Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Loving our (generational) neighbours

“An important basis of all ethics has been the golden rule or the principle of reciprocity. You shall do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the golden rule can no longer have just a horizontal dimension [...] We must realise that the principle of reciprocity also has a vertical dimension. You shall do to the next generation what you wish the previous generation had done to you. It’s as simple as that. You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself. This must obviously include your neighbour generation. It has to include absolutely every one who will live on the earth after us. The human family doesn’t inhabit earth simultaneously. People have lived here before us, some are living now and some will live after us. But those who come after us are also our fellow human beings [...] We have no right to hand over a planet earth that is worth less than the planet that we ourselves have had the good fortune to live on. Fewer fish in the sea, less drinking water, less food, less rainforest, less coral reefs, fewer species of plants and animals, less beauty.”

- Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie's World, speaking at PEN World Voices Festival.

I have written previously about loving our (climate) neighbours. This quote highlights another kind of neighbour that climate change (and other ecological crises) bring to our attention. A neighbour is one who is nearby. Proximity can be spatial, but it can also be temporal.

But perhaps we can expand this one more step. Proximity can be spatial or temporal, but perhaps it can also be agentive: that is, my neighbour is anyone whom my life touches, anyone who is affected by my actions. In a world where our actions now affect people on the other side of the planet in real and detrimental ways, it is difficult to deny that those suffering as the result of our overconsumption are also our neighbours. In a world where we are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans for millennia to come it is also difficult to deny that more distant generations are now our neighbours.

Monday, May 30, 2011

ABC Catalyst: The Oil Crunch

This is a couple of weeks old now, but I've just come across it. Opening with the price of petrol is where the popular imagination usually goes, but will not be where the effects of declining access to cheap energy are most dramatic. Watch food prices and the global economy. And watch the increasing rush to drill in ever more inaccessible places (the Arctic) and for ever less useful forms of fuel (tar sands).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

When the water ends: Africa's climate conflicts

Here is short (16 min) video from Yale Environment 360 highlighting the ways that climate change and water stress are already leading to increased conflict in parts of Africa. Similar stories can be told for parts of South America. These may not yet be climate wars, but they are climate skirmishes, a picture of what is to come.

Unfortunately, it does not seem possible to embed this video.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A mortal danger overtaking humanity

"There is a mortal danger - there is a danger which is overtaking humanity. And we will not solve it unless we all pull together, unless we all agree to do something. Now that is a fantastically difficult thing to achieve. It has never happened in the history of humanity that all humanity has agreed."

- David Attenborough, Beyond the Brink, final quote.

What is he talking about? David Attenborough regularly polls as the most trusted public figure in the UK (along with the Queen). Do you think he is overstating things here?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Polluters ought to pay

If you don't have a problem with the widely-accepted economic principle that polluters ought to pay for what would otherwise be an externality and want to show your support for (far from perfect) initiatives that begin to acknowledge that Australia is, per capita, amongst the worst offenders and ought to try to at least shuffle a few steps forward, then on 5th June you can join a series of rallies across the country organised by three organisations with a combined membership of over three million in order to say that the ones who cause a problem ought to bear the cost of it, rather than those least able to afford it and least responsible for the mess in the first place. The next few weeks are a critical period during which the details of Australia's climate policy will be negotiated between the Government, the Greens and the Independents. Public support for ambitious targets and affirming the principle of making polluters pay could help to nudge things towards a better outcome.

It's probably not going to save the polar bears. It won't fix the past. It's not going to change the world (though nor will current proposals break the bank, let alone cost the earth). But it is irresponsible to keep sticking our heads in the sand.

There will be a rallies in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane. These rallies will be family friendly and are not just for hard-core activists, but for anyone with a mother who taught you to clean up your own mess.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Life after a terminal diagnosis

I am all for motivating people with positive visions of the future, and using fear (if at all) as a smaller stick to a bigger carrot. I think this generally works better in the long run. Fear might sustain a sprint, but only love can complete a marathon. That said, my own work is about finding a constructive (rather than destructive) place for ecological fears within theological ethics. And this is because I think that fear is not always a pathological response, but can be part of a healthy response in certain circumstances (at least certain kinds of "fear": deep concern for my neighbour's wellbeing, for instance and I think there is plenty to be deeply concerned about).

