Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Some reviews

At the end of last year, I posted links to the twelve doomiest stories of 2010 and fifty doomiest graphs and photos. Desdemona again offers his summary of 2011 with the fifty doomiest graphs and images and this time fifty doomiest stories of the year.

Not to be outdone, the ApocaDocs have compiled their 100 top news stories of 2011 relating to our global predicament.

The Conversation sums up the year in energy and environment news, containing links to dozens of interesting and significant stories throughout the year. They also summaries of their other major news headings.

And if all this is a little too bleak for your New Year's celebrations, then check out Charlie Brooker's take on 2011 available on BBC iPlayer (for UK residents only, I'm afraid). It's still somewhat bleak (it was that kind of year), but at least it has a few jokes.

Feel free to post links to other reviews of the year that are worth reading.

Mongabay: Top ten environmental stories of 2011.

May 2012 bring renewed hope, patience and illumination to face the gathering gloom.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The difficulties of climate ethics: time

"[There is] a pronounced temporal dispersion of causes and effects. In the case of climate change, this is caused mainly by the long atmospheric lifetime of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and by the fact that some of the basic physical systems influenced by the greenhouse effect (such as oceans) are subject to profound inertia, so that changes play out over centuries and even millennia. This is important because it suggests that whereas fossil fuel emissions have immediate and tangible benefits for present people, many of the most serious costs are likely to be substantially deferred to future generations."

- Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm:
The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 123.

This time lag is critical to grasping climate change (and, to a greater or lesser extent, many other ecological issues). Many people don't realise that the changes we are already experiencing (Arctic summer sea ice volume down by over 70%, shifts in timing of the seasons, more frequent heatwaves and intense precipitation events in some regions, poleward shift of ecosystems, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels and so on) are not the result of present greenhouse gas concentrations. We are merely reaping the start of the harvest of seeds sown decades ago. It will be decades more before the effects of today's levels begin to be visible, and centuries or even millennia before their full impact is known.

This temporal lag means that climate change occupies an intermediate position amongst future threats, too close to be safely ignored and too distant to avoid being perpetually trumped by the myopic focus on today's problem caused by the media and political cycle. Dangerous climate change is far more immediate than say, the heat death of the universe or even the death of our Sun (or the preceding gradual increase in solar radiation that will likely destroy all life on earth well before either of these), and yet not immediate enough to enter the horizon of political decision-making. That this is so can be seen in the frequent attempts to find proximate hooks of one disaster or another on which to hang the climate threat. Yet these are doomed to be of only ambiguous use since any single disaster always has multiple causes and climate change is about a shift in statistical distributions, rather than being the sole unambiguous "cause" of any given event. In this intermediate position, climate change is uncomfortably dangerous enough to be of real concern and yet always comfortably far enough away to ignore for one more day, lowering the chance that will anticipate with prudence such (slightly) distant futures.

Individually, we are frequently poor at responding to such delayed feedback. The causes of obesity, heart disease, lung disease, alcoholism and all kinds of other long term health problems are increasingly well-known and connected to various behaviours that are often deemed quite pleasant in the short term. Yet, despite the long term ill-effects frequently being catastrophic for our health, we continue to indulge.

And that is just for problems where the effects are on my own life a few decades in the future. But when we turn to issues where the worst effects are felt by others, separated from me by time, space, social distance and even species, then my ability to refrain from indulging in short-term pleasures becomes even more difficult.

And when we turn from individual responses to collective responses, yet another layer of complexity is added and the potential to pass the buck becomes even higher. And when these collective responses are required not only at communal, social and national levels, but also critically amongst all nations of any economic size, then the barriers can appear insurmountable. More on these issues in the days ahead as I begin this series looking at some of the reasons why climate change is a particularly knotty ethical issue.
As one illustration of the temporal lag, a new publication from NASA claims that, based on paleoclimate records, each degree Celsius of global temperature rise will, in the long run, be associated with something like a twenty metre sea level rise. For those who don't understand why it matters whether we rise two or three or four degrees, here is one example to clarify our thoughts. This is not saying that such rises will be immediate, but that we are committing our descendants to a very, very different world.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

If you're having trouble commenting, blame Facebook

Over the last few months I've had a few people tell me that they're no longer able to post comments here or on other blogs. Clearly, I've still be getting quite a few comments, so this puzzled me. I then found myself having the same problem from time to time, not even being able to get to the screen where comments are entered.

But I think I've now worked out what the issue is: Facebook. More specifically, the application known as Networked Blogs, which is an app that will automatically repost your blog posts to your Facebook page (and so to your friends' news feeds). Networked Blogs has been one of the main reasons I haven't (so far) given up on Facebook, since I know that quite a few of my readers come via this route. Until recently, if you clicked on a Facebook news feed item published by Networked Blogs this would take you to the actual blog post in question. But now Networked Blogs has changed its set up and creates a mirrored page identical to the original Blogger post, except that almost all internal links (apart from those in the body of a post) link to the mirrored site and links to comments are disabled. This very strongly encourages you to stay within the Facebook world if you want to post a comment and is another example of Facebook's attempt to become the internet within the internet (not that Google aren't also trying much the same thing).

I don't have a problem with websites expanding their range of services, but there is a significant difference between simple expansion and the parasitic exploitation of a competitor in an attempt to achieve or maintain hegemony. Another recent example of this is an application that enables you to scan barcodes on your smartphone from a physical bookstore and compare the price with

In any case, if you want to post comments outside of the Facebook bubble, make sure your browser's address contains "nothing-new-under-the-sun". For future reference, click here to go to my actual blog and then set up a bookmark.
Another effect of this is that stat counters for visitors will systematically underestimate the number of readers. It has been some years since I've really looked closely at my stats, but this is somewhat annoying as well.

UPDATE: After posting this, the obvious solution hit me: post my own updates on Facebook and ditch Networked Blogs. Done.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The price of consumerism

A new video I came across via the Breathe network. Not many bells and whistles, but it articulates an important argument: that less is sometimes more and if we are going to address our destructive lifestyles then we need to address the consumerist assumptions that drive them.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Where are the wise men today?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

- Matthew 2.1-3 (NRSV).

