Sunday, October 31, 2010

Global* agreement is possible

But is global action?
The recent international Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya ended with a historic agreement signed by over 200 nations.* Over the last few months, the convention had frequently been compared to the (largely) failed climate change convention held in Copenhagen at the end of last year.

However, unlike Copenhagen, there was (ultimately) agreement in Nagoya to slow the loss of biodiversity through increasing the area of the globe's surface that is protected from exploitation. Currently, thirteen percent of land and one percent of coastal and marine areas are protected, but these figures are to rise to seventeen and ten percent respectively. There was also a breakthrough agreements on how genetic information is handled, which has been seen as good news for developing countries (on the whole).

This is heartening, however, critics point to lack of funding to back up these targets. Amidst the celebrations over the achievements of this convention, it is sobering to remember that agreements made at the previous convention in 2002 have been largely ignored by governments over the last eight years.

The last two weeks have demonstrated that global* agreement on crucial ecological matters is still possible after Copenhagen. The question that remains is: how attainable is genuine global action?

*CORRECTION: When I said "global" agreement, I was only speaking of the 200-odd nations who signed the merely voluntary agreement. Of course I wasn't referring to the three micro-nations who have either not signed or not ratified the original 1992 convention and so are not a formal part of this process: Andorra, the Holy See, and the United States of America.
Image by MLS.

The fruitfulness of procrastination

When some people procrastinate, they still get more done than most of us manage in our most productive moments.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Age of Stupid

Today I went to a screening of The Age of Stupid, which was being shown as part of the Cineco Film Festival, a series of free ecological films showing around Edinburgh between September and November.

The Age of Stupid investigates the contradictions and myopia of our present age from the viewpoint of an archivist (Pete Postlethwaite) living in a remote Arctic refuge storing what could be salvaged of the world's cultural treasures, looking back from the year 2055 at decades of catastrophic climate change and using a glorified iPad to create a documentary warning for extraterrestrials. It doesn't sound like a format that will fly, and the film opens with apocalyptic images of London underwater, the Swiss Alps without snow, Las Vegas being covered by sand dunes and Sydney's CBD consumed in a towering inferno, further confirming my expectations that the film would consist largely of terrifying crystal ball gazing, showing an unfolding series of disasters that would lead to Postlethwaite's archivist on his lonely refuge. Instead, the 2055 viewpoint is a mere framing device to allow a pastiche of archival documentary and news footage from prior to 2009, along with original interviews following six or seven figures from around the world. The period between 2009 and 2055 is left largely blank and we are confronted directly with the stupidity of our own age.

The archivist narrator begins with this question:

"The amazing thing is we had a chance to avert this. The conditions we are experiencing now were actually caused by our behaviour in the period leading up to 2015. In other words, we could have saved ourselves. We could have saved ourselves, but we didn't. What state of mind were we in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off?"
And that is the focus of the film: the inability of our present society to join the dots between fighting climate change and wanting cheap flights, or hating wind farms. It is a moving and at times darkly amusing film, but the apocalyptic framing which grabs your attention also proves somewhat distracting, since the full devastating effects of climate change are left largely unstated. There is a brief discussion with Mark Lynas (author of the widely-read Six Degrees) and a couple of other hints (passing references to food riots, for instance), but the shape of the threat that could conceivably lead to the archivist's world is largely unspoken. Perhaps this was for the sake of time, or perhaps to avoid the charge of fear-mongering, though I think that a rational discussion of the genuine threats identified in the scientific literature is far more responsible (even if initially more terrifying) than a few apocalyptic images and a heavy dose of post-apocalyptic regret.

Once again, the film was stronger on the diagnosis of the problem than on offering plausible paths to how we might indeed "save ourselves", or (what might now be more realistic) offering healthy ways of salvaging what we can from a disaster that is now unavoidable, but whose effects can still be significantly reduced.

That said, I would still recommend the film as worth seeing. One particular highlight was the brief and clear explanation of contraction and convergence, which is a serious suggestion for how it is possible to slash global emissions while allowing developing nations to get out of stupid poverty. Of course, this means developing nations cutting their emissions even faster in order to leave some room for the global poor to meet their basic needs. This option is not politically viable, especially in the places where per capita emissions would need to fall the fastest (US, Australia, Canada and parts of the Middle East), but it is the most equitable of all the options on the table and has received support from a number of nations, including the UK.

Also coming up as part of the Cineco film festival are two more films that look very interesting. The first is called Our Daily Bread and consists almost purely of footage of contemporary industrial agricultural processes with commentary or soundtrack beyond environmental noises recorded with the footage, allowing the viewer to form her own opinions. It is screening at 6pm on the 12th November.

The second is called Dirt! and traces one of the major ecological challenges that doesn't receive much attention: the soil beneath our feet (and all too often, beneath our concrete too). In the last one hundred years, in different ways we have squandered about a third of all fertile topsoil on the planet. It is screening at 6pm on 17th November (Martin Hall, New College) and will include a panel discussion with local religious leaders. Here is the trailer.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What are the sources of obligation?

In a discussion on Milan's blog, I was asked, "what are the sources of moral obligation to the state and/or parents, aside from consent?" I thought I would post my answer (slightly edited).


What are the sources of obligation? Many and varied, though I would even want to question the language of “obligation” as a primary way of speaking about morality. I’d prefer to refer to concepts such as our freedom to love within moral community.