And so I don't shy away from suggesting that contemporary society has more or less received a terminal diagnosis (more on this soon). This doesn't mean there is no hope or nothing to aim for, far less that no motivating vision for the future is possible, but it does mean that I think certain visions of the future may well have to be relinquished as false or simply entirely unrealistic hopes. This is one of the helpful things about the Transition movement, since it isn't so much aiming to make current society "sustainable" (a likely impossible task) as to foster local communities of trust and resourcefulness that are resilient to the likely shocks of coming years and decades. This is where I think the church has excellent news, since fostering such communities, whose loyalties lie not with this passing age but in God's coming future, is what we do.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On uncertainty and prudence

"The models are still not good enough to keep up with the rapidly changing reality. The science is still not precise enough to tell us exactly how bad it's going to get, how fast. Since the range of possible outcomes starts at bad, goes on to very bad and finishes up with absolutely awful, that's not a very good reason to postpone action until we can be certain."

- J. Gullidge.

The place of uncertainty in discerning the best course of action is multifaceted. On the one hand, we are always in the situation of uncertainty: life is uncertain. No one knowns what tomorrow will bring. And yet prudence seeks to grasp the outline of likely futures in order to find today the actions that will preserve goods and bring possibilities to fruition. But prudence's task is not to become eagle-eyed, identifying every outcome from every move like a champion chess player. Life is not a game of chess. There is a fuzziness and ambiguity over the future, which is the result not only of our limited knowledge but also of human freedom. While prudence can anticipate likely patterns of human behaviour, its judgements are not infallible and nor do they need to be. We are capable of acting in the dark, or at least in the gloom, since it is how we always are.

When contemplating action on climate change, we are placed in a yet more complex situation. The climate system is incredibly complex, as are human cultural and behavioural patterns and political and economic structures. Our knowledge is far from rudimentary, indeed, knowledge of the climate system has moved in leaps and bounds over the last three or four decades. This allows us to sketch the outline of certain pathways with varying degrees of likelihood, but the destinations remain shrouded in shadow, since the further ahead we imaginatively travel, the more we lean on a web of fragile assumptions. And yet we can get more than a glimpse of the fact that the trajectory of our current habits seems to lead to increasingly catastrophic discontinuities.

Therefore, enormous changes are approaching, whether sought or unsought. In this scenario, the attempt to manage risk is futile, as though all possibilities can be quantified and controlled. Risk thinking, which relies on calculative reason, ends up treating only what is measurable as real, and in its present incarnation, requires all quantities to be translated into a single language, that of money. But such a metric is insufficiently subtle to serve as a measure of human flourishing.

Multiple futures appear before us, all of them very different from the present. Certainty of outcome is an illusion. Ultimately, geophysical and economic models cannot answer what kind of humanity we are becoming. That is for us to discern and resolve in the space that is open for us: today.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Digging our own grave, and other stories

Global resource use could triple to 140 billion tonnes p.a. by 2050 according to UNEP. We are currently at 59 billion tonnes, have been at 49 at 2000 and 6 at 1900. Where does it end?

Are you in an online filter bubble? How would you know? Not just Facebook, but Google and most other major online gatekeepers use algorithms to determine what you want to see, and then just show you that. Anything uncomfortable, challenging, different will eventually be filtered out. Bliss? Or a Brave New World...

Five stages of social collapse in five minutes. Based on the work of Dmitri Orlov, who lived through the collapse of the USSR. You can read a slightly longer version here.
H/T Desdemona.

Australian ocean study uncovers disturbing suggestions concerning the viability of marine life under rising levels of carbon dioxide.

CP: How academic integrity can be sold to the highest bidder. This is yet another area where the profit motive distorts and undermines human endeavour.

CP: We like to think of tasks as either easy or impossible. But sometimes, they are simply hard.