The Gospels are filled with characters whose reactions to Jesus serve as positive and negative examples to readers. The text invites us to reflect upon our own reactions and which characters we resemble.

The well-known story of the Magi (or wise men) often simply supplies so many more figures standing in the background of a nativity scene we have surveyed hundreds of times, or perhaps a brief gloss on why we give gifts at this time of year. But there is far more to them than their stunning generosity.

The Magi, whose precise origins are only gestured at ("from the East") and whose number can only be guessed from their threefold offering, were confronted with the emergence of something new and unexpected; they dropped everything and departed into the unknown, embarking on a long journey, whose dangers are compounded by the treasures they carry. They search for a figure who brings the future: a child born to be king of a nation presently under imperial occupation. Holding high status in their own society, they depart to where they will likely be misunderstood and mistrusted in order to offer a symbolic gesture of hope that points to new possibilities. They sit lightly to the status quo, dropping their various pressing responsibilities and disrupting their daily routine in order to acknowledge the new thing that has appeared and see where it leads. They are thus open and receptive to the future, and search for it beyond the boundaries of the comfortable.

As the story unfolds, the Magi's hope and faith inadvertently disrupt the political order. They are received at Herod's Court - perhaps the most obvious place to begin a search for a royal child: within the household of the one presently occupying the throne - and yet quickly discover that the new they seek is not simply the continuation of the present, but arises from an unexpected quarter. The royal child belongs outside of contemporary constellations of power and so represents a challenge and a threat to them. The Magi are willing to place themselves and the social order at risk in order to honour this new figure. Neither their own survival nor the preservation of the peace are sufficient to deter them from pursuing their quest.

When they reach their destination, they are overjoyed. Despite the humble surroundings and the great distance they have travelled, despite the incongruity of their wealth with Mary's poverty, despite the foreignness of the context and the difficulty in accepting an infant of no standing as the object and bearer of their hopes, they kneel and pay him homage.

There are many mysteries surrounding these Magi. Who were they? Where were they from? Why did they interpret a star as having significance for Judah? And why, having found the child and sworn fealty to him, did they depart from Bethlehem and from the pages of history? Yet their utter receptivity to the arrival of the messianic moment offers us a strange and disquieting model of faith and hope.

In contrast, King Herod presents a picture of suspicion, hostility, self-interest and the worst kind of deadly conservatism. Bearing the title "King of the Jews" through an act of betrayal that rendered its messianic symbolism largely impotent, Herod clung to the power granted him at Rome's pleasure. Faced with the arrival of foreign dignitaries with stunning and potentially explosive news, Herod's receptivity is pure pretense, his engagement with the traditions of holy scripture self-serving, his hospitality merely an opportunity to secure his own position and power. He does not want anything new to emerge without it being forcibly dragged within the sphere of his influence and benefit. The future must be made the servant of the present order and, ultimately, if that requires the sacrifice of future generations, then that is the price for stability. Suffering and violence are tools, justice and compassion secondary, honesty and integrity expendable: nothing must threaten my present comforts. The Herodian way of life is not up for negotiation.

Are we any less foolish today? Where are the wise men? And most importantly, where is the Christ-child to be found: amidst our comfortable status quo that requires the destruction of others' futures? Or as yet unseen, hidden in plain sight amongst the lowly and filthy and requiring a journey of faith conducted with little more than flickering starlight for guidance?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Obama is as bad as Bush

Guardian: Obama is as bad as Bush at watering down or blocking environmental regulation.

UTS: Australian news coverage of climate change is seriously unbalanced. No prizes for guessing the worst culprit.

Monbiot: EU farm subsidies continue to give tens of billions to the wealthy, which isn't a problem because Europe is of course swimming in cash at the moment.

New Matilda: What is happening at Sydney University? Nothing other than one battle in an ongoing war for the soul of the university occurring in most societies dominated by current economic orthodoxies.

UN: New FAO report says that 25% of the world's land area is "highly degraded" from human activities.

Independent: The dying Dead Sea.

Guardian: UK government secretly supporting Canadian tar sands - yet another piece of disconnected thinking from the "greenest government ever".

Gittins: What does it profit a corporation to gain the whole world and lose the souls of all its employees and customers? Gittins thinks Michael Schluter from the Relationships Forum is a genius.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth III

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the third in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the second here.

In the previous posts I’ve explored the way justice is prized in the biblical literature. To conclude this short series I want to return briefly to the puzzle I started with: why is it that Martin Luther King’s (thoroughly biblical) demands for justice strikes us today — even those of us who profess to be Christians — as somewhat naïve and perhaps even deserving of suspicion?

Is it that we have fundamentally lost our moral bearings and no longer care about justice? I don’t think that’s quite right. We do still care about justice—both individually and collectively. (Even bankers, it turns out, have moral intuitions about fairness and desert.)

It’s not so much that we’ve forgotten all about justice; it’s just that justice has slipped down our list of priorities. This is evidence of a subtle reorientation of the basic theological horizons of society: In the place of divine justice and mercy, economic growth has become our primary source of hope. Our faith is now firmly in free markets (alongside scientific and technological innovation) to provide for us a happy and prosperous future. And as a consequence, economists have become our high priests, periodically prescribing for us the sacrifices required to ensure economic growth (bailouts, stimulus packages, austerity measures, etc.).

One consequence of this theological reorientation is that our imaginative grip on the role of government has changed. We tend no longer to demand that governments order their activity above all else to the goals of justice and righteousness. Indeed, such demands seem to us potentially irresponsible insofar as they threaten to curb economic growth. The imperatives of justice compete with the things we truly believe to be the source of life and happiness, and so we keep them on a short leash. The ideal of government as an agent of justice to punish wrongdoing and to prevent injustice has thus become marginal for us. In its place we now tend to imagine government first and foremost as the manager of the economy and as a provider of services.

The shift has been gradual and it remains partial — we haven’t given up the previous cultural paradigm entirely — but it has been a marked shift all the same. Indeed, it is so deeply entrenched in our thinking that it has become second nature to us to size up our elected representatives almost entirely based upon their performance as managers of the economy and providers of services. Come election time, every politician knows that it would be electoral suicide not to promise economic growth and better — or at least more efficient — provision of health care, schools, roads and so on. These are the fixed parameters of public debate.

