Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pity none of these are April Fools' jokes

AAAS conference: 50 million environmental refugees by 2020. This is a connection that we've been seeing in the Middle East and North Africa and is only likely to continue to grow in importance. Climate and ecological damage combine with political and economic conditions to cause food insecurity, leading in turn to political instability in nations closer to the edge and these problems are then exported through migration. Such migrants won't always be labelled ecological or climate refugees, since the proximate causes will include political and economic factors, often focalised or triggered through food issues.

Physorg: Some Greenland glaciers have doubled in speed over the last decade.

Science Daily: Higher CO2 means less transpiration as plants reduce their pores.

Coral reefs are the canaries in the global coal mine. It is likely most won't survive above 350 ppm CO2 for more than a few decades. We're at 390 and rising.

Guardian: Wasting water in a throwaway society. In the UK, "we throw away, on average, twice as much water per year in the form of uneaten food as we use for washing and drinking."

The Australia Institute: Hiding the unemployed (and underemployed), or why the official unemployment rate is the tip of the iceberg.

Shell says we are entering a zone of uncertainty over oil supply. A clever ploy to keep the prices high or a frank admission that the future of oil is declining global production?

One of the most useful pages on Skeptical Science is Ten Indicators of a Warming World (and Ten Indicators of a Human Fingerprint on Climate Change). But this may be an eleventh: wave height.

Guardian: Time to pledge our "full-throated" support for the monarchy.

OK, so one of them is.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not all capitalism needs to be hypercapitalism

The CEO of a major business has called for a shift from profits to well-being as the goal of capitalism, and is considering a business model in which his hardware stores rent items rather than selling them. This is an example of aiming at things that are better than growth.

The first comment points out the fatal flaw. Such a move is basically impossible for a public company, who have as their primary legal obligation the requirement to make profit for their shareholders. Of course, it is quite possible to have capitalism without this requirement (as was the case for much of the early life of corporations), but unless this issue is addressed, then all the good intentions of CEOs and consumers will be thwarted.

And that law is unlikely to change anytime soon while corporations are themselves able to throw around so much political weight. Democracy only works when people are in charge - and corporations are not persons.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Blow up the Pokies

Half the world's poker machines are located in Australia, and they rake in AUD$12 billion each year (that's not how much is gambled, but how much is lost by gamblers). Problem gamblers can throw away $1,000 per hour. GetUp are working together with Independent MP Andrew Wilkie to push for reform. The goal: mandatory pre-commitment, which simply means that players, before they start gambling, must set their own daily limit on how much they are willing to lose for the day. This isn't a massive change. Nonetheless, Clubs Australia are preparing to spend $20 million to fight the move and protect their bloated profits. You can sign a petition here (and another here)* to offer your support.

It isn't blowing up the pokies, but it's a start.
*H/T Arthur.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"We are eating the planet"

"I asked a group of 11- to 14-year-olds the other day: 'Do you believe humanity will end soon?' And they nearly all said, 'Yes I do believe it.' Our children think our world will end. It's a tragic thing. Adults don't think that. They don't see that we are eating the planet. But we are. If you take all the biomass of vertebrates on the planet, 98% are men and their domestic animals. All the wild animals in the world make up only 2%."

- Yann Arthus-Bertrand, quoted in Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Looking down on creation.

This quote is from the director of Home, an inspiring piece of aerial cinematography available for free online that I mentioned back here.

Different generations perceive ecological threats differently. At least, that's my impression from numerous conversations and reading. In a mixed discussion group recently, I found that all those over forty primarily felt sad about ecological degradation, but were puzzled when I asked if they had any fear associated with that experience. All those under forty were losing sleep in their anxieties about what we are doing to our planet. Of course, the attitudes of this one group doesn't prove anything, but it illustrates the sense I've been getting of a generational difference in how the issue is perceived. Does this match your experience?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why is a raven like a writing desk? Two nice analogies

I like a good analogy. When well designed, they can convey the unfamiliar through the familiar. Of course, they can also mislead if we don't pay attention to the differences as well as the similarities. Here are two I've come across recently. First, one from Australian Sustainable Energy by the Numbers, a useful report from the University of Melbourne into the possibility of getting Australia to 90% renewables (or low carbon) in a short time frame at a decent cost with (hopefully) some more realistic assumptions than this report.
"Our cruise ship is leaking badly. The captain is advised by the engineer to start the bilge pumps but the accountant says this will be too expensive and would cut into profits. The captain makes a tough decision; the passengers will have to bale. An argument breaks out between the staff and the passengers about whether to bale with spoons or glasses. The passengers argue for glasses but the staff for spoons because of the likely breakage of glasses. The hospitality manager comes up with a brilliant solution. The passengers should drink more beer and champagne and pee over the side."

- Peter Seligman, Australian Sustainable Energy by the Numbers, 61.

H/T Dave.

And I couldn't go past this recent letter to the editor in the SMH.
"And what about this great big garbage tax? Why do I have to pay to have my garbage collected when I can dump it in the bush for nothing? My little bit doesn't make any difference to world garbage levels, and when it rolls to the bottom of the gully I can't even see it. Call me a garbage sceptic, but show me the science. If garbage is bad why do we produce so much?

"When I went overseas there was garbage lying everywhere. Other countries don't have great big garbage taxes. They make cheap stuff and we can't compete. Until every country in the world adopts a garbage price, our great big garbage tax is economic suicide. Garbage is crap."

- David Hale Gordon, SMH letters to the editor, 25th March 2011.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eco-parables for children: Where is the Green Sheep?

A while back I suggested that many nursery rhymes could be read as coded eco-parables, offering a reading of Sing a Song of Sixpence and sketching out a few more. As father to a toddler, these keep jumping out at me in all kinds of places. Does anyone else see the award-winning children's book Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek as a lament for the relative absence of an effective green social movement? Starting with the obvious presence of the red and blue sheep (the traditional colours of the mainstream parties in many nations), and all kinds of other sheep (the car sheep has broken down while the train sheep travels happily, even sun, rain, wind and wave sheep have showed up - renewable energy sources), finally the green sheep is discovered to be sleeping under a bush.