Opportunities to nourish the good and redeem what is evil are granted by God as gifts. They are occasions to reflect something of divine generosity and faithfulness and so to express our true humanity and creatureliness. Put in slightly less theological language, moral virtues are excellences in character that belong to what is properly humane and their development constitutes part of the gift and privilege of becoming more human, more ourselves.

A crucial aspect of human existence is our identity being formed in community, being received from those around us (not in a deterministic way, since the reception is not purely passive but can be creative). And so relationships of trust and mutual care are at the heart of ethical deliberation. We are therefore to honour the relationships into which we are born precisely as a reminder that our existence and identity are received, not self-forged.

These relationships may begin with a family circle (“honour your father and mother”) and move out from there. At higher levels of abstraction, such as a nation, then the appropriate honour may be quite limited. For a modern nation-state, as an invention of modernity, the appropriate form of honour may be quite minimal indeed. Established political authorities are part of the network of relationships into which we are born and which we are to receive with thanksgiving, though not without critical and creative receptivity to possibilities of growth and reform. And the necessity of such critical and creative work regarding the contemporary nation-state is evident in all kinds of ways, not least the ways in which most contemporary governments fail miserably in their appointed task of minimising evil in the ecological sphere, and so collude (with corporate power amongst other things) in the undermining of the conditions under which human society can flourish.

Such are some thoughts off the top of my head. Sorry if they are a little shorthand at points. Hopefully, they give you a little bit more of a taste of where I’m coming from. I began by noting the sources of moral obligation to be varied, and moved on to speak of our identity as humans (and as creatures: our moral community extends beyond the boundaries of homo sapiens). I could equally have spoken about becoming more like Jesus, the true human, or of living in light of God’s promised future, or living in line with the realities of the created order, or of the imitation of God’s gracious care, or of responsiveness to God's summons. Each of these require more unpacking. I guess my point is that I see morality as a web of sources and resources for growing in faith, hope and love. Consent takes its place amongst these resources as an aspect of human will expressed in relationships. Consent creates and requires trust (in some measure) and so forms part of faith (which is more or less another word for trust, in my book). Consent therefore has an important place in moral discussion, but not an exhaustive one (as is often assumed or claimed by many political liberals – using the word in the technical, rather than partisan sense, to refer to a worldview based on voluntarism and so placing consent at the core of interpersonal and political morality).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Republicans are no longer conservative

"The odd and troubling thing about this stance is not just that it prevents action. It’s also profoundly unconservative. If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees [= 14ºC], give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees [=16-17ºC] unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be 'similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.' Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on."

- Bill McKibben, "Why are conservatives so radical about the climate?".

The warming that McKibbon refers to is at the lower end of what is likely during the lifetime of my daughter if we aggressively reduce emissions faster than any proposal currently on the table. Even that amount of warming would be enough to seriously disrupt society, undermine global food production, push hundreds or thousands of species into extinction, leave the Arctic seasonally ice-free and commit us to multi-metre long term sea level rise. He's actually being quite conservative himself with these figures.

Contemporary industrial civilisation is conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment with the atmosphere. Can our present society survive a radically altered climate? How keen are we to find out?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Go home!

Ever find yourself strapped to your desk well after the end of your official hours? Does it happen often? When people ask you how you are, how often does your reply contain some variation on the answer "busy"?

Then stop reading blogs you might like to think about participating in Go Home On Time Day on 24th November in order to raise awareness of workaholism and overwork.

"Each year, Australians work more than 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime, worth an equivalent $72 billion.
For full-time workers, the average daily amount of unpaid work is 70 minutes which equates to six-and-a-half standard working weeks. Put another way, this is the equivalent of ‘donating’ more than your annual leave entitlement back to your employer.

"A consequence of overtime is ‘time poverty’ or not having enough time to do all the things you need or want to do. This can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health, your relationships with loved ones and your sense of what is important in life.

"One in four Australians report needing to go to the doctor but being ‘too busy’, while one in two don’t spend as much time as they would like with their family because of work. Work also prevents us from getting enough exercise, eating healthy meals, and other things that contribute to our wellbeing."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The real elephant in (or disappearing from) the room

The first rule of biodiversity is, you don't talk about biodiversity.

This is your life and it is ending one species at a time.

Yes, ok, so Edward Norton was recently(ish) appointed UN goodwill ambassador for biodiversity and this gives the possibility of all kinds of Fight Club quips. Fight Club remains one of my all time favourite films, but unlike his character in the film that redefined IKEA, this time Norton seems to have worked out who he is and what he wants to say. He has written a Guardian piece worth reading.

I've said many times before that climate change is not the greatest moral challenge of our time. Indeed, I don't even believe it is the greatest ecological challenge (and not just because putting in the basket labelled "environment" can make it seem like a luxury cause for the rich). Out of all the ecological crises we face, some are more pressing than others. Yet there are (at least) three ways to measure threats: how soon they will really begin to hurt, how much hurt they might do, and how long they will continue to hurt. In other words, their proximity, scale and duration.

From what I've read, biodiversity loss "wins" as the real elephant in (or disappearing from) the room. Perhaps not on proximity - other issues may well cut into human well-being sooner - but in terms of both scale and duration biodiversity losses have all kinds of potentially enormous (and largely unknown) knock-on effects. Most biologists agree that we are currently at the opening of the sixth great extinction event, that, viewed in retrospect, the present era will likely be visible as on a par or worse than most of the cataclysmic biological events on geological timescales. Humanity has become a force of nature.

