Monday, February 28, 2011

Ecological responsibility and Christian discipleship I: Human planet

This will be the first in three posts giving a slightly modified version of a sermon I delivered a few weeks ago based on Genesis 1. The three posts are as follows:
I. Human planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene.
II. The Community of Creation: Genesis 1.
III. Recycle or repent? Our response.

Human Planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene
We no longer live on the same planet on which we were born. I’m not just talking about the internet and globalisation, or trends in fashion and music. The chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere, the stability of the climate, the diversity and health of ecosystems are all very different to what they were. Human activity over the last handful of decades has altered the face of the globe in ways so profound that it will be visible in the geological record millions of years into the future. The Geological Society of London, which is the UK national society for geoscience and the oldest geological society in the world, is currently considering a serious proposal to declare that we have now left the Holocene and entered into a new geological epoch, called the Anthropocene, named after anthropos, which is Greek for human, because we humans are having such a extreme effect on all the ecosystems and even geology of the planet. I hardly need to tell you that most of it isn't a positive effect.

Think of the most remote places on the planet, places so wild and desolate that none live there. No matter where you picture, human fingerprints are all over the landscape.

You are probably aware that Arctic summer sea ice is in terminal decline and many of us in this room are likely to live to see a largely ice-free Arctic in summers to come. This winter, while we shivered through a December that was 5ºC below average, parts of the Canadian Arctic averaged 21ºC above their long term mean. Permafrost is no longer looking so permanent and some now call it "tempfrost". As it melts, not only are roads and buildings sinking and breaking, but it is releasing more and more of the methane and carbon dioxide that have been locked away for millennia and which will, of course, only make the melting worse.

If the Arctic isn't pristine, then perhaps the mountains, the high Andes and towering Himalayas? Well, again, you're probably aware of the accelerating glacier melt occurring on 95% of all glaciers, including the most remote. And in many places the melt is accelerated when soot particles land from cooking fires and factories land on the ice, darkening the surface and absorbing more solar energy. Indeed, thanks to Julian Assange, we know that the US State Department was told by the Dalai Lama that addressing climate change is a higher priority for Tibet than independence from China.

What about the deep Amazonian rainforest where there are still to this day dozens of uncontacted tribes? Yet first contact for these indigenous groups is most likely to be with loggers. Although deforestation rates have declined from a decade ago, tropical rainforests continue to be bulldozed at a rate of a football field every few seconds. Eighty percent of the world's ancient forests have been destroyed or degraded, half of that has been in the last 30 years.

What about bottom of the ocean? Even there the human fingerprints are everywhere. Deep sea trawling by commercial fishing fleets drags heavy metal beams over the sea floor, crushing and scattering slow-growing deep corals and other creatures and kicking up plumes of underwater dust that can be seen by satellites. And each year, an area twice the size of the continental United States is bottom trawled, scooping up more fish than the ocean can replenish. Four-fifths of commercial fish species are considered by marine biologists to be fully-exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed. On our current trajectory, no commercially-viable fish stocks will be left by the time my daughter turns 40.

Feeling stressed? Breathe in – breathe out – breathe in – breathe out. Every second breath comes from phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like organisms in the oceans that are the basis of the marine food chain and which are the source of over half the planet's oxygen. And yet, there is evidence that the number of phytoplankton has declined by 40% since 1950. I've already alluded to climate change, but did you know that all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also changing the chemistry of the oceans? The planet's oceans are on average 30% more acidic than pre-industrial times, more acidic than they have been for millions of years and changing faster than any known previous shift. And they are getting warmer too. Climate change is first and foremost oceanic change, since oceans absorb more than 93% of the extra energy trapped by our greenhouse gas pollution. Oceanic currents are shifting. Sea levels are rising. The climate is warming: 2010 was the equal warmest year at the end of the warmest decade, which followed the previous warmest decade, which followed the previous warmest decade on record. The last 311 consecutive months have all been warmer than the 20thC average.

Seasons are changing. Plants flowering earlier in Spring, migrations and hibernations patterns are shifting. Our actions are shifting rainfall patterns: stronger droughts, more intense rain and snow.

Human actions are responsible for the extinction of about a thousand recorded species. They are just the ones we're aware of. Our best estimates of how many we've actually bumped off falls between twenty thousand and two million. And this is rising rapidly, causing most biologists to judge that we are currently causing the start of the sixth great extinction event in earth's four and a half billion year history.

Since 1970 we have reduced animal populations by 30%, the area of mangroves and sea grasses by 20%, the coverage of living corals by 40% and large African mammals by more than 60%.

Over 60% of major rivers in the world are dammed or diverted. There is five times as much water stored in dams and reservoirs as all the world's rivers put together. We have directly modified three quarters of the ice-free land surface of the planet and currently move more soil each year than the natural cycles of wind and water.

And I haven’t mentioned heavy metal toxins, soil degradation, aquifer depletion, ocean eutrophification, introduced species, desertification, or the trillions of floating plastic particles found in all the world's oceans.

We no longer live on the same planet on which we were born.

