, available here). This is the area with which I am least familiar and I have heard others characterise our money system in a similar way, but I wonder whether this is how experts would put it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Can Christians be bankers?

The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.23-35 is justly famous as an illustration of the gratuitousness of divine forgiveness. The debt of the first servant is larger than the entire GDP of multiple Roman provinces at the time (or so I have heard). Don't ask how this man had amassed such a debt; dodgy loans are apparently nothing new. Perhaps someone got a tasty commission and knew there was little regulatory oversight. But I digress...

The main point of the parable, however, is not the enormity of the debt forgiven the first servant, but the failure of that servant to treat his neighbour in the light of the forgiveness he himself had just received. It is a striking image of one of Jesus' central teachings: that we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by our heavenly Father.

Yet listening to this parable in church last Sunday made me wonder: the image is financial; is the application also financial? That is, when Jesus warns against a failure to cancel the debts of one who cannot repay us and says that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others, is he only talking about moral or relational debts? Are actual monetary debts excluded? I see no reason that they should be. And Jesus isn't talking about restructuring bad debts, or recovering what can be recovered. The entire debt is forgiven.

This is a profound teaching and would, it seems to me, effectively make it impossible for a Christian who takes the teaching of Christ seriously to work at any of the major banks. Thoughts?
I also cannot see how a Christian can work in (much of) the advertising industry either, but that is for other reasons and is perhaps a post for another day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Insert head (A) into sand (B)

CP: Amazonian drought, another climate wildcard. This is a lengthy post, but worth a read for its significance.

BBC: Mining tax should be higher says OECD.

TPM: Insert head (A) into sand (B).

Running out of places to fish.

Alaskan wildfires getting more intense, and now Alaskan forests and soils are releasing more carbon than they are storing.

The places where fish choke.

Hot Topic: The rainforests of the sea are burning.

Mongabay: Climate change likely to kill five million annually by 2020, mainly children.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What has WikiLeaks ever done for us?

This is a partial list covering some of the abuses of corporate and government power revealed by WikiLeaks over the last few years. Is any of this information in the public interest? Does this record indicate an exclusively anti-USA organisation? Are these revelations the work of terrorists? Would anyone prefer for the world not to have known all these abuses? During its four year history, WikiLeaks has exposed the following:

• 217 cases of UN peace-keepers being accused of sexually abusing and impregnating girls in eastern Congo.

• Trafigura, an African oil company, caused widespread illness through a toxic gas dump, and then tried to suppress this being published in the Guardian through a secret "super-injunction", in which the press cannot even report the existence of an injunction.

• US forces killed hundreds of innocent civilians at checkpoints in Iraq.

• The "secret bibles" of Scientology, normally only available to initiates for very large sums of money.

• The designation of some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention camp as off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which the US military had previously denied.

• Details of the corrupt rule of the Arap-Moi leadership in Kenya, who were involved in US$3 billion dollars of fraud. They were subsequently defeated at the next election.

• Sarah Palin used a private Yahoo email account to send work-related messages, in violation of public record laws.

• Corruption amongst politicians in Peru over oil contracts, which resulted in the prime minister's resignation.

• More than 15,000 civilian deaths in Iraq that had previously been concealed by the U.S. government.

• A video showing a U.S. army helicopter slaughtering Reuters journalists and Iraqi children in cold blood.

• Al-Qaeda's deadly exploitation of children in Iraq.

• Irregular activity at Kaupthing Bank in Iceland, with large sums of money being loaned to bank owners and other debts were written off, precipitating the Icelandic financial crisis, the collapse of all three Icelandic banks, the breakdown of a coalition government and the indictment of a former prime minister.

• US Department of Defense Counterintelligence Analysis Report from March 2008 detailing how to marginalise WikiLeaks.

• US soldiers used Iraqi civilians as human bomb detectors.

• Illegal government wiretapping in Canada.

• The CIA kidnapped an innocent German and tortured him for months, then attempting to stop Germany from arresting its operatives.

• The US State Department instructed its diplomats to break international treaties by gathering biometric and other personal data on senior UN figures.

• The US has pressured the UK government to break a treaty on cluster bombs by turning a blind eye to bombs stored at US bases on UK territory.

• Australian government web filtering to prevent access to child pornography and terrorist sites extended to a range of other legal sites, including Wikipedia entries, Christian sites, a tour operator and WikiLeaks itself.

