Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The end of the world as we know it?

"Talking in terms of "apocalypse" gets in the way of thinking clearly about the situation we're in. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. What we're facing is, very likely, the breakdown of many of the systems and ways of doing things that we (in countries like the UK or the USA) grew up taking for granted. But this is not going to play out with the speed of a Hollywood disaster movie or the finality of the Christian Day of Judgement."

- Dougald Hine, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project.

My research interest is in the perception of the likely end of the world as we know it. This is a somewhat vague term, and ranges from Star Trek to Mad Max (or perhaps even The Road). The reality is likely to be somewhere in the middle of course. This whole discussion on the Dark Mountain website is a good example of a group of people reflecting upon this perception, though the range of expectations is quite diverse (some are considerably darker than others), as is the range of emotional responses to this perception.

Social discontinuities are nothing new. There have always been revolutions, wars and game-changing social transformations. My interest is whether there might not be something novel in our present situation and the kinds of perceptions and fears it generates. Articulating that novelty is something that I've been working on for some time and I will post more about this over the coming months.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Christians must grieve (and fear, rejoice and desire)

Or, why tranquility is overrated (for now)

"And so a rightly directed will is love in a good sense and a perverted will is love in a bad sense. Therefore a love which strains after the possession of the loved object is desire; and the love which possess and enjoys that object is joy. The love that shuns what opposes it is fear, while the love that feels that opposition when it happens is grief."

- Augustine, City of God (trans. Henry Bettenson), XIV.7.

The four basic passions (or loves) fall out on a simple grid: future or present, attraction or repulsion. Attraction in the present is joy, in the future is desire. Repulsion in the future is fear and in the present, grief. In each case, Augustine argues that there can be good or bad versions, depending on whether the love in question is rightly directed or perverted. This put him in opposition to Stoicism, which saw these four as emotional disturbance of the mind and as the origin of all moral failings.

Augustine goes on to show how the Stoics (Cicero in particular) argue that for three of these emotions there is a corresponding disposition "in the mind of a wise man". Desire, joy and fear are each disorders, Cicero argued, and need to be replaced by will, gladness and caution respectively. The difference between the positive and negative term in each case was for Cicero whether they could be held without variation. For example, caution differs from fear in being always present in the mind of the wise and thus not dependent upon changing circumstances, unlike fear, which comes and goes in the presence or absence of a threat. Mental vacillation arising from responding to changing circumstances was thus the cause of all moral fault. The highest virtue is apatheia, impassibility.

While desire, fear and joy each have a positive (since unchanging) Stoic counterpart, Cicero has no place for any disposition corresponding to grief. This is a significant omission, since it reveals a crucial difference between Cicero and Augustine, or between Stoicism and Christianity, namely the place of suffering. For the Stoic, it is impossible for the wise to suffer, since wisdom provides a stability of mind that is the opposite of the perturbations of suffering. Only a fool suffers the fickleness of the passions (desire, joy, fear, grief). If one is wise, then the steady dispositions of will, gladness and caution are unchanging in all circumstances.

The difference in the Christian mindset is eschatology: that the world is open to God's coming future, revealing the present brokenness of all things. This opens the possibility of suffering not always being purely negative. Suffering that yearns towards the future is ever pierced by the failures of the present ("the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present"). The restlessness of Christian desire ("our heart is restless until it rests in you") is not a failure of wisdom or stability, but the proper expression of creation's present fragmentation. Augustine is clear that these disturbing passions are proper to us in this present age. The impassibility so cherished by the Stoics is for Augustine a future hope, but currently an inhuman impossibility "while we are in this place of misery". It is inhuman because to not feel anything means you're not paying attention. It is impossible because no one has so lost touch with their natural feelings as to be entirely impervious to the vicissitudes of life as we presently experience it.

And so grief is as crucial to a healthy heart as desire, joy or fear because the world is not as it should be. Augustine locates the expression of this present fragmentation in the experience of disordered desire, that is, in sin. Grief is therefore primarily grief over sin, as the apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 7.8-11. The possibility of grief arises from the tension between what God has promised and our present experience of failure. And it is not just grief, but all the emotions that depend on this dynamic. We rightly fear sinning more than any physical pain or loss. We rejoice over the repentance of our neighbour. We desire God's promises to reach fruition. And we grieve when we find ourselves once again at fault.

These emotions can be expressions of our disordered hearts, where we fear or desire, rejoice or grieve over the wrong things, or in the wrong way. But Augustine is adamant that the faithful Christian life (and therefore, the truly human life) includes each of these emotions in their proper place.
"Among us Christians, on the other hand, the citizens of the Holy City of God, as they live by God's standards in the pilgrimage of this present life, feel fear and desire, pain and gladness in conformity with the holy Scriptures and sound doctrine; and because their love is right, all these feelings are right in them."

- Augustine, City of God, XIV.9.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We belong to mother earth

"The man whom God has created in his image, that is in freedom, is the man who is formed out of earth. Darwin and Feuerbach themselves could not speak any more strongly. Man's origin is in a piece of earth. His bond with the earth belongs to his essential being. The 'earth is his mother'; he comes out of her womb. Of course, the ground from which man is taken is still not the cursed but the blessed ground. It is God's earth out of which man is taken. From it he has his body. His body belongs to his essential being. Man's body is not his prison, his shell, his exterior, but man himself. Man does not 'have' a body; he does not 'have' a soul; rather he 'is' body and soul. Man in the beginning is really his body. He is one. [...] The man who renounces his body renounces his existence before God the Creator. The essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body. Man has his existence as existence on earth; he does not come to the earthly world from above, driven and enslaved by a cruel fate. He comes out of the earth in which he slept and was dead; he is called out by the Word of God the Almighty, in himself a piece of earth, but earth called into human being by God. 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall sine upon thee.' (Ephesians 5.14)"

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation
(trans. John C. Fletcher; London: SCM, 1966 [1932-33]), 45.