Onion: Be alert, but not alarmed. One from the archives to brighten your day.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In case of rapture, this blog is fully automated

There has been much discussion about a group in the US predicting the "rapture" of believers today. I probably don't need to repeat that predicting dates for eschatological events is silly and unscriptural ("no one knows the day or the hour" - Matthew 24.36). Nor that the very idea of the rapture - a sudden removal of believers from the earth by the hand of God - is also based on a misreading of a couple of passages. Lacking the time to give a full account at this point (other things have dragged me away), I suggest this post or this short piece by N. T. Wright.

Of course, this idea is but one manifestation of a Christian hope that gets things upside down. We are not going to heaven; heaven is coming to us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A year of daily blogging, and five all told

On Monday, I reached five years of blogging, though I've only just realised that today. More than 1,400 posts and about 10,000 comments later (altogether about 1.5 million words), I'm not going to indulge in a retrospective spanning that whole time, though will note again the renewed focus I mentioned here. Instead, I will restrain myself to a brief comment about the last twelve months.

After a slow 2009 and first half of 2010, I decided around this time last year to blog more regularly. This was an attempt to overcome a broader writing inertia where I was finding it difficult to get anything down. The sluggishness of my blog was not because I was powering ahead with thesis writing, but indicated the poverty of written production across the board. On the advice that trying to write anything is a good way to starting to write something, I started being quite deliberate about posting more regularly, and within a couple of weeks was posting at least once per day. I have managed to keep this up now for a whole year, only missing two or three days since this time last year. Sometimes this has involved setting up a few posts ahead of time when I was going to be away (and a couple of times a little backdating to cover my tracks), but I have (more or less) made it.

Has it worked? Well, I think I have moved further on my thesis over the last twelve months than the preceding twelve, though there is still a long way to go. To that end, I am going to leave myself a little more room now that I have some small amount of momentum. Posting will certainly not stop here, but there may be a few more days missed. I don't think anyone is going to be shedding any tears over that, but I thought it might be worth flagging it anyway.

Due to popular demand, I will continue to post dumps of links that I come across, though I have also been trying to cut down my web reading to make room for more "serious" reading. Nonetheless, the nature of my project means that keeping abreast of current stories and studies is, if not required, then at least somewhat helpful. One shift that I hope to implement is to include more explicit interaction with scriptural text, which will (God willing) reflect more such engagement in my thesis work.

Five years probably deserves more of an effort at taking stock, and it certainly deserves the much-needed and frequently promised update to the format, feel and navigation of this site. But instead I muddle on with the wreckage of past posts gradually piling behind me and an ever-growing number of half-baked ideas scattered in front of me (I have about 350 draft posts at last count). That, for today, will have to do.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Godly church politics

Michael Jensen, the Blogging Parson, reflects on how to conduct diocesan politics Christianly. The piece is directed towards the Sydney Anglican context and will have most resonance there, but the principles are transferrable. Michael's piece makes important points for all Christian involvement in formal politics of any kind.

Sydney's particular challenge on this front arises from the decades-long political success of the ACL (Anglican Church League), a party within the synod and standing committee (read, parliament and executive) that has held a sizable majority for decades. Can a polity dominated so thoroughly and for so long by a single party sustain wise, measured and humble political discourse, deliberation and action? How can such a polity nurture a loyal opposition that does not feel (and is not in practice) marginalised, squished or ignored? Might there be something to be said for standing committee elections based on proportional representation (as I believe are used in Melbourne)? I have never been to synod and am generally quite ignorant of how things work, so these are genuine questions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Blogger trouble

I've been having more issues with Blogger over the last day or two (hence the delay). Anyone else having trouble? Most worryingly, when trying to make edits, I received the message "This blog has been deleted", which did give me some mild palpitations for a few seconds. Fortunately, I discovered the automated backup function (Dashboard --> Settings --> Basic --> Export Blog) just a few days ago. I had been backing up manually every now and then by saving pages a month at a time. Now, all I need is to discover that someone has written a script to automate the conversion/preservation of internal links and I would seriously consider switching platforms.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On thin ice

Guess the graph competition answer
Last Wednesday, I posted this graph and asked for guesses as to what it represented. Aside from a few humorous suggestions, most answers were in the right ballpark, suggesting it had something to do with our melting cryosphere. This is perhaps one of the best known effects of climate change (or that part of climate change known as global warming), yet there is widespread confusion about the details.