And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea. And over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
- Genesis 1.28 (NRSV).
Our passage this morning has been used to justify the patterns of exploitation and acquisition that in our lifetimes have reached such an extent as to have permanently altered the face of the planet. Can we read it again with fresh eyes and see whether it might have good news for us today?
I haven't had time to include links for all these claims, though it's worth noting that they were not first published by Greenpeace or WWF; they are not the scare stories of eco-extremists out to rob you of your fun or set up a world government. These claims appear in highly respected scientific journals – Nature, Science, Proceedings of the Royal Society and so on. Some are still quite fresh and subject to ongoing debate. Most are widely agreed as our best knowledge of our present situation. If there are particular ones you are interested in, I can try to provide relevant citations.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The novelty of today

"This train of thought offers us an insight into one aspect of the challenge presented by the contemporary ecological situation, its novelty. The world has never seen a phenomenon like the contemporary resource and ecological crises. There have been various patterns of ecological degradation in various cultures, but none with the constellation of features that this one presents. And we need hardly be surprised at this turn in history if we reflect on the extraordinary discontinuities that exist between late-modern society, taken as a whole, and traditional societies. To understand the contemporary ecological situation without achieving some understanding of late-modernity as a civilisational phenomenon is out of the question. But then, how can we understand late-modernity without understanding contemporary ecological crises? Can we pretend to take a reading of the spiritual condition of our ultra-technological age without reading deeply the distinctive and novel forms of emotional experience that it has generated? It does not matter whether we suppose this society and its emotional forms will be short-lived or long-lived. The point is, they are of our day; they constitute a horizon of our mission. To live in our time, as in any other, is to have a unique set of practical questions to address."

- Oliver O'Donovan, Good News for Gay Christians:
Sermons on the Subjects of the Day
, §13.

Who knew that O'Donovan was such a radical greenie? OK, I confess I have changed a couple of words in the above quote. But only a couple. Wherever you see "ecology" (and cognates), substitute "homosexuality" (and cognates) to discover the original (which can also be found here). But my point is that the novelty of the contemporary situation is morally relevant, whether we are considering homosexuality or ecological degradation. This is likely to itself be a contentious claim amongst those who think the application of Holy Scripture to our contemporary situation is always more or less straightforward. Yet there is no need to be threatened by the observation that God's Word addresses us today. We are quite familiar with the need to translate not just out of Greek and Hebrew and into our own tongue but also out of the socio-cultural context(s) in which the scriptures were written and into our own. This is not always an easy task, but ignoring it won't make it go away. Of course, this needs to be a genuine translation that seeks to communicate the meaning of the scriptural witness, not simply the replacement of scriptural concepts, forms and ways of life for those we find more familiar or comforting.

If only I had remembered this quote in some of our supervision meetings as it may have saved a little time! Still, it good that he has been pushing me to try to articulate the nature and implications of this novelty. I will be posting more on the novelty of today's ecological situation in coming weeks. Any help on the interpretation of its theological and ethical significance would be much appreciated.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I don't know what I want: on the ambiguity of desire

"How can we know what the desire is for? The language of "expression" is treacherous. It lets us suppose that our desires are perspicuous, when they are not. Sexual desire in particular is notoriously difficult to interpret; the biblical story of Ammon and Tamar is just one of many ancient warnings of how obscure its tendency may be. It is characteristically surrounded by fantasy, and fantasies are never literal indicators of what the desire is really all about, but are symbolic revealer-concealers of an otherwise inarticulate sense of need. But the point holds also for many other kinds of desire - let us say, the desire for a quiet retirement to a cottage in the countryside, or the desire to own a fast racing-car. We cannot take any of them at their face value. "It wasn't what I really wanted!" is the familiar complaint of a disappointed literalism. To all desire its appropriate self-questioning: what wider, broader good does this desire serve? how does it spring out of our strengths, and how does it spring out of our weaknesses? where in relation to this desire does real fulfilment lie? It is in interpreting our desires that we need the wisdom of tradition, which teaches us to beware of the illusory character of immediate emotional data, helping us to sort through our desires and clarify them. The true term of any desire, whether heavily laden or merely banal, is teasingly different from the mental imagination that first aroused it."

- Oliver O'Donovan, Good News for Gay Christians:
Sermons on the Subjects of the Day
, §11.

The opacity of experience embraces the ambiguity of desire. We can never simply express our desires, since our desires are themselves both questionable and frequently corrupted - or rather, universally corrupted, but in variegated ways that render them not just morally but hermeneutically problematic. In other words, we don't always know what our desires mean and need to reflect upon them together in light of scripture and tradition. They are not to be taken at face value, far less defended against all external evaluation as a matter of principle.

This perspective runs counter to the popular notion that questioning someone's deeply felt desire is itself immoral. Contemporary liberalism is based on the assumption that personal desires are sacrosanct and beyond interrogation. That way lies not only political but also psychological incoherence, since I can never ask the question, "what is that I truly want?" and so am barred from ever asking, "what is it that we truly want?".
I was recently reminded of these lectures by O'Donovan and found that re-reading the final one in particular was a very fruitful exercise. If only more Christian discussions of homosexuality were as patient and gracious.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How to infuriate a scientist

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Churnalism: when recycling goes bad

Churnalism. n. Journalism based significantly on a press release.

"There are more people working in PR than in journalism now."

