Monday, May 31, 2010

Teaching both sides of Armageddon

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

Giving children "both" sides of the debate has long been a slogan of young earth creationists in the US. However, this parody cuts even closer on another recent issue.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

This is what the end of the oil age looks like

“This is what the end of the oil age looks like. The cheap, easy petroleum is gone; from now on, we will pay steadily more and more for what we put in our gas tanks—more not just in dollars, but in lives and health, in a failed foreign policy that spawns foreign wars and military occupations, and in the lost integrity of the biological systems that sustain life on this planet. The only solution is to do proactively, and sooner, what we will end up doing anyway as a result of resource depletion and economic, environmental, and military ruin: end our dependence on the stuff.”

- Richard Heinberg from here.

I am not necessarily a fan of everything Richard Heinberg says, but this post is about right, at least in the medium to long term. "Steadily" rising prices (economic, social, ecological and so on) doesn't necessarily mean that every day will be more expensive than the previous. There will still be peaks and troughs, but the overall trend is away from cheap oil. As has been noted many times before, the reason we are now drilling in such technically challenging and dangerous locations is that the easier oil is going or gone. It's all uphill from here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mitigation vs adaptation: a question of prudence

For some time there has been a debate concerning the best response to the climate disruption human actions are currently causing. Should we try to minimise or even prevent the disruption (known as mitigation) or should we simple prepare for the changes and make adjustments as they arise (adaptation)? In other words, are we aiming for prevention or cure?

A good answer was given in a recent interview by John Holdren, science advisor to US President Obama:
“Mitigation alone won’t work because the climate is already changing. We’re already experiencing impacts from that. Nothing we can do in the mitigation domain can stop it overnight. And so a mitigation-only strategy would be insanity.

"Adaptation alone won’t work. Adaptation alone won’t work because adaptation gets more difficult, more expensive, and less effective the larger are the changes in climate to which we are trying to adapt. If you live on an island that is one meter above sea level and the sea level goes up two meters, adaptation is no longer the question. You are dealing with evacuation.

"Clearly what we need is enough mitigation to limit changes in climate to a level with which adaptation can largely cope.”
The question is whether we have the political and social will to do enough of the former in sufficient time to make the latter actually achievable.

Crucial in this is the role of the somewhat overlooked virtue of prudence, wise consideration of the future. Whether our political and economic systems are designed to encourage this virtue in our leaders remains to be seen.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Andrew Katay and the New Perspective

For those from Sydney Anglican circles with a particular set of theological and biblical interests, you might be interested to see Andrew Katay go on the record about the New Perspective on Paul and the place of doctrine in Christian fellowship. I've made some comments of my own about the latter a while back and it generated a little discussion (I think that only NSW politics and the science of climate change have generated more comments on a single post), so it will be interesting to see where this conversation goes.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What if the BP oil disaster can't be fixed?

BP have started a new and riskier technique to stem the flow of oil from 1.5 km under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Called a "top kill", it basically involves pumping mud at high pressure into the hole to try to weigh down the oil pushing up. Although it has been used successfully on many wells before, it has never been done at this depth (there has never been a problem of this magnitude at this depth before). BP are giving it a 60-70% chance of success. What is not often mentioned is that there is also a chance it could make things worse. It may be a couple of days before it is clear which is the case.

While we're waiting, here are two interesting things to check out.
Read more

Sunday morning

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.
Is this your Sunday morning? The fact that you're grinning from recognition ("it's funny because it's true") shows that services like this are still liturgical, even if the pattern of worship is not written in a book for everyone to read.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What is going on at Middlesex?

Death by managerialism
Philosophy has long been part of the heart of western universities. The rise and rise of universities run by a managerial class as a for-profit business over the last few decades is clogging the arteries. Many universities now employ more administrators than academics. The closure of the philosophy department at Middlesex University shows one institution that has gone into cardiac arrest. The department has an excellent reputation and recently was given the highest RAE rating of any department in the university, recognising the national and international significance of its research. When students and staff engaged in non-violent protest against this decision, they were harshly penalised by the university administration. Letters of support for the department have come from scores of academics around the world (including my own philosophy supervisor, I was pleased to note) and from a wide range of national philosophy societies.

A world without philosophy is a world without thought. Philosophy departments are not the only places for thinking, but this move represents the creeping suppression of profitable thought by thoughtless profit.

Read what is happening.
Sign the petition pledging academic boycott (especially if you are an academic or research student).
Most of all, think.
H/T Ben Myers.

Unfinished sketches for real human beings

"[V]icious people are those who have never got the hang of human existence, as someone might never get the hang of playing poker. They are lacking, deficient, incapable of being truly alive. The evil are not really there. They are unfinished sketches for real human beings. [...]

"Pure evil detests the very fact of human existence and wants to wipe it from the face of the earth. It can see nothing in humanity but a pathetic sham. It is out to demonstrate that the whole of human life is as empty as itself. Hell is full of the sniggers and guffaws of those who believe they have seen through the pretentious façade of human existence."
Terry Eagleton has written a new book On Evil. You can get more of a taste of it here. Eagleton offers some great quotes and an engaging one page introduction to a broadly Augustinian take on evil as privation (with some Freud, Arendt and Milton thrown in, along with obligatory references to Simon Cowell and Gordon Brown).
H/T Stephen Cook.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Facing the truth can be hard

“Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming. Apart form the climate ‘sceptics’, most people do not disbelieve what the climate scientists have been saying about the calamities expected to befall us. But accepting intellectually is not the same as accepting emotionally the possibility that the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end. It’s the same with our own deaths; we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only when death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.”

- Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: why we resist the truth
about climate change
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010), viii.

These are the opening words of Hamilton's new book. In case you hadn't picked it up from the title, it's no exercise in optimism. Hamilton believes that we have largely missed our opportunity to respond in time to climate change and now all we can do is minimise the damage and salvage what we can. However, reaching that conclusion involves a willingness to face the full scale of the threat rather than watering it down through a variety of coping mechanisms.

There are three important claims in this quote. First, Hamilton believes that "the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end". It is important to distinguish between the planet and the world. The planet will survive, life will go on, but the human world, our societies and contemporary globalised industrial civilisation, will not survive in anything like their present form. This prediction may or may not be true, but our ability to determine its truth will be partially affected by our openness to considering the claim closely rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Second, Hamilton points out that it is quite possible to accept this prediction in the abstract, to know something of what the likely implications of climate change will be, and yet for this knowledge to remain at arm's length, disconnected from our emotional life. We "get" it, but many of us have not had what Hamilton calls the "oh shit" moment, where we really get it: "We can no longer pretend the impacts of warming are too far off to worry about, or that the scientists must be exaggerating. We realise that our apathy is rooted in fear or that our hopes for a political upheaval are no more than wishful thinking. We concede that no technological marvel will arrive in time."

Third, Hamilton draws an analogy between facing personal and social mortality. Just as we evade really facing the former through a variety of distraction and coping mechanisms, so there are analogous strategies at work to keep us from facing the depth of our current predicament.

Where can we draw the strength to face the truth about ourselves and our situation?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hauerwas on illness, dying and medical idolatry

Quite some time ago, I included a small link to a talk by Stanley Hauerwas where he addressed themes of illness, dying and western society's often idolatrous attitudes towards the medical industry. The title of the talk was "Theology, Medicine and the Christian Community" and it was delivered on 19th August 2006. This fifty minute talk helped to shape my thinking during the period of my own illness and treatment, and I have recommended it to countless people since then. It was one of the inspirations for my series on things worse than death.

Since I found this talk so illuminating, and since the original no longer seems to be where it once was, I thought I'd link to it again in a new location (approx size: 20MB).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I made the mess; I'll clean it up?

The myth of reversibility

I made the mess, I'll clean it up.
I opened the door, I'll shut it.
I tangled the fairy lights, I'll unknot them.
I pulled apart the radio, I'll reassemble it.

I scrambled the eggs, I'll unscramble them.
I ate the omelette, I'll regurgitate it.
I burned the masterpiece, I'll repaint it.
I chopped off my leg with a chainsaw, I'll sew it back on.

We depleted the aquifer, we'll recharge it.
We burned the oil, we'll regenerate it.
We destabilised the climate, we'll restore it.
We pushed the species into extinction, we'll resurrect it.
Not all actions are equally reversible. Some, like opening and closing a door, can be easily "undone" with similar effort to the original deed. But many actions lead to a significantly lower level of order (i.e. a gain in entropy), and consequently are significantly more difficult to reverse. While microsurgery may indeed be able to reattach an amputated body part, this is far more difficult than causing the initial injury, and there will still be scars.

Yet the idea that "because human actions have caused our various ecological crises therefore human actions must also be able to be solve them" is a common theme in popular environmental discourse. Even some scholars repeat this unfortunate meme.

Despite this frequently expressed hope, some deeds have effects which are very difficult, if not impossible, to undo. The inequality of ease between actions that increase order and those that decrease order is one implication of the second law of thermodynamics.

Prevention is cheaper than cure
In other words, prevention is better than cure. At least, it requires less effort in most instances. In fact, an EU report on the costs of biodiversity loss due out later this year is expected to put the costs of prevention at somewhere between one tenth and one hundredth the costs of remedy.

We underestimate our ability to cause damage (a topic for a future post) and overestimate our ability to fix it. This is not a recipe for inaction, paralysed for fear of doing harm, but a reason for taking greater care in what we do. Humanity has a marvellous ability to adapt to new and challenging circumstances, but we are also right to cherish prudence.

Friday, May 21, 2010

"And the sea was no more"

Deepwater Horizon: overview of a catastrophe
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on 20th April, killing eleven workers and injuring seventeen more. The well which it had been drilling was in water over 1.5km deep and descended another few kilometres into the sea floor into an oil field estimated to contain about 50 million barrels of oil (enough to supply the world's needs for less than a day, by the way). After the explosion, oil started gushing from the well into the deep waters of the Gulf and has continued to do so until today, over one month later.

