Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where did the global warming go?

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn't have to be this way.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Corporations: psychopathic individuals or totalitarian regimes?

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

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

- From here.

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The advent of Advent

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A renewable Australia by 2020?

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

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

The best democracy money can buy

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

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What good is Wall Street?

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Harry Potter and consumerism

Harry Potter and Consumerism from CPX on Vimeo.

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

Scale of the universe

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

Alternatively, one could regularly visit a website like this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Eat as much of this meat as you like

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

In praise of... short engagements

Prince William and Kate Middleton are to get married on Friday 29th April, within six months of announcing their engagement. For all else that will be written about this particular match, let me say that I'm a fan of short engagements (six months or less). Barring unusual circumstances (e.g. one partner being called off to war), short engagements have two great benefits. The first is relational, the second practical.

Relationally, engagement is an unstable time. Prior to engagement, only loose expectations form the relational bond. Both parties know that they can end the relationship for a variety of good reasons (there are, of course, also plenty of bad reasons, but the point is that good reasons exist). After marriage, lifelong promises bind the couple in a security that allows difficult issues to be faced with confidence that the other has publicly promised to keep holding and loving in whatever circumstances or difficulties arise. But during engagement, there exists the somewhat strange circumstance of a private promise that a public promise will be made. There exists during this period a rapidly closing door out of the relationship and this itself can bring added stress and uncertainty to the relationship. Limiting this stressful period to a definite (and relatively brief) period of time is healthy. Open-ended engagements seem either somewhat pointless or somewhat cruel. Once the decision to get married has been made, then all that is required is some time to prepare for the solemnity of the promises to be undertaken and to arrange the details of a wedding - which brings us to the second benefit of brief engagements.

Practically, the wedding preparation will expand to fill the time available. The longer that is given to this process, the more likely the celebration will grow into an all-consuming beast. Better to acknowledge that, while a day of great seriousness and great joy, a wedding is but another day that the Lord has made, and doesn't require great debts to be shouldered or unrealistic expectations (from whatever source) to be appeased. If present finances are insufficient to pay for the scale of expenses expected, then it is far better to humble one's expectations than delay the date. The point of the day is the making and celebrating of promises. All else is optional.

That said, I doubt the Prince and his family are accustomed to too much humbling of expectations. Yet humility befits even (perhaps especially) a future king.
Image by Scott Callaghan.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to avoid thinking about climate change

Climate change is not an environmental issue. Of course, it has ecological implications (including making the bleak outlook for biodiversity considerably worse), but it is also an issue of justice (especially international and intergenerational), of national security, of resource (especially water) management, of economics, of agriculture and so of food security, of public health, of national and international law, of geopolitical stability, of refugees, of urban management, of energy generation, of cultural continuity, of archeology and so on, and so on.

Yet labelling it an "environmental" issue enables those who would rather not think about just how large and scary a threat it is to put it in the basket with other "environmental" causes and so to treat it (in accordance with some ideologies) as a "luxury" issue that we will get to with the time and resources left over once we've thought about the more important issues of the economy and, well, okay, the economy some more.

Here are some common strategies used to deflect or defer the matter from being a topic of common reflection at the dinner table, over the back fence or on the train (if any of these social interactions still occur in an age of T.V. dinners, local estrangement and iPods):
1. Metaphor of displaced commitment: "I protect the environment in other ways".
2. Condemn the accuser: "You have no right to challenge me".
3. Denial of responsibility: "I am not the main cause of this problem".
4. Rejection of blame: "I have done nothing wrong".
5. Ignorance: "I didn't know".
6. Powerlessness: " I can't make any difference".
7. Fabricated constraints: "There are too many impediments".
8. After the flood: "Society is corrupt".
9. Comfort: "It is too difficult for me to change my behaviour".

- S. Stoll-Kleemann, Tim O'Riordan, Carlo C. Jaeger, "The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation meaures: evidence from Swiss focus groups", Global Environmental Change 11 (2001), 107-11.

Do any of these sound familiar? Each of these strategies may sometimes be founded on a half-truth, but even when that is the case, most of the time they are simply employed to avoid having to deal with an issue that is much more conveniently placed into the "too hard" basket.

The good news is that Christian discipleship, although not (of course) designed to prepare us for responding well to climate change, actually prepares us for responding well to climate change. Or at least, it ought to if we are sending down deep roots into the life-giving stream of God's grace. Each of the above strategies is countered by convictions arising from the gospel narrative.
1. "I protect the environment in other ways": Since we are saved by grace, there is no need to justify ourselves through our actions. Therefore, we are free to take the actions that will actually love our neighbour and glorify God, not simply do those we feel duty-bound to do to meet some minimum standard.

2. "You have no right to challenge me": Since our judge is also our saviour, we fear no one's condemnation. If others are making accusations against us, we can consider them soberly, without needing to jump to our own self-defence. Similarly, since God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, we can never safely write off anyone's speech, since it may be a divine word addressed to us.

3. "I am not the main cause of this problem": That may be partially true, but if you are reading this blog, it is highly likely that you have enjoyed at least something of the kind of lifestyle that has cumulatively got us into this mess (this also applies to #4). God's forgiveness of even those who have sinned much means an honest acknowledgement of liability can become the first step into sanity. But even where it is largely true that my contribution to the problem has been small, loving one's neighbour isn't done out of obligation or based on quid pro quo. We love because God has first loved us, an experience that brings an unexpected realignment of our priorities such that even enemies are included within the scope of our care. Insofar as we have been forgiven much, the small debts that others may owe to us are no grounds for a diminishment of love towards them.