We belong to the earth. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. Only the body can save the soul. And we believe in the resurrection of the body.

But if our origin is earthy and our destiny is bodily, how then can our allegiance be to heaven? Because heaven is not our destination; it is the source of our hope. The wounded earth does not contain the origin of its own healing. It requires heavenly aid. Let me say this again: we are not aiming to get into heaven, but to have heaven get into us, for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hope in what is unseen

"The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

"Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something that is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from 'elsewhere'. It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now."
- Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Hvížďala,
(Knopf, 1990), 181.
H/T Entersection.
"Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?"
- Romans 8.24b.
We act (and wait) because of hope. The wellspring of genuine Christian action (and patience, even in adversity) is found not in the conditions which confront us. We do not act because we might be successful. The shape of Christian action may be tempered by compromise, the recognition of the good that is actually possible, but the motive for action is never the success of the enterprise. It can only be faithfulness to the God who has promised, love for the groaning world and the hope that what is not yet seen may yet appear.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Top Ten Documentaries I

As with my recent list of top ten films, these are not my all time top ten, just my top ten for the last twelve months or so. I might have missed some, since we watch some programmes on BBC iPlayer, and there is no easy way to access a list of old viewings.

10. Fog of War
9. My Kid Could Paint That
8. The Box that Changed Britain
7. Waltz with Bashir
6. The End of the Line
5. Man on Wire
4. Home
3. Rivers and Tides
2. Life (BBC series)
1. How Earth Made Us (BBC series)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Life out of control

"In a culture of fear we must take great care not to assume that our attempts to become invulnerable to threat are necessarily consistent with God's purposes. In fact, as I will argue below, divine providence, rightly understood, teaches us to trust in God's future so that we may release our desire for control."

- Scott Bader-Sayer, Following Jesus in a culture of fear
(Grand Rapids, Mi.; Brazos, 2007), 123.

Do you sometimes feel your life is out of control? Do you always want to be "on top of things"? Is your primary concern to ensure that you and those you love are safe?

There is great liberation in acknowledging that life is always lived out of control. I am not able to ensure the removal of all risk and threat. In fact, sometimes situations of danger and uncertainty are precisely the opportunities for new paths forward. Vulnerability is not only being open to pain and loss, but also being open to new life.

Of course, the opposite temptation is to abdicate responsibility, to go with the flow and be a puppet of whatever forces you don't want to look at.

Why newspapers are useless

"Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."

- Ben Hecht

Of course, Hecht wasn't aware of blogs. If he had been, then he would have known better.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tribalism and the church

Andrew Katay scores one for the team with a post on tribalism (as part of his ongoing series explaining what he does (and doesn't) think about justification).

Gillard and the girls

"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult."
-Charlotte Whitton
Australia has a new Prime Minister. RIP Kevin Rudd. Long live Julia Gillard.

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about this transition, from Rudd's inability to trust, to whether Gillard's move was its result or justification, from his record popularity earlier this year, to the hundred million dollars spent by the mining industry on undermining him, and from the single Liberal vote that ousted Turnbull and sank the ETS (with the help of the Greens), to Rudd's failure to use his double dissolution trigger. We can talk about a figure from Labor left taking the reins, the role of Labor right in bringing it about, of the likely timing of an election, of Gillard's chances against Abbott and of likely shifts in emphasis. Will the mining tax be dropped? Will the ETS be revived? We can even note the milestone that Gillard will be Elizabeth II's 150th prime minister.

However, just for a moment, can we notice something really novel? Not only is Julia Gillard Australia's first female prime minister, a notable landmark in itself (and on her first half-birthday crushing my daughter's possibility of being the same), but look around a little more and notice that this isn't an isolated phenomenon. For the first time, I am represented by women at all three levels of government: local, state and national. But it even goes beyond that. Can anyone beat this?
"Women really do rule the world. They just haven't figured it out yet. When they do, and they will, we're all in big big trouble."
- Doctor Leon

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Schadenfreude and BP investors

George Monbiot says he has no sympathy for investors burned by the BP share price crisis (BP shares have been haemorrhaging value almost as fast as, well, you know what). They were warned about the dangers many times, he says.

"Call me a hard-hearted bastard, but I'm finding it difficult to summon up the sympathy demanded by the institutional investors now threatening to sue BP. They claim that the company inflated its share price by misrepresenting its safety record. I don't know whether this is true, but I do know that the investors did all they could not to find out. They have just been presented with the bill for the years they spent shouting down anyone who questioned the company.

"They might not have been warned by BP, but they were warned repeatedly by environmental groups and ethical investment funds. Every year, at BP's annual general meetings, they were invited to ask the firm to provide more information about the environmental and social risks it was taking. Every year they voted instead for BP to keep them in the dark."
Personally, I wonder whether his argument doesn't go far enough. Those who have seen their shares or pensions losing value ought to actually be thankful that limited liability shareholding means that the most they can lose is the value of their shares. As partial owners of the company, they are not held responsible (beyond a certain point) for its actions, yet it was partially their failure in putting profits ahead of all other considerations that lead to the current mess.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On being evangelical: a question of loyalty

The gospel is a critical agent in human hearts and history. To be evangelical (to be a gospel person) is to affirm God's good world through cross and resurrection: that is, not simply and straight-forwardly to say "yes" to everything as it is, but to see it through the double lens of cross and resurrection, in which human pride and culture and institutions and traditions and "evangelicalism" (and "post-evangelicalism" and "anti-evangelicalism") are judged and found wanting, but then also raised to God's new life. To be a gospel person is to be against the world, for the world. It will also sometimes mean being against "evangelicalism" for the sake of the gospel. The good news of Jesus doesn't let us sit comfortably where we presently are, but draws us forward into the future promised by the cross and resurrection of Christ. And so to be evangelical means being open to critique, open to new light breaking forth from God's good news, which remains good and remains new. To be evangelical is to accept and offer "critique from within" and to allow my own proud stance of wanting to view things critically from the outside to be itself crucified.