After initially claiming that the oil slick on the surface was just from the sunken rig and not from the well, BP then offered an first estimate that about 1,000 barrels a day were leaking. This was revised up to 5,000 barrels a few days later by NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) and has remained the official government estimate. Scientists analysing the size of the visible spill on the surface put the figure at around 20-25,000 barrels a day, though this ignored the significant amounts of dispersant that BP was pumping into the oil as it exited the well (causing much of the oil to never make it to the surface) and the enormous oil slicks, some 10 km long, floating well below the surface.

Critics of BP started to point out numerous problems in their response, including their use of inferior and more toxic dispersants purchased from a company linked to BP (they have recently been ordered to find a less toxic alternative, having already employed 3 million litres of the stuff) and perhaps of greater concern, a pattern of trying to hide or minimise the extent of the problem. Under pressure, BP finally released some video footage of the underwater oil eruption, from which independent scientists estimated the flow rate at up to 70,000 barrels per day. More pressure from Senators lead to BP posting more videos, from which it has been estimated that it may be closer to 100,000 barrels per day, of which BP have now managed to siphon off up to about 5,000 barrels per day via a pipe they have managed to thread down the gushing hole. That is, it appears that the disaster is one hundred times greater than they first admitted. It is already the largest oil contamination in US waters and is moving up the charts towards the largest in the world. About one fifth of the waters in the Gulf are now off-limits to fishing and some of the oil has been caught in the Loop Current, pulling it towards Florida and the lower eastern states.

Tony Hayward, CEO of BP has been quoted calling the 38,000 square kilometres of visible surface spill "a drop in the ocean" when compared to the enormous volume of water in the Gulf. Despite numerous apparent serious breaches of safety protocol and a history of pollution infractions from the rig, he has called the disaster "unforseeable" and "inconceivable" and assured people that the environmental damage is likely to be "very, very modest".

This is not an oil leak, which sounds slow, nor an oil spill, which implies that the oil is pouring from a tank of a given size. This is an ongoing underwater oil gusher, filling an olympic swimming pool every four hours or so. Although efforts to stem the flow are ongoing, ultimately, it may not be stopped until a relief well is drilled, which is likely take a few months. Many commentators are beginning to suggest this may turn out to be the largest environmental catastrophe in US history.

Our dying oceans
However, this is just one of a number of deeply troubling problems facing the world's oceans, and despite potentially affecting the Gulf of Mexico for years to come, its effects are dwarfed in both scale and long term impact by a range of other threats to ocean life: acidification (from carbon dioxide), plastic pollution - including a floating garbage patch possibly larger than Australia, dead zones from agricultural run-off (the oil pollution is likely to exacerbate this problem in the Gulf of Mexico), warming causing coral bleaching, thermal stratification and other changes in marine life, indiscriminately destructive fishing techniques (trawling and dredging) and overfishing, global fish catch peaked in the 1980's and on current trends all commercial fish stocks will likely be depleted (unprofitable or extinct) in the next few decades.

For the authors of holy scripture, the ocean was a terrifying chaos, filled with monsters and a symbol of destruction. The vision of the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21 includes the telling phrase "and the sea was no more", indicating an end to chaos and destruction.

But today, the picture is reversed. Our oceans are threatened and dying. It is we who are the chaotic (or perhaps all too systematic) destroyer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blog appearance: feedback

I've been intending for some time to update the look and feel of my blog. Many of the links in my sidebar are also either obsolete or missing. I have kept on putting these things off for a variety of reasons, but as you may have noticed, I'm trialling a new header and may get to the sidebar and other issues soon. I like the fact that the new heading uses an image, but don't think the text feels right and possibly the whole thing is now too fat. But my lack of IT skills is probably only surpassed by my lack of graphic design ability.

All feedback, critical or otherwise, gratefully accepted.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gloom and doom

"The environmental gloom and doom stories do make me worry, and make me feel quite, um, guilty and kind of, um, that I can't do anything, it's all too big for me."

- comment from an unnamed British lady in this video around 1:01.

Fear. Guilt. Impotence.

These three are, I suspect, very common responses to such doom and gloom stories. And they feed on each other.

Our fears are given depth by the knowledge that we have contributed to the predicament in which we find ourselves. Perhaps our contribution has been small in absolute standards, but we have, through our silence and our spending, implicitly condoned and encouraged patterns of natural resource exploitation that are decimating biodiversity, destabilising the climate, depleting the aquifers, stripping the soils, acidifying the oceans and flattening the forests.

Our guilt is compounded by the apparent futility of personal attempts at making amends. What difference will my puny acts of contrition or defiance actually make against the juggernaut of global consumption?

And feeling impotent to avert approaching catastrophe doesn't help our levels of anxiety. No wonder denial can be such an attractive option for some.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A rising tide lifts all boats? Not always...

The geographical distribution of sea level rise
Once you've read a fair amount about a certain topic, anything new you read generally sounds familiar, and repeats a lot of things you've heard before. In fact, it is a good sign that you are becoming acquainted with a field of knowledge when you don't run across many new ideas anymore.

But when you do, the surprise can be all the more powerful.

I thought I knew that gravity pulls us down towards the centre of the earth and that a rising ride lifts all boats. It turns out that the story is a little more complex.