"About 54% of news articles are derived at least partially from press releases."

I'd post original content, but I don't currently have time, so I'm just going to recycle a story. I wonder how different this piece is from the website's own press release.

Of course, even when journalists actually go beyond a press release, there is no guarantee of quality. I have been interviewed for a handful of news pieces, and have family and close friends who have been involved in dozens more pieces. Of these instances where I have had direct or very reliable knowledge of the story, I would estimate that more than three quarters of the published stories made basic factual errors, many of them non-trivial.

I have also been (briefly and part-time) a journalist and was frequently given press releases to work from (and not really expected to go beyond them).

Just because it is coming from a major news source doesn't mean it is news. In a recent post I warned against believing everything you read in comments on major sites. The moral of this story is, don't believe everything above the line either.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jesus was no capitalist usurer

Brad offers a reading of the parable in Luke 19.11-27 that may turn a few common assumptions on their head. But to my mind it makes a lot of sense of some otherwise uncomfortable details.

The implications of this reading are significant, since it removes one of the few passages used by defenders of usury to claim that Jesus (implicitly) overturns the scriptural prohibition against charging interest on a loan. It goes without saying that this practice is a central pillar of our present economic system.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Another conspiracy theory confirmed: denier bots are real

I am not generally a fan of conspiracy theories. They are often a sign of intellectual laziness, paranoia, magic thinking and the victory of ideology over facts.

But sometimes they are true.

For example, WikiLeaks has confirmed (or at least gave even more credible evidence for) a few long-suspected facts.

A second example: a few months ago it was revealed that the popular social media site Digg was being gamed by a group of conservative users, who would "bury" any stories that didn't match their political ideology. (This may well happen the other way round, of course, and it may just be that the liberals have better watchdogs. My point here is not political.)

And now corporate emails stolen and published by Anonymous from US cyber-security firm HBGary Federal confirm another conspiracy: corporations and governments employ sophisticated software operated by paid shills to manipulate hundreds (probably thousands or tens of thousands) of "sockpuppets" in an effort to sway online debate through misinformation and spin. For corporations and governments to employ propagandists pretending to be honest members of the public is nothing new. What is new in this revelation is credible confirmation of the scale and technical complexity involved in such operations. The emails reveal some of the specifications of custom-designed software enabling a single person to operate dozens of discrete online personas, each with pre-developed online history, IP address and automated posting of talking points across a large number of sites.

It has been clear for some time that sites like the Guardian face a coordinated effort to bury certain topics in misinformation. Stories that contain particular key words (such as "climate") frequently get deluged with strangely similar critical comments, often within minutes of the story going live. But to have confirmation that denier bots are real means that I'm uncertain whether to be more worried at the degree of cynical manipulation that corporate and government interests are willing to go to in pursuit of their agendas, or more relieved that the segment of the general population who actually believe and promote the claims being made by these denier bots is smaller than previously thought.
"And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

- John 8.32 (NRSV).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I'm not going to heaven

Heaven's above!
Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth, is reputed to have said upon his return, "I looked and looked but I didn’t see God". God is not in heaven; we have now been there.

This anecdote may make us smile. Heaven is indeed well-known as the dwelling-place of God, yet when Christians pray to "our Father in heaven" we do not mean that God is literally to be glimpsed by cosmonauts up above the ionosphere in the heavens. The Scriptures do frequently speak of "the heavens" in this literal sense of what you see when you look up on a clear night. But the term gains extra layers of meaning as we follow the biblical story from the creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1-2 through to the marriage of heaven and earth in Revelation 21-22. Heaven comes to mean a reality far deeper, richer and more overarching than merely the sky.

For many Christians, "heaven" has come to serve as a shorthand for everything we hope for, for the ultimate goal of our salvation, for the blissful land of rest at the end of our journey. We populate this realm with images from cartoons and movies, in which white robed figures with haloes play harps on clouds, or perhaps play rugby against the angels. Even where the content is left more vague, much Christian piety assumes that going to heaven when we die is the content of Christian hope. This theme is found in many of our songs, mentioned at many funerals, serves as a focal point in evangelism, and is frequently discussed in wistful or anguished conversations late at night.

Heaven: the origin, not the goal, of our salvation
However, a closer reading of the biblical narrative would suggest that such conceptions are significantly wide of the mark. The good news of Jesus certainly does hold out a stunning hope in the face of death and for a dying world. But it is not that we will go to heaven. It is that heaven will come to us. It is not that we will pass into a higher realm at death, but that, one day, God will transform this world so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is not that there is life after death for an immortal soul, but that at some point after our death, God will raise us bodily as he did for Jesus. Although there are a few passing references to the fact that those who have died in Christ are not lost, but are now with him, this is never held out as the primary content of our hope.

This is worth pausing over. We are indeed "citizens of heaven", but this doesn’t mean we hope to end up there. Instead, it is from heaven that we await a Saviour who will raise us to have glorious bodies like his (Philippians 3.20-21). Our inheritance is indeed in heaven, but that is because Jesus is our hope, and he is hidden until the day our living (i.e. resurrection) hope is realised (1 Peter 1.3; see also Colossians 1.5). We seek to enter “the kingdom of heaven”, but this is Matthew’s way of speaking of what is elsewhere called "the kingdom of God"; "heaven" here is simply a reverent way of referring to God without directly mentioning him (see also Luke 15:18). We could go on and on, but nowhere does the New Testament teach that going to heaven when we die is the focus of Christian hope.