Wake up green sheep!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Last chance to save £50

A final reminder that if any other UK residents would like to save £50 off their next electricity bill, then let me know before the end of Sunday so I can send you an invite. You will then have until the end of April to make a decision about whether to switch to 100% renewable Good Energy. Full details can be found in my Tuesday post.

The £25 offer will continue after Sunday.

NSW Election: Issues to watch, issues to ignore

New South Wales Labor is toast. Everyone knows it, but that doesn't make the election a dead rubber. As mentioned in the previous post, the upper house (Legislative Council) is uncertain and many seats are marginal. Moreover, election funding is associated with number of primary votes, so your first preference still gives a few dollars to the party you select.

Although it is late in the day to be offering it, Steve over at the Box Pop has been writing a five-part series on the election. The first post highlights just how narrow and misleading some of the groups claiming to give a "Christian" assessment of the parties are. The second explains the relevant differences between state and federal elections. The final three posts each offer one issue worth paying attention to and one that is a red herring. First, public education is worth preserving, but ethics classes are now a done deal. Second, ecological responsibility can't be sidelined by claiming that Christians disagree (since that applies pretty much everywhere),* whereas foreign policy has little to do with state government. The final post is yet to be published, but I'm hoping it will be about sustainable infrastructure planning that is not in bed with developers (to my mind, this has been one of the biggest failures of NSW Labor over the last sixteen years).** Hints in the first post suggest otherwise, but I can dream on for another couple of hours until it goes up.
H/T Andrew Cameron.
*For example, it's worth remembering that Newcastle is already the world's biggest coal export port and is currently dramatically increasingly its capacity. Once completed, the expanded facility will be able to handle a volume of coal so large that the resulting emissions will be greater than all of Australia's other emissions combined. We cannot pretend that we in NSW are not a serious part of the problem.
**Did you know that only one party refuses to accept donations from either unions or corporations? Can you guess which one?

UPDATE: Steve's final post is now up. It is not on infrastructure, but on something else also very important.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

NSW Election: Don't waste your vote

A short and fun little video reminding us of the differences between state and federal elections. Key message: if you vote above the line in the upper house, don't stop with a "1", or your vote may well expire (even if you vote for a major party and they don't need your vote due to the complex mathematics of the Single Transferrable Vote method), allowing extreme candidates such a Pauline Hanson or the Shooters Party to be elected (and possibly gain the balance of power), even if they only gain 1-2% of the vote. The lower house result may be the most obvious in the history of Australian elections (bookies are offering odds of 1:1.01 for a Coalition victory: for every dollar you bet, if the Coalition wins, they'll give you a whole cent!), but the upper house is wide open. Vote wisely and don't waste your vote.

Remember, vote for others.

ICE: A good idea

Simple ideas with intuitive pass-it-on appeal are rare. This is one of them.

I have huge respect for paramedics, ambulance officers or whatever they are called in your region (in Oz, they are often affectionately known as "ambos"). They save lives more or less on a daily basis and are frequently first on the scene of dangerous and sad situations. I have personally benefitted three times from their care (once I got to travel in an ambulance with sirens blaring, but since I lived about 400 metres from a major hospital my excitement was short-lived) and can't count the times I've seen them help those around me. Anything that makes their job easier is worth consideration.

So the idea is to store an emergency contact number on your mobile under "ICE" (In Case of Emergency). That way, first responders (which could include police or firefighters) know who to call if, God forbid, you are dead, unconscious or otherwise unable to indicate an appropriate contact. This helps you to be identified, allows quick access to critical medical information and gives your loved ones peace of mind. This idea has only been around for a couple of years, but is catching on quickly.
If you have more than one contact, use ICE1, ICE2, ICE3 and so on. If your phone is locked and requires a pass phrase to access, see here. There is an alternative language independent version of the same idea here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review of Tim Flannery's Here on Earth

Hope is a key theme of this blog: how it is possible to have Christian hope amidst a world groaning all the more under novel levels of ecological degradation and what difference such hope makes in our Christian discipleship. My longest series (summarised in this recent post) was an extended reflection upon hope and last year when I tried to re-frame the purpose of this blog, hope featured prominently.

So I was very interested when asked recently by the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) to review a book by Tim Flannery with the title Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope. Flannery is well-known in Australia as a public science communicator and has written a range of books and other pieces on biodiversity, sustainability and climate change (The Weather Makers is one of his best known books). For his work, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007. Flannery is not a Christian, so I was very interested to see what kind of account of hope he would offer in the face of our dire situation.

My review of his book is now published over on the CPX site.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Good Energy

For UK residents: an advertisement/endorsement
I very rarely advertise or endorse products or companies. I have a deliberate policy of not accepting Google ads on my site, even though I could be earning hundreds (or, if the marketing is to be believed, thousands) of pounds a year. I think that the vast majority of advertising that swamps our attention is a net deficit to social health through creating artificial dissatisfaction (the basis of most marketing), that is, through the corruption of desire, which, in theological terms, is a cause and symptom of sin. However, there are exceptions.

And I am going to make one in this case. Sometimes, I am quite happy to recommend a product and believe that doing so is not promoting destructive cravings or artificial needs.

How to save £50 and slash your carbon footprint
I agree with Žižek that ethical consumption is insufficient to meet the scale and breadth of problems we face. Yet almost everyone uses electricity, and very few are able to generate their own. This means that the vast majority of us pay an energy company for our power generation.

The selection of a power company is an ethical choice when there are genuine differences between them and between the results of various ways of producing electricity. Sources of power that require the combustion of finite fossil fuels and the emission of significant volumes of greenhouse gases contribute to the dangerous pace of climate change we are beginning to experience and leave a legacy for countless future generations. They also continue the process of ocean acidification and are generally associated with a wide range of other ecological and social ills. Therefore, reducing one's power consumption and switching to cleaner sources is an expression of love for God's good creation in its biodiversity, for one's neighbours who rely on a stable climate for food and for future generations whose societies will be shaped by the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans that we leave behind.