I was aware that predictions of sea level rise (current best estimates are between 0.75-2 metres by 2100) would not be equally distributed around the globe, due to slow movements in the height of various landmasses, some of which are sinking or rising at a rate of a few millimetres each year from subsidence or glacial rebound after the last ice age. I was also aware that currents and local topography affect tidal amplitude. I was aware that sea levels are rising due to both thermal expansion and the melting of land-based ice (though not sea-ice).* But what I didn't realise was how significant the local gravitational effects of large ice-masses can be.
*Actually, the melting of floating ice can have a tiny effect due to differing densities of fresh water (stored as ice) and salt water in the ocean.

Of gravity and glaciers
Everything in the universe attracts every other thing in the universe; that is gravity. So my quip above about gravity only pulling down is too simplistic. We are also pulled up by the moon when it is overhead and sideways by local mountain ranges. Of course, these effects are so slight compared to the downward tug of the bulk of the earth that we don't feel them (though weighing yourself when the moon is overhead can make you almost half a gram lighter). But we do notice the tides, which are caused by the moon's gravitational pull.

In a similar, but even smaller way, land masses, mountain ranges, and large ice sheets exert a gravitational tug. Above submarine mountain ranges, the water is slightly higher than above valleys. Why this matters is that as ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt, changes in their mass have gravitational effects on the distribution of sea level rises, increasing the rate of rise further from the poles and decreasing it closer to the ice-mass. This effect is so significant that if Greenland were to entirely melt (as most predictions say it will within the next few hundred or few thousand years), an average of about 7 meters of sea level rise would result, but in Hawaii this would be closer to 10m, while in Iceland, levels would actually drop slightly.

Counterintuitive? Yes. Significant? Yes, not only because it helps to solve a longstanding puzzle concerning the variable distribution of observed sea level rises, but also because it helps predict future sea level rises a little more precisely. You can read more about this here or here.

I love learning new things. Some days I think I should have pursued a career in the geosciences.
Significant changes in ice-mass can also effect changes in the earth's rotational axis, with further knock-on effects on ocean distribution.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Climate change and political stability

The most important headlines about climate change might not look like climate change headlines
The most commonly discussed effects of dangerous climate change relate to the physical systems of the earth: rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, warmer temperatures (especially at night, during winter and at high latitudes), melting glaciers and ice caps, acidifying oceans, intensifying extreme weather events and so on. All these can be measured and quantified by empirical observation. But for many people, the most important effects will not be sweating more, wearing fewer layers, buying a new umbrella, or cancelling their glacier climbing holiday.

For most of us, particularly the vast majority of the developed world who live in urban areas, the most important effects will arrive indirectly, through flow on effects in human society. For example, while farmers might directly struggle with changing patterns of precipitation, urbanites will feel this indirectly through higher prices or shortages of food types affected by drought, flood or heat wave. In a system as complex as human society, global warming will only ever be one factor in such a news story. There will be government regulations, transport strikes, supermarket profits and all kinds of other factors that are also affecting the price and availability of food, which may at times mask the effects of climate change. Indeed, it may be that the proximate cause of a particular news story apparently has nothing to do with climate change, but a less stable climate may be the background against which a particular issue is worse than it might otherwise be.

For instance, Australia has always had cycles of drought, and Australian agriculture has always heavily influenced by the natural and quasi-periodic ENSO climate pattern. Climate change may increase the length and severity of periods of drought, leaving crops and livestock stressed and more vulnerable to a variety of adverse events. Ecosystems are pushed closer to the edge; their ability to cope with new threats is reduced. So while a new outbreak of disease or infestation from an introduced species might grab the headline, it may have been climate change that lowered the defences.

Or, to pick another plausible scenario, international conflict could be sparker over stressed water resources (such as the Jordan river, which is dying). The proximate cause of such conflict might be inequitable access to a water source, incompatible policies and allocations between nations sharing a common water source, inappropriate industry or population centres sited on the water source, a new dam or a pollution event. But again in the background could well be changing precipitation patterns leading to less water being available.

The most important medium-term effects of a changing climate are likely to be greater political instability, at both intra and international levels. Although there has been much discussion of ecological refugees from rising sea levels, I suspect higher numbers of refugees will be fleeing conflict and violence in places where climate change is an ultimate (though not necessary proximate) cause.

Here are some quotes from retired high-ranking US military figures (source):

Lt. General John G. Castellaw (US Army, Retired): “This isn’t an environmental issue, this is a security issue. Our strategic interests, and therefore our national security and the safety of Americans, are threatened by climate change and our continuing dependence on oil. Military leaders know this isn’t about polar bears and ice caps, it’s about international stability and national security.”

Major General Paul Monroe (US Army, Retired): “We make a profound strategic error if we underestimate the impact that climate has on regional and international stability. Some of our most worrisome trouble spots around the world are dangerous because of a combination of climate problems and social unrest – Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen are strong examples.”
This is why responding to climate change is not simply about reducing our carbon footprint (as important as that may be). It is also crucial that we re-invest in the resilience of local and regional communities. Dangerous climate change is dangerous partially because it is likely to increase the frequency and severity of events that threaten the social fabric. And it will be tensions or breakdowns in the social fabric that bring climate change close to home for many people.