• DynCorp, a US company, hired young boys to dance for Afghan police in a social context usually linked to pederasty.

• Shell's corruption and influence in the government of Nigeria.

• The US wrote Spain's proposed new copyright laws.

• US suppression of Spanish court cases involving US figures accused of torture and extradition.

• Pfizer used dirty tricks to avoid clinical trial payout.
List partially modified and expanded from here. More information on Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Stand with WikiLeaks (again)

As I suspected and hoped, GetUp have also now launched their own WikiLeaks campaign to print the following letter in full page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times with as many signatures as possible:

Dear President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder:

We, as Australians, condemn calls for violence, including assassination, against Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or for him to be labeled a terrorist, enemy combatant or be treated outside the ordinary course of justice in any way.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "information is the currency of democracy." Publishing leaked information in collaboration with major news outlets, as Wikileaks and Mr. Assange have done, is not a terrorist act.

Australia and the United States are the strongest of allies. Our soldiers serve side by side and we’ve experienced, and condemned, the consequences of terrorism together. To label Wikileaks a terrorist organisation is an insult to those Australians and Americans who have lost their lives to acts of terrorism and to terrorist forces.

If Wikileaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law. At the moment, no such charges have been brought.

We are writing as Australians to say what our Government should have: all Australian citizens deserve to be free from persecution, threats of violence and detention without charge, especially from our friend and ally, the United States.

We call upon you to stand up for our shared democratic principles of the presumption of innocence and freedom of information.
You can add your signature here.

It may have been more strategic to have directed this campaign within Australia at the prime minister and attorney general, though perhaps they felt this had already been done. Then again, this campaign is somewhat similar to one by their sister organisation Avaaz.

UPDATE: It appears that this campaign is doing very well. Indeed, it seems like it might be the largest and fastest fundraising campaign GetUp have ever run, so they are (happily) extending it to publishing a similar message in the Australian (modified to be relevant of course). GetUp are also attracting some attention in the US, where the media have got wind of the ad and are running stories on it ahead of time.

What is the real agenda of the Australian Greens?

A while back I prompted some vigorous debate when I asked whether the Australian Greens were anti-Christian. Many Christians are attracted to the Greens' emphasis on ecological responsibility (which stands head and shoulders over the other parties). This concern resonates with many strands of scriptural thought such as the goodness of the created order, the community of creation, care for animals, justice for the poor and vulnerable, human humility and the full choir of God.

Recently, I have had a couple of Christian friends contact me to say that they are deeply worried about the real priorities of the Greens. There is a perception that the ecological concerns are the bait used to lure in potential voters, who are then unwittingly signing up to a radical social agenda. Now the Greens do indeed have a radical social agenda and make no secret of it. Some parts of it I like; others I don't. Many Christians are concerned about Greens' policies on social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, drug decriminalisation, same-sex marriage or access to public schools for Scripture classes.

In any case, an email from the Greens today (pointing to this article) gave me an idea of one way to test the Greens' political priorities. I receive semi-regular emails from four or five different political parties and perhaps a few dozen NGOs and advocacy groups. I usually just skim headlines as there is far too much to read all of it. I thought I'd trawl back through a few years' worth of correspondence from the Australian Greens making a note of each time a topic came up and see if any patterns emerged.

Of course, this is not the only way to measure priorities. One could also look at official policy documents, public statements, voting records, Hansard, membership surveys and various other things. But I thought it might still be worth doing nonetheless. And I may have missed some references, so this was not a highly rigorous investigation.

Below are the results arranged in alphabetical order. See if you can pick any trends or possible priorities expressed by the Greens to their support base (and interested onlookers):
• Abortion 0
• Climate change 23
• Deforestation/wilderness protection 5
• Decriminalising drugs 0
• Dental care 4
• Donate 4
• Education 2
• Energy future/Renewable energy 5
• Enroll/volunteer/vote/election 5
• Euthanasia 0
• Green jobs 1
• Indigenous reconciliation 2
• Mental health 1
• Paid parental leave 1
• Parliamentary process 2
• Pollution 1
• Refugees 6
• Same sex-marriage 3
• Scripture in schools 0
• Taxation 2
• Tibet 2
• War in Afghanistan 1
• Water management 1
• Whaling 1
• Workers' rights 2
Total references: 74
References to same sex marriage: 3
References to abortion, drugs, euthanasia or scripture in schools: 0
Total references to ecological/energy issues (including climate): 37 (=50%).