It goes without saying that economic growth and technological development have in many ways been a great blessing and have brought about staggering improvements in the quality of life. And if (and this is a big ‘if’) we can find ways to sustain economic development within the ecological limits of our planet and the moral limits of care, respect and solidarity, it may continue to be a path that we can and should pursue. But this should not obscure the underlying issue. Claims of justice have been displaced from the position of primacy given to them by the Christian tradition, and this is no mere oversight but is entirely consistent with the new reigning theology of our ‘secular’ world.

For those of us who are Christians, then, we need to reflect soberly and honestly on where our deep faith lies. We who confess faith in God and claim to share his concern for justice and righteousness — practically, what do we put our faith in? What do we support with our money, our voice and our vote? Are we prepared to choose justice over increases in our own personal material wealth and wellbeing? Are we prepared even to countenance decreases in our wealth and limits on our lifestyles for the sake of justice? And do we ultimately believe that this is the more excellent way — not just for us but for everyone?

Managing the economy and providing services are important, of course. But before all else the gospel teaches us that we need our institutions of public justice to answer the muted cries of those who are exploited and cast aside; and, today more than ever, that we need them to respond to the silent groans of the creation whose capacity to extend hospitality to the human race and all living things is being over-taxed in myriad ways that we are only now beginning to understand. We cannot execute these tasks merely as private citizens; we must also execute them collectively through public institutions that act in our name.
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth II

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the second in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the third here.

The one essential and foundational task of government, according to the biblical texts discussed in the previous post, is the execution of justice and the promotion of righteousness. Contingency planning is expected; but, surprisingly perhaps, economic prosperity and even military success are not centrally expected of kings or governments. Such happy outcomes are typically attributed to divine providence and not to human skill or virtue; material prosperity and military victory are characteristically interpreted as the sign of God’s blessing or favour, but — importantly — they are never considered the automatic consequence of good government.

Nowhere is this priority of justice and righteousness over riches and security more forcefully and starkly proclaimed than by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
We can draw a straight line from the message of Jesus to the message of Martin Luther King. Both share a deeply-held conviction—let’s call it a faith—that the highest social good, the thing to be pursued above all else, is justice and righteousness; that in this lies true riches and security; that walking down this path is what demonstrates a genuine faith in God.

All of the great civilizations have esteemed justice and elevated it as an ideal, and contemporary Western nations are certainly no exception. But what is so profoundly challenging about the biblical texts for us today is how relentlessly they maintain the view that life without justice is barely tolerable, barely human, and that justice and righteousness are to be prized above all as the most fundamental social goods.

I’m not sure that we hold quite the same view today. But, again, why is that?
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth I

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the first in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The second can be found here and the third here.

Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech begins, oddly enough, with a banking metaphor. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963 King thundered:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street protesters could have used that.

In any case, I’m struck by the way King’s rhetoric has dated. It still moves me deeply, but I just cannot imagine a public figure today getting away with such bold and unqualified demands. We have come to expect a measure of realism, a curbed enthusiasm, a toned-down rhetoric from our political leaders. To our contemporary ears King’s words sound somewhat naïve, and his idealism might even evoke in us a hint of wariness.

Am I right? Why do you think that is? Can it be put down merely to changes in rhetorical style? What should we make of King’s demands for justice?

King returns in his speech to the theme of justice in the famous line: “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’.”

The quotation comes from the biblical prophet Amos. And, as Oliver O’Donovan explains, the prophet’s poetic metaphors express the longing for there to begin “a flood of judicial activity” in a society in which judicial activity has dried up: “Courts are to be held every day ‘in the gate’, appellants are to be heard quickly and without the need for bribes, verdicts are to be clear-sighted and decisive, and enforced” (The Ways of Judgment, 6).

This petition for renewed judicial activity is not unique to Amos. In fact, it’s a desire that is expressed repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. The moral imagination of Israel is marked by this posture of deep yearning for proper judicial oversight. The poor, the vulnerable and the exploited should have their cases heard; and those who have wronged them should be publicly exposed and held responsible for their misdeeds. Similarly, in the Hebrew scriptures the qualities most venerated in kings and rulers are not military prowess, rhetorical skill or political cunning but the readiness to execute justice and the determination to see that peace and righteousness are established and maintained. The Old Testament people of God were clearly convinced that nothing could be a greater blessing to a nation than to have a just and wise ruler, and nothing worse than to be subject to a corrupt or foolish ruler who has no concern for justice.

This guiding conviction is picked up again in the New Testament. In continuity with the message of the ancient prophets, both John the Baptist and Jesus come preaching against the rulers of Israel whose failings were precisely failures to exercise their authority with the appropriate justice and mercy; rather than teaching and applying the law of God without hypocrisy and without favour, they were exploiting and neglecting the people under their care and serving their own interests.

By contrast, Jesus is studiously portrayed in the gospels as one who demonstrates all the qualities of a just king or ruler and who will at last fulfill the oracle of Isaiah 9:
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
Throughout the Bible, then, it is axiomatic that the primary purpose of government is to establish and to uphold justice; and that without institutions of justice a society simply cannot enjoy peace and lasting happiness. Whether they are politically naïve or not, King’s focus on justice places him squarely in the biblical tradition.
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Twelve days of carbon Christmas

A very large part of our ecological impact is hidden in the stuff that we buy. We often overlook the resources required to produce our consumer goods. For instance, some people obsess over personal water use and are proud that they now turn the tap off while brushing their teeth (a no-brainer), saving a handful of litres each time, but ignore the hundreds of litres required to produce the dairy and meat products they consumed before brushing.

Now that Advent has begun, it may be fruitful to consider the ecological impact of our Christmas shopping. This infographic (click to see at a more readable size or go here) lists twelve kinds of presents which each involve about 50kg of carbon dioxide emissions (or equivalent) in their production. Some may surprise you (for instance the ecological impacts of gold mining are shocking, and carbon is not the worst of it. I am seriously reconsidering whether gold rings are a wise symbol of fidelity). For reference, the average annual Australian, Canadian or US per capita footprint is something like 18-25 tonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent), depending how you calculate it. The UK average is approximately 8-14 tonnes. The global average is around 5 tonnes. To minimise very serious climate consequences (which mean social, economic and political consequences), we probably need to be more like 1-2 tonnes each, so a 50 kg gift would represent up to 1/20th of one's total annual carbon budget.