The correct answer is that the graph represents the Arctic sea ice volume over the last few decades. The worrying downward trend is accelerating, but, unlike the graphs for Greenland or Antarctica, which are also heading down, the number on the y-axis are absolute figures. That is, while Greenland and Antarctica are losing increasing amounts of ice, compared with their total volumes, the amounts currently being lost are miniscule. For them to completely melt would be catastrophic, raising sea level tens of metres, but this is likely to take centuries, if not longer. However, the Arctic Ocean is getting seriously close to "ice-free" in summer,* an event most of us are likely to see within our lifetimes, and which we may well witness this or next decade, according to some experts. Certainly, extrapolating those trend lines points to an early grave for our planet's white top. The lines are unlikely to simply follow that curve, for various reasons, but scientists can identify no reasons to think the trend will reverse anytime soon.
*As long as Greenland still has significant amounts of ice, a residual amount of sea ice is likely to survive. "Ice-free" is usually qualified as largely ice-free. This is different again to an ice-free North Pole, which simply means that there is no sea ice cover at the North Pole, while there might still be some polar ice cap remaining.

What is Arctic sea ice?
It is important to highlight that we are talking about sea ice, that is ice that floats on top of the Arctic Ocean and which expands in winter and contracts in summer. It is generally not nearly as thick as people imagine (averaging just a metre or two) and any given piece of ice is unlikely to be more than a few years old, since it is constantly in motion due to wind and ocean currents and each summer much of it melts. Nonetheless, there has been permanent sea ice cover on the Arctic Ocean for at least somewhere between the last 700,000 and 4 million years, allowing the evolution of unique and endemic species (i.e. not found elsewhere). Since the ice is floating, the concern is not that melting will directly raise sea levels, both because the actual volume of ice is pretty miniscule compared with Greenland and (especially) Antarctica (for comparison, while Arctic sea ice is generally at most a few metres thick, Greenland's ice sheet is generally more than 2 km thick, and over 3 km at points. Antarctica is about ten times greater in volume again) and because floating ice displaces an almost identical volume of water to that contained in the ice (melting ice in a glass of water doesn't cause it to overflow).

Why are people worried?
Concern about the loss of Arctic sea ice is eightfold.

First, it is a canary in the goldmine: a visually dramatic sign of temperature changes that is relatively easy for the public to grasp.

Second, it threatens the unique and endemic Arctic biota (of which polar bears are of course the poster child).

Third, this in turn undermines the way of life of various indigenous groups in the Arctic, who rely on hunting and on the existence of sea ice for their livelihood.

Fourth, less floating white ice means more exposed dark water, which absorbs more solar radiation, increasing the total heat budget of the planet, and specifically of the Arctic Ocean.

Fifth, a warming Arctic Ocean and atmosphere speeds the melt of permafrost in Canada, Siberia and Alaska, not only threatening infrastructure built on it, but also releasing stored methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that degrades into carbon dioxide, making it both a short term climate nasty and a long term headache.

Sixth, and perhaps of even greater concern, warmer waters increase the rate at which vast submarine deposits of methane clathrates destabilise and are released to the atmosphere, giving a further kick to warming. There is some debate about whether this process is likely to be slow and gradual or whether it might occur relatively suddenly, a process somethings colloquially called a "clathrate gun".

Seventh, the warmer the Arctic Ocean gets, the warmer Greenland is likely to get, and the faster its glaciers slide and melt into the sea. No one is entirely sure how long this will take, but it is a process that once it is underway in earnest, is likely to have a momentum of its own, meaning that our descendants will be committed to ever rising sea levels for centuries to come. Altogether, there is enough frozen water in Greenland to raise global sea levels by more than seven metres.

Eighth, an increasingly ice-free Arctic opens up a geopolitical minefield as nations scramble to take advantage of the resources previously locked away under the ice. The starter's gun for this race has well and truly fired (see video below).