In the UK, renewable energy has the potential to supply most or all of the nation's energy requirements. It is not perfect, but it is vastly superior to the alternatives when all ethical factors are considered. While many energy companies offer "green" packages, many of these only include small fractions of generation from renewable sources. As far as I am aware (feel free to correct me) only two companies currently offer 100% renewable energy to households in the UK: Ecotricity and Good Energy. Having looked into both of them, we chose Good Energy, which is the only energy company to receive the highest rating from Ethical Consumer on their Ethical Company Index.

Ten reasons to consider switching to Good Energy

1. Carbon free. All Good Energy generation is from renewable sources (no fossil fuels or nuclear) with zero carbon emissions.* Switching from a standard energy package to 100% renewable will reduce most people's carbon footprint by up to a third. For many people, this will be more than selling the car, giving up flying or becoming vegetarian. This difference is independently certified under the Green Energy Supply Certification Scheme.
*Yes, there are still emissions associated with the construction and materials, but these are relatively small compared to alternatives. For those with gas as well as electricity, Good Energy also offer gas, which obviously does have emissions, but they put the profits back into supporting renewable generation. Switching electricity (but not gas) to renewable generation will still reduce most people's carbon footprint by about 1.5 tonnes per annum.

2. Easy. This is probably the single largest reduction to most people's carbon emissions that can be made as a once off action in a matter of minutes without any further thought or change in lifestyle. Although many of the steps I think we all need to consider taking are difficult (and I'm suspicious of lists that claim "ten easy steps to save the planet"); this one really is very easy.

3. Not too expensive. When fossil fuels are subsidised to the tune of over £300 billion per year globally (more than ten times the amount received by renewables), it is no wonder that we consider them cheap energy. But good energy doesn't need to cost the earth. Switching to Good Energy, the average household will pay the grand sum of approximately £1 more per week - though that is before we get to #10 (see below).

4. Human scale. You are supporting a small, accountable and responsive company, rather than filling the coffers of a huge multinational. I think that size does matter. There are better and worse companies at all sizes, but my impression is that human-scale operations are less likely to be truly evil and that few giants are truly benign.

5. Local. As a UK-based company, it is subject to UK laws and taxes and so isn't trying to avoid its social responsibilities through tax avoidance. It works with thousands of small-scale energy suppliers and so is like buying from a farmers market rather than a supermarket. You can read more here.

6. Resilient. Once constructed, renewables have the advantage of much shorter supply chains and are less vulnerable to geopolitical disruptions than fuels that must be imported from elsewhere. This makes them (and the communities they power) more resilient during bumpy times.

6. It's the future. In this interview, a discussion of trends in new energy production might surprise some in how far renewables have come.
"For the past two years 40 per cent of all new electricity generating capacity in Europe came from wind turbines. (Add solar and other renewables and that rises to 63 per cent.) From Spain to Sweden so many new turbines are being erected that Europe is on target to produce 15 per cent of its electricity from wind by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2050."
Scotland has committed to getting 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and may reach 100% by 2025.

7. You're not alone. Public attitudes towards wind power in particular are overwhelmingly positive. I don't deny that there are downsides, but it is the best option available, especially in Scotland where it is coupled with hydro power for both storage of excess production (extra wind energy can pump water back uphill for later hydro use) and for immediate demand when wind drops.

8. Accessible. At Good Energy, a real person will answer your calls and emails. I actually called yesterday, didn't wait in line, didn't face fifty sub-menus on an automated system and got a direct and helpful answer to a query I had about our energy use. We've been with them for over six months now and every interaction has been positive. I was going to post about them earlier, but decided to wait and see if it turned out to be too good to be true. It hasn't. So it's no surprise to us that Good Energy recently came top in a Which? survey of customer satisfaction with utilities.

9. Visible. Most energy production today happens out of sight and so stays out of mind. Being more mindful of where our energy comes from means taking greater responsibility for the energy choices we make in both production and consumption.

10. Special offer. Good Energy have a standing offer to encourage customers to spread the word. If you quote my name and customer reference number (003060766), then both you and I receive £25 credit on our accounts with Good Energy. Yes, I am in effect being paid a commission for this ad, but I am happy to do this as this product is not based on the creation of artificial "needs" or the corrupting of desire. Most of us also have plenty of room to reduce our energy consumption through all kinds of measures (better insulation, behavioural change, energy-efficient appliances, reduced consumption of other goods and so on), but few will end up using no electricity at all, so I am not helping to create an artificial desire. If you let me know before the end of the week,* then as a special offer for Climate Week, Good Energy are doubling the usual reward, i.e. £50 credit for each of us. Once you join, you too can tell others and cut both your bills and those of your friends and family. Recruit enough people and your energy is not just carbon free - it's free.
*You can email me via my profile.

If you would like to compare different companies and what they offer, try Ethical Consumer or Green Electricity, which both offer side-by-side comparisons of the options from independent third parties. Please take a moment this week to consider your energy supplier and contact me if you're curious or keen. Even if you're not sure, let me know and I can register your interest before the end of the week and then you'll have until the end of April to sign up and still get the £50 credit.

Here ends the advertisement. Your regular programming will resume shortly.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Does Jesus think you're rich?

Are you rich?

Perceptions of material wealth and poverty are so often relative. We compare ourselves to our neighbours to decide whether we are well-off or struggling. And my tendency is usually to look up the food chain rather than down. If someone along the street has twice as much as I do, then I must be poor. Bill Gates could look at Hosni Mubarak and consider himself a little cash-strapped.

What does Jesus think? If I have a fixed abode,* a change of clothes** and know where my next meal is coming from,*** then I'm rich.

Are you rich?

It is not wrong to be rich, but it does mean those of us who are so abundantly wealthy as to have weeks of food stored up (and more easily obtainable nearby for a tiny fraction of our income), cupboards full of clothes and multiple secure rooms for our personal use need to think of ourselves as such and so take heed of the instructions in holy scripture addressed to those who are rich. We need to get some perspective and learn how to be rich.
*Luke 9.58. Fixed abode doesn't mean you have to own your house, just that you have a place to live.
**Luke 3.11. I realise these words are actually said by John, but Jesus also assumes that his disciples will only have one cloak (Luke 22.36).
***Luke 12.13-34.