If you're looking for ways to cut down the stuff you give and receive this Christmas (while enhancing the spiritual, relational and celebratory tone of the season), you might like to check out some suggestions I made last year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy (and) the church

The recent emergence of the Occupy movement is a fascinating social and political phenomenon. The existence and persistence of this fledgling movement is an ongoing protest against the excesses and contradictions of contemporary hypercapitalism (particularly as it is embodied and enabled by the global financial system as underwritten by national governments after 2008). Yet the form is important since this is not simply an angry rally or creative media stunt; it is an experiment in a temporary alternative society run by direct democracy, a second society existing amidst a broader one and to which it appeals with both invitation ("This is what democracy looks like. Join us!") and critique. It is an anarchist meme drawing in a wide range of sympathisers and has rapidly spread via imitation and facilitated by the net beyond the national context that gave it birth (unlike, say, the Tea Party to which it is often compared). Much has and will continue to be written and said about it, and this is precisely what ought to happen, since such new forms call out for interpretation and the movement is if nothing else an opening, a chance for a fresh start to old conversations. What it may become remains to be seen.

The most frequent complaint regarding the movement is that it does not have a coherent message. There are three things to say about this. First, the willful inability of much of the mainstream media to report what Occupy camps are actually saying is depressingly predictable. Second, in a genuinely grassroots movement that has arisen from a primarily negative stimulus, a positive alternative may take time to emerge and the camps testify at once to the urgency of the need for such alternatives (through participants' willingness to camp out even amidst a northern winter) and to the patience required to seek them (as seen in the characteristic interminable general assemblies). Third, it remains an open question whether this movement is itself already in embryo the alternative it puts forward (that is, an anarchist non-hierarchical alternative model of a society based on trust and mutual care rather than our one mediated primarily by market exchange) or if its primary function is to highlight the public wounds inflicted by plutocracy in order to provoke reform and/or revolution (as Tahrir Square was, and appears to again be becoming).

An alternative community within the world that stands as both critique and invitation to the surrounding culture and structures, claiming to be a foretaste of a possible future while holding open that very future as essentially unknown in the face of forces that seek to maintain the ongoing catastrophe of the status quo: the similarities between the Occupy movement and the church are striking. Indeed, this whole post was really intended as a brief intro and recommendation to this very insightful piece by Luke Bretherton, theologian (and former student of O'Donovan).
H/T Andy Stiles.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

When history was made and other stories

The Economist: When history of made, a graph in which the historical novelty of the last six decades or so is made breathtakingly clear. H/T Michael Tobis, who offers his own reflections upon it.

SMH: Bob Brown, the most ______ man in Australia. Fill in your own adjective to complete the title of an interesting profile of a fascinating man.

Naomi Klein: Climate change, capitalism and the transformation of cultural values. Klein suggests that perhaps the insistence of the deniers that climate change implies the necessity of a left-wing cultural transformation ought to be taken with more seriousness.

Slavoj Žižek: Occupy First. Demands come later. Žižek answers the critics of the movement who claim it is a gathering of un-American violent dreamers. Speaking of Occupy (which surely deserves its own post or three at some stage), I found this summary (from a NZ perspective) useful, these images illuminating of protesters' motives and this warning (from an American in London) quite salient.

ABC: Anti-consumerism is the new democracy.

John Dickson: Art of persuasion not so simple. Dickson turns to Aristotle to gain some basic insights into how to be convincing: logos, pathos and, crucially, ethos.

Orion: The Consolations of Extinction. A reflection on how deep time affects our perception of the ongoing sixth extinction event and of our own mortality as a species.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wait eleven seconds, then celebrate

11:11:11 11/11/11.

If you're not on twenty-four hour time, then do it all again in twelve hours.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On supporting a friend with cancer

After my own experiences of cancer diagnosis, treatment and remission, I more or less regularly receive requests from people whose friend, family member or colleague has just been diagnosed asking for advice on how they might best care for them. I thought I would post one of my answers (with permission) in case it is of some benefit to others.
Hi friend,

Good to hear from you, though sorry to hear about this news.

I guess the first thing I'd say, which may actually not sound very helpful at all, is that cancers are very different and the experiences of cancer patients even more diverse, so I would be quite hesitant to extrapolate too much from my own story.

Having said that, it is still possible to say a little more. Grief and suffering come in many forms (even in the same person) and bring with them various needs and opportunities. At times, silence is the best support; at others, the chance to talk to a sympathetic ear; at others, a word of comfort; at others, an act of silent service. In general, I guess I'd suggest that responsiveness is therefore key, being willing to play whatever role will be a blessing to those in need. While at times grief needs space, I suspect it rarely needs absence, so as a start, simply indicating your willingness to be there for them and to grieve with them is probably the best bet. If they have practical needs, then offers of help from trusted friends may well be appreciated (babysitting while parents go to some of the endless appointments these things seem to involve? Doing some housework? Frozen meals? The latter can probably be safely brought without being asked, as long as you stick to any known dietary requirements). Some people may find themselves with little energy for daily tasks like these. Others might throw themselves into them as a distraction and comfort.

Depending how wide and deep the pre-existing support networks of this family are, it may be that they are initially swamped with offers of help and sympathy. If you think this might be the case, you (or someone else) could perform the service of coordinating the practical support (putting together rosters for babysitting or frozen meals, etc.).

Don't neglect the partner of the patient, whose grief is double: grief for their partner's sake and for their own (potential) loss. And depending how old the kids are, they may need extra support from trusted family friends.

Again, depending how well you know them, then make your level and form of contact fit the relationship. If you are not close friends, then make contact through forms that can be ignored or noted and replied to later (email, letter, card, SMS). Only call if you know them well, because they might receiving a string of calls and probably don't want to be having the same conversation with dozens of people.