And it is not just extinctions, but the loss of genetic diversity with species and of the functions that species decimated but not yet extinct no longer play in the web of life.

Haven't species always gone extinct? It's true; we don't see many dinosaurs around today. Indeed, based on fossil records, only about ten percent of all the species to have existed are still around today. Yet the current rate of loss is likely to be between one hundred and one thousand times the background natural rate, and all the primary drivers of these trends are linked to human activities: land use changes, habitat destruction, pollutants, logging, over-exploitation, invasive species and anthropogenic climate change.

Why do we care? Once again, if our undoing of God's creation isn't enough to make us sit up and take notice, there remains naked self-interest. Biodiversity loss has been likened to flying in a plane and watching the rivets pop out, one by one. Each one may not cause the failure of the plane, but cumulatively, things will get far less stable once enough rivets are lost.

And yet public awareness of biodiversity is poor. Campaigns in the past have focussed on individual charismatic megafauna. But while whale or rhinos might steal the headlines, the real losses are occurring all over the complex webs of interdependence that hold ecosystems (and the services they provide human society) together.

Currently underway in Japan is a major international Convention on Biological Diversity. A previous convention in 2002 set targets for 2010 that have been missed by a wide margin, according to a major biodiversity report published earlier this year.

Disappointingly, Australia hasn't really bothered to take the present meeting seriously, sending neither PM nor even environment minister, though over 100 heads of state or environment ministers from around the world will be present during the final days of the convention.

This too is part of our world today. Unless we begin to understand the effects our idolatries have on our planet as well as our souls, then we will remain enslaved to self-destructive patterns of life.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Water: too little or too much are both bad

A new study investigates the future of drought (and it isn't pretty). Note that when reading the images in this study, figures of -4 and below are considered "extreme drought", rarely experienced before now. Meanwhile, the Amazon is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost fifty years.

At the other end of the world, Greenland ice loss is accelerating. And more on Greenland: the plugs in the bathtub.

Pakistan is not the only place to have suffered record floods this year. Over seven million people in Pakistan remain without permanent shelter as a result of the flooding that began over three months ago.

And linking water to fossil fuels: the water cost of Canada's tar sands.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Failing climate science 101

NYT: 52% of Americans flunk Climate 101, including 43% who believe that “if we stopped punching holes in the ozone layer with rockets, it would reduce global warming”. How well do you understand the basics? And where would you go to find out more?

CP: Big oil goes to university. Corporate interests and public research - the oil and water are mixing.
As an aside, one detail that jumped out at me from this report was the fact that in the US, R&D funding for national defence is greater than all other forms of R&D combined.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why Christians willingly pay taxes...

...and other stories
Why Christians willingly pay taxes: Brad makes a very interesting suggestion for how to read the passage in Romans 13 that speaks about submission to the authorities. Surprisingly, he reads it in the context of chapter 12 and the second half of chapter 13.

Do no evil?: Google dodges over US$3 billion in tax each year.

The Tea Party: an opinionated view. "It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists."

Eat less meat: is it so difficult? There is an argument to be made that meat from factory farms is meat offered to idols. But that's an argument for another day.

Things Obama has done. Of course, not all these are unambiguously good and he's done (or not done) plenty of disappointing things as well. He's not the messiah, but neither is he the anti-Christ.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"God is holy; life is not": euthanising greed with Hauerwas

On the irrationality of faith: "I do not use the term 'religion' because religion is the name for opinion that cannot be argued about. And I believe there is nothing more rational than theological claims about the kind of God Christians worship. [...] I think that the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition [...] are the most intellectually demanding traditions that we continue to inherit and it would be silly to separate a person's strong convictions from how they understand the world."

On euthanasia: "I want to raise questions about the very language of sanctity of life. God is holy, life is not. So the question is how do you receive life as a gift in terms of how we relate to one another over our lives in a way that we do not in the name of compassion do terrible things to one another to relieve what we think is suffering. There are very important distinctions to be made between putting to death and not prolonging death and those kinds of distinctions can be developed in a way that can help us be with those who are dying in a manner that we don't ask them to abandon us because we haven't abandoned them."

On greed: "I think the church has concentrated on lust because we think we know when you get it wrong. It's interesting we seldom say anything about greed because it is not clear what it would look like. Two SUVs? What would greed [look like]? We have trouble naming in what way greed possesses our lives - and I use that language advisedly because I think that greed is a power that possesses your life - because as a matter of fact modern economies depend on us being greedy."