The conclusion seems clear enough: the Greens' priorities are, well, green. Some emails mentioned more than one topic. If I'd been giving weighing to the numbers of words, then I suspect the results would have been even clearer.

I am not saying that only ecological issues matter, or that Christians ought to vote for the Greens (or that voting is the heart of political responsibility). Like all parties, the relative weight of various attractive and repulsive policies and principles needs to be considered. But this ought to be done soberly and without caricature. I hope this little exercise might contribute in some small way to that task.
Image by ALS.

PS A little more research has revealed the Greens' true agenda, based on the parliamentary record of Adam Bandt MP. Bandt has so far proposed two amendments to existing legislation: one stopping banks from changing exorbitant fees and one requiring parliamentary approval for any overseas service by the ADF (i.e. shifting the decision to conduct overseas military operations from the executive to the parliament). See ##3&4 here. Since they target the ease of war-making and the unrestrained profiteering of huge oligarchies, the Australian Greens are clearly antithetical to evangelical Christianity.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Stand with WikiLeaks

The massive campaign of intimidation against WikiLeaks is sending a chill through free media advocates everywhere.

Top US politicians have called WikiLeaks a terrorist organization and suggested assassination of its staff, and the organization has come under intense government and corporate attack. But WikiLeaks is only publishing information passed to it by a whistle-blower. And it has partnered with the world's leading newspapers to vet the information it publishes.

If WikiLeaks has broken laws, it should face legal action. But the immense extra-judicial intimidation is an attack on democracy. We urgently need a public outcry for freedom of the press and expression. Sign the petition to stop the crackdown and forward this email to everyone -- let's get 1 million voices this week!

WikiLeaks isn't acting alone -- it has partnered with the top newspapers in the world (The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, etc.) to carefully review 250,000 US diplomatic cables and remove any information that it is irresponsible to publish. Only 800 cables have been published so far. Past WikiLeaks publications have exposed government-backed torture, the murder of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and corporate corruption [plus government corruption and abuses of power in various places around the world].

The US government is currently pursuing all legal avenues to stop WikiLeaks from publishing more cables, but the laws of democracies protect freedom of the press. The US and other governments may not like the laws that protect our freedom of expression, but that's exactly why it's so important that we have them, and why only a democratic process can change them.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether WikiLeaks is releasing more information than the public should see, whether it undermines diplomatic confidentiality and whether that's a good thing, whether its founder Julian Assange has the personal character of a hero or a villain. But none of this justifies a vicious campaign of intimidation to silence a legal media outlet by governments and corporations. Click to join the call to stop the crackdown.

Ever wonder why the media so rarely gives the full story of what happens behind the scenes? This is why - because when they do, governments [and corporations] can be vicious in their response. And when that happens, it's up to the public to stand up for our democratic rights to a free press and freedom of expression. Never has there been a more vital time for us to do so.


I think this is a well-worded petition. There is no need to agree with WikiLeak's tactics or its specific judgements on some cables to be disgusted with or at least disturbed by elements of the official response.
PS Hooray for Rudd: "Mr Assange is not himself responsible for the unauthorised release of 250,000 documents from the US diplomatic communications network. The Americans are responsible for that. [...] I think there are real questions to be asked about the adequacy of [the US] security systems and the level of access that people have had to that material. [...] The core responsibility, and therefore legal liability, goes to those individuals responsible for that initial unauthorised release."

Kudos too to the hundreds of academics, writers, editors, lawyers, journalists, politicians and other Australian figures who have sent this open letter to PM Gillard, calling for her to uphold the rule of law. I have written to her about this as well, which you can do here.

And Malcolm Turnbull talks a great deal of sense.

As does Frank La Rue, the UN representative for freedom of opinion and expression.

And, of course, Assange himself deserves to be heard.

It doesn't have to be this way

"This foundational theological belief in the sovereign rule of God in the risen Jesus Christ can be the basis for an attitude of confidence without lapsing into an ugly triumphalism or a defensive paranoia. The sovereignty of God is the basis not for a martyr complex, but for true martyrdom – which is witnessing to Jesus Christ come what may. A persecution complex is essentially self-interested and even narcissistic. A life lived for Jesus Christ, on the other hand, risks itself entirely for the good of the other without regard for self – knowing that it entrusts itself to the God who raised Jesus from the dead."