If we belong to God and his coming future, and to the future of this world, we groan at the inadequacies of this world and at the inadequacies of all attempts to anticipate the resurrection of the dead.

This conception of being evangelical is not defined by loyalty to particular cultural traditions or to one party on certain contested social and ethical disputes, far less by loyalty to a particular political movement. It is not even defined by loyalty to the Holy Scriptures, at least not directly. To be evangelical is to be loyal to the Christ who meets us in and with the good news of the kingdom of God and to allow that loyalty to shape all our affections and desires, our fears and hopes, our identity and destiny.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Making a mess is easier than cleaning it up

A major UK paper has been forced to retract an article filled with false smears against the IPCC and climate scientists. The so-called "Amazongate" scandal was a complete beat-up (like much of the woeful mainstream coverage of climate "scandals"). Basically every claim in the article was acknowledged as false or misleading. The real scandal was not found at the IPCC, but in a media and blog world where such claims were immediately picked up and echoed on literally thousands of sites. Ironically, the accusation levelled at the scientists (making claims based on unsubstantiated sources) was actually only true of the journalists and bloggers who repeated it.

The Sunday Times only made the embarrassing retraction when one of the scientists blatantly misquoted and slandered in the article complained to the UK's Press Complaints Commission.

The sad thing is that each step of the process of complaint, investigation and correction probably used considerably more time, energy and money than the original investigation and publication. Misinformation is much, much easier to create than to clean up. Much like oil spills, I guess.

Top Ten Films III

Time for another top ten list. The earlier lists can be found here and here. As with those, these are not necessarily films released recently, but the best ten films I've seen (in cinema or on DVD) recently (last 12 months approximately). And as an arbitrary way of keeping the list a little more manageable than it might otherwise be, I'm excluding docos, which I'll post later.

10. Gran Torrino
9. Red Road
8. A Serious Man
7. The Wrestler
6. 4 Months, 3 weeks And 2 Days (Romanian: 4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile)
5. Breaking the Waves
4. The White Ribbon
3. In Bruges
2. Apocalypse Now Redux
1. Let the Right One In (Swedish: Låt den rätte komma in)
And some honourable mentions since I've had so long since the last list:
The Straight Story, Fish Tank, District 9.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


A great piece in the SMH by Elizabeth Farrally a little while back on the meaning of disgust and how we are often disgusted at the wrong things.
H/T Virginia.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why I failed to finish my reading

We've all been there. Drooping eyes, wandering mind, tired body, slogging through a reading that looks like it is going to finish us off before we finish it off. What is the cause of this terrible malady? As Eric points out, the answer is, naturally, ice-cold demons.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Deforestation in Australia

The destruction of ancient forests is one of the most polluting, harmful and unnecessary things we do. Ancient forests typically store many times the biodiversity and carbon content of regrowth or plantation forests, as well as generally being more difficult to harvest for timber than plantations. In Australia, with the growth of overseas and local timber plantations, there is an ever decreasing market for the logging of old growth regions.

A national poll commissioned by The Greens and conducted by Galaxy this week discovered that there is strong public support for ending logging in native forests.
  • 90% of Australians are in favour of protecting remaining high conservation value forests in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales in national parks.
  • 77% agree that the Rudd Government should stop the logging of native forests, which contain large amounts of carbon that would be stored by ending forest clearance
  • 72% are in favour of the Federal Government assisting logging contractors to take redundancies, retrain or move permanently to a plantation based industry.
What do you think: are there any good reasons to continue logging of old growth forests in Australia?
Image by Celia Carroll.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Human Power Station

I had heard about this programme, but didn't know the name until now. The basic idea is that a typical family of four go about their average daily routine in a standard house that, unbeknownst to them, is connected to a human power station of over seventy cyclists in a nearby warehouse. The idea is to make us stop and think about the power we take for granted.

I have mentioned the energy density of oil before, but it is worth remembering that a single barrel of oil gives the equivalent of around 10 years of human labour (depending on your assumptions). Or to put it another way, at current rates of daily usage,* the average Australian has the equivalent of 172 slaves working 24/7 for them in the form of oil energy. This doesn't include other fossil fuels.
*Based on per capita Australian oil usage. Other nationalities can consult the table in that link to make the relevant calculations.

What does this mean? That fossil fuels have enabled us to achieve all kinds of amazing things that previous generations could only dream of. That cheap energy has become so deeply woven into our lives that we ofetn don't notice the miracle we are living, the deep historical novelty of our situation. And that, given the finite supply of fossil fuels and their various nasty side-effects, our profound addiction to this incredible economic stimulant might require some serious rehab.
H/T Gareth.

Peer review as spam filter

This is a good brief read on why peer-reviewed science is not about to be replaced by blog science. In short, peer review cuts out the spam and indicates what might be worth reading.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Oil and political instability: a long story

This article was interesting reading: BP's long history of destroying the world.