If my experience is anything to go by, they are likely to find themselves the target of more unsolicited advice than at any time outside of pregnancy. Although I know everyone meant well, I'd suggest keeping any crank miracle cures you've heard of or stories of amazing recoveries to yourself. It is actually not very encouraging to be told about someone's aunt who was cured simply by prayer and faith or someone's grandfather who drank only goji berry juice and lived to 100. Such stories are (a) irresponsible (I'm not a big fan of alternative medicine, nor of purely faith-based healing, for both scientific and theological reasons) and (b) sometimes contain an element of accusation in them ("if only you had enough faith, you too would be healed like my cousin").

Many cancer treatments become complex, and there is often a high volume of information to share with those concerned. One suggestion that a friend made to me (more unsolicited advice from a guy I didn't know well at the time, but of all that I received, almost the only piece of pure gold I got) was that it might be a good idea to set up a blog where interested family and friends can self-medicate on as much or as little information as they wish. This means that rather than having the same conversation fifty times after each appointment, I could simply write out a summary once and post it on the blog, then direct people to the blog. Mine is here (only updated very infrequently now).

I would also suggest keeping your theological comments minimal unless they raise it. I was probably unusual in that I'd just written my 4th year paper on suffering and the problem of evil just weeks before being diagnosed and so was (usually) quite happy to discuss theology with anyone who wanted. But not everyone is in that place, and for many, just retreating into survival mode is all they can handle for a while (once treatment started, my willingness to talk dropped rapidly as I just had little energy for anything).

I could write reams about my experiences of treatment, but here, the specifics of the cancer become most stark and what I say may bear little or no relevance to their situation.

They may or may not find it helpful to meet with other cancer patients, though I suspect that such groups will be available through the hospital, so you probably don't need to worry about that.

Finally, I'd suggest taking this tragedy as an opportunity to reflect upon your own mortality. Our society has hidden death and dying as far from view as possible and here is one place that the gospel truly does have good news (though not always easy news). Of all that I read, wrote and heard during the intense few months after diagnosis, the best was undoubtedly this talk by Stanley Hauerwas. It may or may not be appropriate to share with your friends (that is for you to judge), but it is almost certainly worth an hour of your time (if you can get past his braying cackle and Texan twang).

It hardly needs saying, but when words and wisdom falter, groans are also part of a faithful response to serious illness.

Grace & peace,

PS If you don't mind, I might post my reply (omitting your name and any other identifying details) on my blog since I have been asked this question quite a number of times (not that I mind being asked!) and putting it there will mean I can refer to it in future. Let me know if you'd rather I didn't.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Seven billion: too much of a good thing?

According to the best available estimates, the global human population reached seven billion individuals last Monday (give or take a few months) and continues to rise by about 10,000 each hour. We took all of human history to reach one billion around 1800. We then took a leisurely 120 odd years to reach two billion in about 1923. The third billion came in 1959 after 46 years; the fourth in 1974 after 15; the fifth in 1987 after 13 and the sixth in 1999 after 12. Since we've just taken another twelve to rise to seven billion, it may appear that human population is growing faster than ever before in history. In absolute terms, it is. The cause is not rising fertility but declining mortality. We are living longer and more are surviving childhood to raise children of their own. Yet in relative terms, we have passed our peak growth back in the 1970s. The annual rate of growth has been slowing since then as fertility rates are plummeting. Sixty years ago the average adult female gave birth to six children, now it is only two and a half. Yet sixty years ago the global average life expectancy was 48, now it is about 68, with infant mortality having declined by two thirds.

Longer, healthier lives; fewer tragic losses for parents; smaller families (largely reflecting more educated and affluent women, greater social security for the elderly and less manual labour): these are all good things. More human beings created in the image of God, more neighbours to love, more brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. This is a thing of wonder.

And yet, seven billion of us live on a single planet, with a single atmosphere, single ocean, and finite land area with limited supplies of fresh water, fertile soil and biodiverse ecosystem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? For some people, this issue is "the elephant in the room" of ecological discussions (for some reason, this seems to nearly always be the phrase that is used). More mouths to feed means more food, means more land devoted to agriculture, means more forests cleared, more fertilisers disrupting the nitrogen cycle, more stress on water supplies, more trawlers scraping the bottom of the oceanic barrel, more rubbish, more carbon into the atmosphere and more demand on finite resources. We are invited to conduct a thought experiment in which every square metre of the surface of the planet contains a human: a ridiculous impossibility. So at what point do we reach too much of the wonderful thing known as homo sapiens? We love water, but too much is a destructive flood. Have we, in our enormously successful filling of the earth, now become a human inundation?

Such questions are always controversial, not least amongst Christians who (rightly) cherish children as gifts from a loving Father. But raising such questions in a simplistic manner can actually serve a dangerous hidden agenda. When you start crunching the numbers, the key figure in ecological degradation is not seven billion, since seven billion are not created equal (at least in terms of ecological impact). A single affluent Australian may have a total destructive impact on the planet that is more than one hundred or even a thousand times greater than a typical rural African. Taking carbon footprints as an example, the average US baby will be responsible for more carbon emissions in their first year of life than an average Ethiopian in their entire lifetime. The Bangladeshi with ten children may still have a far smaller drain on the planet's resources than a childless European businessman. And so, if we only look at population and ignore consumption, then the problem becomes Africa, where birth rates are highest.

Yet Africa contributes a relatively tiny share of the total demand on the earth's systems. In absolute terms and especially per capita, the developed world still bears the lion's share. Again, to pick a single statistic (which turns out to be reasonably representative of other metrics): globally, the wealthiest 11% contribute 50% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions while the poorest 50% contribute 11% (a surprising, but very memorable symmetry).

Therefore, the first issue is and must remain consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption. Or as Monbiot puts it, it's not sex, it's money. Too narrow a focus on population enables those of us who are wealthy to ignore the very real threat our lifestyles and economic system are to the planet and all its inhabitants. In some cases, a population obsession may even be a mask for xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments that have little to do with ecological concerns.