4. "I have done nothing wrong": Extending the previous answer, the good Samaritan was neither the main cause of the victim's problem, nor had he even done anything wrong, but he saw himself as the wounded man's neighbour and so helped him anyway, even at personal expense. Christ invites us to go and do likewise.

5. "I didn't know": Ignorance is not bliss; it can be culpable. Knowledge of God leads into deeper knowledge of and solidarity with the groaning creation, opening us to the vulnerability that comes from paying close attention. We may find that we are no longer merely observers, but get caught up in the action. As we begin to learn about the world and its fractures, what we do with what we know matters. Acting upon the (limited) knowledge we have is a privilege and an opportunity to learn more.

6. "I can't make any difference": In Christ, we are liberated from the impossible burden of saving ourselves. Our actions may not preserve a stable climate or rescue civilisation from collapse, but they can indeed make a difference. Empowered by the Spirit, the seeds that we plant or water may indeed grow into unexpectedly fruitful trees of great beauty. In the Lord, our labour is not in vain.

7. "There are too many impediments": Impediments to total solutions there may be, but the possibility of non-trivial action is secured by the Spirit's work opening the path before our feet to keep trusting, loving and hoping. Our actions need not secure ultimate ends to remain worthwhile.

8. "Society is corrupt": All too true. Yet it is the nihilism of despair to conclude that we ought therefore to eat, drink and be merry, to play the whole corrupt game because if you can't beat them, you may as well join them. Such despair overlooks the divine commitment to even this corrupt society: "For God so loved the corrupt world...".

9. "It is too difficult for me to change my behaviour": On the contrary, it is too risky to remain comfortable. The attempt to freeze history, or at least to distract oneself sufficiently from the rush of ongoing change to preserve the fiction of stability is one of the surest ways of losing all that one holds dear. Clinging onto one's life means losing it, seeing it ossify and decay from the very grasp with which one attempts to preserve it. Only letting go of control of one's life is the path to discovering that life is granted anew.

Christians merrily skip naked

Michael Wells removes all our defensive dressings and rather than leaving us shivering in the cold, reveals that theological naturalism is the new black via some seriously joyful reflections on Christian identity and consumerism.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This is a finite planet with a finite resource base

Warning To the People of Earth from Bruce Mohun on Vimeo.
William Rees was the co-founder of the ecological footprint concept. This video puts together excerpts from three of his talks and an interview. The concept of an measuring one's ecological footprint in hectares required to sustain my lifestyle is not an exhaustive metric as it doesn't take all factors into account, but it is still a useful shorthand measure that highlights in a single figure how far our lives are above the carrying capacity of the planet, that is, the degree to which we are stealing such capacity from the poor and from future generations.

"There is no way around this. Any politician who says to you 'there is no conflict between the growth of the economy and maintaining the quality of the natural environment' doesn't know what he or she is talking about. Historically, it has always been this way. The more humans take, the less remains for non-human species."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How local is a local church?

How close is a "local" church? What is the relative role of proximity in determining church membership? (Not just descriptively, but normatively: i.e. what should it be?) How much commuting is it reasonable or responsible to encourage and model?

Since being baptised, I've been a member of four different churches and each was within walking distance of my residence at the time (this doesn't mean I have always walked every week). My most frustrating experience of fellowship was (unsurprisingly) when this distance was greatest, making hospitality and mid-week meetings much more difficult.

What are the difficulties that arise with integrating members from further afield? What experiences, insights or prophetic words do readers have on this topic? Has anyone ever encouraged a fellow congregation member (or prospective member) to find a church closer to home? (Or a home closer to church?) Do any churches have centrally organised car-pooling? Is anyone part of a congregation where more than half your members walk to church?
Image by JKS of me preaching in a church (through an interpreter) where 100% of the members walk.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Transition: from oil dependence to local resilience

The Transition Movement (a.k.a. Transition Towns) is a grassroots international social movement whose tag line is "from oil dependence to local resilience". In the light of the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil, this movement works at the local level to build networks of trust and skills to face a bumpy future. The goal is not to make the present society sustainable (a likely impossible task), but to prepare local communities for the shocks ahead, and to make them resilient to those shocks through increasing local food, energy and water production, raising awareness and building relationships between neighbours prior to events that could shrink the trust horizon.

Transition is a movement that began in Ireland, but has spread around the world and is particularly strong in the UK. I've mentioned these guys before a few times, but raise them again now for two reasons. First, I realised that I'd never explained who they are, for those who might not have heard of them. Second, this weekend, Jessica and I will be at the international Transition conference, which is very conveniently being held here in Edinburgh. I may have more to report by the time it is over, but for now, here's a video introducing the key concepts of Transition.

In Transition 1.0 from Transition Towns on Vimeo.

Scotland as you've never seen it before

You may remember this guy from his little trip around Edinburgh (a video featuring yours truly). I've been to many of the places in this latest video and it has made me look at some of them in a whole new light. Jaw-dropping (or breaking) stuff.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The point of no return was passed some time ago

"I believe we will see increasing nihilism. I think also there is a very big chance that if the science starts telling us we are beyond the point of no return, I think we could open up the box for a whole range of utterly aberrant responses. Some of which might be utter despair and a kind of last minute self-seeking behaviour. Some of which might go in who knows what direction in terms of aggressive scapegoating, projection, pushing this onto to other people, other issues that have nothing to do with climate change."