The truly Christian hope, based on the experience of Jesus, is for resurrection, not merely an otherworldly existence after death. Resurrection is a powerful act of God to vindicate and transform our lowly bodies to be like Jesus’ glorious body, for us to be raised as he was raised, not simply back from the dead into mortal bodies to die again, but raised in glory and freedom.

"Your will be done on earth"
And it doesn’t end with our bodies. Our hope is for God to say "yes and amen" to the creation that he declared good, very good. It is for the earth to be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, for death to be swallowed up in victorious new life, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In short, our hope is not to escape this place and these bodies and go elsewhere, it is for God to heal and bring new life to his broken creation, conquering death and decay forever.

Thus, Christian hope is not for redemption from the world, but for the redemption of the world. Jesus’ resurrection therefore has implications not just our bodies, but also for the entire created order of which they are a part. In Romans 8 Paul pictures the created order as a woman giving birth, waiting and straining for a future joy, despite pain and distress at the moment. Switching metaphors, he says that creation is like a prisoner, in bondage to decay. So while everything currently falls apart, God has something surprising planned: a gaol-break! And creation is yearning, groaning for that day. And so, says Paul, are all those who have gotten their first taste of God’s future in the Holy Spirit. We too groan and yearn for that day when our bodies will be redeemed, that is, raised into glorious freedom.

Matter matters
That heaven is not the end of the world has all kinds of implications. Here, briefly, are four.

God has not abandoned his good creation.
The God who has the power to call things which are not into existence is the same God who raises the dead (Romans 4.17). Therefore, redemption is not fundamentally opposed to creation and the created order, but vindicates it. And that means that the church is not the opposite of the world, but an imperfect foretaste of the world’s true future.

God says "yes" to life.
His "no" of judgement is only to be understood within an overarching "yes" to Christ, to humanity, to his world, to life. He opposes that which opposes the flourishing of his creation. God is unashamedly positive about all that is good in the world: he says "yes" to love, to laughter, to sharing, to sex, to food, to fun, to music, to matter. It is because he loves the world that he will not put up with its present disfigurements.

Humanity as humanity matters.
Jesus was raised, and remains, a human (1 Timothy 2.5). We await resurrection as humans. Nothing that is truly human will ultimately perish (though all must be transformed). This makes human endeavour and relationships noble, even while they remain tragically flawed. Christians remain humans, with much still in common with our neighbours. Secular work in God’s good world is not to be despised or treated merely instrumentally. Neither is art, or education, or healthcare, or agriculture, or science. There is much about these activities that will not endure, and much that requires reform; yet these tasks all participate as part of what it is to be a human creature.

What we do with our bodies and the planet matters.
Not because we can create the kingdom of God or sculpt our resurrection bodies now, but because God cares for them. Bodies and the broader environment in which they find their place are good gifts, worth caring for. Just as our obedience will never be complete in this age, yet we keep thanking, trusting and loving God, so our care for creation is presently an imperfectible, yet unavoidable, responsibility and privilege. We must therefore also reject any dualism that opposes ‘spiritual’ to 'physical' concerns. To be truly spiritual is to be enlivened, empowered, cleansed and directed by the Holy Spirit of life, who is the midwife our birth (Job 33:4) and our rebirth (Titus 3.5), and the midwife of the world’s birth (Genesis 1.2) and rebirth (Romans 8.22-23). To be a friend of God is to be a friend of creation, of humanity, of life - the kind of friend that hates what is evil, clings to what is good, that is not overcome by evil, but overcomes evil with good (Romans 12.9, 21).
This article was originally published in Salt magazine with the title "Heaven: It's not the end of the world" in Autumn 2009 and then online by WebSalt. Long time readers (or those who browse the sidebar) may recognise that it is a condensed version of my sixteen part series on heaven from the early days of this blog in 2006. I thought I would repost it here (with permission from the Salt editor) in order to provide a more accessible and convenient form of the argument in a single post. Those looking for a little more detail are referred to the full series.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How to balance a budget

The ABC's Clarke and Dawe give a masterclass in budgeting. Those not following Australian politics might be a little baffled.
H/T Dave Taylor.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tax dodging: Barclays paid 1% corporate tax last year

After asking "who are the real cheats?" a while back and pointing to figures that claim up to £120 billion in tax is avoided, evaded or deferred in the UK each year (enough to make a very sizable dent in the budget deficit and hence in the public justification for the vandalistic cuts currently being implemented), the campaign against tax dodgers has been gaining momentum. Another day of protest actions is planned for today.

And with perfect timing, we get this story, which illustrates this concern all too well. In 2009 Barclays Bank made £11,600,000,000 in profits and yet paid only £113,000,000 in corporate tax - less than 1% rather than the legislated rate of 26%. Under such circumstances, the commonly expressed fear that closing loopholes and chasing tax dodging companies might make them up and leave, taxing their tax revenue with them, starts to look like a very small fig leaf. It was always a poor argument, akin to avoiding legal confrontation with the Mafia because they keep the local economy flowing.
"Pay to all what is due to them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due."