This is an intelligent and interesting conversation on a BBC Radio 4 programme about the place of religion in public discourse, covering euthanasia and dying, greed and consumerism, theocracy and the faith of political leaders, and the sources of morality and virtue. Panelists include: Stanley Hauerwas, Mark Warnock, John Gummer and Raymond Tallis. The discussion contains a typical smattering of Hauerwas quotable quotes, including the ones above. By the way, when Hauerwas says that life is not holy, he is making much the same point as my series on things worse than death. If you've never heard him before, this isn't a bad introduction.
H/T Graham.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bruce McCormack coming to New College

The Croall lectures 2011 will be given by Professor Bruce McCormack and will take place in January 2011 entitled "Abandoned by God: The Death of Christ in Systematic, Historical, and Exegetical Perspective" in the Martin Hall at New College at 4pm.
17th January – Penal Substitution: Its Problems and Its Promise
18th January – The Cry of Dereliction: The Strange Fate of Jesus in the New Testament
20th January – The Incarnation as Saving Event: Theories Which Order the Work of Christ to a Metaphysical Conception of His Person
24th January – Let Justice and Peace Reign: Theories Which Fail to Integrate the Person and Work of Christ
25th January – After Metaphysics: Theories Which Order the Person of Christ to His Work
27th January – The Lord of Glory was Crucified: Reformed Kenoticism and Death in God.
Information from the New College website, brought to my attention by Jason.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Willful ignorance

I also wrote a brief piece on the preference for the political newcomer back here.
H/T Michael.

Diamonds are forever: monopoly and manipulation

Ever heard the phrase "diamonds are forever"? Ever bought or received a diamond ring as a symbol of romance and faithfulness? Then read this story about the power of advertising to entice conspicuous consumption.
H/T Milan.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead: a strange coincidence

Hoover Dam between Arizona and Nevada was a landmark in civil engineering. At its completion in 1935 it was the largest concrete structure in the world (and was the first single structure to surpass the total masonry of the Great Pyramid at Giza). It took about five years to complete and now holds back Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the USA and crucial for the water supply of much of the south west (about 25 million people). Its capacity is more than fifteen times that of Lake Burragorang behind Warragamba Dam in Sydney.

The Hoover Dam Bypass (a.k.a. the Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge), opened to pedestrian and cycle traffic yesterday and is the longest single arch concrete bridge in the western hemisphere. Taking about five years to construct and soaring over the Hoover Dam, it makes for some impressive photos and removes the need for traffic to use the two lane road across the top of the dam wall, a slow section of a major infrastructure route and a potential target for a vehicular bomb (large trucks have been banned from the road since not long after the attacks of 2001).

On Sunday (the day before the bridge opened), Lake Mead fell to its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s, due to a complex range of factors, most notably water management over-allocation and persistent drought. Declining precipitation in the south west USA has for some time been predicted by most climate models as a result of anthropogenic climate change.

So within a twenty four hour period, a major new bridge opened to allow more traffic (and so more carbon dioxide emissions) over a dam whose reservoir is being emptied (partially) by climate disruption resulting from those emissions. Irony?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sex and singing: creation and creating co-worshippers

Praise YHWH!

Praise YHWH from the heavens;
   praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
   praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
   and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of YHWH,
   for he commanded and they were created.
He established them for ever and ever;
   he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise YHWH from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
   stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
   fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
   princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
   old and young together!

Let them praise the name of YHWH,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
   praise for all his faithful,
   for the people of Israel who are close to him.

Praise YHWH!

- Psalm 148 (NRSV).

We are not alone in the universe. We humans are but one member of the choir that the psalmist exhorts into praise of the Creator. And this isn't just animals; even inanimate creatures are included: astronomical bodies, topographical features and meteorological events.

The theme of creation praising God is part of the theological basis for an ecological ethics. The fact that trees and hills and sun and moon all praise God places us in a relationship to them mediated by our common worship. They are our co-worshippers and so how can we see ourselves in competition or see them as objects to be exploited? We are dependent upon them for our task of praise and so we join with them as one, rather than just standing over against them in privilege and distinction. Of course a parallel socio-economic point can be made from the fact that both kings and babies, princes and paupers are to join together in praise. No one can consider another worshipper irrelevant or expendable.

God's faithfulness will not abandon his worshipping creatures, though it is important to remember that his faithfulness to his Son didn't stop him dying, but took the shape of cross and resurrection. Creation's own liberation from bondage to decay (and the redemption of our bodies) doesn't necessarily mean that we (or the world) are safe from death, only that even destruction and decay cannot thwart God's purposes.

This goodness of creation as the sphere of God's worship is indeed part of the reason why childbearing is good. We rejoice in the abundance and diversity of life and the goodness of being and are free to share that delight with others, including little strangers whom we welcome into the world as our co-worshippers. However, this is also the basis for considering moderation in our procreation (as well as our consumption, discussed elsewhere), since God is not dependent upon us to make more worshippers. If God's original blessing on us to be fruitful and multiply undermines his blessing on other living beings to also be fruitful and multiply, then we have to wonder whether our delight in divine blessing has become too narrow in vision and focus. These complementary perspectives don't determine an obligation one way or the other (we are neither obliged to have children nor to refrain), but are free to act in wisdom and joy under the blessing of God.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


New College has a new theology and ethics website. A collection of undergrad and postgrad students here at New College have set up a new website for discussing theology and ethics with reference to contemporary life in Edinburgh. It is called Theopolis and is described like this:

"Theopolis exists to challenge students to develop a theology of the city, a blueprint for the City of God - the Church* - at work here in our own city of Edinburgh, and around the world. Theopolis aims to focus our critical attention on the messy and jumbled intersection between the City of God, of which we are citizens, and the cities of this world, of which we are inhabitants, to think, in short, about our calling to practical ecclesiology."
It currently only has a few articles, but the aim is to keep it updated with fresh material written by New College students every couple of weeks. For those in Edinburgh, Theopolis is being officially launched on Tuesday afternoon (19th October) at 4 pm in the Senate Room of New College, wine and cheese to follow in Rainy Hall.
*Identifying the City of God with the church is a shorthand used occasionally by Augustine (who and developed this concept) but which doesn't strictly hold. The City of God is both broader and narrower than the church, including the angels and faithful departed and excluding the weeds amongst the wheat.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