Area vs volume
Another crucial distinction to keep in mind (apart from the difference between wafer-thin and highly vulnerable floating sea ice and gigantic land-based ice sheets that are both more stable and yet ultimately of greater direct threat) is between sea ice area/extent on the one hand and volume on the other. Area/extent is the easiest metric to measure with a satellite image (there is a slight technical difference between these two terms, but they are both basically concerned with a two dimensional account of how much of the Arctic ocean is covered with floating sea ice). Extent has been dropping at a slower rate than volume, which means that the remaining ice is getting thinner. Those only looking at the numbers for area or extent might be fooled into thinking the decline is only worrying, rather than alarming. While summer minimum extent has dropped by about a third over the last thirty years, volume is down by more than three quarters. And human activities are largely to blame.

The road ahead
The Arctic is one of the places where the climate change is already hitting the road. The transformation of the landscape is not merely a computer projection, but observable today. Its consequences are already negative, but the trajectory is even worse. What kind of path are we walking? And where will we find the courage and humility to turn around if we don't like where it is going?
The video at the top of the post is from a recently broadcast BBC programme, covering some of the implications of this story, which also appeared on the BBC news site.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The future of humanity, and other stories

Michael sketches the future of humanity, which is neither epic nor tragic.

Paul also wants to discuss the future of humanity by separating the quants from the poets. I suspect we need both.

Brad talks tax (again). Having previously described why Christians willingly pay taxes, this time he asks if it is ever justified for Christians to engage in tax avoidance (or even evasion): part one; part two; part three.

Carl shares how the human body is like a lake, or what medicine needs to learn from ecology: "We know now that there are a hundred trillion microbes in a human body. You carry more microbes in you this moment than all the people who ever lived. Those microbes are growing all the time. [...] The microbes in your body at this moment outnumber your cells by ten to one. And they come in a huge diversity of species — somewhere in the thousands, although no one has a precise count yet. By some estimates there are twenty million microbial genes in your body: about a thousand times more than the 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. So the Human Genome Project was, at best, a nice start. If we really want to understand all the genes in the human body, we have a long way to go."

UK journalists posing as representatives of arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin expose corporate greenwashing in an undercover sting at well-known environmental charity Conservation International. A useful rule of thumb: the larger the company, the more sceptical to be regarding corporate claims to ecological credentials.

Jason links to an article answering the ever-pressing question: When did girls start wearing pink?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Joined-up Life: A Christian account of how ethics works

"[Jesus] wreaked the best kind of havoc wherever he went. He upset everyone’s moral categories all the time. To the law-stickler he said, go and discover some compassion (Luke 14.3-5). To the equal-rights activist he said, challenge your inner greed (Luke 12.13-15). To those who valued self-fulfillment he said, learn some faithfulness (Matthew 19.3-6); and to the seeker after self-improvement he said, learn from kindness (Matthew 19.16-21). To the goal-oriented security-seeker he said, lose yourself in Gods abundant creation (Luke 12. 22-34). To those wanting righteous judgement on others he said, stop it (Luke 9.52-55). To evaders of righteous judgement he said, wake up (Luke 13.1-4). For those deserving righteous judgement he prayed, forgive them (Luke 23.34).

"He upset moral categories everywhere, yet he inhabited the most joined-up life imaginable. So Christians orient themselves to he cosmos ‘in him’. Anything less – any adherence to some other code, set of values, consequences, principle or philosophy – would relegate Jesus merely to becoming a fellow traveller within that code or philosophy. That would be a horrendous error, because we would then miss all the signals that he’s the human who knew how to be human. We would miss the opportunity for him to induct us into true humanity."

- Andrew Cameron, Joined-up Life: A Christian account of how ethics works
(Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 315.

Having recently got my hands on a copy of Andrew Cameron’s new book, I have rediscovered in its pages many of the reasons why I found him to be an insightful, careful, refreshing and stimulating teacher at college.

This text is a very useful and readable introduction to what is usually called ethics (though perhaps can simply be called "navigating life"): what it is, how it works, how it has been approached in the past and what Jesus has to do with it. The book is divided in forty-seven bite-sized chapters that can stand alone for those who wish to dip in, or which can also be read consecutively in a picture that gradually comes together.