- Romans 13.7 (NRSV).

And in other news, the documentary Inside Job was released in the UK yesterday, investigating the role major banks played in fuelling the global financial crisis. It is currently at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, February 18, 2011

In praise of... public repentance

Back here, I spoke about the difficulty of political repentance in an age of partisan point-scoring through instant media. Why are policy changes made in the light of new evidence or contexts always attacked as "backflips" ("flip-flops" for users of American English) rather than treated as crucial moments of recognition? Isn't the freedom to change one's mind at the heart of our freedoms?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a campaign to protest against the proposal sale of English forests. Earlier this week the proposal was dropped with an unequivocal apology from the environmental secretary, Caroline Spelman.

The following exchange in the Commons illustrates the dynamic.
Labour MP: "Is it not [sic] this humiliating climbdown a tribute to the anger of huge numbers of people who said they would not have this? Is it not deplorable that you have been forced to stand in the corner with the dunce's cap on your head by a cabinet which drove the whole lot of them to vote the opposite two weeks ago?"

Spelman: "It is only humiliating if you are afraid to say sorry. We teach our children to say sorry."

It would have been good for the leaders of the Coalition also to acknowledge their own roles instead of appointing a scapegoat to claim full responsibility. But I honour Caroline Spelman for her actions.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is it naughty to double dip on conference papers?

A question for those in academia
Is there a problem with presenting substantially the same paper at two (or more) academic conferences with likely different audiences or should this be avoided at all costs? Obviously, when writing a CV, it ought to be made clear where there may be duplicate presentations, but is the practice itself problematic? Do you think that this piece gives a credible answer?

When commenting, please make clear the discipline(s) in which you have experience, as there may be different norms on this practice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Climate Nation: why conservatives can love climate action

Here's a new film that is trying to bridge the abyss of the US culture wars. Focussed on the fringe benefits of climate change mitigation, it speaks in the voices of a CIA director, an army colonel, an airline executive, a Christian minister, a Texan farmer and a wild Alaskan: patriotic, God-loving, gun-toting, meat-eating, small town, red state Republican neoconservatives. It claims to be a "climate change solutions movie that doesn't even care if you believe in climate change". Rather than showing us how climate change is already fuelling conflict in Africa or projecting the extinction of millions of species in coming decades, this effort simply highlights the various advantages of taking actions that also happen to mitigate climate change.

Rather than saying climate action is a painful duty we cannot avoid, this film presents it as an opportunity to save money, reduce pollution, increase national security and reduce military casualties. One approach focuses on push - avoid this stick - and the other on pull - chase this carrot. Perhaps elements of both are necessary and different approaches will speak to different audiences.

Watching the trailer led me to ponder again how divisive this issue is, particularly in the US. Much has been written about the various causes of this: historical, psychological, political, cultural and economic (and I would add, theological). Some are put off by the commonly proposed responses, which clash with their ideological commitments. This film seems to be particularly addressing such people.

However, amongst all the other reasons, I think there is a very personal reason that some people resist the scientific understanding of the issue. For many people, acknowledging the existence and severity of the threat of anthropogenic climate change involves a reassessment of significant parts of our life story. It can mean realising that some of our most cherished experiences and dreams have a terrible cost associated with them. For those who have earned a livelihood from carbon intensive activities, it can threaten the virtue of some major life achievements and raise the question of whether one's life may have done more harm than good. To put it in Christian terms, acknowledging the reality and significance of anthropogenic climate change can require repentance. And that is too high a bar for some, who would rather reject the science than reassess their lives.

That is why it is important that grace precedes repentance. We don't repent in order for God to be gracious to us; we repent because when we were still far off, he has already seen us, run to us and embraced us.
H/T Sylvia Rowley.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The cost of cars

"According to the World Health Organisation, road deaths in Africa could double between 2008 and 2030. Road traffic crashes already account for more deaths than from malaria, and by 2030 road death is expected to exceed AIDS as a cause of death world-wide. [...] Road traffic crashes are estimated to cost developing countries [US]$53 billion per year, which is more than they receive in development aid."
- Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards, The Energy Glut: Climate Change
and the Politics of Fatness
(Zed: London, 2010), 107.
This is an interesting little book. Although it has relatively little to say about climate change, which is largely taken for granted in the discussion despite the title, it effectively explores the many other costs of our globally growing reliance on fossil fuel driven transport. The primary angle is public health, and apart from a series of eyebrow-raising statistics about traffic mortalities, the main thrust is drawing a strong and quite convincing social link between the obesity epidemic and automobile use.

In short (and with various caveats and nuances), the book argues that obesity is not a problem of the obese. We are not faced with a sudden widespread loss of dietary self-control. We are collectively getting fatter (even the thin people), as measured in global and national BMI statistics, and as a result, a rapidly rising percentage of the population now fall into the medical category of obese (BMI ≥ 30). This isn't because we're eating more (we're not: calorie intake is actually declining) but because we're less physically active. And at a broad scale the strongest statistical correlation with physical inactivity is automobile use. Our reliance on the cheap energy of fossil fuels is the root of both climate change and obesity (hence the book's subtitle).