- George Marshall, "The Ingenious Ways We Avoid Believing in Climate Change".

This whole lecture (in three parts: one, two, three) is worth watching for many insights into the psychology of responding to the threat of climate change. These comments come towards the end of the presentation and concern the situation that I am particularly interested in: the perception that we are "too late" to avoid some really horrible outcomes. For many people, such a scenario may well lead to the kinds of reactions that Marshall mentions, and things could turn very ugly. The 2006 film Children of Men depicted a world a in 2027 where hope for the future has been lost and the social backdrop is not a pretty one.

The point of no return in terms of avoiding some seriously bad outcomes was passed some time ago. That doesn't justify inaction or "let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die", since (a) negative effects won't hit all at once tomorrow, or even The Day After Tomorrow, but will build over years, decades and centuries, (b) our current actions can still avoid even worse outcomes than are already "in the pipeline" and (c) because of the resurrection, in the Lord our labour is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15.58). No act of love, however apparently futile, is wasted, since love is the future.

Nick Clegg's ironic warnings

In an interview back in April, UK Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg warned: "There is a danger in having any government of whatever composition led by a party which doesn't have a proper mandate across the country trying to push through really difficult decisions. I think a lot of people will react badly to that. [...] I think there's a very serious risk [of rioting in the streets]."

The irony is (for those not following UK politics) that, having joined a coalition government led by the Conservatives which is now pushing through major budget cuts (though not upholding existing tax laws, which would reduce the need for such slash and burn), Clegg is facing a personal backlash for breaking pledges he signed during the campaign not to raise university tuition fees.

I disagree with his implication that a coalition government does not have a proper mandate. That comment was simply playing to UK ignorance of the plethora of countries that have been more or less successfully governed by formal coalitions and the fact that all major political parties (including quite obviously his own) in every functioning democracy are de facto coalitions between various factions.

Will the UK see further mass protest against the current round of budget cuts? I think it is currently fairly likely. Whether or not these turn violent will depend on the precise mix of deliberate troublemakers (including possible agents provocateurs), abusive police tactics and a bloodthirsty media egging on both sides. Direct non-violent action is much more effective, but can be all-too-easily hijacked.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Things are worse than you thought: links to brighten your day

Why things are worse than you thought: Peak oil might not be a slope, but a cliff.
H/T Sam.

Guardian: the next food crisis?

BP gives 148 of its Alaskan pipelines an "F", meaning that they there are in critical danger of rupture.

CP: “There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record”.

Lake Chad down 90% since 1960.

Pacific fisheries face collapse by 2035: study.

Reuters: First generation biofuels worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

Michael Hudson: The end of the US dollar as reserve currency.

Independent: Climate disruption to bite into China's food supply over the coming decades.

Guardian: Tobacco companies put in charge of UK smoking policy. No, that would be silly. Instead, let's allow McDonalds, KFC and PepsiCo to help write government policy on obesity.

And for a laugh: Why we have nothing to fear from melting Arctic sea ice.

The Onion: Report: Global Warming Issue from 2 or 3 Years Ago Could Still Be a Problem.

The End of Growth

"Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with.

"The 'growth' we are talking about consists of the expansion of the overall size of the economy (with more people being served and more money changing hands) and of the quantities of energy and material goods flowing through it. [...]

"[T]here are three primary factors that stand firmly in the way of further economic growth:
• The depletion of important resources including fossil fuels and minerals;
• The proliferation of environmental impacts arising from both the extraction and use of resources (including the burning of fossil fuels)—leading to snowballing costs from both these impacts themselves and from efforts to avert them and clean them up; and
Financial disruptions due to the inability of our existing monetary, banking, and investment systems to adjust to both resource scarcity and soaring environmental costs—and their inability (in the context of a shrinking economy) to service the enormous piles of government and private debt that have been generated over the past couple of decades. [...]
"[W]e are seeing a perfect storm of converging crises that together represent a watershed moment in the history of our species. We are witnesses to, and participants in, the transition from decades of economic growth to decades of economic contraction. [...]

"It is essential that we recognize and understand the significance of this historic moment: if we have in fact reached the end of the era of fossil-fueled economic expansion, then efforts by policy makers to continue pursuing elusive growth really amount to a flight from reality. World leaders, if they are deluded about our actual situation, are likely to delay putting in place the support services that can make life in a non-growing economy survivable, and they will almost certainly fail to make needed, fundamental changes to monetary, financial, food, and transport systems.

"As a result, what could have been a painful but endurable process of adaptation could become history’s greatest tragedy. We can survive the end of growth, but only if we recognize it for what it is and act accordingly."

- Richard Heinberg, "The end of growth".

This article is well worth reading in full. Although Heinberg emphasises peak oil a little more than I do and ecological degradation a little less, it is a good summary of the three interlocking challenges (economy, energy, ecology) that will define the next few decades (even if they are manifest first for some people through secondary effects). If you're not thinking about these issues and how they will (and already are) affecting almost every aspect of your life and the lives of those you know for the foreseeable future, you're not really paying attention.

We live in interesting times.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beyond GDP: policy by numbers

David Cameron has announced that he wants UK policy to be directed more by a measure of its citizens' general well-being than national GDP alone.