These chapters are grouped into seven sections. In the first, Cameron walks us through basic ethical approaches, which he summarises as rules, rights, values and results. Each has something to contribute, but each fails to provide a comprehensive framework for finding our way in life.

The second section explores a number of ways in which our moral map is more complex than it may at first appear; our social context, our own desires, human frailty and the complexity of a world filled with myriad good things combine to refuse easy answers. Ethics is not obvious and we need help if we are not to get lost amidst it all.

The third section turns to the centre that holds together and surpasses rules, rights, values and results: the human life of Jesus. Tracing his story, Cameron argues that here we find a life that hangs together, a cohesive and compelling life, a joined-up life amidst the complexity and fragmentation of our world. This doesn't mean easy answers, but it does give a central point of reference to all our ethical thinking and practice.

Fourth comes five fundamental poles of reference to guide us amidst the intricacy and confusion: the character of God, created order, divine commands, Christian hope and community shaped by Jesus. None are sufficient, but each contributes to our navigation through life's twists and turns.

The final three sections turn again to the specifics of our lives, illustrating and applying the theological orientation developed in sections three and four to the complex situations outlined in section two. Since I have only dipped into these sections so far, I won't attempt to say much more about them here.

The great strength of this book is precisely its refusal to discover or establish a single unifying framework or concept by which to live our lives other than the person of Jesus and his life. The irreducible complexity of the moral challenges we face (and this doesn't just mean the familiar "hard cases" trotted out in every introductory ethics course but also them variegated patterns and texture of daily life) elude analysis based on a single interpretive key. Jesus is what holds it together, but this doesn't require the reduction of every problem, question or opportunity for action to a predetermined framework.

Readers may find points of disagreement with Cameron's suggested applications and expeditions into the jungle of life, though also hidden treasures. And disagreement itself becomes less threatening when we acknowledge the sheer breadth of goods we are trying to keep our eyes on.

Honest and humble in tone, this book invites us to face the reality of our inability to find a perfect path through our days. We are not given a map with a birds-eye view, simply a companion to share the journey.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Osama bin Laden commentary

Oliver O'Donovan: An Act of Judgement?
Joshua Holland: Did Osama bin Laden win the "War on Terror"?
Onion: Obi Wan Kenobi is dead, Vader says.

Blogger trouble

Blogger was down for the last 24 hours or so, preventing any comments, editing or new posts, and now that it is back up, about thirty hours worth of posts and comments have been lost with it. This includes the post that I had up on Wednesday with a guessing competition about a graph. Since I have the comments and original post recorded by email, I should be able to reinstate them. Apologies if you tried to comment and got an error message. Please do feel free to make a guess. I'll be revealing the answer early next week.

UPDATE: Just as I was about to hit "publish", the post reappeared. Though the comments are gone. I will add them back in manually.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Shadows of the Divine: reminder

As mentioned back here, New College is hosting a free exhibition of artworks from the Methodist Church Art Collection and of a rare first edition King James Version printed in Scotland, to celebrate its 400th anniversary. The exhibition opens this weekend and you can find more information here.

Speaking of the KJV, Michael Jensen reflects on why we the anniversary of the King James Version is worth celebrating.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Guessing competition: name that graph!

I haven't offered any points for quite some time now and don't intend to start up in earnest anytime soon. But as a one-off, I though I would offer this guessing competition. There will be an arbitrary number of points for a correct answer and for most amusing answers. What is this graph representing? And how would you describe the trend?

The magic washing machine

The goal of development is not for the rest of the world to live a western consumerist lifestyle. Justice does not consist of every African having two flat-screen TVs, a mortgage on a five bedroom McMansion and access to coronary bypass surgery for their high cholesterol levels. The goal is for over-consumers to become grateful, thoughtful citizens and human beings in lives that joyfully embrace less while making use of all available means to tread more lightly on the earth, while those in stupid grinding poverty are enabled to live lives increasingly freed from exposure to the elements, preventable disease, pointless backbreaking labour, economic and political oppression and ignorance. In the terms of this talk, to get washing machines so they can read.