More on euthanasia

I recently offered some comments on an article on euthanasia in the SMH by Andrew Cameron. Andrew has also written this piece on the topic for the Social Issues Briefing which I think takes a more fruitful approach through the lens of fear; euthanasia is a failed attempt to deal with our fears surrounding death and dying.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Living water: sustaining ecological responsibility

Today is a blog action day, a co-ordinated day of blogging on a specific topic to raise its profile and generate discussion. This year's focus is water. There are a wealth of excellent posts on water, touching on issues such as sustainability, justice and climate change out there today, such as this one.

Water is necessary for life. When most other resources run low, we can exchange them with equivalents that get the job done. But water is irreplaceable. We can survive for weeks without food, but only days without water. Societies have flourished without oil, but never without adequate water.

There are all kinds of observations to be made about growing water stress, about the links between water and energy production, about water and food security, about water and soil health, about water and ecosystem management, about climate and too much or too little water - droughts, floods and rising seas.

Instead, I would like to take as my focus this saying of Jesus:
"Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

- John 4.13-14.

The practicalities of water are serious and pressing, complex and difficult. But the symbolism of water used here by Jesus points to an issue that lies alongside and behind these thorny problems: the possibility of sustaining ecological responsibility amidst a cacophony of competing demands and the complexities of ethics, politics, economics, agriculture, hydrology and law. What keeps us going amidst these distractions and difficulties? And when the best outcome seems woefully inadequate and the required effort great, what is the source of continuing to care? What do we do when the springs of motivation dry up?

Jesus' promise is that he provides a never-ending supply of what is necessary, what is irreplaceable. It is the living Christ who sustains the possibility of a heart that keeps yearning, hands that keep serving, feet that keep taking the next step. Why does this spring never fail? Because it does not arise from the self, but is a divine gift. Because it leads out of the self, overflowing into love of neighbour.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Over budget and getting worse

Too much of a good thing: "In fact, no phenomenon has probably impacted the nitrogen cycle more than human inputs of nitrogen into the cycle in the last 2.5 billion years".

Another threat to coral: algal blooms, caused by excess nitrogen, found to kill large areas of coral within weeks.

Plane danger? It turns out you are more likely to die from plane exhaust than in a plane crash.

Water, water everywhere: more water flowing into the ocean due to climate change, an 18 percent increase between 1994 and 2006. Another good summary and some discussion on Skeptical Science.

Birds could signal mass extinction: "Biodiversity loss is arguably much more serious and more permanent than climate change". Which is saying something, since anthropogenic climate change is likely to redefine the planet's living systems and geography for millennia.

Loss of old growth forests continues, albeit a little more slowly: where biodiversity and climate converge (one of many places, but this is perhaps the most critical).

Economy vs ecology? Ecological damage estimated to currently cost the global economy US$6.6 trillion (with a "t") each year.

Drying up: unexpected shift in evapotranspiration across large parts of the southern hemisphere.

Finish your plate: 27% of food in the US is wasted. I assume that is not even calculating all the excess calories that are actually consumed.

A second planet by 2030: current trends in consumption are drawing down on the natural capital of the earth. We're currently about 50% over "budget".

And some good news: deadly virus eradicated in "the biggest achievement of veterinary history".

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Humane economics: prosperity vs growth

"It's a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about." Back here, I mentioned Tim Jackson and his idea of "prosperity without growth". He speaks more sense here, linking economics, ecology and human flourishing in ways that go beyond the many faults of our current GDP obsession.

"We'll eliminate wasteful spending"

No tax hikes, no service cuts: eliminating wasteful spending is the get out of gaol free card of politicians. It is also a load of rubbish.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Partisanship: not a zero-sum game

An interesting letter signed by over 130 former members of US Congress (from both major parties) urges all candidates for election to treat each other with respect as opponents or adversaries, rather than enemies. Their goal is for all members and prospective members "to conduct campaigns for Congress with decency and respect toward opponents, to be truthful in presenting information about self and opponents, to engage in good faith debate about the issues and each other's record, to refrain from personal attack, and if elected, to behave in office according to these same principles". Otherwise, "the prognosis for our politics - and with it our economic health and our security - is grim."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Death of a climate bill

"Many of them believe that Obama made an epic blunder by not pursuing climate change first when he was sworn into office. The stimulus failed to reduce unemployment to an acceptable level. The health-care law, while significant, only raised the percentage of people with insurance from eighty-five per cent to ninety-five per cent. Meanwhile, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already above the level that scientists say risks causing runaway global warming. According to the argument, Obama was correct when he said during the campaign that placing a price on carbon in order to transform the economy and begin the process of halting climate change was his more pressing priority."

- Ryan Lizza, "As the world burns", The New Yorker, 11th October 2010.