The much-feared "population bomb" is already being de-fused. As mentioned above, fertility rates have fallen rapidly across much of the globe to levels now only just above replacement (2.5 children per women; replacement is considered to be 2.1). While each billion has taken fewer years to add than the last, the rate of growth has been in decline for about four decades and the ongoing growth is largely the result of so many young people being born in the last few decades, giving the system a certain momentum. Where we end up is currently estimated to be around ten billion (give or take a billion or two, largely depending on how quickly African women receive access to adequate education and healthcare). As countries develop out of absolute poverty, first death rates decline, then birth rates, until population levels stabilise. This has been (or is currently) the experience of every nation thus far and is known as the "benign demographic transition". The demographic transition refers to the shift from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. It is labelled benign because it means that human populations will not continue expanding exponentially like bacteria in a petri dish (another image much loved by certain demographic doomers).

What is less often noted is that the benign demographic transition assumes that the nations currently still experiencing high fertility rates will see them decline as their affluence increases. Thus, we avoid a population explosion though a consumption explosion. The benign demographic transition may not be so benign after all if the model of development used to bring it about assumes that everyone ought to be living like us.

I do think that "the more the merrier" is true, yet on a finite planet, I believe it most prudent to pursue this diachronically, not synchronically. That is, the way to welcome the most humans onto the planet is probably not to try to do so all at once, lest we exacerbate the damage we are presently doing to the globe's carrying capacity and so reduce the possibilities of future generations. In considering this damage, population is a secondary issue, yet it is an issue nonetheless. Since we still walk a path of high consumption and great inequality (and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future) then efforts to slow population growth sooner rather than later are one way of reducing the damage being done to the planetary conditions necessary for human flourishing. Of course, these efforts must remain subordinated to tackling over-consumption (which is the primary issue) and never be allowed to become an excuse to shift our own weighty responsibilities onto the poor.

Ultimately, it is possible to live a flourishing life not mired in stupid poverty without it costing the earth. A good life need not be a life of high consumption. The other alternatives are to abandon any notion of justice and expect the poor to stay poor, to institute draconian population controls or to abandon any attempt to pass on an earth anything like the present one to our children. Very significantly lower per capita consumption in the rich world is the only path that enables the simultaneous pursuit of both ecological responsibility and social justice for those living in absolute poverty in a world of seven billion and rising. Fortunately, it is also the path to greater joy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Still here

I plan not to make a habit of posts such as this, but the last month or two have seen a larger than average number of disruptions and distractions and diseases.

To signal my intention to return to slightly more regular posting, I have shifted my header image to something a little more Scottish. As always, I'd love constructive feedback on the change. Do the words need to be a different colour?

As I am now in (God willing) my final year of PhD, I am probably not going to be posting every day as I did for a year, but will aim at more like two or three posts a week. That may have to shift further as things progress, but hopefully there is still enough synergy between blog and project to keep both on the move.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


This has nothing to do with anything but is too good not to save here.
H/T Rod Benson.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Keeping alternatives alive

"Only a crisis brings about real change. When the crisis occurs the ideas that are adopted are those which are readily available. It is part of the duty of the Church to keep alive alternative ways of thinking and living in preparation for the time when the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."

- Richard Chartres, Green economy possible with political will.
H/T Liz.

Do you think this is a helpful way of talking about one of the political roles of the church, as a witness to and guardian of the idea that other ways of life are possible, that repentance is the most fundamental freedom, that there is nothing inevitable about the present political landscape?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Climate change: what is at stake?

The more I talk with people about their attitudes towards and feelings about climate change, the more I have discovered that many (perhaps most) well-educated and socially-engaged people have only a somewhat vague idea of the nature, scale and likely timing of the various kinds of dangers we face on our current path. And so, when I came across this summary from Joe Romm, I immediately thought that many of my readers might find it a useful resource to peruse, bookmark, reflect upon and share with others. If you are not really sure what impacts mainstream scientific research currently considers likely from a middle of the road business as usual scenario (i.e. not worst case), then this post lays out many of the key issues in an accessible way.

The figure included above is from MIT research from 2009 and shows the likelihood of different temperature outcomes based on two broad scenarios. On the left is business as usual. This is not the worst case and does not include slow feedbacks. On the right is a world where we take aggressive global action to reduce carbon emissions. The temperatures are the average global difference between the world in 1990 and in 2100. Since most other discussions used pre-industrial temperatures as a baseline and the world had already warmed by about 0.5ºC by 1990, then this needs to be added to the numbers to compare with other publications. My main criticism of the image is in the choice of colour. A rise of 3.5-4.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures can in no sense be understood as reassuringly green. Such a change in the space of a century would be unlikely to be compatible with industrial civilisation as we know it or the possibility of feeding anything like the 9-10 billion people projected to be around by then.

Friday, October 07, 2011

What has smoking got to do with climate change?

DOUBT from The Climate Reality Project on Vimeo.

Do cigarettes contribute to the warming of the planet? Not really, but the deliberate manufacturing of public doubt in the face of widespread scientific evidence has been the hallmark of industry attempts to delay regulation in both cases. Not only has big oil used the same arguments and tactics as big tobacco, but in some cases, the same individuals. Certainly many of the same anti-regulation think tanks appear as sources of claims that are subsequently picked up and repeated in the mainstream media. Numerous publications have documented the history of these groups, who act as a PR smokescreen for industries in danger of serious public backlash over the dangerous activities from which they profit (for instance, Merchants of Doubt). The goal is not refutation of the science but merely the seeding of public doubt through the appearance of ongoing controversy on topics considered resolved amongst the experts. The question is how long they will be successful. For the link between cigarettes and cancer, such tactics effectively won the tobacco industry three decades of public confusion and regulatory hiatus in which to maximise profits. We don't have three decades in which to delay over climate.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Not dead yet

The last ten days have included a fascinating conference (which I really should have plugged a few more times; more on that anon, probably), the arrival of some old friends in Edinburgh and a bout of unwelcome illness that have together conspired to keep me offline. The previous two posts were scheduled to go up ahead of time and I am only just back on very briefly today. It may be another day or two before I get a chance to post anything as I try to catch up.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

That's got to hurt - right in the breadbasket

Although somewhat dry and relying almost entirely on figures and maps, this video expresses what I take to be one of the key issues relating to climate change, namely, its likely impact on food production (and from there, on geopolitical stability and conflict). If you can't spare the few minutes to watch it, the key take-home message is that pretty much all of the world's main grain-producing areas lie in regions likely to be particularly susceptible to more intense and/or frequent heatwaves. This must be taken with a grain of salt, since the regional resolution of cilmate models does not have a high degree of confidence. Nonetheless, even the significant possibility of such an outcome can help to focus the mind.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Worship of a pedestrian god: seven reasons to ditch the car