Did you know that the 1953 Iranian coup orchestrated by the CIA and UK intelligence against prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh was conducted largely in order to protect the oil interests of the company that is today called BP?

That coup lead to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis that helped to bring down President Carter and his plans for an America less addicted to oil. The revolution also lead to a nine year war with Iraq, the latter being supported by the US. It also led to the 1983 Beruit barracks bombing and to the funding and inspiration of a global anti-Western Islamist terrorist movement.

Now of course, all this can't be laid at the feet of BP. Successive governments, both western and middle eastern, have played far more significant roles, as have various other groups and influences. Furthermore, I am no expert in twentieth-century history and realise that some of the material above is disputed. Nonetheless, it is important to connect some of the dots that lead from our oil-hungry way of life to historical and contemporary political instability and violence.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is the BP gusher the greatest ecological disaster in US history? No.

"On Meet the Press recently, energy and climate czar Carol Browner said the Gulf spill is 'probably the biggest environmental disaster the country has ever faced.' In a speech this week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the spill 'the largest environmental disaster in American history.'

"Both were eager to show how seriously the Administration is taking this disaster – and both were wrong. America is in the middle of several environmental disasters whose impacts affect not only the Gulf Coast, but all our coasts and everything in between.

"One of the crises, of course, is global climate change – the insidious self-afflicted tragedy whose adverse impacts already are underway, some to be felt for the next 1,000 years according to government researchers.

"Another is freshwater supplies. After surveying water officials around the country in 2003, the General Accounting Office reported that 36 states were expecting shortages of fresh water by 2013, even without drought. Some experts say those shortages are already underway with adverse consequences for energy production, agriculture and peace between neighbors. As the Economist recently noted in a special section on water, we can find substitutes for oil but there is no substitute for water.

"The casualty list goes on: ocean acidification, nitrogen loading, the destruction of wetlands, forests falling to fires and bugs, the decline in soil fertility due to mono-agriculture, the loss of biodiversity, all with very real consequences for our economy, safety and health."
The BP oil gusher (it is not an oil spill, which implies a finite container spilling out) is indeed a terrible disaster and will continue for many weeks or months yet. But it is not going to end the world. It will continue to be a very major problem for the Gulf of Mexico, especially the southern states of the US.

Yet as this quote points out, it is neither the only nor the greatest ecological disaster in the US, let alone the world. We just don't hear as much about the others because they don't have sexy pictures of birds covered in oil, occur on timescales of years or decades rather than weeks or months, and because they cannot be easily blamed on a single company or individual.

Although these other disasters might not make as many headlines, this doesn't mean they are smaller or less important. I have previously attempted to list some of the many ecological and resource challenges facing the world (not just the US). It is tempting to pick one of these and decide that it is the most crucial and minimise the others in order to make more political elbow-room for one's favourite cause, but that is ultimately short-sighted. We need to face them all. They may not be equally threatening, but black-and-white thinking that assumes that for one to be taken seriously, the others can or must be ignored is itself one of the great dangers we face.

Indeed, one of the second order problems is that so many of these threats are interrelated. Biodiversity loss is multiplied by climate change. Deforestation contributes to carbon dioxide levels. Peak oil will tempt us to exploit non-conventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, accelerating the loss of boreal forests. Decline of fish stocks increases pressure on agriculture and soil degradation. Monocultural agriculture creates nitrogen runoff and creates oceanic dead zones. And so on and so on.

Let us not lose the wood for the trees. These connections are crucial to understand so that we don't push down a bump in the carpet only to have it reappear elsewhere. Any response requires joined up thinking that can see patterns and relations. So many of these problems have underlying causes in the rapid growth of human activity associated with the globalisation of industrialism and its evil twin, consumerism. Until we face the roots of these issues, we are merely trying to treat the symptoms, often in ways that could ultimately worsen the prognosis.

Can Christians be capitalists?

"God is a relational being, whose priority is not economic growth, but right relationships both between humanity and himself and between human beings. Christ's injunction to 'love God and love your neighbour' points to the priority of relational wealth over financial wealth because love is a quality of relationships."
- Ross Gittins, summarising Michael Schulter
Ross Gittins, economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, has done a good job summarising a paper by Michael Schluter of the Relationships Foundation, a Christian think tank dedicated to re-conceptualising social and economic relations from a relational rather than purely economic standpoint.

Schluter's short paper makes five main criticisms of capitalism as we know it today: its exclusively materialistic vision; its tendency to offer rewards without responsibilities; its limitation of liabilities on shareholders; its tendency to disconnect people from places; and its undermining of social safeguards. Whether these criticisms apply to all forms of capitalism or only to what Schluter calls "corporate capitalism" is a question for further discussion, but as a brief and accessible Christian critique of trends in contemporary economic theory and practice, it's not a bad effort.

The whole paper is worth reading, but if you'd like a slightly condensed version, then at least look at Gittens' summary in the SMH. If you enjoyed Schluter's critique, you might also like to look at his brief outline of a possible alternative approach, called Beyond Capitalism: Towards a relational economy.
H/T Dad, John Shorter and Josh Kuswadi, who all sent me links to this article. I'm touched to know that so many people associate me with anti-capitalism.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Of apostrophes and snakes

A man after my own heart:

"Apostrophes, however, I love with all my heart. I support the correctly used apostrophe with that kind of fierce emotional investment in an irrelevance that most people reserve for football. (Go the team in the forthcoming thing, mind you.) I know punctuation rules well, derive a lamentably high percentage of my self-esteem from that knowledge and feel, again with my heart not my brain, that I'm a higher form of life than people who have either forgotten those rules or never been taught them."

- David Mitchell

Spend less. Earn less. Work less.