This too is another site at which the Christian message is good news. Christ summons us into experimental communities of peace and forgiveness, places where people look to the interests of others before their own, where joy and hope can be found amidst sorrow and grief, where failure is not final. Jesus is the pioneer of a living way that refuses to perpetuate cycles of recrimination, returns hatred with blessing and recognises that love is important that self-protection. We walk in his footsteps not in order to survive a world that may grow more violent, or because it is the church's task to achieve world peace. We follow Christ simply because it is he who has issued the summons.
Second image by Andrew Filmer.

Friday, May 14, 2010

How inevitable is decline?

Have we passed the point of no return?
Our contemporary industrial society is sick. But how bad is our diagnosis? Do we have a mild illness requiring a brief lie down and an aspirin, a major problem requiring emergency surgery, or a terminal illness beyond curative treatment, leaving only better or worse palliative care?

Dark Mountain
There has been an interesting debate on this question upfolding recently on the Guardian website between what may be viewed as different branches of environmentalism. To understand the debate, you first need to get a bit of a handle on a new movement in the UK called The Dark Mountain Project (DMP). Launched just over a year ago by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, DMP is a literary and cultural project exploring new stories for an age of collapse and transition. Their manifesto can be found here, though this quote might give you a taste of their perspective:

"This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop."
So while being deeply pessimistic about the chances of continuing life as we know it, they are searching for new (or renewed) cultural narratives to guide us through what they expect will be a period of widespread ecological, social, economic and political change. In particular, those at the DMP are quite critical of an optimistic environmentalism that sees us developing and implementing technological solutions to ecological crises based around a low-carbon economy that will enable the continued economic development of a social and cultural trajectory not too dissimilar to the one we're already on, that the future will be merely "an upgraded version of the present". Nicholas Stern's newish book is one example of this kind of thinking. In other words, DMP are questioning whether sustainable development is really sustainable if it assumes the necessity and desirability of ongoing industrial development in even the developed world. I have previously quoted John Michael Greer, who spoke about contemporary industrial society facing a predicament, not merely a series of problems. That is the basic idea: that we need to work out how to best cushion a now inevitable descent from our current level of social complexity, and Dark Mountain wants to explore cultural narratives other than the myth of progress.

Dark Mountain is gaining a bit of a following, and are holding their first festival in Wales in a few weeks' time. One of the keynote speakers at the festival is well-known Guardian journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot.

The Guardian debate
Monbiot started the Guardian conversation on Tuesday with an article titled "I share their despair, but I'm not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain. He accused the DMP of "giving up" on industrial civilisation, being content to wait for its downfall, which will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we ignore the real opportunities to reform the current system.

Kingsnorth and Hine, founders of Dark Mountain, came back yesterday with "The environmental movement needs to stop pretending". They rejected Monbiot's portrayal of their ideas and charged mainstream environmentalism (including Monbiot) with having been co-opted by capitalist dreams of endless growth, just with wind farms replacing coal.

And then today, Simon Lewis, Royal Society research fellow at the Earth & Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds tried to find a mediating position in "Yes, we can change society before global crises overwhelm us". Lewis argues that Monbiot is too optimistic about the life expectancy of industrial civilisation while Kingsnorth and Hine are premature in issuing a terminal diagnosis. Instead, there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity.

A growing conversation
All three articles are contributions to an ethical and cultural debate that I think will only continue to grow in coming years. It is not a new debate, but it is likely to become increasingly mainstream as more people come to see the depth and breadth of ecological crises our industrial society has spawned. I think this exchange includes its fair share of misunderstandings and misrepresentations (for instance, it is clear that Kingsnorth and Hine are not advocating any kind of quietist despair, nor does Monbiot hope for endless growth. Nonetheless, these authors differ in their estimation of how deeply ecological crises cut into the arteries of our present way of life and how radically and rapidly things need to change as a result. Anyone who takes seriously our present crises will need to face these questions, and on our answers, new alliances and battlegrounds will be drawn.
Speaking of interesting Guardian articles, this one is also worth a read, pointing out that most of the current climate debate is way too simplistic and that scientific, economic, political and ethical questions are not be carefully enough distinguished.
Monbiot and Kingsnorth had an earlier run-in over these questions a little while back.

Ecological and resource crises facing industrial civilisation

Some threats to life as we know itSince my research involves responses to the perception of threats to life as we currently know it, I thought it might be useful to compile a list of some the serious ecological and resource difficulties that have resulted from the spectacular success of industrialism. This is not an exhaustive catalogue (I'd appreciate further suggestions), nor an attempt to rank the various issues, many of which are deeply interconnected. Some of these issues are more pressing than others.

• Climate change: including global warming, precipitation shifts (floods, droughts and shifting agricultural patterns), sea level rise, intensification of extreme weather events, cryosphere shrinkage, and more, including the subsequent risk of various geoengineering attempts (like this one by Bill Gates).

• Fresh water use (aquifer depletion, equity of access, water-borne diseases, local water stress, etc.). Thirty-six US States are predicted to have water shortages by 2015 and rainy London is building a desalination plant.

• Peak oil (and perhaps further off, peak gas and coal): the end of cheap energy. Note that warnings are coming from more and more credible/mainstream sources.