The image is of Judas kissing Christ, a statue flanking the Scala Sancta in Rome. Judas was the disciples' treasurer, and would enrich himself at the expense of the common good (John 12.5-6).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Žižek: cheat notes

For those who are struggling with the video posted yesterday, it is important to note that Žižek is addressing an audience that he assumes will be familiar with may of the ideas he is discussing and so he doesn't always explain everything. He's quite content to say "And so on" rather than join all the dots. This means that if this is your first introduction to Žižek, it may not be the most accessible piece of communication.

The bottom line of what he's trying to say is that the system is so broken that tinkering around the edges is a distraction from the more radical task at hand. Light green consumerism is still consumerism, ethical consumerism is still consumerism. As such, they are largely a waste of time, since they make us feel like we're doing something while we're still mainly on the problem side of the equation.

Does he have an alternative? Yes, though he doesn't really discuss it in this video. It is hinted at where he says, "It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property." That is, the problem is much deeper than one or two bad apples in the barrel, a few CEOs being too greedy or some missing government regulation. It is knottier than any given new piece of technology, no matter how shiny, can untie. The problem for Žižek is with our economic system as a whole. Does this make him a dangerous radical, a subversive Marxist with an anti-capitalist agenda for world government? Yes, actually it does. And he has no problem with that (having called himself "a communist in a qualified sense").

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Charity is cruelty. And so on.

Why we will never consume our way out of our problems

Slavoj Žižek discusses Starbucks and the limitations of ethical capitalism. And so on.
UPDATE: See also some further thoughts I posted the next day.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Can a pacifist fill out a census...

...when the census is being conducted by the world's largest arms manufacturer?

Lockheed Martin won the tender for the 2011 UK census and will be collecting 32 pages of information from every household in the UK, except for those willing to risk a £1,000 fine and a criminal record.

I don't identify as a pacifist, though I have deep misgivings about the influence and scale of multinationals who trade in military hardware. Lockheed Martin built the UK's Trident nuclear system, continue to make banned cluster bombs and have supplied much of the equipment being used to suppress dissent in the Middle East, including the most recent violence in Bahrain.

I understand that government is an exercise in compromise, of doing the best that is actually possible, but some compromises are more important than others. Count me out are running a campaign highlighting the problematic nature of this particular government contract.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Weapons of mass deception

Automated sock puppets are now (likely) in use by the US military, using software developed to enable a single person to maintain multiple credible and untraceable online personae. I spoke about this technology back here. The Pentagon claims it is being used for "counter-propaganda" purposes, noting that it would be illegal for them to use it on US citizens. It is clear that the military are not the only ones using it. Is it illegal for major corporations to do so?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lent: the reward of dissatisfaction

I thought it might be worth correcting a potential misunderstanding of one of my earlier posts on a Lenten reading of the sermon on the mount in Matthew's Gospel. When I spoke of the reward of fasting being the healing of desire, I did not intend to imply that there is no future aspect to this as though those who perform disciplines of piety privately have also already received their reward in full. The beatitudes that form the heart of the sermon are focused primarily on the future; it is those who are dissatisfied with the present who are blessed, because of God's coming future.

So the reward is both now and not yet. Now the "reward" is a certain kind of dissatisfaction, a yearning desire for right things. This means that at present, fasting and the other disciplines mentioned by Christ are not only uncomfortable and costly, but they make us less happy (in one sense). We fast in order that we begin to hunger for the right things, that is, to hunger and thirst for justice, as the beatitudes put it. The not-yet aspect of the reward is the satisfying of those healed desires. Today's desires look forward to tomorrow's feast, a feast that begins at Easter.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In praise of... inefficiency

A friend was recently informed by her boss that unless she makes herself available for exotic overseas postings at fairly short notice that could last a minimum of three months or could end up being substantially longer than that, she will be on a blacklist when the next round of redundancies are made as a result of being deemed "inflexible". The fact that this would mean leaving her husband at short notice for an extended period of time is not taken into consideration.

And so I praise inefficiency, or rather, those bold enough to take a stand against the idol of efficiency. Efficiency is undoubtedly a good thing, but like all good things, it is a relative good and when it is treated as an absolute, when elevated to a primary and overriding consideration, it becomes a menacing false god, demanding human sacrifice. Idolatry is cruel and the god of efficiency grinds human lives in its well-oiled cogs.
Full series links can be found here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lent: Give up and die

"Ash Wednesday, then, should be seen as standing guard over Lent, reminding us at its start of the core truth of Christianity: we must give up. We must give up not this or that habit or food or particular sin, but the entire project of self-justification, of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, which is death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Give up! Give up, for you will not escape death. The entire logic of the theology of glory, of all our Pelagian impulses, of all human attempts at mastery and control, are searched out and stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. All power, all money, all self-control, all striving, all efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death. Our return to dust is the looming fact of our existence that, in our resistance to it, provides a template of sorts for all the more petty efforts we make to gain control of our lives. [...]

"Ash Wednesday is a day for the hopeless and suffering, who are affirmed in their hopelessness and suffering rather than commanded to take up the task of self-improvement. When we give up hope, hope in our own abilities and efforts and doing, then the reality of God’s grace truly can become manifest. It is the occasion for an affirmation of who we are, not, ultimately, a plea to transcend our mortal condition. We can live in our bodies, in this world, seeing ourselves more compassionately and thereby are moved to perform works of love, without conditions or demands, for our fellow-sufferers. The first day of Lent is an occasion not for a form of world-denial, but loving acceptance of flawed reality, of imperfection. It is a rebuke to all separatism, escapism, and self-hatred. And of course, as it points us to the Christ-event, Lent ends, as it beings, with an affirmation of our creaturely existence: as Christ rose from the dead, so will our bodies, to live in a New Jerusalem – not an ethereal 'heaven'."