- Michael Jensen.

Michael is talking about why a particular denomination or church doesn't need to fear its own demise, though his key theological claim here (which lies at the centre of his PhD thesis on martyrdom) is not far from the centre of my own thesis.

The good news of the risen Christ means that Christians don't need to fear squaring up to whatever social, political or ecological challenges that may already exist or may soon arise. We are free to pour ourselves out in loving service of neighbour for the glory of God, entrusting ourselves to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We can do the hard work of thinking through how best to love our neighbours in a rapidly changing world, where a complex variety of interconnected goods clamour for our attention in patterns both persistent and novel.

Why does the good news banish our fears? Or rather, why does it enable us to face them squarely and yet be undaunted, requiring no distraction, no promise of a silver bullet, no paralysing despair, no frantic scramble to save ourselves? In faith, hope and love, Jesus walked willingly into the valley of the shadow of death. We can follow him without being alone, without needing to vindicate ourselves, without needing any guarantees that the path will not be bumpy or difficult. Where he has gone, we follow.

I have finished a number of my recent posts suggesting that "It doesn't have to be this way". The possibility of another way is discovered as we walk in the footsteps of the one who carried his cross to Golgotha. And it begins with surprise, wonder and joy at the birth of a baby amongst beasts. Advent is a season in which Christians are to wait, to pray, to hope: it doesn't have to be this way.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Who said this?

"Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable. [...] In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today. [...] And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights. [...] We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. [...] As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history. But history itself has already condemned these tactics. [...] These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right 'to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.' [...] Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors. Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress. Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions. [...] And censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere."

- Julian Assange, speaking on behalf of WikiLeaks.

Or not.

GetUp Campaign Ideas

Helping to set the national agenda
GetUp members have the opportunity to help set the direction of upcoming GetUp campaigns through this page. You have ten votes to distribute and can allocate up to three of them for any one campaign idea (or suggest a new one). Ideas near the top of the list are more likely to be put into effect. So vote for things that matter and enlist the support of up to 400,000 Australian GetUp members to put or keep the issue on the national agenda.

I gave my votes to:
• Clean Energy
• Yes to Carbon Tax
• Transition Towns positive response to Climate Change and Peak Oil
• Wikileaks - urging the Australian Govt. to not bow to US pressure to criminalise the organisation.
I'm quite willing to be persuaded to reallocate them if someone wants to point out a campaign I might have missed (I didn't look at all of them closely).

One of the effects of this system is to give greater weight to issues that have been around for a while and have had a chance to gather votes. When an issue arises at short notice (such as WikiLeaks), it is at a disadvantage. I assume that this tool is not the only factor in the decisions of the GetUp campaign team.

I'm not a fan of quite a few of the suggestions. Unfortunately, it is not possible to vote down ideas that you don't like, only to reduce their chance of becoming a campaign by voting for alternatives. Of course, all GetUp campaigns are opt-in for GetUp members, so if you don't agree, don't participate (and you can also write to them to give more feedback, as I have done a number of times).

Monday, December 06, 2010

The US is a climate coquette

"[...] the U.S. flirts, it shows some leg, but it never ends up in your arms. The Senate never comes through - it didn't ratify Kyoto, and it didn't pass the climate legislation last summer. All the watering down was for nought - you might as well have done the right thing."

- Bill McKibben, "US Plays the Big Tease at Global Climate Talks".

Insightful analysis of the present Cancùn negotiations and a memorable image of US behaviour from Bill McKibben, founder of

At the same time, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor has a new report claiming that "of all industrialized nations the US [along with Spain] will face the most [economic] harm from a warming world".

Is it anti-American to point out their leadership in failure and their leadership in loss amongst the industrialised world?

It doesn't have to be this way.
H/T Bryan and Jeremy.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

Bottom trawling is a stupidly destructive form of fishing. Done by dragging huge nets weighted with heavy metallic plates across the ocean floor, such trawling leaves a trail of damage and destruction on the ocean floor in its path. It is akin to hunting for wild pigs by bulldozing the forest in which they dwell. And yet trawling is occurring at a rate 150 times faster than deforestation, damaging an area twice the size of the contiguous USA each year. Cold water and deep water corals are very slow growing, taking hundreds or thousands of years to recover from damage that can be done in a single pass of trawling nets.

The EU Council of Fisheries Ministers just passed up another opportunity to do something about this unnecessary and myopic practice.