• Biodiversity loss (including extinction, functional extinction, decline in ecosystem complexity and resiliance and loss in genetic diversity within species)

• Destruction of natural habitats (especially forests, wetlands and coral reefs)

• Desertification

• Soil degradation (erosion, depletion and salinisation)

Ocean acidification

• Fisheries decline and collapse

• Phytoplankton decline

• Toxic pollution: plastics, heavy metals, hormones and other chemicals in the soils, air, oceans, aquifers, rivers and lakes

• Alteration of the nitrogen cycle (with many consequences, including marine hypoxia - "dead zones")

• Invasive species

• Increasing human share of global photosynthetic capacity (primary production), which is also in modest decline

• Radioactive waste

Pollinator decline

• Peak phosphorus (and a number of other minerals, though phosphorus seems to be the most pressing and crucial)

• Stratospheric ozone depletion and tropospheric ozone pollution

Antibiotic-resistant microbes (a.k.a. "superbugs")
Are there any here which you hadn't heard of? Any that I've missed? Part of the point of this list is to stress that climate change is but one of many threats, though it is a multiplier of a number of these problems (water access, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, ocean acidification and so on). The root cause of most of them is the combination of global population growth coupled with growth in per capita ecological footprint, though it is particularly the consumption patterns of the developed world over the last six decades that bear the lion's share of the blame.

For a partial list of some arresting statistics, try this post.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bee minus

The bee is small among flying creatures,
     but what it produces is the best of sweet things.

- Ecclesiasticus 11.3

The writer of Ecclesiasticus knew how wonderful honey is, but honey is only the second best gift we receive from bees.Yesterday's post may have been too obscure for some. I was attempting to draw attention to the latest UN report on global biodiversity Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, which is not a happy read. Here is a summary paragraph from page 67:
"The trends from available indicators suggest that the state of biodiversity is declining, the pressures upon it are increasing, and the benefits derived by humans from biodiversity are diminishing, but that the responses to address its loss are increasing. The overall message from these indicators is that despite the many efforts taken around the world to conserve biodiversity and use it sustainably, responses so far have not been adequate to address the scale of biodiversity loss or reduce the pressure."
On average, since 1970, wild vertebrate numbers have declined by almost one third, with highest losses in freshwater ecosystems (41%) and in the tropics (59%) (page 24). "The proportion of warm-water coral, bird, mammal and amphibian species expected to survive into the near future without additional conservation actions has declined over time." (page 29) There is more area designated as protected, but pressures on biodiversity are increasing.

Why does it matter? Well, apart from the inherent beauty of God's diverse creativity (which was part of the point of yesterday's post), here is a useful answer from page 23:
"Biodiversity is the variation that exists not just between the species of plants, animals, micro-organisms and other forms of life on the planet – but also within species, in the form of genetic diversity, and at the level of ecosystems in which species interact with one another and with the physical environment.

"This diversity is of vital importance to people, because it underpins a wide range of ecosystem services on which human societies have always depended, although their importance has often been greatly undervalued or ignored. When elements of biodiversity are lost, ecosystems become less resilient and their services threatened. More homogeneous, less varied landscapes or aquatic environments are often more vulnerable to sudden external pressures such as disease and climatic extremes."
Which brings us back to honeybees. Honeybees are not the most threatened species. They are not the most rapidly declining species. But they are becoming one of the new poster species for illustrating the economic value of biodiversity, because their contribution to the global economy through pollination is a staggering £26 billion per year (more than AU$43 billion). Honeybees are the primary pollinator for 90 commercial crops worldwide, including cotton, coffee, soya beans, clovers (used for cattle feed), nuts, sunflowers and a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, like apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots. Without their work, our diet would be far less tasty, since one third of crop species grown in the US would decline, disappear or become prohibitively expensive.

But since 2006, honeybees in many countries have shown alarming drops in population, often with entire colonies suddenly collapsing (in what has been creatively called colony collapse disorder). As yet, the causes are not well established. Although this problem is not global and its severity can be overstated, it is nonetheless emblematic of our dependence upon a highly complex and only partially understood network of life which is rapidly unravelling under our influence.
Bee troubles have even made their way into Douglas Coupland's most recent novel, Generation A, something of a belated sequel to his iconic novel Generation X (which coined the phrase). Not far into the future, bees have apparently been driven into functional extinction, and the narrative traces the tales of five individuals who are all suddenly stung, becoming unlikely symbols of hope in a world grown more fragile and desperate. It wasn't a perfect novel, but it was fun. I give it a bee minus.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Going, going, gone?

Art losses "worse than expected", according to latest global report
The art world is reeling from fresh revelations of the extent and pace of a destructive fungal growth that has been afflicting galleries worldwide.

A new report gathering data from hundreds of smaller studies and national bodies has revealed that tens of thousands of priceless pieces are at risk; some have already disintegrated under the relentless mould attack. The report, known as the Global Art Outlook is not the first time attention has been drawn to this situation, but the authoritative publication offers a global picture of just how rapidly the mould is spreading, demonstrating the failure of government and private action to slow the infestation to date.