I discussed the various reasons for the failure of the US Senate to even vote on a climate bill back here. This piece is a lengthy article putting together a blow-by-blow account of just how close such legislation came and the forces that held things back. It's not short and reading it isn't likely to make anyone's day happier, but it's important to understand why legislators are failing so tragically on this issue.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I mentioned back here that the iconic date 10/10/10 had been picked by the organisation as a global work party (in partnership with hundreds of other groups including Tcktcktck, Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam and Avaaz). It turned out to be "as far as we can tell, the most widespread day of civic engagement on any issue ever in the planet's history." On this day people at seven thousand three hundred and forty-seven events in one hundred and eighty-eight countries got to work on the climate crisis by taking small symbolic and practical measures (planting trees, installing solar panels, teaching children to ride bikes and hundreds of other ideas) to send a message to lawmakers that there is a large and growing global movement who want to see real climate action.

The "350" in stands for the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere above which we face dangerous climate change. We are currently just over 390.

Discussing euthanasia in Australia

"[Euthanasia] is a case where the Bible's prohibition of killing innocent humans is a no-brainer, even if we agree about little else. For this prohibition generates a community that upholds and cares for others at their weakest and most vulnerable. The prohibition against deliberate killing of innocent human life is what impels us to research and practise good palliative care. It enables trust within patient-carer and patient-relative relationships. It frees the ill person from constantly having to interrogate the hidden motives of those around them, and allows them to accept their care without shame. It says to all of us that, burden or not, we can stop being productive, and allow others to help us."

- Andrew Cameron, "Euthanasia question needs wider debate", SMH 8th October 2010.

Michael Jensen also recently had a piece on popular Australian current issues site The Punch, in which he tried an imaginative and emotive approach to the question (and received responses that were correspondingly even more heated).

I agree that legislation ought not be done by poll, that more discussion about the effects of legalising euthanasia on the community of trust and care is important and that we need careful and compassionate discussion that takes good note of the overlaps and distinctions between suicide, medically assisted suicide, withdrawal of treatment, and palliative care (rather than the simplistic: euthanasia, yes or no?). I also agree that even the most carefully constructed legal safeguards may not entirely prevent abuse and destructive forms of psychological pressure, shifting the boundaries between care and burden in undesirable ways.

Yet are current proposals about euthanasia (namely, the overturning of the federal of the 1995 Northern Territory legislation) really a "no-brainer" case of killing innocent humans? There may be cases of abuse in which this is so. The re-activating of the legislation may lead to "a creeping expansion of candidates for euthanasia". But for a patient voluntarily (and without emotional pressure) to take his or her own life with assistance from another would seem to fall under a discussion of suicide more than murder, making the attribution of innocence to the victim problematic, and the situation considerably more complex.

There may well be other good reasons for considering deliberate suicide (with or without assistance) to be in some sense a failure to cherish the gift of life, or an expression of despair within a broken and hurting world, but I think that the debate about this matter is necessarily knotty since the possible and actual situations themselves are morally complex. I do not support the legalising of euthanasia, but I don't think that the discussion is a no brainer.

Personally, I wonder whether the notions of choice and autonomy that frequently underlie the case for euthanasia are worth exploring and critiquing in greater detail. Is a world based on each of us deciding "what is best for me" really the world that is best for all of us?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Obesity: personal or structural?

Ross Gittins puts the boot into GDP as a measure of economic well-being once again, this time by pointing out that obesity is win-win-win for GDP. He reviews a book that argues that the sudden and dramatic surge in obesity since the 1980s shows that it is a structural problem with the way we organise our society rather than a few individuals who lack self-control.

The relationship between individual moderation and social structures is complex. Like the debate between light and deep green, this problem doesn't have a simple answer. Of course it is both-and, rather than either-or, but where does the emphasis lie, and so where ought the weight of our attention and exertion rest?

Friday, October 08, 2010

The death of the oceans?

Sir David Attenborough has narrated a new BBC documentary titled "The death of the oceans?" which is currently on BBC iPlayer. It is worth watching as it addresses many of the various threats facing marine ecosystems: overfishing, ocean acidification, ocean warming (mentioned only briefly) and noise pollution. No mention of other kinds of pollution (especially plastics: did you know that one in three albatross chicks, hatched in the middle of the Pacific 3000 miles from both the US and Japan, die from being fed too much plastic waste?), but it's a step forward, and having Attenborough narrate it will give it more exposure.

I've seen some other pieces that address one or two of these, but this is the first popular piece to put more of the puzzle together. The End of the Line was really worth seeing on overfishing, but doesn't really touch anything else.

The documentary is also of interest as it introduces the Census of Marine Life, a massive ten year international research project to establish a baseline against which future measurements can be made. More information on the census here, which gives some sense of the size of this project:
"The Census cost $650 million, and involved 2,700 scientists from more than 80 nations and territories working at 670 institutions. They mounted more than 540 expeditions, comprising about 9,000 days at sea, where they studied organisms from the surface all the way down to more than six miles down and in environments that ranged from freezing cold to above the boiling point of water (at the great pressures at the bottom of the sea, water can become superheated near volcanic vents) and ultimately produced about 2,600 scientific papers.

"What was in those papers? Glad you asked: the scientists collectively made 30 million observations of some 120,000 species, found more than 6,000 new ones, tracked the migratory patterns of thousands, and extrapolated from what they saw that the 250,000 known marine species (excluding microbes) are probably only a quarter of what's really out there. If you want to talk microbes, they say, there may be as many as a billion different kinds in the world's oceans."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Anthropocentrism and automatons: you don't need to be a tree hugger to care about ecology

"The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel."