- from Possibly Insane Thoughts on Ash Wednesday
(Written on the Occasion of a Sleepless Night)

This is a beautiful, moving, personal and very insightful piece on the importance of Ash Wednesday in the tradition of Lent, and on the importance of the body and its death in the fullness of life. It is worth reading in full. My own journey out of a dualistic desire for escape from bodily life was also something of a via negativa through the prophet Nietzsche.
H/T Jason.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dogville: Grace as a test?

My wife and I saw Lars von Trier's Dogville recently. Our opinions of the controversial Danish director had been diametrically opposed. I loved both Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves. Jess had heard their plots and refused to see them because they sounded awful. So convincing her to watch Dogville was a bit of a coup, helped by a friendly neighbour who dropped in the DVD without our requesting it and my pointing out that it would be rude to return it unwatched.

We loved it. The minimalist set creatively captured the panopticon experience of small town life. The acting was strong. But the most interesting thing was that Dogville is a very insightful picture of what so many people (including more Christians than we might realise) think the Christian message says. Without mentioning God (the town has no church and the mission house perpetually lacks a preacher), the film is deeply theological. Life is a test: will we accept Grace into our lives freely and discover a gift we didn't seek and didn't deserve? Or will we try to pay for Grace, or worse, constrain and even coerce Grace? And if we fail the test, then comes merciless judgement... but I don't want to give away the ending.

Highly recommended. Distressing scenes, but then you already knew that because it's Lars von Trier.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Grain by numbers: why the price of food is unlikely to fall

Lester Brown crunches the numbers and argues that it is unlikely that food prices will significantly fall from their record highs this year. And the long term outlook is worse, though not without glimmers of hope.

This is at the heart of the various crises facing us in the coming decades, since food prices are linked to political stability in many countries. And one country's political instability is a neighbouring country's diplomatic, economic and/or refugee crisis.

Lent is as good a time as any to reflect on our patterns of food consumption. Where does our food come from? What is its footprint? Are we, through our diet and purchasing choices, eating more than our fair share?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Electoral reform irony

The UK faces a referendum on 11th May over whether to switch from a voting system in which you can select one and only one candidate (known as First Past the Post, or FPTP) to one in which you can express all your preferences in numerical order (switching to something much closer to the Australian system for electing MPs, and which is known as Alternative Vote or AV).

Some critics of first past the post want to see a more radical change to a proportional system (closer to elections for the Australian Senate), or a mixed system, with some proportional and some preferential by constituency.

Those in this latter camp, who think that the proposed reforms do not go far enough, are split in what to do. If they vote for electoral reform and it goes through, then perhaps the politicians will feel that they have "done" electoral reform and the chances of a proportional or semi-proportional system will recede into the background for another decade or more. Others think that at least preferential is better than the current system and they should take what they can get.

The irony is that if the referendum were to be held with a preferential vote on different options, the supporters of proportional representation would largely swing behind the more limited preferential reform as at least better than the current system. As it is, they are placed in the very situation that First Past the Post fails to account for and have to decide whether to vote tactically for their second preference or vote "no" in protest.

A similar thing happened in the 1999 Australian republic referendum, where opinion polls indicated a majority of voters wanted a republic, but disagreements over the specifics of the proposed model led to a split in the republican vote and the motion being defeated in every state. However, the current example has the added irony of being precisely a vote about how to reform voting, which might well lose due to the very factors that give rise to a desire for reform.

And, speaking of electoral reform, Jeremy reminds of the other electoral reform debate, which gets even less public attention.

If you've forgotten why voting "Yes" to electoral reform is important, see these seven reasons. I think that supporters of the new system frequently oversell their case, but it is still true that AV is a noticeably better system overall than FPTP.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent: What is the reward of fasting?

"Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. [...] And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

- Matthew 6.1, 16-18 (NRSV).

Does fasting earn spiritual brownie points? Does every meal skipped now give us an extra helping at the messianic feast of the age to come? I don't think that this is Jesus' point here. He is warning against those whose acts of piety (he mentions charitable giving, prayer and fasting) are done in order to be seen by others. Jesus has no problem with good deeds that are visible to others. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, he taught his listeners to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5.16, NRSV). The issue here is not the visibility of the works, but their purpose. Ostentatious display somehow undermines the point of such deeds, which suggests that their point has to do with our hearts, with our motives and desires (a conclusion also suggested a few verses later in 6.19-21, where Jesus speaks of what it is that our hearts treasure). We give, pray and fast in order to allow our hearts to be shaped by such disciplines. These activities are done for the healing of our desires not the enhancement of our reputation. At least part of the reward of fasting, then, is to discover that our treasure is indeed heavenly and so free from the vicissitudes of material possessions or social reputation.

"Heaven" in Matthew's Gospel is not code for eschatological promise (as it is often misused in much Christian discourse), but is either a reference to God's dwelling place (5.34, 14.19 and all occurrences of "Father in heaven"), or a synecdoche for God himself (3.17, 16.1, 18.18, 21.25 and all occurrences of "kingdom of heaven"). In other words, when Jesus speaks of storing up treasure in heaven, he is not first and foremost talking about the future (unlike, say 1 Peter 1.4, though even there the hope is that it will be revealed, not that we will go to heaven to be with it). Instead, storing up treasure in heaven means cherishing God, seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. It means a transformation of our desires so that we are not seeking our own glory but delighting in God's. And this is why any attempt to gain credit before others through acts of piety destroys the very purpose of those acts, since it distracts us from the chance to have our desires realigned towards God and his purposes.

Therefore, perhaps the "reward" of fasting (or prayer or giving) that Jesus refers to in Matthew 6 is not that we somehow earn a better future, but that our desires take another step on the path to healing, that we are slowly liberated from our crippling self-obsession. This is no mercenary bonus, unrelated to the activity that wins it. It is the appropriate outcome of the very activities that seek to draw us out of the echo chamber of own hearts. Our reward might well be that we become a little more capable of love.
I have tried head off one potential misunderstanding of this post at the pass.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lent: Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. In this season, we remember that we are dusty and repent because we are dirty. Kyle has a good introduction to Ash Wednesday for those unfamiliar with the tradition.