This is an important development.

The problems with basing government policy on GDP (as most nations do) are manifold. A war, an increase in the divorce rate or a natural disaster can each increase GDP, illustrating the fact that human economic activity is not identical with human flourishing. Of course, there is a basic level of material well-being required for a good life: nourishing and reliable food, safe water, shelter from the elements, somewhere comfortable to sleep, access to human relationships and perhaps a few other things (a dram of whisky from time to time, perhaps). But the bigger picture on which we base our social policy has to be bigger than just GDP. Yet in our obsession with measurement, we end up measuring GDP because it is so easily measured.

What can be counted, counts. That is at the heart of why GDP sends us up the wrong policy paths. Measuring what is easily measurable, we find we end up prioritising quantity over quality. The economy may be growing, but are our lives any better as a result?

There are various attempts at alternative indices. The UN supports the Human Development Index (HDI), a measure that relates per capita GDP to both life expectancy and education in order to suggest a more rounded picture of flourishing. This has the advantage of being still quite measureable, but still has GDP has a very significant component of the index, despite the fact that numerous studies (as well as traditional wisdom from many cultures) point out that beyond a certain level of material well-being, the benefits of extra personal wealth suffer from rapidly diminishing marginal returns. It also lacks any account of the ecological cost of the development in question, which could be (and often is) being gained at the expense of future generations.

Another measure is the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which focuses on the relation of life expectancy, subjective level of well-being and ecological footprint, thus claiming to measure how efficiently human well-being is delivered per unit of ecological impact. This approach gives a very different list of national rankings to the HDI (for instance, the USA comes 114th out of 143 countries studied, between Madagascar and Nigeria). Including ecological footprint sinks pretty much all the "developed" countries. For comparison, here are recent rankings of GDP per capita and here are recent HDI rankings.

Yet relying so heavily on self-reported levels of satisfaction (while trendy) has its drawbacks, as can be noted via the observation that the inhabitants of Huxley's Brave New World would have scored off the charts, and from counting the suspicious number of totalitarian, autocratic, repressive and/or highly corrupt societies that make it into the HPI top twenty.

And so while I am actually a big supporter of moving away from GDP-obsessed policies, I am ambivalent about the apparent necessity of replacing it with another number. Measurements are not irrelevant, and evidence-based policy making is a step forward in many areas. If we must have metrics, by all means let us develop better ones than GDP. But let the numbers be our servants, not our masters, since so much that is of the highest importance in the life of a society cannot easily be measured in numbers. Quality is not always reducible into quantities.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The fossil fuel roller coaster: a brief history

A presentation this brief is of necessity something of a caricature, but it gives a decent overall picture in five minutes.
H/T Milan.

How much do you love your employer?

"A survey has found that Australians are working more unpaid overtime than almost any other country in the world [...] according to the study, workers donate two billion hours of work worth $72 billion to employers each year. That's six per cent of GDP."

Phillip Lasker, "Australa World Leaders in Working Overtime", ABC Lateline Business.

"Did you know that in 2009 the majority of Australian employees did not take all their annual leave entitlements? Yet, only one in five of us are happy with the hours we work, with most of us expressing a desire to work less. This year's national Go Home On Time Day on November 24 is focusing on the notion of 'time poverty', something which what has been referred to as a 'modern malaise'. Our survey found that half of all Australians are suffering from time pressure, with overwork preventing us from keeping healthy and spending time with family. Half of all survey respondents wanted to work fewer hours than they had worked in the previous week. For those working overtime, four in five (81 per cent) wanted to work less."

The Australia Institute, Long time, no see: the impact of time poverty on Australian workers.

I know, I know - you'd all love to post comments on these matters but don't have the time. I understand.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sustainable development?

Here is a short cartoon booklet offering a satirical look at what "sustainable development" often means for indigenous peoples.
H/T Jeremy Kidwell.

Amongst the most vulnerable peoples in the world are the so-called "lost tribes". Did you know that there are still over one hundred tribes around the world who are largely isolated from the rest of the world, in fact who reject contact? For many of these "uncontacted peoples", their immune system has never faced disease or illness and even a common cold can be fatal. Most tribes at first contact experience horrific mortality rates (up to 100% in some cases) from such deadly viruses as the common cold or chickenpox. Many of these groups are not entirely uncontacted, but their experience of civilisation has been of disease, violence, slavery, exploitation and contempt. No wonder they choose to go it alone.

I came across this issue as the result of reading about this story, which presents an interesting ethical debate about the risks that are acceptable in expanding human knowledge. An update to this story can be read here.

UPDATE July 2011: After the failure of the natural history museum project, the real dangers to the ecology and uncontacted tribes of this area are becoming clearer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Is Christian ethics just for Christians? and other links

Andrew asks about Christian ethics: just for Christians?

Jason ponders ordinary time.

Halden rethinks whether the new monasticism is what it says on the tin.

Nicole (a.k.a Stoneleigh) peers beyond the trust horizon (scroll down past the ad for a talk that I linked to back here).

Stephan points out that real experts don't know everything and gives a useful test for how to spot a fake expert (as well as the schedule for a series of interesting talks in various Australian cities).

Matt reflects on why he buys organic foods out of love for his neighbour, rather than his own health.

Sager thinks about what it takes to build a resilient community.