Ecological responsibility has nothing to do with denying the global poor the chance at a better life. Instead, it is (partially) motivated by concern for those with least, who suffer most from the degradation of their living conditions effected by industrial production that largely serves the whims and shallow fantasies of rich consumers. Indeed, this is half of the reason why it crucial for those of us who are rich to have our imaginations and critical faculties reoriented towards what a better life truly looks like. Acting as though we are demi-gods disconnected from the material realities of the food and water and energy that sustain our existence, we hide from ourselves the ecological (and so social) costs of our assumptions, and we present to the two-thirds world a distorted and destructive picture of the good life to which they increasingly aspire. The other half is that our obsessions with the latest toys also suffocates our soul, narrowing our vision of what it can mean to be truly alive.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Climate change contributing to rising food prices

Study links climate change and rising food prices, as I suggested back here, here, here and here. The study argues that changing weather patterns have held back the growth in global food production by around 5%, contributing about 20% of the recent doubling of prices (which also have other causes).

BBC: Nitrogen pollution estimated to be costing £55 billion to £280 billion annually in Europe alone.

Guardian: How to tell the difference between the rule of law and a police state in the light of Ian Tomlinson, the protester unlawfully killed by police and the subsequent alleged cover up.

Common Dreams: This is what resistance looks like.
H/T Matheson.

Paul Gilding: The great disruption arrives. Different authors use a variety of phrases to speak of the converging ecological and resource crises facing humanity: the great emergency, the long descent, Eaarth, planet triage, the Anthropocene, the great acceleration and so on.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a new report that finds up to 77% of global electricity primary power generation from renewable power by 2050 is both technically and economically feasible. The primary barriers are political.

Guardian: Why supermarkets are odious. We are blessed with a weekly farmers market a few hundred metres from our door, and have a deal with a local farm to receive a box of fresh produce each fortnight. Even so, it is hard to avoid supermarkets entirely.

SMH: How much does an iPad really cost? Although Apple are far from the only company with shady production conditions, they are the largest and were recently fingered as also having the worst ecological record, so highlighting their failure is legitimate. These conditions are not inevitable. Companies could be held responsible for the full life-cycle of their product, which would provide a significant incentive to shift design assumptions away from built-in obsolescence (which is currently the industry standard). It is also worth noting that many of these pieces of equipment are not just bad for the workers who produce them and the ecological systems on which we all rely for life, but can be part of the shrinking of the consumerist soul into finding an identity and satisfaction in what is bought and consumed.

Guardian: In a secret deal between Pakistan and the US, agreed in 2001 and renewed in 2008, Pakistan allegedly agreed to unilateral US strikes as long as they were allowed to publicly decry them afterwards. I don't think that this kind of agreement is conducive to healthy international relations in the long term, as it undermines trust when parties are revealed to be dissembling.

And because I haven't raised enough controversial topics in this post yet, I thought I'd mention this new study of more than ten thousand children that found that breast feeding is linked to fewer behavioural problems.

Monday, May 09, 2011

How much oil?

Oil'd from Chris Harmon on Vimeo.
It is easy to imagine a group of five things. Most of us can picture ten or twenty. Even hundreds can be grasped via parts of our everyday experience. But we're intuitively poor at very large numbers. Infographics like this help to fill in gaps in our imagination with comparisons we can put some kind of handle on.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Pope and climate change

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican has just released a new report titled Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene. The report was written by a diverse group of glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers and lawyers and examines the causes and consequences of the widely observed phenomenon of glacial retreat occurring on about 95% of glaciers around the world.

The report doesn't particularly break new ground scientifically (or so I am told), but it is a good example of scientists communicating the realities of climate change in an explicitly moral framework. To get a sense of the reports conclusions and recommendations, here is a taste from the opening:
"We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life.

"We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish."
I would love to hear opinions on how the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is perceived amongst Catholics and whether a report like this might, for instance, have any kind of significant influence on prominent Catholic leaders who deny or minimise the dangers of anthropogenic climate change (such as Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney).

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Keep on blowing up the pokies

Andrew Cameron and Rebecca Belzer have put together another excellent piece of research and commentary on an Australian social issue. This one is about the reform of gambling laws relating to poker machines, a topic I discussed briefly back here.