It doesn't have to be this way.
The obvious picture to go with this post would have been something including a lot of water, but I picked this one instead. It is a hut on the island of Lindisfarne made out of half an old herring fishing boat. The herring trade used to employ thousands of people in the UK and over 30,000 boats were dedicated to the industry on the east coast alone. The industry today has been decimated, at least partly through damage caused by trawling.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Discounting the future

Nicole Foss (a.k.a. Stoneleigh) nicely summarises the effects of crises, instability and uncertainty on human ethical deliberation: our horizons shrink. This is true of both temporal and relational horizon. Nicole has written before about the shrinking relational horizon in times of difficulty (when the chips are down, you stick with those you know and mistrust strangers and those who are other to you) and this recent post points out that much of human history has been lived from hand to mouth, with immediate concerns dominating our time, effort and thinking. When you're worried about where your next meal will come from (or, slightly less pressingly, worried about where your next pay packet is going to come from), you're much less likely to be able to reflect coherently upon or plan for longer term threats and opportunities. Practical and moral vision is narrowed and shortened in order to focus upon the immediate. This is one of the reasons that ecological concerns decline during recessions.

It is also why my expectation of growing economic and social disruptions over the next few decades signals bad news for our collective ability to respond well to the longer term threats our society faces. Human reactions to increasing perceptions of threat constitute a complex series of feedback cycles, both positive and negative, rendering linear trends hyperbolic. This is why specific forecasting has such a bad track record and why "bumpy" is about the level of specificity I'm willing to commit myself to in describing the coming decades.

Some human reactions make crises worse than they need to be. Food shortages can lead to hoarding behaviour that exacerbates the problem for those with least access to food. First order problems (e.g. hunger) can lead to second order problems (e.g. riots) that drain resources from addressing the primary problem.

Other human reactions can mitigate the worst of crises. Co-operation, trust and sharing can spread the burden of a situation upon more shoulders, making it lighter for everyone. Sudden shocks to the status quo can sometimes awaken the moral imagination to envisage a new way of life (or the renewal of old ways).

Which kind of feedback is likely to dominate? It is very difficult to know, and may well differ from place to place. How is it possible to create the conditions now under which communities of trust and co-operation can flourish during times of crisis? How can such communities maintain an openness to outsiders and strangers? And what kinds of communities of trust are able to face immediate challenges without discounting the future?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Making Scotland's Landscape

I previously recommended a five part BBC documentary series by Prof Iain Stewart called How Earth Made Us. Unfortunately, I only got around to mentioning it when it just about to disappear from BBC iPlayer. So this time, I would like to recommend a five part BBC documentary series by Iain Stewart with a little more time to spare (it's available for the next three weeks). Called Making Scotland's Landscape, it is a fascinating look at Scottish history through the human fingerprints all over Scotland's famed "natural" beauty. The first four episodes have already screened and are available on iPlayer: Trees, The Land, The Sea and Water. The final episode Climate is coming soon. I particularly enjoyed the second episode and the fourth was obviously shot during the cold snap last winter. Unfortunately, BBC iPlayer is only available to UK residents.

The central idea of the series is nothing new, being but an application of Bill McKibben's thesis in The End of Nature: that human activities have so colonised the natural world that "untouched" nature no longer exists. But it is beautifully shot, coherently narrated and brought home to landscapes with which I am increasingly familiar and of which I am increasingly fond.

This series may be of particular interest to those who think that it is arrogant to believe that our puny species could possible affect something as robust and enormous as the planet.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The real climate debate

"The scientific debate [concerning climate] is not between deniers and those who can prove that releasing massive amounts of warming gases will make the world warmer. Every major scientific academy in the world, and all the peer-reviewed literature, says global warming denialism is a pseudo-science, on a par with Intelligent Design, homeopathy, or the claim that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. [...] No: the debate is between the scientists who say the damage we are doing is a disaster, and the scientists who say it is catastrophe."

- Johann Hari, There won't be a bailout for the earth".

There are many more climate scientists who think that the IPCC position in the 2007 report is understated, conservative and outdated than who consider it alarmist. Debate still rages and the science is far from settled, but amongst those in the field, the uncertainty is almost entirely between those who think that our current path leads to misery, precipitous ecosystem and biodiversity decline, stronger droughts and more damaging floods, to dangerously rising sea levels, huge financial losses, widespread food insecurity and large numbers of refugees, and those who think that things are considerably worse than that.