And this is where traffic mortalities and injuries make this trend self-perpetuating. The more cars on the road, the more dangerous the road becomes to pedestrians and cyclists, and the greater incentive there is to participate in a transportation arms race by purchasing a vehicle for oneself. In a given society, after a certain point of automobile use is reached, traffic mortality figures start to decline. The author, whose background is in public health associated with motor vehicle accident trauma, argues that this has relatively little to do public safety campaigns and much more to do with the fact that pedestrians and cyclists, having lost the battle, largely quit the field (or road in this case). A road thus dominated by lumps of steel and iron each hurtling along with more kinetic energy than a speeding bullet becomes a barrier to cyclists and pedestrians, and a powerful motoring lobby* ensures that "accidents" are blamed on the individuals rather than the system as a whole (in a move parallel to the gun lobby: "cars don't kill people, bad drivers and erratic pedestrians do").
*The text notes that eight of the ten largest global corporations (based on the Fortune 500 in 2008) are either oil companies or car manufacturers. And the largest is a supermarket chain, which has its own links to both fossil fuel transport and cheap food energy.

Those excluded, of course, include all children, who are then conditioned into a sedentary lifestyle from a young age.

Ironically, obesity is actually a greater health threat than cycling on dangerous roads dominated by cars and trucks.
"The overall risk of death for adults who cycle to work on a regular basis is between 10 and 30 per cent lower than for those who drive to work (Woodcock et al., 2009). This survival benefit persists after controlling for a range of factors that might differ between cyclists and motorists. In other words, even taking into account road danger, the balance of health risks and benefits is strongly in favour of cycling. Cycling in traffic may be dangerous but not cycling is more dangerous. There are consistently fewer deaths than expected from heart attacks, strokes and cancer among cycle commuters. [...] There is also evidence that the injury risks for cyclists decrease as more people take up cycling. Per kilometre, cycling is safer when there are a lots of other cyclists around. It has been estimated that a doubling in the percentage of the population that cycle results in a 34 per cent reduction in the death rate per kilometre cycled (Jacobsen, 2003). By cycling, you will improve your own health and you will help to make cycling safer for others, encouraging more to join the growing movement."

- The Energy Glut, 108.

Cycling is revolutionary in more ways than one. Get on your bike.
Image by JKS.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"People have belly buttons"

An informative and illuminating interview with Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute on the state of the oceans, whether overfishing or carbon pollution is a greater threat, why the BP Gulf spill wasn't as bad as many thought, the value of compassion, why conservation is more important than animal rights, the true cost of coal, the internality of "externalities", why consumerism is unnatural and why he still has hope.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How to survive the post apocalypse: 1981-style

This video, recently re-discovered in an old university film archive, contains a wide variety of useful advice for life after a nuclear apocalypse. Required viewing for everyone who has ever contemplated ducking under a desk when the nuclear siren sounds.

Ducked and Covered: A Survival Guide to the Post Apocalypse from Nathaniel Lindsay on Vimeo.

Those confused about the title ought to refer to the equally informative original.
H/T Jason.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Are you voting for death?

"[D]riving is like voting. Presidents do not fall on the basis of one single vote. Your vote becomes politically potent when aggregated across the whole of the electorate. Voting is a private contribution to a public mass action that carries the power to topple presidents. Driving to the shops does not make you a killer. The chance that you will kill anyone is miniscule. But the risk does exist and someone somewhere will kill a pedestrian while to the shops today. These small personal actions carry with them a tiny probably of causing harm, which when aggregated across the whole population have major public health implications. We will see later on how the motor industry and the car lobby attempt to personalize road danger. It is better for them that road death is seen as an errant act of a deviant driver or a 'jaywalking' child than the expected outcome of an unsafe system that kills 3,000 people every day, most of them pedestrians and cyclists."

- Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards, The Energy Glut:
Climate Change and the Politics of Fatness
(London: Zed Books, 2010), 42.

We are generally quite poor at thinking in terms of large scale societal trends. More cars on the road means more pedestrian deaths and consequently, fewer pedestrians and so more cars on the road as more people join the transportation arms race. (This in turn drives up BMI across society, but that is a point for another day, though it is one of the beefs of this book.)

The deadliness of mechanised transport is a systemic risk we have accepted (and largely become blind to) as a society because we love our cars so much. This too is another illustration of red vs green behaviour.

It doesn't have to be this way.
When looking for an appropriate image to accompany this post, I realised that I don't have many photos of cars. I don't find cars visually attractive and generally frame my photography to exclude them (that said, anyone reading this blog for any length of time will also realise that I generally crop people from my images as well. That is not from misanthropy as much as a recognition that I'm not very good at portraits). In the end, this image of the decomposing remains of a vehicle in a Scottish field seemed the most fitting.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What is the difference?

What are the morally relevant differences between (a) unlimited, publicly unaccountable lobbying and (b) bribery? Perhaps I'm overlooking something obvious, but I'm genuinely confused.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

You are not Facebook's customer; you are their product

Facebook has frequently been at the centre of privacy concerns and this is no surprise, since their business model consists of getting as much information from you as possible and selling it to their real customers: marketing companies. It is in their interests to keep making more and more of your details public (as long as you are no so annoyed that you leave). However, even then, notice how difficult it is to delete information from your profile (and Facebook most likely retains that information even once you've taken it down) and that it is very difficult (though not impossible) to delete your profile; if you try, you are encouraged to simply "deactivate" it until the point in time you wish to take it back up.