Perhaps the most memorable phrase in the quirky maritime novel The Life of Pi is when the eponymous narrator observes that Christians worship "a pedestrian god". Jesus, God amongst us, lived his entire life within the ambit of distances capable of perambulation, travelling at speeds commensurate with his gait, and never learned how to reverse park. Of course, with cars not being invented for another nineteen hundred years, it would be odd to draw a preference for pedestrianism from Jesus' example, yet he nonetheless demonstrates that a blessed and god-honouring human life can be lived on two feet (and perhaps the occasional donkey or boat). Humans are made from the dust (even the word human is etymologically related to humus, i.e. soil, a pun that also works in Hebrew), and part of humility (another related word) is to stay in touch with the ground. Perhaps if our habitual mode of transport makes us forget that we are bipedal, we may be tempted to arrogant flights of fancy concerning our fitting location.

We have become accustomed to the convenience and ease of traversing great distances with relatively little effort or cost in a tonne of steel moving with as much momentum as a speeding bullet (and capable of similar damage upon impact with a body of flesh). This hyper-mobility affects our perceptions of distance, our assumptions about location and our expectations of what is and ought to be possible. We generally deem it of little import that we live many days walk from our place of employment and feel no strangeness at the great distances travelled by the food on our plate prior to its final brief journey down our oesophagus.

Cars make us feel powerful; it is no accident that certain versions of masculinity in our culture have idolised these machines. Car ownership becomes status symbol, rite of passage and - in a contemporary landscape designed for drivers - right of passage, since there often is no other practical way to get between locations. This power to pick a destination and arrive at great speed is a powerful symbol of autonomy, of individual freedom. And so the odd thing about those who are so proud to declare that they stand on their own two feet is that these days they so rarely do so. Individualism has for the last few decades found perhaps its most powerful symbol in the private automobile (hidden from view are the myriad social relations embodied in our complex system of mechanised transport).

Like most of those around me, I got my license when I was sixteen, which means I've been a driver for longer than not. Yet I have never owned a car. Over the years, I've had various cars on loan for a couple of days or a couple of months (in one case, a couple of years). But since getting married, we have chosen to live in walkable urban areas with decent public transport. We currently live 193 steps from my workplace and within a couple of hundred metres of dozens of bus routes.

My adult life has almost exclusively been lived in an urban context. Outside of well-designed (which often means pre-20thC) urban spaces, the tyranny of the automobile is woven into the fabric of most suburban and rural life.

I am not saying that all cars are evil or that there is no place for advanced technology in travel. Nor is the combustion of fossil fuels in itself wrong. But with the level of car use in our society, we are like twenty-drink drunks about to pass out in the gutter trying to defend the goodness of alcohol. Wholesale rejection of useful technologies is not currently our temptation. And there is plenty of room for smarter and more responsible use of the technology we already have.

Since I promised in the title, let me conclude this slightly aimless reflective ramble with seven reasons to ditch your car (or at least consider using it less):

1. Doing so in many cases will save money. For instance, see this account of living without a car in Edinburgh, which has a great deal of resonance for us; it is one of the many reasons we love this city. Cars bring expenses at every point: purchase, petrol, insurance, registration, parking. Of course there are costs associated with other kinds of transport, but have you tried doing the sums? Both our apartments in Sydney had a secure parking space that we were able to rent out, which came in handy. If you are someone who begrudges the taxwoman her pound of flesh, then carlessness will also mean you can avoid a range of taxes, fees and tolls.

2. Leaving footprints cuts your carbon footprint. For many people, a car represents a significant slice of your carbon pie. Not just the petrol exploding in the engine and sending out its fumes, but the embodied emissions released during construction. The various metals and plastics and other materials that comprise a car take a lot of energy. For more efficient cars, this can be up to half the overall carbon emissions associated with the vehicle (and so, it is often better from a carbon perspective to run an old bomb into the ground rather than continually upgrading to slightly more efficient models).

3. Becoming less reliant on a car is good preparation for peak oil. Not driving saves a little petrol, delaying (very slightly) the peak and, more importantly, doing so is a good way of weaning yourself off relying on cheap petrol, which won't be around forever. Such behaviour also sends a message to politicians and policy makers that walkable public spaces and good public transport are desirable and desired. Poor town planning has a lot to answer for as we have invested trillions and trillions in infrastructure based on cheap petrol. But the good news is that it can also make a very significant contribution to a better world. Well-designed walkable urban spaces are safer, cleaner, more enjoyable and can foster stronger communities.

4. Walking is considerably healthier than sitting on your backside pumping the accelerator, even when you factor in the extra calories you burn during road rage. I discussed this at greater length back here in relation to this fascinating little book.

5. More drivers means more cars means less appealing footpaths and a greater perception of danger to pedestrians. Driving can thus become a self-perpetuating cycle where walking (or riding a bicycle) becomes less desirable the fewer pedestrians (or cyclists) there are. Choosing to break this cycle will make it that little bit easier for others.

6. Walking is wearing on the sole, but good for the soul. It slows us down a little, and makes us less ambitious about how much we try to get done. There is more opportunity to smell the roses, or sit on doorsteps, which is what our daughter currently loves doing while we're out walking. It is not that she is tired; she just likes to stop and take in the view. While walking, there is more chance of interacting with those who share your space, more opportunities to notice your environment (which can be dangerous if done too enthusiastically while driving).

7. If walking was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How do we feed the world without destroying it?

I've said it many times, but food and water are where the action really is at. Of all our activities, nothing has done more to change the face of the planet over the last ten thousand years than agriculture. It is the greatest environmental threat to the biosphere and yet the most fundamental basis of human society. Can we get it right? This presentation consists of a twelve minute lecture followed by a four minute video that says much the same thing at a greater pace. If you want to cut to the chase, then start watching at about 14:15.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So long and thanks for all the fish

I recently came across this summary of the state of the world's marine life after decades of industrial scale pollution, warming, acidification, trawling, nutrient runoff and overfishing. It is from this paper.