And Charlie Brown - finally! - kicks the ball.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bad theology kills

"U.S. Representative John Shimkus, possible future chairman of the Congressional committee that deals with energy and its attendant environmental concerns, believes that climate change should not concern us since God has already promised not to destroy the Earth."

Cathal Kelly, "God will save us from climate change: US Representative".

You can watch his relevant comments here, where he claims: "The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood."

God may have promised to Noah that "never again would there be a flood to destroy the earth", but he made no such promise to thwart our ongoing (and increasingly successful) attempt to undermine the conditions for stable human civilisation through our hubris and greed. The Noah account in Genesis doesn't promise no more floods, not even no future floods that wipe out cities or bring down societies, far less that God will prevent us from causing floods through our own shortsightedness, just that "all flesh" will not be cut off by a flood again. Representative Shimkus has misread the passage, perhaps through failing to distinguish different kinds of threats. A flood (or other threat) doesn't need to cut off all flesh or to be "the end of the world" for it to be worth serious policy consideration.

Sloppy exegesis and an escapist eschatology are here linked directly to deadly politics. Bad theology kills.

"Saving the planet": what on earth do you mean?

When people talk about "saving the planet", most are aware that this is a metaphor and that the structural integrity of the lump of rock and metal floating around the star we call Sol is in no particular danger from our actions.

However, beyond this, the reference of this phrase (and so by implication, the scale of the threats we face) often becomes murky, which is why I generally avoid it. However, for the sake of clarity, let me offer a rough sliding scale of threats that the "planet" might need saving from and how plausible I think such threats are based on the current trajectory of human actions.
1. Destruction of the planet itself. Well-nigh impossible.
2. Destruction of all terrestrial life. Very difficult.
3. Destruction of all human life. Difficult.
4. Destruction of our civiilisation and of the conditions under which large-scale human civilisation is possible. Possible.
5. Significant decline in human population and/or biological diversity. Fairly likely over the long term on our present path.
6. Downfall of/significant departure from the present mode of our society. Likely and probably imminent in the next few decades.
7. The ongoing catastrophe of history that we call progress. Presently underway.
This list has been expanded and revised from a comment I posted here. This phrase is also often associated with the even more common phrase "the end of the world", which has a similarly ambivalent list of possible referents. The end of the world as we know it doesn't necessarily mean the end of the world full stop.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Balancing the budget: welfare fraud and tax cheats

I've said before that paying taxes is a good thing, a privilege in which Christians can joyfully participate. Two things are certain - death and taxes - right? Wrong. Many people illegally evade taxes or simply exploit legal loopholes to avoid them, breaking the spirit, if not the letter of the law. Avoiding or evading taxation is (yet another) luxury of the rich that enables them to shift burdens onto others. In a country moving into significant austerity cuts at the moment, this isn't simply a matter of personal honesty and integrity but of justice.

Today, work and pensions secretary Smith announced much tighter regulation of welfare, a streamlining of benefits and harsher penalties for fraud. Simplification may be a good thing; I'm not familiar enough with the system to know. Fraud ought to be penalised. But there seems to be something deeply disturbing about chasing benefit fraud that costs £1.1 billion annually (and making other severe cuts such as university funding dropping by 40%), while tax evasion, avoidance and debt in the UK amounts to £120 billion annually, more than three quarters of the budget deficit. Of course not all this can easily recovered, but some can, and focusing political attention and government funds on the recovery of these monies repays £60 for every £1 spent on it. For comparison, clamping down on benefit fraud is more like £3 for each £1.

Why then, would a government make a further 15% funding cut to its tax office in such a situation?

Perhaps these figures are incorrect (the sources are all recorded here if anyone wants to chase them down), but there seems to be a decent prima facie case for making tax avoidance and evasion a major plank in responding to the budget deficit. This isn't about penalising the wealthy or large corporations, but simply upholding existing laws. If it is replied that cracking down on tax evasion would send these wealthy people and companies elsewhere, then perhaps the UK needs to ask itself whether it wants to provide sanctuary for such criminals.

The deathly smile and the necessity of grief

"In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure."
Much as I hate to link to almost every post he puts up (not least because a fair chunk of my readers arrive from his blog!), Ben Myers continues to produce astounding work. His latest effort, Twelve theses on smiling and sadness expresses with poignancy and insight much of what I've been trying to say for some time about the importance of groaning, grief and lament for Christian discipleship.

Read it and weep.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What shall we do? Twelve responses to converging crises

Responding to contemporary converging crises
Human society faces a series of converging crises in our economy, energy and ecology. It is very difficult to know exactly how these will interact and pan out. The depth and breadth of the problems can be overwhelming. Recently, a Christian friend asked me for personal advice as to what he can and should do to take these matters seriously. I made the following suggestions (what have I missed? Or how would you improve this list?):

1. Give thanks for the good world. There is so much going wrong with the world and yet it remains a good gift of the Creator. It is right to grieve, but a healthy grief requires the nurturing of our wonder and appreciation for the goodness of the creation that our actions are degrading.

2. Repent of the patterns of consumption and acquisition that lie behind so much of our destructiveness. Billions are spent every year in a largely successful effort to corrupt our desires, convincing us to covet the cornucopia of stuff that pours out of the world's factories. Learning contentment is at the heart of a good response, since it frees us from feeling the need to protect our toys or way of life and so enables us to focus on what is important and worth preserving (the glory of God, the welfare of our neighbour, communities of trust, the richness of God's creation, and so on). This may not end up "saving civilisation", but it helps us keep our heads when all around us are losing theirs.