You are not Facebook's customer, you are their product. Keep that in mind.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Does it have to be this way?

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

- Isaiah 11.1-9 (NRSV).

The claim that it doesn't have to be this way, that the seeming inevitability of the status quo is an illusion, is one I have made many times over the last few months. Sometimes, it has been a more or less impotent protest appended to the end of some piece of bad news as a flimsy barrier against a rising sense of despair. Some readers (especially my most faithful and critical one) have pointed out that there is a disconnect between the scale of the problems I've highlighted and the glimpses of responses I've put forward (for example here and here). The threats are formidable; the remedies feeble. It may not have to be this way, but it certainly seems like it is highly likely that it will be.

Nonetheless, I repeat my assertion that it doesn't have to be this way. Ultimately, this claim is not grounded in empirical observation of alternative ways of living, though they can help to fire the imagination and break free from the shackles of the all-too-obvious we associate with business as usual. Ultimately, this is a theological claim, a messianic expectation that depends upon the promise of God. Even when we cannot see any way forward and all options seem like dead ends, even then we must treat all apparent political and economic necessities as only apparent. And when there seems to be only one way forward, we should remain sceptical of the reasoning that forces our hand. To believe in God's future is to remain free from such necessities, it is to refuse to grant ultimate relevance to the hand of fate, or the market, or of might.

This is one of the effects of Christian faith upon the vision of our immediate future. By placing our immediate future against the backdrop of a messianic promise for the renewal of all things, it is not that the present sufferings become irrelevant. Indeed, in some ways, they become worse, because we can never make our peace with them as merely "one of those things". Instead, a hope that does not arise from the possibilities already apparent in our situation means that the present predicament can be seen with fresh eyes. This doesn't necessarily mean that an escape route will open up for those with the eyes of faith, but that even a road ending in a cross may be seen as worth walking.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Prudence and hope

What is the relationship between prudence and hope? How do our fallible and stumbling attempts to project, predict and plan for the future that lies immediately ahead of us relate to God's eschatological promises to make all things new? How does Christian hope for the last things shed light (or darkness) upon the penultimate things? In particular, how is our exploration and expectation of the immediate future related to the final consummation of all things? If Christian hope is alien in origin (does not arise from innate possibilities within our present situation, is not from us as creatures) yet intimate in effect (does not abandon or replace the created order or humanity, is for us as creatures) - that is only to say, if Christian hope is properly christological - where does this make a difference as we face the uncertainties and apparent inevitabilities of the coming years?

I suspect that these are going to be significant questions in the constructive theological phase of my thesis. I have a number of thoughts, but have decided simply to throw some questions out there to begin with and see if there are any nibbles or insights.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

On your bike: to lose weight you're better off walking

"The bicycle is the most energy-efficient mode of land transportation that exists.* Cycling burns about 35 kilocalories of food energy per mile [about 91 kJ/km], whereas walking the same distance burns three times as much. By comparison, car travel uses about 1,860 calories of fossil fuel energy per mile [about 4854 kJ/km]."

- Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards, The Energy Glut: Climate Change
and the Politics of Fatness
(Zed: London, 2010), 103.

I really like the idea of cycling for all kinds of reasons. But I've never got back into it as an adult after some bad falls in younger days.
*A little web-searching suggested that ice skating may have a similar level of efficiency, though precise numbers depend on average speeds, body sizes and the quality of equipment in each case.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Deep impact of the loyal opposition

Being a loyal opposition can sometimes have a deep impact: Republicans vote against another Obama bill.

And Mike wants us to know that being criticised doesn't mean we're being persecuted for the gospel, it might just be because we're - well, I'll let him say it.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Better than growth

Is growth good? Australia needs more economic growth like a kick in the head.

The pursuit of ever more goods and services is not delivering what most people want, but their opposite. Rather than meaningful work and rest amongst genuine communities in tune with healthy natural environments, we are overworked (or unemployed), families and communities are fragmented and we are living well beyond our ecological means.

Many studies have shown that once a basic standard of material well-being has been achieved, further increases in consumption levels do not correlate with higher levels of reported happiness, health or mental well-being. Instead, we are fatter, more stressed and more depressed than previous generations. And worst of all, we are squandering our inherited ecological wealth at an alarming rate. Our average ecological footprint (the third largest in the OECD) means that were everyone to live like us, we would require four Earths. Australia has the highest percentage of threatened vertebrates and plant species in the world. Our carbon footprint is the highest in the OECD, despite possibly being the developed country most directly threatened by climate change.

The ongoing quest for growth all else is killing us, since growth without reference to its context is cancer.

So am I then a cheerleader for what economists quaintly call "de-growth" (i.e. recession), or am I perhaps advocating the dramatic overthrow of the present order? Both are too simplistic. It is possible to argue that creative, practical reforms are possible (and necessary). Things don't have to be this way and the alternatives don't have to involve living in caves or blood on the streets (though these could be some of the ultimate results of business as usual).