It doesn't have to be this way.
Image by JKS. H/T Bryan for the link.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I support WikiLeaks*

"Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations. A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media plays a vital role in achieving these goals. We are part of that media."

- WikiLeaks.

Of course, if you currently try to follow that link, you'll find that it gives an error message, thanks to the US government's ruthless harassment and attempts to ostracise WikiLeaks (ironically, a strategy that was outlined in a US Department of Defence document itself leaked by WikiLeaks earlier this year). You can also try here.

There is much to say about the role of WikiLeaks over the last four years. They have broken a wide variety of important information about corruption and abuses of corporate and state power. Not every leak has been equally useful or important, and sometimes perhaps more has been released than was necessary to hold the powerful to account, which may or may not be the case in the current controversy (though currently, only a small fraction of the total files have been released). Nonetheless, from what has already been released, the prima facie case for the release being in the public interest is strong. While we might not need to know internal US diplomatic gossip about which world leaders are liked or disliked (often not that much of a secret in any case), finding evidence that seems to indicate that the US government has been breaking treaties and encouraging other nations to break treaties is no small matter, nor are revelations of the UK Parliament apparently being misled by the Foreign Office.

Yet the most common reaction to these revelations follows the lead of the government currently most damaged by them: distraction through counter-accusation. I am not aware of the legality under US or international law of what WikiLeaks have done (though Assange points out that WikiLeaks have been involved in over 100 legal attacks over the last four years and won them all), but I am aware of at least some of the illegalities exposed. The hunt for Julian Assange is a distraction, as is the witch hunt being put together to assassinate his character (or his person, if some are to be believed). This is what ought to be happening at the very least: resignations of those whose actions have been shameful.

Yet when Assange called on Clinton to resign for issuing instructions to diplomats that apparently break international treaties concerning the UN, the reaction from the White House was "I'm not entirely sure why we care about the opinion of one guy with one website". This response shifts the focus from the substance of what Clinton (and Rice before her, for that matter) has done and onto the journalists who broke the story, blaming the messenger. The question is not whether they care about one man and his website, but whether we all care about what government officials do in our name.

There seem to be plenty more stories yet to come out of the cables. The next major release due sometime in the new year is said to contain evidence of corruption and malpractice at a major US bank.
*The fine print is that I don't agree with everything that WikiLeaks has done, and think that Julian Assange can come across with characteristic Aussie bluntness (rudeness) at times, yet the role that WikiLeaks has already played and continue to play is a very important one. Democracy relies on accurate and relevant information available to those who participate in public deliberation. Where corporations or governments seek to hide information that is relevant to matters of public deliberation on the common good, then they ought to be held to account and whistleblowers deserve principled protection.

UPDATE: If you're having trouble getting to the WikiLeaks site, this site is keeping track of the hundreds of mirroring sites and you should be able to find access.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The idolatry of consumerism

It's funny because it's true. More or less.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where did the global warming go?

Despite the amazing snow we've been getting in Edinburgh, globally this year is currently tied in first place and is on track to be at least in the top three hottest years on record. More national highest temperatures have been set this year than any previous year. Indeed, ironically the impressive snow (by local standards) received in the UK this year and last year is linked to unusual wind patterns in the Arctic creating a phenomenon dubbed "WACCy weather" - Warm Arctic Cold Continents. Warmer temperatures in the Arctic and over Greenland block the prevailing westerly winds and instead lead to frigid air descending on the UK from the north and north-east.

The Arctic climate is warming faster than anywhere on earth so we might well see more of this pattern in future. This is why it is important to think in terms of climate change and not simply global warming (which is one, often misunderstood, feature of climate change).

Why does this matter? Because within my daughter's lifetime (if she manages to stay healthy), our current climate trajectory could well lead to a billion people losing their homes and three billion losing access to clean water. On our current path, we are headed well beyond a rise of 2ºC and to more than 4ºC by the end of this century, which is likely to mean droughts beyond anything in human memory covering large parts of the globe while other parts flood, millions of refugees, dire crop reductions and the social and political instability these would likely bring.

"In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world."

- Rachel Warren, “The role of interactions in a world implementing adaptation and mitigation solutions to climate change”, Phil Trans R Soc A 13 January 2011 vol. 369 no. 1934 217-241.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Corporations: psychopathic individuals or totalitarian regimes?