- Proverbs 12.10.

In a recent post, I included a quote which alluded to the idea that non-human creatures might also in some sense be considered our neighbours, included within our moral community. Properly qualified, this idea has merit and a foundation in holy scripture (where the Law proscribes various forms of cruelty and includes animals in Sabbath rest and Jesus affirms that God cares for even the sparrows). Indeed, Christians were at the forefront of creating the world's first animal welfare charity, the RSPCA. I am not going to attempt those qualifications here (though I note that Jesus tells his listeners that they are worth more than many sparrows), but simply note that there ought to be nothing particularly contentious about the extension of (at least certain kinds of) moral concern to non-human creatures.

However, even the most hardened anthropocentrist, who, like Descartes, considers the brute beasts to be unfeeling automatons, is not thereby released from all ecological concern. The damage we are causing to the integrity of the living spaces of the planet is so severe that it is a threat not simply to biodiversity or unique ecosystems, but to the conditions under which human civilisation can flourish, perhaps even survive at all (certainly in anything like its current form, complexity and size). It is not just trees and frogs and sharks and tigers and phytoplankton under threat, it is also our very human neighbours who are increasingly suffering as a result of our failure to live with humility and prudence.
Image by CAC.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

On the attribution of extreme weather events

"Finally, a comment on frequently asked questions of the sort: Was global warming the cause of the 2010 heat wave in Moscow, the 2003 heat wave in Europe, the all-time record high temperatures reached in many Asian nations in 2010, the incredible Pakistan flood in 2010? The standard scientist answer is 'you cannot blame a specific weather/climate event on global warming'. That answer, to the public, translates as 'no'.

"However, if the question were posed as 'would these events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm?', an appropriate answer in that case is 'almost certainly not'. That answer, to the public, translates as 'yes', i.e., humans probably bear a responsibility for the extreme event."

- James Hansen, "How Warm Was This Summer?" from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The whole piece is worth reading, not least for the prediction that 2012 is "likely" to reach "record high global temperatures", after 2010 has already repeatedly broken the twelve month running average (temperatures in 2011 are likely to be slightly suppressed from record levels by the La Niña that has developed in recent months). I also talked about the difference between weather and climate back here.

Dr James Hansen is the head of NASA GISS and was the first academic to bring climate change into mainstream awareness at his US congressional testimony on 23rd June 1988, which became front page news when he claimed there was sufficient evidence to give 99% certainty that "It is already happening now".

As you may have noticed, Hansen takes his duties as a citizen (and grandfather), as well as a scientist, seriously. Last week Dr Hansen was arrested (once again) for civil disobedience while protesting coal mining through mountaintop removal, which manages to combine a whole raft of destructive effects on the way to disrupting the climate.

Here is another quote on attribution worth pondering:
"The point is that while it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask: “Was this event due to climate change?” it would more useful to ask a related question: “are we putting ourselves at greater risk of experiencing this kind of event?” And to that scientists can answer with high confidence: yes!

"Now, you might think this question is less interesting or useful, and perhaps not as worth asking than the first one. But we would argue that, in fact, it is very important to pose this question, and to carefully consider its answers.

"Think of smoking, sun bathing without sunscreen, eating lots of junk food and so on. You may not be able – ever – to unequivocally attribute one person’s problem to the effects of these activities: people develop lung cancer without smoking, for example, but as a population we know we are better off wearing sunscreen, watching our cholesterol, and not smoking, since all of these actions have been shown to make the chances of harm to our health lower."

- Nicole Heller, Claudia Tebaldi, and Phil Duffy, "Why Can’t Scientists Say the Recent Extreme Weather Events Are ‘Proof’ of Climate Change?" at Climate Central.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

And then there were 306...

NOAA: “August 2010 was the 306th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below average temperatures was February 1985.” Any day the temperatures for September will be in. It's a safe bet to expect they will make it 307.

The most commonly cited target in international climate negotiations is that we ought to limit warming to an average of 2°C. However, that may already be too high.

How to shrink a city: this will become an increasing issue in many parts of the world due to likely demographic and economic changes of the next few decades.

Peak oil and healthcare, a UK perspective.

Terminological clarification: irreversible vs unstoppable.

Hot Topic: On giving up non-essential flying.

The health benefit of more ambitious emissions targets. If Europe raised its sights from 20% to 30% emissions cuts by 2020, then it could be saving an extra €30 billion per year in health costs. This saving alone would account for a significant portion of the estimated €46 billion p.a. the higher target would require.

Twenty-two percent of the world's plant species are threatened with extinction and another thirty-three percent have an unknown status. The main culprit? Land use changes associated with agriculture.

Rivers in peril worldwide: study in Nature claims that eighty percent of the world's population (nearly 5.5 billion people) lives in an area where rivers are seriously threatened. "[S]ome of the highest threat levels in the world are in the United States and Europe." See also here a graphic of the threat distribution.

Oceans acidifying much faster than ever before in Earth's history.

Soil degradation, erosion and desertification continues in many places around the world, reducing the amount of arable land.

On average, every single man, woman and child on the planet is US$28,000 in debt.

Speaking of money, a new study has estimated that the cost of vanishing rainforest each year is approximately US$5 trillion (with a "t". i.e. US$5,000,000,000,000).