Monday, September 19, 2011

God wants you to be healthy, wealthy and happy

How does God make our lives better? By calling us to poverty, persecution, fasting and the curiously patient "ineffectiveness" of prayer. How does God bring us joy? By teaching us to abandon false hopes, to mourn and groan and yearn for his kingdom. How does God bring us peace? By telling us to take up our cross. How does God give us life? By calling us to die.
I don't pretend this is a full account, simply a small counterweight to overly triumphalist baptisms of our present comfort.

Say yes to putting a price on carbon

Despite the drawbacks of the proposed Australian legislation to put a modest price on carbon pollution, if you support the idea of doing so, then you might like to add your voice to this campaign.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Society for the Study of Theology Postgraduate Conference

The UK's Society for the Study of Theology is holding a postgraduate conference in early December on the theme of Theologians and the Church. It will be here at New College and feature Graham Ward as plenary speaker plus a roundtable discussion involving Oliver O'Donovan, Janet Soskice, Harriet Harris and Graham Ward. Deadline for abstract submission is 31st October. The conference is free with a limited number of bursaries to cover travel expenses. More information can be found in each of the links above.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Our ecological crises: Wake up and smell the stats

I'd like to put together a list of credible ecological statistics from reputable sources as a resource. Please post links to any such existing lists you are aware of or add any that have grabbed your attention (please make sure you include a source). To start us off, here are a few off the top of my head and in no particular order:
• Humans now affect over 80% of the world's land, 100% of the oceans and 100% of the atmosphere. Around 40% of the oceans have been "strongly affected" by our activities.

• Half of the world’s tropical forests have disappeared since World War II and roughly another 10 million hectares are being felled each year — the equivalent of 40 football fields every minute. The majority are being cleared by illegal loggers.

• Seventy-seven percent of global fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or have been depleted. Based on 1998 data, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global fishing fleets "are 2.5 times larger than needed."

• Marine apex predator numbers (i.e. large fish and sharks) have declined by 90% over the last 50-100 years, mainly due to overfishing (more stats on marine life decline). Another recent study put tuna decline at 60% in the last 50 years.

• Deep-sea trawling damages an area of sea bed twice the size of the contiguous USA each year.

• We're removing 9-10,000 tonnes of fish from the ocean every hour.

• As far as we can work out (and there are wide error margins on this one), species are currently going extinct at something like 100-1000 times the background rate of extinction, faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It is likely that somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 species become extinct each year. All the primary drivers of these trends are linked to human activities: land use changes, habitat destruction, pollutants, invasive species, anthropogenic climate change.

• Twenty-two percent of the world's plant species are threatened, and another 33% have an unknown status.

• Twenty-two species of Australian mammals become extinct between 1900 and 1960. Recently, mammal populations in Kakadu have gone into freefall.

• In the 1950s there were 450,000 lions worldwide and now there are only 20,000. Leopards are down from 700,000 to 50,000, cheetahs from 45,000 to 12,000 and tigers from 50,000 to just 3,000. And in the last forty years, elephant numbers have halved across protected areas in West and Central Africa. Globally, since 1970, wild vertebrate numbers have declined by almost one third.

• One study in 2001 put the annual cost of alien invasive species to the global economy at US$1.4 trillion annually, or about 5% of total GDP.

• Overall, current ecological damage is estimated to cost the global economy US$6.6 trillion annually (yes, with a "t").

• An area of arable land roughly the size of Greece or Nepal is lost to soil erosion and desertification each year. Since 1950, 1.9 billion hectares (4.7 billion acres) of land around the world has become degraded.

• By 1995, humans consumed 20% of global net terrestrial primary production. By 2005, it was 25%.

• Earth overshoot day occurs earlier each year. This is a notional measure designating the point in the year where global consumption exceeds the annual renewable biocapacity of the planet. In 2011, it falls on 27th September. Another way of saying this is that in 2010 the worldwide human population used about 135% of the resources the earth can generate in a year.

• Between 2000 and 2010, the number of cars and motorcycles in China increased twentyfold and there are now between 800 million and one billion cars in the world.

• As we burn 196,442 kilos of coal, 103,881,279 litres of natural gas and 150,179 litres of oil a second, we're dumping 62,500 tonnes of heat-trapping emissions into the earth's atmosphere every minute. Since the industrial revolution, we have increased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40% and increased the acidity of the oceans by 30% (a rate faster than anything seen before in Earth's history). The radiative forcing of the carbon dioxide human activities have put in the atmosphere is the equivalent of adding the energy of more than ten Hiroshima bombs every second and is likely the most significant contributing factor in Greenland losing around 9000 tonnes of ice every second (and accelerating), in about 90% of glaciers globally retreating, in precipitating the largest marine migration in two million years due to warming oceans and in ensuring that the last 318 consecutive months have had a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below average temperatures was February 1985.

• Arctic summer sea ice has declined by 40% in extent and more than 75% in volume over the last three decades and 2011 saw new records for lowest extent and volume since records began. Due to increased summer melt, the fabled North West passage through the remote islands of Canada has been open to commercial shipping without icebreakers only four times in recorded history: 2011, 2010, 2008, 2007.

• Nearly 5.5 billion people (about 80% of global human population) live in an area where rivers are seriously threatened.

• The rate at which we are extracting groundwater has more than doubled between 1960 and 2000 and since 1960 18 trillion tonnes of water have been removed from underground aquifers without being replaced, enough to raise global sea levels by an average of 5 cm.

• In 1960, the Aral Sea was the world's fourth largest lake yet by 2000 it had shrunk to 20% of its original size due to over-irrigation on its feeder rivers.

• We put more than six million tonnes of plastic in the oceans annually, which is something like eight million pieces of litter each day, and over 119,000 items floating on every square kilometre of ocean.

• It is likely humanity has had a greater effect on the nitrogen cycle than any other phenomenon for the last 2.5 billion years.
Note that none of these are projections of present trends, they all relate simply to our present condition. This is currently an unsystematic sample; I have not (yet) tried to cover all of the various ecological and resource crises. This post may grow as I continue to gather more information.
I also posted some further statistics back here, though have not had a chance to post links to all the sources of those, and their credibility is something of a mixed bag.