The 2003 documentary The Corporation outlined a critical history of these institutions that have so pervasively shaped modern society. The narrative briefly outlines the historical process through which corporations gained many of the same legal rights as natural persons before asking the illuminating question: if the corporation is indeed to be considered a person, then how might we characterise the psychology of this "person"? To answer it, the film compares the track record of corporate behaviour against a widely accepted list of symptoms of psychopathy from DSM-IV: callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit), the incapacity to experience guilt, and the failure to conform to social norms and respect for the law. The conclusion (and the film's punch line): corporations frequently exhibit psychopathic behaviour.

A second comparison I came across recently juxtaposes transnational corporations with nation states. Large corporations encompass more employees and generate more turnover than the population and GDP of some nations. We consider it valid to evaluate the form of government, economic system and the political and civic freedoms of nations. What would it be like to make the same considerations of many large corporations?
• The right to vote does not exist except for share holders (analogous to land owners) and even there voting power is in proportion to ownership.
• All power issues from a central committee.
• There is no balancing division of power. There is no fourth estate. There are no juries and innocence is not presumed.
• Failure to submit to any order may result in instant exile.
• There is no freedom of speech.
• There is no right of association. Even romance between men and women is often forbidden without approval.
• The economy is centrally planned.
• There is pervasive surveillance of movement and electronic communication.
• The society is heavily regulated, to the degree many employees are told when, where and how many times a day they can go to the toilet.
• There is little transparency and something like the Freedom of Information Act is unimaginable.
• Internal opposition groups, such as unions, are blackbanned, surveilled and/or marginalized whenever and wherever possible.

- From here.

So, are large transnational corporations more like psychopathic individuals or totalitarian regimes? And is anyone aware of insightful theological analyses of corporatism?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The advent of Advent

Today is the first day of the liturgical new year. At this time of year, Christians await the coming of the Messiah; pagans go shopping. Christians yearn for a new world; pagans max out the credit card. Christians fast and pray; pagans hurry around in fear of missing a bargain or not having the right present for everyone.

Peace on earth: it's a promise based on the coming of the King; it's an experience tasted by those who wait for his advent.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A renewable Australia by 2020?

Australia can be fully powered (including baseload) with renewable energy by 2020 according to a recent report titled Zero Carbon Australia. The report was put together by around one hundred volunteer scientists and engineers without government grants or lobby group involvement. All the plans have been costed and rely on existing technologies that are ready to be implemented tomorrow. The total cost would be $8 per household per week, or $37 billion annually, an investment that would be paid back within thirty years if only direct costs are considered or within a handful of years if indirect costs are also included. The benefits would be significant: Australia becoming a global leader on something of value, providing an inspiring example to other nations, gaining energy security in the face of peak oil and an uncertain future and, by slashing carbon emissions, making a significantly contribution to a more stable and flourishing human future. How much is that worth to you?

The report is available here. It is the first of six reports outlining a pathway to a zero carbon Australia.
H/T Kathy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The best democracy money can buy

After JFK made elections more about style than substance, the need for aspiring US politicians to be wealthy to afford to run for office has been increasing. According to this report, 261 of the members of US Congress are millionaires. That's almost 50%, whereas millionaires are less than 1% of the US population. The effects of big money on the democratic process are generally not healthy.

I don't wish to particularly pick on the USA, since the distorting effects on democracy of hyper-capitalism's concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is not confined to politics of the land of the free very expensive. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. One of the kinds of evil that grows from the way we have set up our society is plutocracy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What good is Wall Street?

Much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless: "Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry when it’s just a utility, like sewage or gas. It is like a cancer that is growing to infinite size, until it takes over the entire body."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Harry Potter and consumerism

Harry Potter and Consumerism from CPX on Vimeo.

The only questions are: can the dark wizard Consumerism and his nefarious crew of Planet Eaters be defeated before he takes over the world? And what kind of magic will be required to defeat his curse?

Scale of the universe

There is a Hasidic saying that each of us should carry around two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. One piece of paper, to be read when feeling proud and puffed up says, "I am but dust and ashes". The other, to be read when feeling useless or ashamed, says: "For me the world was created."

Alternatively, one could regularly visit a website like this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Eat as much of this meat as you like

Here is a meat industry I think we can all give more support to. In comparison to factory farmed meat (i.e. most of what is generally available in supermarkets), this meal has a much smaller footprint.
H/T Sair.