The Australian Conservation Foundation has recently released a very interesting 40-page report called Better Than Growth, which lays out three problems with our obsession over GDP growth and suggests eight areas in which a re-conceived better-than-growth economy would be an improvement over current assumptions and practices. Each of the eight areas receives a brief chapter suggesting creative changes to Australia's economic system. Here is the outline:
1. Better progress: improving quality of life, not quantity of wealth
Emphasising measurements of social and individual wellbeing, and ecological health, will give us better results than focusing on narrow economic measurements such as GDP.

2. Better work: balancing paid and non-paid work, family and leisure time
While some australians are unemployed, many more are overemployed. We’d be better off reducing average working hours and increasing time available for leisure, family, community and our democracy.

3. Better production: making cradle-to-cradle manufacturing a reality
Rather than producing disposable goods that are destined for the tip, we should reorient design and manufacturing toward completely reusable products.

4. Better consumption: stepping off the consumer treadmill
Overconsumption is at the root of many social and environmental challenges. Government can support people to become smart consumers; to consume less and consume smarter.

5. Better markets: aligning prices with social and environmental impacts
Ensuring that the full environmental and social costs are included in the price tag of goods and services will stimulate a cleaner economy.

6. Better business: matching private incentives with long-term public goals
Businesses that focus too much on short-term profits are unlikely to be part of a long-term transition to a more sustainable economy. Supporting non-profit business models and ensuring that executive compensation rewards long-term performance are needed.

7. Better taxation: rewarding work, not waste
Shifting taxes away from productive activity such as income generation and towards pollution and resource use would create jobs while improving environmental performance throughout the economy.

8. Better regulation: fixing cost-beneft analysis
Much government analysis depends on cost-benefit calculations which are based on faulty assumptions and exclude the full value of the natural environment. We should insist that cost-benefit analysis include all aspects of wellbeing.
Fortunately, many of the solutions are staring us in the face. As William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet." In each of this report’s sections, we outline some of the best thinking from around the world on what is needed to transform to a better-than-growth economy. All of these ideas and specific policy recommendations are already being implemented or seriously considered somewhere around the globe.
The full ACF report is available here.
H/T Greg.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A shared understanding

Each of these reputable scientific institutions is staking its reputation on the claim that human carbon pollution is dangerously altering our climate. Credibility is their most valuable asset to risk.

The list of reputable scientific institutions staking their reputation on the denial of that claim can be counted on the fingers of one head.

Arguments from authority are a legitimate secondary form of argument, and are quite relevant for non-specialists such as myself (and, I assume, most of my readers).
This question is discussed in more detail by Kate at ClimateSight: "Is there a consensus in climate science?"

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

From a great height

"The Harper government is reluctant to impose regulations on 'energy-intensive industries' like the oil sands in the absence of comparable U.S. moves, arguing that to do so would damage Canada’s economic competitiveness."

Developed nations attempting to outdo one another in economic growth are a little like skydivers competing for the highest terminal velocities in free-fall. Refusing to regulate the tar sands because it might damage economic competitiveness is akin to refusing to open a parachute because the other guy might get ahead of you.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Floods: again

Cyclone Anthony, which hit Queensland on the 30th, has now largely dissipated. Yet Queensland is now preparing for the much bigger cyclone Yasi, which may turn out to be the largest storm ever to hit Queensland.

And speaking of repeat flooding, my recent post Is God to blame for floods? has been cross-posted at Ethos.

Tunisia, Egypt and the food in your shopping trolley

Popular uprisings as seen recently in Tunisia and currently underway in Egypt usually have a complex network of contributing and enabling causes. One of the triggers in both cases may well have been a spike in food prices. Both Tunisia and Egypt import much of their food and have large segments of the population for whom food purchases comprise a hefty chunk of the weekly budget. A similar price spike in 2008 likely contributed to protests, rioting and unrest in at least sixteen countries.

Why the spike in food prices? That too is complex, but significant elements in the present mix include speculation, high oil prices and a string of weather-related disasters affecting crop production around the globe. Why speculation? Partially because of the cheap money being poured into major economies (or rather, into the financial system) and the unattractiveness of some alternatives in a downturn, that is, such speculation is one manifestation of the ongoing debt crisis that first publicly reared its head in 2008. Why high oil prices? Again, partially due to financial speculation, but this coming on top of long-term supply issues related to the peaking of conventional oil. Why crop failures? Many reasons here too, but among them are a string of destructive weather events consistent with predictions of climate change.

Yes, there are many other causes: repressive governments, rising economies shifting the balance of economic and political power, trends in global consumption patterns, biofuel and agricultural policies, local population growth and migration patterns, corporate interests, and of course the particular contours of various national histories and the actions and beliefs of certain influential individuals. But the triple converging crises of debt, depletion and degradation (also known as economy, energy and ecology) are likely to continue to contribute to these kinds of headlines.

So if you've noticed that some of the food in your shopping trolley has jumped in price recently, don't neglect to join the dots. What is a mild frustration to me in my wealth can mean the straw that breaks the camel's back for a nation closer to the edge. What can you do about it? All kinds of things, because it doesn't have to be this way.