3. Stay rooted in the gospel of grace, hope, peace and joy that celebrates Christ's death and resurrection so that you are free to grieve, yearn, groan and lament, that is, to pray. The temptation is to look away or harden our heart to the damage and the danger because it hurts too much.

4. Reject false hopes. We are not going to make it out of this place alive, either personally or as a society. The goal is not to secure immortality, but to love, trust and hope. Society is likely to change significantly or even radically during our lifetimes. The myths of endless growth, progress and individualism are likely to be unmasked for the illusions that they are (though this will be resisted because people hate to lose their dreams, far less to admit that their dreams were actually a nightmare). New illusions are likely to replace them. Survival is not your highest goal. Self-protection is a secondary consideration.

5. Assess your life and habitual patterns to see where your ecological footprint can be significantly reduced: eating less meat, flying less frequently or not at all, driving less or not at all, switching to a renewable energy provider, investing in insulation and local power generation, avoiding all unnecessary purchases and buying responsibly (e.g. food that hasn't been strip mining the soil, local products, durable products, and so on).

6. Invest in communities of trust. If and when things get difficult or there are significant disruptions to "normal", then people tend to distrust strangers, but to keep their friends closer. Get to know your neighbours and people in your local community. Strengthen your ties to a local church.

7. Engage organisations seeking to transition to a more resilient and less destructive society (such as the Transition Network, concerning which I'll have more to say soon).

8. Get out of debt, as far as possible. Debt is a bet that the future is going to be more prosperous than the present so that I can incur debt now and will have plenty to pay it off later. This assumption is becoming increasingly dangerous. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another (Romans 12.8).

9. Petition governments and corporations as citizens, not simply consumers. The roots of our problems are far larger and more systemic than consumer choice or personal greed. Structural changes are required to reduce the damage we are doing. Here is a good example of a letter to banks that briefly makes the case for disinvestment in fossil fuel projects on both ethical and business grounds. Such engagement may begin with petitions or letters, but it certainly needn't end there. Civil disobedience has a noble history in reforming unjust laws and practices.

10. Learn to garden or some other useful skill that you can share with others and which keeps you grounded in the material basis of our existence.

11. Keep learning more about the world and its problems and opportunities. We live in a novel period historically and we currently have the benefit of a large and growing body of research into these matters. Having some idea of the major threats and what they might mean for you, your community, your society and the world helps to orient your practical reason and will make you a more responsible citizen and neighbour.

12. Proclaim the good news, using every means you have, that Jesus is the true and living way, the dawn from on high that has broken upon us who live under the shadow of death and ecological disruption, and which guides our feet in the way of peace.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Scared yet?

Regular readers will have noted the increased frequency with which I’ve been posting links related to the various ecological and resource crises facing contemporary industrial civilisation. Examples can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Some readers have expressed in comments or in private some concern over these posts. They wonder whether (a) I have lost hope for the world (b) whether drawing attention to such information encourages others to lose hope (c) whether drawing attention to such information is a distraction from the good news about Jesus or its replacement with an ecological gospel. In short, am I scaring people unnecessarily? Have I become an alarmist or fear-mongerer?

I write about these things and provide links because this is the world in which we live and love, where feelings of fear, guilt and impotence are both common and have some basis in reality. To ignore this fact is to remain disconnected from where people are at (and from trends that I believe are only likely to increase as the years go on). There is no virtue in ignorance. Yet our situation and these feelings are not beyond the scope of God's redemptive action in Christ. Articulating why the good news of Christ is good news today amidst ecological and resource crises is a significant part of my purpose in writing this blog.

Does this mean I think we shouldn't be scared of the threats that face us? No and yes. Many of us need to be far more alarmed than we currently are, to wake up from our comforting illusions and be roused from our apathy and confront the bleak realities of our present situation. But for those who are already paralysed by fears and cannot bear to hear any more, we need to hear again the words of the risen Christ to his friends: fear not. We need our fears put to death, not so as to leave us unfeeling and untouchable, but so that they can rise as a deep loving concern that shoulders the burdens of our neighbour's fear out of compassion and joy.

And so anxiety is indeed a common response to taking these threats seriously, as are anger and despair. Indeed, I think that a healthy response to our situation involves (for many people) some intense grief. Recognition of the scale, complexity and intractability of our predicament often means the "death" of certain cherished images of the future. Grief over lost futures can be quite real, even if the futures imagined were never really ours to claim or expect in the first place.

While the particular shape and challenges of our situations are novel in various ways, the wisdom of relinquishing idealised futures is perennial: "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Matthew 6.27). This doesn't mean the silencing of the voice of concern or prudence, but the transformation of our fears from a paralysing contraction of the self in a fruitless quest for security to an expansive love for neighbour that seeks to preserve what can be kept, to grieve what will be lost, to discern what we ought to have abandoned long ago and to discover a treasure that does not fade.

How is such a transformation possible? This is where Jesus Christ has good news for us today.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Forgive us our debts

Australian economist Steve Keen predicted the global financial crisis years ahead of when it broke, and doesn't think it is over yet, not by a long shot. He has given a somewhat lengthy and graph-heavy interview over here, in which he doesn't have a great deal of good news to offer.