There are all kinds of ways of observing Lent. For instance, TEAR Australia are suggesting that Christians consider undertaking a forty day carbon fast. Lent is easily misunderstood and frequently abused. The best Lenten disciplines serve to sharpen our hearing of the gospel, preparing our hearts for the great feast of Easter.

During this season, and in the liturgy of today's service, we are exhorted to "Remember, o mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news." Last year I offered some reflections upon this text, noting not only that we all return to dust (are mortal) and need to repent of our sin (which is distinct though related to the fact that we shall die), but that we are dust. Dust is our origin, our essence.

I thought I'd re-post a small part of the discussion that came out of that post.


So what might it mean to remember that we are dust? Well, at a minimum, I suspect it means that we cannot simply assume "the environment" is something "out there", an appendix to our existence that can be treated purely instrumentally as a source of "resources". Instead, we recognise that we belong here, that we share a common origin and destiny with other created things. And we share a common task as well: the praise of the creator. So we are reliant upon the non-human in order to truly be human, since we are created to join our voices with creation's praise (in what might be called doxological interdependence). Note that this also means (contra some forms of deep green thought) that the rest of creation needs us to truly be itself too. This puts the lie to the idea that we ultimately face a choice between caring for humans and caring for "the environment".

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Disasterbation turns you blind

Why "disaster porn" films blur our moral vision
Our predicament is crucially different from, say, being ten minutes after the launch of mutually assured nuclear destruction, where human society really has only minutes or hours left and hugging loved ones is almost the only expression of humanity left. Instead, we are in the (in some ways worse) situation of having a disaster (or series of interlocking crises) that will unfold across decades and even centuries and millennia (the effects of our injection of CO2 into the atmosphere will be felt for hundreds of thousands of years, species extinctions are forever and could well lead to ecosystems that are radically different - and for a very long time much simpler). What this means is while some shocks could be quite sudden (as we saw in 2008, banks can (almost) collapse within 24 hours if conditions are right, or rather, wrong), industrial civilisation will not go down in an afternoon (barring global nuclear exchange). Such an outcome is likely to take decades and a whole series of crises.

Many "catastrophe porn" films like 2012 (which I haven't seen) only further corrupt our moral imaginations by asking us to imagine ourselves in pure survival mode, which is a form of ethical laziness, since it is much more likely the real crises will bring moral challenges considerably more complex than "will I resort to cannibalism to stay alive?" (The Road). Neither Mad Max or Star Trek are particularly likely in the coming decades, but I expect something more in the ballpark of (the background scenes of) Children of Men.

In our contemporary situation, there are still plenty of good ends to pursue, even if it is increasingly unlikely that our actions are going to "save" civilisation as we know it. Whether we conceive ourselves as offering societal palliative care or building arks for the coming storm, there are more options than trying to plug the hole in the Titanic as it goes down (to mix three metaphors in as many lines). If we are offering palliative care for industrial society as a terminal patient, then perhaps that patient is a pregnant woman and our care may yet save the baby. That is, the choices we collectively make now will significantly influence the basic conditions under which any future society will exist, including (through the climate, health of biodiversity, soils, oceanic chemistry and so on) the carrying capacity of the planet and its regions. So it may actually now be impossible to keep things going as we've known them for the last few decades (let alone with continued growth) for too much longer, but it is certainly possible for us to bequeath a better or worse world to our children.

The perception of being "too late" will only increase in the next few years and this could well lead to all kinds of hopeless responses (nihilistic hedonism ("eat, drink and be merry..."); populist quick techno-fixes; authoritarian paternalism; scapegoating of outsiders). Our concern is not to say ahead of time what ought to be done (though many of the things that ought to be done now are more or less clear), but to focus on the formation of human beings who will not respond to such perceptions out of fear, guilt or impotence, but from faith, hope and love.
I took the title of this post from this helpful article. Other good posts on a similar theme include this reflection on the motives on doomers from one who has experienced them and this piece on collapse porn.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Bomb: Time lapse study of a 20thC insanity

This video excludes the controversial 1979 Vela incident. Since 1998, there are a couple more to add from North Korea, bringing the total nuclear weapons tests to 2053 (and nuclear explosions to 2055).

Most nations have now signed the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty (though the US has not ratified it).

It is possible to tell the age of someone born in the second half of the twentieth century simply from the distribution of the C14 isotope in their brain cells.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Where is the anger? Where is the grief? Missing feelings

Chris Jordan makes artworks of shocking statistics. His goal is to elicit anger and grief as healthy responses to the realities of western (especially US) consumerism and its contradictions, poisons and victims ("those who inherit the results of our decisions"). He fears that these responses have gone missing from our culture. He is trying to translate deadly statistics into a language that can be felt in order to open a space for reflection and change.

If you don't feel sick in the pit of your stomach during this video, either (a) he's failed or (b) you're numb (or (c) you haven't recently eaten something questionable, which may be the case with me).

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Studies in Christian Ethics: Climate change

The February 2011 edition of the journal Studies in Christian Ethics is now available, and contains papers published from the proceedings of the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics held in September last year on the topic of climate change. The table of contents is available here, though you'll need to be a subscriber to SAGE to be able to see it (which for most people means accessing through a university or college).

My contribution is a piece called "Doom, Gloom and Empty Tombs: Climate Change and Fear". I don't think I'm being naughty to post the abstract.

Abstract: Anthropogenic climate change represents a deep and credible threat to human society in a variety of ways. The particular shape of this threat is historically novel and commonly associated with experiences of fear mixed with both guilt and impotence. What is the moral significance of this fear in a faithful Christian response to anthropogenic climate change? How is the Christian ethicist to locate fears of climate change? How can such fears become constructive for, rather than destructive of, ethical thought? Taking Hans Urs von Balthasar’s short text, The Christian and Anxiety, as a dialogue partner, this paper will explore healthy and unhealthy modes of alarm in the face of an increasingly disrupted climate. Balthasar argues that Christ’s own anxiety during his passion liberates believers from certain kinds of fear, and then opens the creative possibility of entering into the fears of one’s neighbour as an expression of love.
Small minds may be amused by the fact that I managed to get a rude word published in an ethics journal (twice: pp. 78-79). I considered giving this post the title "How to get shit published", but then rejected it as puerile.