An agreement back in 2002 to slow the rate of artistic decline and preserve art treasures at a global, national and regional level has not been kept, according to the report. Curators estimate that without drastic action, somewhere between 30 and 70% of all artworks could be lost over the coming decades. Metallic and stone sculptures are slightly more resistant, but paintings have been decimated. Oil canvasses are particularly vulnerable, and many well-known masterpieces are showing signs of the dreaded mould. High profile campaigns have saved a few, but art lovers despair at maintaining sufficient public interest for the thousands upon thousands of lesser known works.

In a joint statement following the release of the report, the Directors and Chief Curators of twelve of the world's most iconic galleries, including the Louvre, MoMA and London's National Gallery, warned, "This is a wake up call to humanity. We need a new vision for preserving artistic diversity from this mould."

Critics of the report were quick to remind the public of "Pollockgate", the controversy over a 2005 study which claimed that the works of noted artist Jackson Pollock were on the brink of mouldy disintegration. This study was later retracted when it was discovered that the variegated blotchy patches associated with the infestation were actually part of his work.

The share price of major European tour companies took a hit this morning when it was revealed that even major galleries like the Uffizi or Louvre could suffer a sudden disintegration of most of their art. Google rallied 3% on the strength of its digital libraries.

But local art critics warned that reliance on virtual art would undermine preservation and restoration of originals. "Once these pieces are gone, they are gone forever. Yes, we'll have photos of them, and memories, and in some cases even copies, but the world will be a much poorer place without The Scream or the Sistine Chapel, without anything directly from the hand of Dali or Da Vinci."

Despite these warnings, much of the public remains ignorant, apathetic or even sceptical of the scale of the problem. A recent poll found that 94% of respondents could not distinguish a Klee from a Klimt, and 71% said there was too much media focus on art problems that affect only a small segment of the population. One man, interviewed outside the Scottish National Gallery this morning said, "I haven't seen any works distintegrate and the local art gallery still seems to be open, not that I've ever been. Who needs all these artworks anyway? It's just a few paintings, it's not the end of the world. And besides, what's so bad about a fungus? I like mushrooms. Don't we need mould to bread down compost and other waste organic matter?"

The full report can be read here, or you can find a Guardian article here.
Anyone still scratching their head should make sure they look at the report I have linked to (yes, I know it is large, and yes, I know it is not about art). If all else fails, read my next post.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cleese on Electoral Reform

Made in 1987, but still largely relevant.

There is of course much being written about the newly announced Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Here is one piece of insightful commentary for those interested.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kim Fabricius on funerals

Kim Fabricius has written a fascinating reflection on how even many Christian funeral services undermine the gospel in a culture that so desperately needs to hear the truth about death and dying. Here is a taste:

Because it’s all about me and mine, funerals are now becoming customised “celebrations”, upbeat, nothing sad, no grief, no frank recognition of the grim reality of death – this is what ministers are hearing more and more when we meet the families of the “deceased”. Coffins are as likely to be draped with photos, flags, or sports memorabilia as with Christian symbols. One minute you’re singing “Amazing Grace”, and the next (never mind the inconsistency!) you’re hearing a CD of Frank Sinatra belting out “I Did It My Way”. And poems are read that are not only – let’s face it – mawkish and banal, but also completely untruthful: “Do not stand at my grave and cry: / I am not there, / I did not die” – but you did, you know. There is mounting pressure on ministers to collude in this make-believe, to direct and choreograph it.
I have ben intending to write some reflections of my own on Christian commemoration of the dead. While you're waiting for that, go over to Ben Myers' blog and read Kim's piece.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Presidents vs Parliaments and electoral reform

Brief reflections on the aftermath of the UK general election
The UK general election took some interesting twists last night. It was really a loss for every party, except perhaps the Greens (who gained their first ever seat) and the BNP (who tripled their vote share). The Conservatives received the most seats (306 of 649), but fell short of the outright majority they seemed so certain to achieve a few months ago. There was a significant swing against Labour, but it was not uniform or strong enough for a clear result, leaving them with 258 members. Despite slightly increasing their share of the popular vote, the Liberal Democrats lost seats and ended with 57. The Conservatives now claim the moral right to form government, having claimed the most seats and the highest proportion of the popular vote (36%), but Labour has the constitutional right as incumbent to try to make arrangements for a coalition government, and a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition can claim over 50% of the popular vote, despite also falling short of a majority needed to govern without challenge.

I am sure that the debates and negotiations will continue over the next hours and days. Will the Conservatives reach an agreement with the Lib Dems and form a minority government? Will Labour be able to cobble together a coalition with the Lib Dems to stay in power? Will the UK see another election before too long? Only time will tell. But the election does highlight some interesting aspects of the electoral system here.

The UK has a parliamentary, rather than a presidential system, which means that the PM is ultimately selected by the parliament rather than the people. The immediate object of any election under such a system is not to pick a new prime minister, but a new parliament, one of whose tasks is to find a party or coalition of parties whose leader can gain the support of, or at least not be actively opposed by, a majority of the parliament. This means that the negotiations currently underway are themselves an important part of the system. There is no need to assume that a hung parliament is itself a crisis of some kind. Many countries have been successfully governed by minority parties or by multi-party coalitions. There is nothing necessarily superior about a two party system.