“Sooner or later we spend what we earn. So if want to consume less we must earn less, and if we want to earn less we must work less. At least, we must perform less paid work. If that sounds shocking today, it is nothing more than a call to resume the great historical trend of declining working hours. Until the trend was disrupted in the 1980s, falling working hours were regarded as the surest sign of social progress. A return to the downward trend would mean a social choice to take less of the gain from productivity growth in money income and more in free time.”
- Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: why we resist the truth about climate change (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010), 86-87.
A while back, I suggested we make wealth history. This is more or less what I meant. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And that is true both personally and as a society.

The goal is not simply less. The goal is more of the things that count: like time building and enjoying relationships of trust, time for reflection, time for rest, time to heal and dream and worship.

Of course, Hamilton has neglected two possibilities in this brief paragraph. The first is earning less through voluntary pay cuts. However, perhaps this can be regarded as agreeing to perform some of your paid work voluntarily. The second is generosity, in which money earned is not spent but rather given away to those in need. While this may increase the consumption levels of the recipient, this is a good thing if it means their basic needs are now met. However, if it simply means someone else consuming unnecessary luxuries, then while it may have other worthy beneficial outcomes, ecologically it just pushes down one lump in the carpet only for it to reappear elsewhere.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rowling on the fringe benefits of failure

“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

- Seneca

J. K. Rowling recently delivered the commencement address at Harvard University to a group of new graduates. Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, it may well be worth twenty minutes of your time.

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. [...] I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. [...] I was set free because my greatest fear had been realised. [...] Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. [...] It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

Rowling's reflections upon her failures are funny and insightful. She tries to avoid the trivialisation and triumphalism of much self-help discourse in which failures are turned into success-in-disguise. She is willing to learn from her mistakes, but doesn't feel the need to treat them as anything but mistakes.
H/T Lis.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

In it for the money? Climate science funding

I often hear the claim that the 97% of active climate scientists who accept anthropogenic global warming must only take that stand because it is profitable to do so and they would lose their jobs or funding if they didn't. Here is a two part series showing why such an argument is ludicrous.

Part I
Part II

The bottom line? "In the United States, it is essentially impossible to get rich from public funding for research because there are rules that forbid institutions from allowing that to happen."

Friday, June 11, 2010

What Twitter is for

"Twitter is basically just an insignificance awareness engine."
I've never got into Twitter. I don't really intend to.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

You are what you eat: Christian consumption

"Our nation’s public economists usually refer to you in your capacity as consumer. This is in contrast to previous and wiser eras, when citizens were thought of as producers, and as savers. But we have departed from the way, and when disaster strikes, one of the things we think to do, is spend our way out of it. Republicans want to spend out way out this way, and Democrats that way, but we all think that consumption is king. Our understanding of consuming has become deranged.

But this is not because it is bad to consume. Your fundamental identity is wrapped up in what you consume. Here, at this Table, you assemble weekly to consume an oath, to drink a covenant. The issue is therefore an inescapable one — the question is not whether you will be a consumer, but rather what you will consume.

The world entices you to consume according to their principles, according to their law, according to their covenants. You must not. Rather, you come here in order to be disciplined according to the words of our Lord, and to have your desires and wants tamed and regulated by what you eat and drink here.

Learn consumption here. As you have done so, you will be equipped to behave like a sane person when you go out into the market. You will no longer spend as those who are without God and without hope in the world. When you learn consume rightly, you produce more than you consume, and you do so out of love for others. When Jesus fed the multitudes, they always wound up with more afterwards than they had when they started. He is doing the same thing here with us now."
- Doug Wilson. H/T Mike Bull.
Yes, we are all consumers, or at least we all consume, and this is not irrelevant to our identity, but nonetheless we are still not all necessarily consumerist. We are not defined simply by what we consume (even at the Lord’s table, since some consume to their own judgement), but by what we receive, what we give, what we share. Our god is not our stomach, even though we can certainly eat and drink to the glory of God.

Ten years

Ten years ago today, I was at St Mary's, Waverley, making some promises that truly make little sense except that they attempt to echo something of God's passionate commitment to us.

Here I am, ten years older, and still just as reliant upon the promises of God in order to keep my promises - and to renew them each time I fail.
Image by Scott Callaghan.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Solving the ecological crisis one customer at a time

"Executives at Philip Morris USA this week unveiled Marlboro Earth, a new eco-friendly cigarette that gradually eliminates the causes of global warming and environmental destruction at their source."
Read the full report.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

From the mouths of babes: dangerous addictions

“In 1983 companies spent $100 million annually advertising to children. By the end of the boom they were spending more than $17 billion. Each year children aged two to eleven see more than 25,000 television advertisements. [...] Children now begin to recognise corporate logos when they are as young as six months. A British study found that for one in four children the first recognisable work they utter is a brand name.”
- Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: why we resist the truth about climate change (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010), 86-87.
Parents worry about keeping their kids away from illegal drugs, and rightly so. Addictions to certain substances can ruin lives. But perhaps we ought to be more concerned about the industry designed to get our children addicted to compulsive consumption. In this addiction, the lives ruined will not just be their own.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Why do our conversations so often fail?

A guest post by Alastair Roberts

The convictions that we have about the form of the truth are undoubtedly among the most important that we have. They shape our notions of the sort of thing that we are looking for when we are looking for truth and our ideas of how we ought to go about it. One of my fundamental convictions about truth is that it takes the character of a conversation. Truth can never be reduced to a single perspective, or even be borne by a single voice.