However, the real issue is that each of these crises are not isolated, but are all converging on similar time scales.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Are you already dead?

"I say to you this morning that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it then you aren’t fit to live. You may be thirty eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid you will lose your job; or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity; or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, shoot at you, or bomb your house and so you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you’re ninety, but you’re just as dead at thirty eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice."

- Martin Luther King, from a 1967 speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta,
titled “But if Not“.

Check your pulse. Are you already dead? Are you largely occupied with expanding and protecting your goods, preserving your health and massaging your reputation?

There are things worse than death. And so there are things worth dying for. Would you know one if you saw it?
H/T Milan.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

October: buy nothing new

The challenge from the Salvos: don't buy anything new (apart from essentials) in October. Buy secondhand, barter, swap, loan or do without and make your own fun.

My birthday is in October, but I still support this idea. No need to multiply the amount of stuff in the world. No need to go deeper into debt. No need to seek meaning and fulfillment in a shopping trip. Buy nothing new in October.

Or anytime, really.*
*As much as possible.

When Conservative meant you conserved

Further to yesterday's post, it is worth remembering that Teddy Roosevelt founded the US National Park system. Richard Nixon created the EPA. George H. W. Bush reauthorized the Clean Air Act in 1990 with a cap and trade system for regulating acid rain.

Being conservative once meant trying to protect known goods from the ravages of an uncertain future. What happened?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Lotteries: a tax on those with poor mathematical skills

A Lottery is a Taxation,
Upon all the Fools in Creation;
And Heav’n be praised,
It is easily raised,
Credulity’s always in Fashion:
For, Folly’s a Fund,
Will Never Lose Ground,
While Fools are so rife in the Nation.

- Henry Fielding, "The Lottery", 1731.

Here is an incredibly depressing lottery simulator for the popular US "Mega Millions" Lottery. You can pick your numbers and simulate playing twice a week for ten years. It would cost you $1040 to do this. I did it and managed to "win" back $77 of my investment.
H/T Milan.

Climate change and conservatism

"You cannot have food, water, or energy security without climate security. They are interconnected and inseparable. They form four resource pillars on which global security, prosperity and equity stand. Each depends on the others. Plentiful, affordable food requires reliable and affordable access to water and energy. Increasing dependence on coal, oil, and gas threatens climate security, increasing the severity of floods and droughts, damaging food production, exacerbating the loss of biodiversity and, in countries that rely on hydropower, undermining energy security through the impact on water availability. As the world becomes more networked, the impacts of climate change in one country or region will affect the prosperity and security of others around the world."

- William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary, "The Diplomacy of Climate Change",
delivered 27th Sept 2010.

Read the full speech and keep in mind that this man is a Conservative, indeed, was party leader from 1997 to 2001. Climate change is not an issue of the left. It is not an environmental issue. There may be a variety of suggestions of how best to respond to it at a personal, communal and policy levels, about the mix of mitigation and adaptation (both are necessary), about the overlaps and tensions between this challenge and others that we face (especially the food, water and energy challenges that Hague mentions), but it is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon or which will remain on the margins of our ethical, political and, yes, even spiritual discourse.

Simplistic silver-bullet solutions and bored cynicism are equally shallow responses. This situation, as part of the various aspects of ecological decline caused largely by our economic success over the last six decades, will significantly define the social, political and moral landscape for decades to come (at a physical level, it will define the actual landscape for much longer). It is not the only issue, and not the most important issue, but it is a critical issue of our age.

Friday, October 01, 2010

And on the seventh day

A while back, I offered a few brief thoughts on work, rest and Christian ministry. Jason Goroncy is up to the ninth part of an excellent series exploring this whole topic in much greater detail. The series is titled "On the cost and grace of parish ministry". His most recent post on Sabbath is a highlight in a series of strong pieces (it also has links to the first eight posts). Here is a taste:

"Sabbath is not about taking a ‘day-off’ – what Eugene Peterson calls ‘a bastard Sabbath’ (in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, p. 66); rather it is a conscious effort of entering into, and responding to, the rhythms and actions of Spirit at work in creation. It is realising that God is not waiting for us to wake up to begin working each day, but that God is working already and inviting us, when we awake, firstly to listen, and only then to join in."

Growth and justice

"Economic growth is the magic formula which allows our conflicts to remain unresolved. While economies grow, social justice is unnecessary, as lives can be improved without redistribution. While economies grow, people need not confront their elites. While economies grow, we can keep buying our way out of trouble. But, like the bankers, we stave off trouble today only by multiplying it tomorrow. Through economic growth we are borrowing time at punitive rates of interest. It ensures that any cuts agreed at Copenhagen will eventually be outstripped. Even if we manage to prevent climate breakdown, growth means that it’s only a matter of time before we hit a new constraint, which demands a new global response: oil, water, phosphate, soil. We will lurch from crisis to existential crisis unless we address the underlying cause: perpetual growth cannot be accomodated on a finite planet."

- George Monbiot, "This is about us".

This piece, worth reading in full, was written during the height of the Copenhagen conference last December. Yet it has not been rendered irrelevant by the (unsurprising) failures there. This is another way of saying that ecological responsibility cannot be divorced from justice. Though Monbiot doesn't see it, I believe that justice can only be sustainably pursued by love.