For those without time to read it, he thinks the government response to the crisis (throwing lots of stimulus money at it) has mainly just masked the underlying debt problems (or rather deferred and increased them). America is already in a depression (hidden by misleading unemployment figures). A significant further period of deflation is inevitable. Australia (largely) avoided the bullet in 2008-09 through propping up a speculative property bubble which will come back to bite us (as speculative bubbles are wont to do). And he claims that the only responsible mitigation policies at this stage would be perceived to cause a crisis when really they would simply be unmasking the crisis that is currently ongoing. Here is his graphic analogy:
"[I]f my preferred remedies were enacted now, they would be blamed for causing an ensuing crisis, when in fact all they would do is make the existing crisis more obvious. I make the analogy between my situation and that of a doctor who has as a patient a comatose mountaineer who climbed too high without sufficient insulation and now has gangrene. If you operate before he regains consciousness, he might only lose a foot, but he’ll blame you for making him a cripple. If you wait till he regains consciousness and sees what the alternative might be, he’ll thank you for saving his life when you remove his leg.

"America in particular — but also much of the OECD — has substituted essentially unproductive Ponzi speculation for real productivity growth in the last four decades, which the rising debt bubble has obscured as it simultaneously allowed Americans to live the high life by buying goods produced elsewhere using borrowed money. There’s no way to come to terms with that without suffering a substantial fall in actual incomes."
He's a cheery chap. But then we get to the kicker: "I regard Peak Oil and Global Warming as far greater challenges to our species than the financial crisis — which I refer to sometimes as Peak Debt".

Keen is articulating something similar to the idea I put (briefly) here, namely, that of the three crises of economy, energy and ecology, the first is most immediate temporally, but is actually a smaller threat than the second, which in turn is closer to us but likely less significant in ultimate ramifications than the third (which, I would argue, is broader than climate change).

Fasten your seatbelts.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Failure to address climate change will lead to big government

"We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We're going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be."

- John Holdren, White House science director.

Here is an interesting article in today's Washington Post making the important argument that avoiding serious action on climate change due to fear of large government is precisely backwards. Some people committed on principle to small government (which is not a bad principle) see the regulations associated with most climate policies that take the science seriously as their worst nightmare. Yet the truth is that failure to minimise ongoing and accelerating climate disruption is much more likely to lead to governments being increasingly called upon to respond to crop failures and costly "natural" disasters (perhaps we'd better just called them extreme weather events, since it is becoming increasingly inaccurate to consider such disasters natural). Climate instability is highly likely to lead to social instability, which will either result in big government, or societal collapse.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Which is it to be?

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

- Woody Allen.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic Imagination

Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic Imagination is a new(ish) collection of essays reflecting on climate change and perceptions of the future that seem right up my alley (I haven't read it yet). The foreword by Alastair McIntosh is available online. Here's a small taste:

"'How do we create the means to empathise with people we may never meet, in a future we may never inhabit?' The rich have never before done this for the poor. So why should they act for the far away and the mostly as-yet unborn, unless the water's already lapping at their own castle walls? In which case tipping point scenarios suggest it would be too late. What the 'rich' have to understand is that, this time, we're all in it together. Addictive consumerism is the cutting edge driver of climate change and we can run from such reality, but never run away - because we've only got one planet."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Climate change: evidence from the geological record

The Geological society of London has published a short series of answers called Climate change: evidence from the geological evidence, which outlines the the issue "based on analysis of geological evidence, and not on analysis of recent temperature or satellite data, or climate model projections". Of course, those data and methods are very important too, but this short piece highlights another piece of a coherent picture.

Scientists are not ignoring the fact that the earth's climate has always changed (as some commentators like to point out, as though they were the first to have had this thought). Far from it. This publication puts the relative stability of the Holocene climate into a larger perspective. The Holocene covers the most recent ten thousand years or so, roughly the period in which human agricultural and then more recently industrial civilisation has developed. Taking what we can glean of past (natural) climate change into account offers little encouragement when we consider present anthropogenic climate change.

The Geological Society is just one of scores of highly respected scientific institutions that are willing to risk their reputations to highlight this issue. We ignore them at our (neighbour's) peril.
H/T Graham.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The party's over? Living on credit

So just how big is one trillion dollars? If right this moment you went out and started spending one dollar every single second, it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend one trillion dollars.
Over the last few months, I've been starting to get a sense of the significance of a debt-based economy and why it is such a ludicrously bad idea. Effectively, living on credit only makes sense if you are confident that the future will be (economically) bigger than the past. This has proven to be true for the last sixty years (and especially for the last thirty, which is when the credit society has really got going), and yet the comforting image of year-over-year global economic growth has been fuelled by the creation of ever larger mountains of debt. Check out the linked article to get a sense of the scale of the issue in the US, though remember that many other countries have debts of proportional size (or larger).

While the bet we've been making with the future has held up so far, what was revealed in 2008 is the downside of this scenario. If we don't keep piling up more debt, we face a very nasty period of deleveraging, which could make the Great Depression look like a party. But the higher the debt levels get, the worse the hangover when we stop drinking from the debt bottle.

If infinite growth were actually possible, then perhaps this wouldn't be a problem (though it would still face the risk of systemic shock being made much worse by all the debt hanging around). But infinite economic growth on a finite planet is not possible. We are betting against the future and keep doubling down, making our ultimate inevitable loss many times greater.