UPDATE: I have now received the published PDF of the article and am happy to consider sharing it on a personal basis upon request.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Dying and killing for blasphemy

Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.

- John 16.2b.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistani government minister for minorities, was assassinated this week for speaking up as a Christian against Pakistan's blasphemy laws. He was the only Christian minister in the Pakistani government and his murderers left behind a tract claiming responsibility in the name of "Taliban al-Qaida".

Only days before, he had given an interview in which he addressed threats against his life (see above): "The forces of violence, militant [?] organisations, the Taliban and [?] al-Qaida, they want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan. And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them. When I am leading this campaign against the Sharia law for the abolishment of blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed and marginalised Christian and other persecuted minorities, these Taliban threaten. But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of [the] cross. And I am following of the cross. And I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings can not change my opinion and principles. I would prefer to die for my principle and for the justice rather [than] compromise on these threats."

May he rest in peace awaiting a glorious resurrection.

Shahbaz Bhatti is far from the only Christian this week who has died for his faith, but his high profile and eloquent and timely witness are likely to see this issue receive a little media attention. His death is a reminder that Christians fight for the truth by being willing to die, rather than being willing to kill. Killing to prevent or punish blasphemy is itself blasphemous against the one who gave his life as the true and living way. He was himself killed for blasphemy (Mark 14.64).

Of course Christians would never consider killing Muslims to be a good thing or condone state sanctioned violence with this goal, would we? We would never seek a spurious theological rationale for our fears in order to justify murder or oppression, would we?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

What others are doing

Jason offers a pastoral reflection upon the Christchurch earthquake.

Kate summarises why climate change is bad for biodiversity, otherwise known as the web of life (though as a couple of comments point out, we're really talking about anthropogenic environmental change, not just climate change, as there are other factors contributing to the current precipitous biodiversity decline).

Jeremy is in search of the biodegradable shoe. He also thinks there are three basic paths ahead for the world over this century.

Bill discusses what he thinks might be the most popular tax in history.

David distinguishes (very helpfully) between stuff and things, and while he's dishing out useful advice, he also gives some tips on how to make trillions of dollars.

Halden is a little underwhelmed by ecumenism.

And Brad relates a tale of two Protestantisms, in which O'Donovan sides with the Augustinian English Anglicans against the Donatist Scots Presbyterians (perhaps unsurprisingly, since O'Donovan is an English Anglican who happens to live in Scotland). If nothing after that last comma made sense, don't worry, the post itself is very readable.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Ecological responsibility and Christian discipleship III: Recycle or repent?

The final piece of a three part series blogging a sermon preached at St Paul's and St George's 9 am service on 30th January 2011.

I. Human planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene.
II. The Community of Creation: Genesis 1.
III. Recycle or repent? Our response.

Recycle or repent? Our response
Mentioning Jesus reminds us that we're in a series on discipleship, on what it means for us to be called to be Jesus' disciples today. A disciple is a dedicated pupil and if we are to be disciples, it means devoting ourselves to learning everyday from Jesus, learning not just about God, but also about ourselves and our world. It means letting Jesus set the agenda for our lives, seeking to follow in the path that he pioneered. This isn’t a hobby or one aspect of life. Following Jesus requires every minute in our schedule, every pound in our wallets, every relationship, every thought, every breath. This doesn't mean that we spend all our time doing "spiritual things", but that we learn to see all that we do as spiritual.

And that includes our relationship to the created order, to the increasingly fragmented, polluted, scarred, strip-mined, deforested, acidifying, destabilised planet and its life systems that God still promises us is fundamentally good, fundamentally of value in itself, not just in what it can offer us. This too is part of Christian discipleship and demands our attention and reflection, our commitment, repentance and love.

We’re not just talking here about recycling and changing light-bulbs. We're not just talking about planting trees or cycling or taking public transport or flying less or shopping locally or eating less meat or switching to renewable energy companies or buying MSC-certified fish.

By all means, do these things – they are no-brainers. But behaviour modification barely scratches the surface. We need a heart change, which Holy Scripture calls repentance. Lying behind so many of the trends towards ecological degradation are our consumerist lifestyles and their export into the developing world. The whole world can't live at our levels of consumption. So out of justice, out of love, out of what it means to be human and a creature of God, we cannot go on living at our level of consumption.

We need to be turned upside down by the good news that Jesus died to reconcile all things to God. How can we preach the good news of liberation from sin without also proclaiming and pursing a life that turns from selfishness and respects the goodness and integrity of God’s world? How can we love our neighbours without considering their well-being as a whole: physical, emotional, social, spiritual and ecological? How can we pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven and not pay attention to the earth for which we pray?

So composting and turning off the lights when you leave a room are just the tip of the iceberg. The good news of Jesus invites us into a whole-of-life creative resistance to ecological destruction.

First, be thankful. Christian discipleship starts in joy, not fear. It flows from peace, not anxiety. It is a liberation to do what is best, not being forced to do the minimum out of guilt. The world, however marred, is still good and worthy of our thanksgiving.

Second, repent of consumerism. We are not defined by what we buy. We do not need the latest fashion or the shiniest gadget. You don’t need meat every meal or international travel every holiday, we don't need to earn more and spend more. God gives us every good thing to enjoy, and so there is no need to hoard. We can learn contentment, which is grounded in step one: thankfulness. Smashing the hollow idol of endless consumption is not only good for the planet, but also necessary for the soul.