Studying the New Testament played a crucial role in leading me to this conviction. Many people read the epistles of the Apostle Paul as if he were delivering lots of monologues on the doctrine of salvation, and fail to situate his voice within the context of particular conversations. The frequent attempts to recast the thought of Paul in a monological form, or to abstract Paul’s theological pronouncements from contingent dialogical contexts, can produce all sorts of difficulties when we seek to establish the consistency of his thought. In a similar manner, the relationship between the gospels is a lot easier to understand when we think of truth as a conversation. Taking such an approach we won’t seek to reduce the gospels to a single narrative, nor will we constantly play their differences off against each other. We also won’t leave them sealed off or isolated from each other.

If truth is a conversation, the way that that we should look for it is through dialogue. The truth is profoundly and inescapably multifaceted, involving various counterbalancing perspectives. Rather than seeking the complete annihilation of our conversation partner’s perspective, our goal should generally be the purifying and deepening of conversation. In pursuing such a goal confrontational and agonistic forms of dialogue can be profoundly important. If truthful and illuminating conversation is our goal then in all likelihood we will also frequently find that we are arguing positions that seem quite at odds with each other at first glance, arguing both sides of particular debates.

Given that I hold such an understanding of truth, it should come as no surprise that the character of productive discourse and its facilitation in various situations are matters of considerable interest and concern to me. Despite frequently failing in the area, encouraging healthy and fruitful conversations, with plenty of give and take, is something that I seek to aim for. I often wonder about the various reasons why certain conversations end in acrimony, fail to proceed beyond certain impasses, fail to produce any light, or isolate certain persons who could provide important or challenging contributions.

Sadly, so many of the discussions and conversations that I witness seem to be thwarted by prejudices, rushes to judgment, stereotypes, seeing imaginary threats when reading between the lines, heightened sensitivities, feelings of offence and other similar things. There are certain conversations that I hardly ever engage in any more as a result. I have often puzzled and pondered over whether there are key common causes for such breakdowns of conversation, something which I am witnessing in a huge range of social interactions. The impression that I have arrived at is that the underlying issue in numerous cases is a sort of paranoia, arising out of people’s sense of being vulnerable, out of control or persecuted.

Virtually everyone seems to think of themselves as a sort of victim nowadays. The liberal rhetoric of victimhood has been adopted by numerous groups and minorities. Even among those where such rhetoric isn’t widespread, a sense of persecution is not hard to find. Atheists, Christians, men, women, gay, straight, left wing, right wing, libertarian, authoritarian, rich, poor, people from virtually every racial or ethnic background, we all seem to have discovered ways to portray ourselves as being under threat and allow such portrayals powerfully to shape our engagements with others and our sense of self.

If you feel out of control, criticisms start to feel like personal threats or attacks (something that is a huge issue when dialoguing with people in the realm of identity politics). People who feel vulnerable and feel that they lack direct power also start to give meaning to every little thing. The term for this is paranoia. Every action or engagement with the paranoid person can become an occasion for a conversation with themselves, trying to deduce the meaning of insignificant acts. This is one reason why conspiracy theories flourish among the weak.

Academia is no longer the preserve of a privileged white male elite and increasingly the most important conversations that we need to have are with members of vulnerable minorities, or of groups who have been denied power or voice within society. The problem that we face is that of crafting productive and critical discourses in circumstances where many of the people that we most need to talk to are suffering to some degree or other from paranoia. On the one hand, these people have many things to say that we need to hear. On the other hand, there are often many areas of their perception of reality that derive more from paranoia than from a clear sense of the way that things actually are. These things need to be challenged, without provoking a sense that they are being personally attacked.

The traditional agonistic and confrontational style of discourse works well in an academy dominated by privileged white males. A traditional model of masculinity involved the raising of men in a competitive setting, where they were trained to get over their sense of vulnerability, stand up for themselves and take what came at them, without taking things personally, or running to an authority figure. This prepared men very well for fruitful engagement in a fairly confrontational and challenging form of discourse. Put a more paranoid person in such a form of discourse, though, and the conversation swiftly explodes or closes down. I think that there are valuable aspects to such form of discourse that we don’t want to lose. I am uncertain about how we could go about producing a more inclusive form of discourse that would be as successful a setting for critical discourse.

I suspect that this dynamic lies behind many reactions to N.T. Wright’s thought. People raised on the idea that the gospel is always under threat and the church always under attack, but with little sense of the actual power of the truth and authority of the church can succumb to a theological and ecclesiastical paranoia. So the church becomes threatened by some vast liberal conspiracy, every marginal theological party within the denomination is an attempt to take it over, every different theology is an attack on the heart of the gospel, any questioning of a theological formulation is regarded as an attempt to overthrow the truth, critics are demonized, and everything becomes polarized very quickly. I have yet to find an easy way to defuse this besides patience and long-term friendship and fellowship.

This post isn’t an attempt to present an answer to this issue. Rather, it is a tentative attempt at a diagnosis of a problem. I would be interested to hear the thoughts that people have on the accuracy or otherwise of this thesis, and of ways in which conversation can be encouraged in such cases.