I am not an economist nor an economist's son and perhaps I'm missing something crucial, but this doesn't really sound like good news to me.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What is an ecosystem worth? Is capitalism King Midas?

After mentioning the "successful" negotiations at Nagoya a couple of days ago, it is worth reading this piece by George Monbiot to keep things in perspective.
"It suits governments to let us trash the planet. It's not just that big business gains more than it loses from converting natural wealth into money. A continued expansion into the biosphere permits states to avoid addressing issues of distribution and social justice: the promise of perpetual growth dulls our anger about widening inequality. By trampling over nature we avoid treading on the toes of the powerful.
"As soon as something is measurable it becomes negotiable. Subject the natural world to cost-benefit analysis and accountants and statisticians will decide which parts of it we can do without. All that now needs to be done to demonstrate that an ecosystem can be junked is to show that the money to be made from trashing it exceeds the money to be made from preserving it. That, in the weird world of environmental economics, isn't hard: ask the right statistician and he'll give you any number you want.

"This approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the economy. In reality it's the other way round. The economy, like all other human affairs, hangs from the world's living systems. You can see this diminution in the language TEEB reports use: they talk of 'natural capital stock', of 'underperforming natural assets' and 'ecosystem services'. Nature is turned into a business plan, and we are reduced to its customers. The market now owns the world."

- George Monbiot, "We've been conned. The deal to save the natural world never happened".

At stake in this discussion is a very important question that divides responses to ecological crises: can the logic of capitalism be a force for ecological good? Or does expanding the logic of the market into every sphere of life ultimately end up destroying everything? Is capitalism King Midas?

Getting angry for reasonableness

A sign at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity.
H/T Michael Tobis.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Surrendering to God?

"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

- Galatians 5.1.

Over the last couple of years, I have increasingly been struck by the frequency with which certain kinds of Christian discourse (not least many contemporary worship songs) refer to the idea of our "surrendering" to God. The more I have noticed this, the more it has started to ring false in my ears.

To surrender is to cease resistance and to submit to a hostile power generally after losing all prospect of victory. It is done in order to survive, or to bring to an end a hopeless conflict and so to salvage what remains (especially one's life) from further destruction. But the victory of God is not over us, in order that we might become slaves, giving up our freedom in exchange for survival. If we are going to use metaphors of warfare, conflict and victory, then it is important to note that the New Testament speaks in this way of God's triumph over the powers of evil, sin and death in Christ. God does not beat us into submission, he defeats the powers that hold us captive, liberating us to experience an increase in our agency. We are set free to love. This what Paul means when he speaks of being set free from slavery to sin and becoming a "slave" to righteousness (Romans 6.18). "Slavery" to righteousness is not a straightforward parallel to slavery to sin (as Paul acknowledges in the very next verse: Romans 6.19). The switch of masters is from a dominating tyrant to a loving Father who wants us to grow up into maturity.

What is the problem with getting this metaphor confused? Why is it an issue to speak of our surrendering to God? First, because it implies that becoming a Christian is a process of moving from greater to lesser freedom. Prior to surrendering, I was free, but I gave that up in order to prevent a greater power from destroying me utterly. This is to get things upside down. Being rescued from the power of darkness and being brought into the kingdom of the Son is to be brought out into a wide space, not placed into a cell. It is to regain the power of action, that is, the possibility of acting in faith, hope and love as an expression of true humanity, to be freed from the constrictions of selfishness and fear, guilt and impotence. In other words, ethics is good news.

Second, to think of Christian discipleship as unthinking submission ("surrender") to an externally imposed (or even willingly received) divine will is to misconstrue the nature of Christian maturity. We are to be adults in our thinking. Following Christ doesn't mean losing the messy complexity of the world for black and white simplicity, it doesn't mean that every choice becomes obvious and straightforward, that every situation becomes morally perspicuous. This is one of the dangerous attractions in the language of "surrender": that all my quandaries will be resolved through someone telling me what to do again. I can once more be a child whose decisions are made for me. I can regress to irresponsibility.

Third, if our lives are surrendering to God, then what place is there for wisdom? God does not simply give us a list of do's and don't's that we either accept (surrender to) or reject. He guides us in a true and living way, a path of peace, in which we are to walk. This wisdom requires that we pay close attention to the world around us, to ourselves and to the opportunities available at this time.

Do not get me wrong. Following Christ requires the denial of self (Mark 8.34), indeed, dying to oneself, an end to the rebellious self that seeks to live without God. Perhaps in this sense we can speak of a surrender, an end to the impossible quest for self-sufficiency. But this "death" is the prelude, perhaps even the necessary condition, to a "resurrection" in which our whole being is renewed and transformed. This process includes our minds, which are not switched off or put onto autopilot.

Obedience to the will of God is not a matter of a struggle between a human and a divine will and the former being conquered by the latter through sheer force. Instead, obedience in the scriptures is sharing the same mind (Philippians 2.5), being wooed by love to seek a unity of purpose. Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14.15). This isn't a threat or emotional manipulation. It is a description of the nature of love, particularly when one realises that in the context of the farewell discourse where Jesus makes this statement, his commandment is to love one another (John 13.34-35). Love obeys, that is, continues to participate in love, because that is the nature of true love.

In sum, Jesus isn't recruiting impressionable minds who simply swallow and regurgitate his teaching. He wants friends who understand him, who know what he was doing and seek to participate thoughtfully and creatively in that mission.
"I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

- John 15.15.