However, the real problem that this election has again highlighted is with the first past the post voting system, which disconnects vote share from seats. One party with 36% of the popular vote can gain 47% of the seats while another with 23% ends up with less than 9%. The 2005 election was little different, with Labour gaining a huge majority of seats from under 40% of the popular votes.

And so, as I said in my previous post, there are other pressing issues for the UK, but this period of uncertainty brings with it an opportunity for electoral reform. Here is a new campaign from an interesting alliance of 18 organisations - including dedicated reform groups as well as Christian and major environmental organisations. They are calling for "a Citizens Convention to be convened to decide on a new voting system to be put to the people in a referendum."

As always, it easier to be in opposition, where criticism can outstrip constructive efforts. Will this disparate coalition find sufficient common ground to put forward a workable alternative to the current flawed model? That too, remains to be seen.

UPDATE: For those who believe that reform still matters, even if there is no perfect system, apart from the petition mentioned above, you can also sign one here

Thursday, May 06, 2010

UK General Election 2010

Today the UK goes to the polls to elect a new House of Commons. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions. I am very interested in this election for at least five reasons:

• As Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK, we get to vote. As far as I can tell, this is one of the few remaining legal privileges of the echos of Empire. For instance, many people assume that my daughter automatically gets a UK passport, since she was born here, but that is no longer the case. We would have to be residents for five years before she could apply for one. In any case, this could turn out to be my only chance to vote in a national election outside Australia (unless either the new government or my PhD goes really pear-shaped).

• For the first time, I will witness a genuinely three-cornered race. In case, you haven't been following it, the Labour government under Gordon Brown has slipped into third place behind not only their traditional rivals in the Conservative Party (led by David Cameron) but also behind the previously-minor Liberal Democrat Party, led by Nick Clegg (though within the last 24 hours, it looks like Labour has moved back into second place). For the first time in the UK, this campaign period included televised debates between the three leaders and following the first debate, Clegg's popularity soared. While it is unlikely that the Lib Dems will form government, there is a strong chance of a hung parliament and a governing coalition with Labour. I don't think they have ruled out forming a coalition with the Conservatives, but I get the impression this is less likely. There has been a lot of fear-mongering in the media about the weakness of coalition government, but much of my life has been under a very strong coalition national government in Australia, and that is not particularly unusual.

• Our electorate, South Edinburgh, is one of the most marginal in the country, being held by Labour in 2005 by about 400 votes over the Liberal Democrats. Although the electoral boundaries have a shifted a little since then, it remains a close seat. In a feat of bodily contortion, the sitting Labour member is standing down.

• Speaking of members standing down, this election will have the largest number of retiring incumbents since the 1945 post-war election (where there had been no election for ten years due to the war). Of the 650 MPs, almost 150 will not be standing again. This is largely due to the MPs' expenses scandal that has seen public trust in politicians sink to new lows. Incidentally, the outrage over what MP behaviour has also led to a reduction in MPs' retirement package, effective from after this election. This has nothing to do with the number standing down, of course.

• There are many important issues at stake, including electoral reform of the somewhat hopeless first past the post system. This is not the most important issue of the day, but it may well be front and centre after the election since the Liberal Democrats have indicated that it will be a non-negotiable condition of forming a coalition. Reform is patently in their interests, since in 2005 they won 22% of the popular vote, but gained less than 10% of seats. It is opposed by Labour, who gained almost 55% of seats with just over 35% of the popular vote.

I would say more about other issues separating the major parties (taxation, debt, energy, climate, health, education, foreign policy and so on), but want to get this post up before the election is already over. I am still making my final decision before I cast my vote this evening.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Serving the soil for the glory of God

1. God as creator has absolute sovereignty over the environment. We must use it only in accordance with His will; and we shall answer, collectively as well as individually, for all our decisions in this area.

2. Theologically, the primary function of the Creation is to serve as a revelation of God. To spoil the Creation is to disable it from performing this function.

3. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there is an intimate link between man and the soil. He is taken from the ground; his food is derived from it; he is command to till and to keep it; and he returns to it. This implies a psychological as well as theological bond. Although such facts should not be used to endorse naked territorialism, they do raise the consideration that rape of the environment is rape of the community itself.

4. The precise responsibility of man to his environment is defined very precisely in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

4.1 Man has to 'keep' it (Genesis 2.15). This is not simply an insistence on conservation. It designates man as guardian and protector of the ground.

4.2 Man is the servant of the ground (Genesis 2.15). This is the usual meaning of the Hebrew word popularly rendered to us as to till. Christian theology has largely failed to recognise this emphasis. Any insistence on the more widely perceived notion of man's dominion (Genesis 1.28) must be balanced by the less familiar but equally important concept of man as servant. [...]

6. Man's relationship with his environment has been disrupted by the Fall. One primary symptom of this is that he is always tempted to allow economic considerations to override ecological ones.
- Donald Macleod, excerpt of testimony to Harris superquarry public inquiry,
quoted in Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul (London: Aurum, 2001), 233-34.
This is a brief example of a theological case for our responsibility towards the earth as God's good creation. It is not attempting to be exhaustive and was for a particular polemical purpose, but I thought I'd post it as an example. Thoughts?
Image by Celia Carroll.