Alastair is a PhD student at Durham University working on the developing format of Bibles in 16th and 17th century England, and on the effect that they had on engagement with the text. He used to blog prolifically at Adversaria and over the years, more than a few of his posts caught my eye.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Life choices and regret

“Long story short: we don’t get to make our lives up. We get to receive our lives as gifts. The story that says we should have no story except the story we chose [...] is a lie. To be human is to learn that we don’t get to make up our lives because we’re creatures [...]. Christian discipleship is about learning to receive our lives as gifts without regret.”
- Stanley Hauerwas.
Hauerwas is not saying that choices are irrelevant, simply that they are secondary to living well. More important than choosing is receiving with thanksgiving. This is a very countercultural claim in contemporary liberal democracies, where everything is geared towards the assumption that only things we have chosen are valid and that we ought to be shielded from anything we haven't selected.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Of gloom, doom and empty tombs

My old subheading used to be quite a mouthful:
A blog - always room for one more - devoted to thinking things through to the end. But not in a gloomy, doomy, or weird mushroomy kind of way, but in the roomy & quietly empty tomby kind of way that the God & Father of Jesus seems to work.
I changed it to make it snappier, but also to highlight a slight shift in focus here. The old description focused on "thinking things through to the end", i.e. on eschatology, the Christian doctrine of the 'last things' and of God's promised future in Christ. I then distinguished what I see as a properly Christian hope, based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead ("empty tomb"), from dark apocalyptic scenarios of destruction ("gloomy and doomy" eschatologies) as well as from unfounded speculation and wild conjecture ("weird mushroomy" eschatology). I have long had in my profile that one of my nemeses is "escapist eschatologies", that is, understandings of God's promised future that lead us away from engagement with the world and our neighbour based on the misunderstanding that this present life is either irrelevant or mere preparation, and that our physical existence is a problem from which we must be liberated. In short, I wanted to distinguish Christian hope for the redemption of the world from sub-Christian hope for redemption from the world.

I still hold to all that, but the emphasis has shifted.

Reflecting the focus of my PhD work, this blog now spends more time on the ethical implications of hope based on an empty tomb. I am now writing more about eschatological ethics than ethical eschatology.

And the particular context that interests me is pursuing such ethical reflection amongst the gloom and doom of our present situation of interlocking ecological crises, which threaten the viability of life as we currently know it. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with these threats knows things are bad, and the more you look, the worse things seem: complex, intractable and menacing.

How is it possible amidst such nightmares to maintain Christian hope? One solution is to deny the darkness of the gathering gloom, or declare it irrelevant in comparison to the glorious news of a resurrected saviour. But such answers are shallow and ultimately irrelevant because they are once more escapist. Good theology leads us back into our situation to see it afresh, not off into comforting timeless truths. Unless we can face the shadows with honesty and integrity (which will include grief and lamentation as ways of groaning in hope), then I suspect that our theology might not be walking the way of the cross. Only a theology that sits with those in darkness can hope for the coming dawn.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Life too complex?

" [...] the best place to start backing away from an overload of complexity is in the daily life of the individual. What sustains today’s social complexity, in the final analysis, is the extent to which individuals turn to complex systems to deal with their needs and wants. To turn away from complex systems on that individual level, in turn, is to undercut the basis for social complexity, and to begin building frameworks for meeting human needs and wants of a much simpler and thus more sustainable kind. It also has the advantage – not a small one – that it’s unnecessary to wait for international treaties, or government action, or anything else to begin having an effect on the situation; it’s possible to begin right here, right now, by identifying the complex systems on which you depend for the fulfillment of your needs and wants, and making changes in your own life to shift that dependency onto smaller or more local systems, or onto yourself, or onto nothing at all – after all, the simplest way to deal with a need or want, when doing so is biologically possible, is to stop needing or wanting it."

- John Michael Greer

How much freedom do we have to simplify our lives? It depends how strong our desire for simplicity is. As I said yesterday, sometimes less really is more. What couldn't you live without?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Joyfully embracing less (and more!)

Doing without. Making do. Cutting consumption. Dropping luxuries.

Often an ecologically responsible lifestyle is put forward as a necessary asceticism to avoid the worst of the outcomes for our former (and ongoing) profligacy: "If you fly, we all die." This method relies on guilt and fear to motivate change, which may have some initial success, but are generally quite terrible at securing long term transformation.

But it need not be so. While a certain measure of fear can be a healthy part of facing the truth of our situation, true conversion is not simply away from, but towards: away from the false idols of wealth, security, consumption, endless growth and towards the living and true way that is Christ. We don't just shun death; we embrace life. And while some degree of fasting from luxuries is a healthy spiritual discipline to focus the mind on the pleasures of God, Christian discipleship is also about feasting, celebration and joy. Lent gives way to Easter.

Another way of putting this, is that consumerism is a false idol, promising far more than it can deliver, and ultimately diminishing our capacity for real enjoyment of what it offered in the first place. Renouncing this idol is not primarily about ecological mitigation, but first it is a simple matter of spiritual health, of being truly alive, deeply human. By the way, this is one of the reasons why I am suspicious of "bright green" technological optimism, which promises us that if we just build enough nuclear plants/wind farms (delete according to taste), then we can go on as gluttonously as before. Our need to change goes far beyond our carbon footprint, or even our entire ecological footprint.

And so it is not only possible and necessary, but good in all kinds of senses (not just ecologically, but psychologically, relationally, socially, spiritually) to shun consumerism, where "I am what I buy", and embrace the living and true God, who gives us every good thing to enjoy. This may mean embracing a life of "less", but in more important ways it is also walking towards a life of more, much more.

Less purchasing unnecessary products out of boredom, jealousy, indifference, laziness or habit; more attention to the wonderful blessings one already has. Less "stuff" and clutter; more reclaiming of lost skills of resourcefulness, sharing, creativity and building to last.

Less climbing the career ladder to keep up with the Joneses, to afford the latest toy or to impress the parents/peers/pets; more satisfaction in thoughtful service of the common good. Fewer debts; more freedom. Fewer hours; more time.

Less solitary living; more discovering the joys and sorrows of community. Fewer mansions and holiday homes and investment properties; more being at home in oneself and in God.