Third, embrace life. We belong to the earth. We are each members of something bigger than ourselves, bigger even than humanity: a creation awaiting its Sabbath rest in God. And so keep learning about the world, opening your eyes to the wonder, mystery and beauty – as well as the tragedy – around us. Find out what is happening to our planet. Mourn for what is being lost. And join with others in creative resistance. And then, perhaps, on a planet with all too many human scars, we may, by God's grace, become humans worthy of the name.
Readers with sharp memories may recall that I've ripped much of this post from the end of my related series on Why be green? Ecology and the gospel. What can I say? I love recycling! If you feel you've really missed out as a result, then try reading the expanded version: twelve easy very difficult steps to ecological responsibility.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Ecological responsibility and Christian discipleship II: The Community of Creation

Part two of a three part series blogging a sermon preached at St Paul's and St George's 9 am service on 30th January 2011.

I. Human planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene.
II. The Community of Creation: Genesis 1.
III. Recycle or repent? Our response.

The Community of Creation: Genesis 1
The opening chapters of Genesis are a rich poetic myth, not a literal quasi-scientific chronology. I’m simply going to assume this today,* since our focus is on the theological meaning of this passage for our discipleship. Let us notice the highly structured symbolic nature of the text and explore what it means for us in a world that is changing so rapidly and profoundly under human influence.

First, the earth and all its life find their origin in God. We are talking not simply of "nature" but of creation, a much stronger and richer term implying the personal handiwork of the Creator. God is the main actor in this narrative. He speaks and things happen. "Let there be light. And it was so." The image of majestic ordering through the divine word stands in contrast to almost all other ancient creation myths, which are usually dominated by violence and conflict. There is no competitor to God, no original hostility or tension. Creation is not fundamentally opposed to or insignificant for God's interests and purposes. It is fundamental to them.

Second, there is both great diversity and internal order to the creation. Notice that on the first three days God separates out various domains and then on the subsequent three days God fills each of these domains with their appropriate residents. Living things are ordered into their various kinds in all their stunning variety. And these elements of creation are related to one another. God doesn't simply plonk things down, but by the fifth and sixth days, he is calling upon the waters and the land to bring forth life appropriate to those locations. Although Genesis does not offer a full-blown theory of ecology and biodiversity, it gently encourages us to notice diversity and interdependence in the created order. The natural sciences are not doing something odd or artificial, but have a noble task in paying attention to the details and structure of this ordered diversity.

Third, God takes pleasure in this order and diversity. Another refrain throughout the text is that God saw that it was good. We are not simply to notice the diversity and interdependence in which we find ourselves, the passage invites us to join in God's appreciation for it. This is particularly important for us urbanites, I suspect. So much of how we structure our lives separates us from the rhythms, the mysteries and the delights of the non-human world. How do you ensure that your life remains connected to the fundamental goodness of life and the richness of our situation? How do we keep wonder, awe and a sense of enchantment alive?

Notice God calls the world good even before there are humans in the narrative. Creation is not dependent upon us for its goodness, but God cherishes it for itself. It is precious prior to and outside of any consideration of human benefit or usage. Something I have been re-learning from my daughter is that a pig is not simply so much as-yet-unbutchered ham, pork and bacon; a pig is a joy and can inspire laughter and squeals of glee simply for its piggyness.

Despite what is coming in Genesis 3 and all that follows, the foundational goodness of God's creation is never erased or entirely suppressed. Sin doesn't obliterate creation; it disorders things that remains themselves good.

We've noted three basic points: That God is the origin of all that is, hence we speak of creation, not merely nature. That creation is both structured and varied, so we speak of a created order. And that the created order is fundamentally and irrepressibly good.

So what then of us humans?

Three more basic points:** we are not the climax of this story; we belong first and foremost with the other creatures as members of the community of creation; and we are called to a special and often misunderstood role.

First, despite what is often claimed, we are not the climax of the creation narrative, that honour belongs to the Sabbath, the seventh day on which God rested from all his work, the day in which things are simply to be themselves before God (Genesis 2.1-3). Much more can be said about this image, but for the moment, let's just notice that we're not the centre of the universe, we're not the final point of the show.

Second, we are members of the community of creation. In the parallel creation account in Genesis 2, this is vividly depicted through the man (ha'adam) being fashioned out of the ground (ha'adamah). Adam is not so much a name as a pun, a play on words to remind us that humanity comes from humus, from the soil. We are made from dirt and we belong to the earth. In Genesis 1, we see that humanity doesn't get a day to ourselves, but we share the stage with the other land creatures. We are blessed by God and told to be fruitful and multiply. But then so are all the other creatures. The blessing of fruitfulness is not something we are to pursue at the expense of other creatures; we flourish or wither together. If our filling the earth pushes out other species, leaves no room for the fish and the birds and the plants and the other animals to also flourish, then we're doing it wrong. God directs the humans to their sources of food in verse 29, but then in verse 30 he reminds the humans that other creatures also need food. We are not fundamentally to be in competition with other species. We stand or fall together as a community.

And third, as a member of the community of creation, humanity is given a special task: to be the image of God, to be a visual representation, a constant reminder of the divine presence and pleasure in creation. This task is not a privilege we are to exploit, as though we were the only species that matters, but it is a weighty responsibly we are to shoulder. We are to treat the created order as God treats it, to care for it, to nurture it, to bless it and guard it, to coax it into greater fruitfulness so that the earth continues to bring forth living creatures of every kind. The uncaring exploitation of "natural resources" to feed the mouth of industrial economies to ensure ever upward and onward growth of national or global GDP is a cruel perversion of this task. May we seek God's forgiveness for ever assuming that the pursuit of economic growth is what is meant by being made in the image of God.

Instead, we see what it means to be made in the image of God by observing Jesus, whom the New Testament says isn't just in the image of God but is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15). This is what human dominion is meant to look like, not lording it over the rest of creation, but being the servant of all (Philippians 2.5-11).
*Ironically, my previous sermon to this congregation was also on Genesis 1 and was titled "Genesis or Evolution?" . This was not a title I chose and my point was to question the implied exclusivity of the "or" in it.

**Do you like how I sneakily took the usual three point sermon and doubled it? Once we get to part three, you'll see that I actually tripled it. Of course.