Less meat and animal products; more creativity and health in cooking. Less year round supply of whatever foodstuff takes my fancy today, more appreciation of the seasons and local produce. Less fast food; more hospitality. Less unceasing gorging; more cycles of mindful fasting and celebratory feasting.

Less advertising; more contentment. Fewer toys; more fun. Fewer shoes; more walks. Fewer wardrobe changes; more changes of heart. Fewer boxes; more room in life for the unexpected. Less retail therapy; more healing of desire.

Less unnecessary driving; more perambulation, pedalling and public transport for exercise, socialising and increasing intimacy with the local area. Less international travel; more depth of appreciation for local delights. Less business travel, more saving time and money through video conferencing. Less suburban sprawl; more new urbanism.

Less reliance on a finite supply of cheap energy to meet my every whim; more consideration of what is worth doing. Less watching; more observation.

Less wealth; more riches. Fewer heavy burdens of fear, guilt, desperation; more hope, forgiveness, peace. Less treasure that fades; more treasure that lasts.

Three interesting ecological articles

In today's Guardian:

On this last one, it seems that a consumerist lifestyle has a double impact: directly through our own consumption and indirectly through emulation in the rising middle class of the developing world.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The real ethical question of our times

"[T]he problem with both old-style imperialism and modern corporate globalism: both serve money before love. The real ethical question of our times, then, is not which of biotechnology, organic agriculture, the motor car, heart transplants, fair trade or computers are, in themselves, 'a good thing'. That is a meaningless question. The real question is, rather, how and why and who and what do these things serve? Do they free the spirit and feed the hungry? Do they honour the diversity of life on Earth? Or do they, somewhere or for somebody or something, mean enslavement?"

- Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul: People verses Corporate Power
(London: Aurum, 2001), 102-3.

The best part of this autobiographical book (apart from the enthralling Hebridean narrative) is McIntosh's critique of consumerist idolatry, particularly of its emergent qualities, which only become visible at the macro-scale. The worst part is, as McIntosh predicts, "The Christians will say that it is all too pagan and the pagans will say it is too Christian." (p. 271). That is, McIntosh is not particularly concerned to represent the historic Christian faith, but is happy is cherry-pick theological motifs or concepts and use them for his own ends. This is somewhat disappointing, given that sometimes this undercuts the power of his critique and constructive suggestions.
Image by Celia Carroll.

The box that changed Britain (and the world)

I confess. I love a good doco. And we saw a fascinating one recently, called The Box that changed Britain. Unfortunately for UK residents, it has now expired on iPlayer (I should have mentioned it earlier).

In any case, the box in question is not, as you might have expected, the idiot box that has changed our recreational patterns, language, economic expectations, cultural awareness, attention spans, visual literacy and waistlines.

No, the box that changed Britain (and the world) is the humble shipping container (technically, an "intermodal container"). Prior to the invention of this now ubiquitous stackable steel box, loading and unloading ships' cargo was constrained by human muscle power and the vicissitudes of heavily unionized industrial relations. But when a US trucking owner came up the idea of standardised containers able to be mechanically manipulated, it caused nothing less than a shipping revolution. Within decades, the number of dockworkers in the UK dropped from about 130,000 to 11,000, while the volume of cargo shipped skyrocketed. The ease, security,* flexibility and simplicity of the design dropped transport costs and speed to a fraction of their former levels and so enabled a massive increase in world trade: more than a fivefold increase in global shipping volume in the last thirty years. In turn, this displaced much primary manufacturing from the developed to the developing world and was a very significant contributor to the process of globalisation and the consumption habits of the developed world.
*One curious statistic was that prior to containerisation, over a third of whisky shipped would be "damaged" in transit. With the advent of sealed containers, this dropped to almost zero. As my scare quotes indicate, this was less about freight stability and more about security.

It was an eye-opening narrative, though I thought they could have spent less time on the effect on docklands (significant though this was in many coastal cities) and more time on the cultural effects of boosted consumerism from the massive increase in world trade, not to mention the ecological effects of displacing production from consumption. Mass shipping effectively enabled developed nations to export much of their environmental degradation. In order words, shipping containers are one of the primary reasons why most estimates of developed nations' ecological footprint is too small, since they rarely take into account the effect of all the goods purchased in the developed world but made in the developing world.
I have just realised that a book was published in 2007 called The Box that changed the World, and another one came out in 2008 called The Box: How the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Destroying the destroyers of the earth

The internet is a funny thing. Over on Andrew Katay's blog, I've just e-run into an old school friend of my brother, Mark Stephens, and it turns out he has just finished a PhD on the cosmological continuity/discontinuity of the book of Revelation (i.e. how new is the "new heavens and new earth" of Revelation 21.1?), titled Destroying the Destroyers of the Earth: The Meaning and Function of New Creation in the book of Revelation. A book will be coming out next year with Mohr Siebeck, "so nobody will buy it, for fear of going broke", Mark says. Having had a brief look at the main arguments, I think it would be a real shame if nobody does buy it, since it looks great.

Of particular interest to me (amongst many other things, such as close readings of Romans 8 and 2 Peter 3) was the discussion of the verse from which the thesis gained its title: Revelation 11.18. The destruction of the destroyers of the earth becomes one of the major themes in the second half of Revelation. The imperial powers behind the rich symbolism of dragon, beast and Babylon are unmasked as demonic in nature, a system of oppression and accumulation that devours all it touches. And so despite their claims of bringing peace and prosperity (or national security and economic growth, if you like), the book unveils the whole system's true destructiveness, not simply of human society, but the land itself.
I have previously briefly outlined my take on the "new heavens and new earth".