There is a more recent briefing offering some reflections upon the killing of Osama bin Laden through a just war lens, though it is not yet available on the website. I'll update this post with a link when it is. now available here.

These Social Issues Briefings come out at (semi-)regular intervals. Each is two or three pages of well-researched information and Christian analysis of a topical Australian social issue with links to further information. The back catalogue is here and you can sign up to the email list here.

Andrew has recently published a book called Joined-up Life: a Christian account of how ethics works, which I highly recommend. I am intending to post a brief review sometime in the next few days when I get a chance.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Australian Christian environmentalism

A simple question: are there any Australian Christian organisations with a particular focus on ecological issues? I know that TEAR Australia has been developing a climate change initiative in recent years and that some are talking about starting an A Rocha group. Any others?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Not a party hack

To the best of my memory (I'm a little hazy about my first couple of local elections), since turning eighteen I think that I have voted for (or given first preference to) candidates from at least nine different parties (counting independents as a single party; if counted separately, it may be a higher). I've also now voted in three referenda, all failed.*

I attempted a little while back to summarise briefly where I stand politically.

How many of my votes have I come to regret? Nearly all of them. Voting is such a blunt instrument (even with electoral reform) and I'm more and more tempted towards supporting demarchy.
*The AV referendum has not yet been officially called, but it stands close to zero chance of passing.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

UK voters: Yes to AV tomorrow

The primary benefit of AV is that allows voters to give more information about their desires. In particular, since there is no requirement to fill in all preferences, by leaving parties blank that you definitely do not want to see in power, extremists are excluded. Unless a candidate can gain the goodwill of a majority of voters, they will not be elected. It is not a perfect voting system, but it is better than first past the post.

The "No" group have really run a very dirty campaign. Their lies may be taken to court. They have not revealed their sources of funding. They claim that the BNP will be more likely to be elected. Not true: the BNP are the only party officially endorsing the "No" campaign because they know that they will be wiped out in a system that requires any candidate to gain the trust of 50% of voters. They claim that it will be more expensive because voting machines will be needed. Not true: Australia has had AV for eighty years without machines. I have been employed as a returning officer doing the counting. It really is very simple. They say that voters will be confused, which I find quite insulting as it implies that voters don't know how to count to five. Indeed, if anyone really is confused, they can simply put a "1" for their first preference and leave the rest blank, giving them the option of continuing to vote as they always have. They say that AV gives people more than one vote, which is a half-truth. Yet insofar as people get more than one vote, everyone's vote is recounted every time. It is just like having multiple rounds of an elimination election condensed into a single day. The "no" vote have (as far as I am aware) never answered how it is that the method used to elect party leaders (AV) is deficient for the nation as a whole.

The "Yes" campaign are guilty of overselling, as though AV is going to singlehandedly reform UK politics. It won't but it's still an improvement. A "Yes" vote is a vote for a system that lets voters have more say, a system that recognises the UK is no longer a two-party state (35% of voters at the last election voted for someone other than Labour or Conservative), a system that excludes extremists by preventing candidates with strong minority support being elected without majority backing, a system supported by the leaders of the following parties: Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP. The only leaders who are supporting the "No" vote are the Tories and the BNP.

Vote "yes" tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

No way out? Peak oil will not save us from climate change

You may not be able to take it with you, but you can take it down with you. Remember, George Monbiot is sometimes regarded as one of the more optimistic voices on ecological issues.
"The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines, they'll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world's surface. We have enough non-renewable resources of all kinds to complete our wreckage of renewable resources: forests, soil, fish, freshwater, benign weather. Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything down with us.

"And even if there were an immediate economic cataclysm, it's not clear that the result would be a decline in our capacity for destruction. In east Africa, for example, I've seen how, when supplies of paraffin or kerosene are disrupted, people don't give up cooking; they cut down more trees. History shows us that wherever large-scale collapse has occurred, psychopaths take over. This is hardly conducive to the rational use of natural assets.

"All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project."

- George Monbiot, "Let's face it:
none of our environmental fixes break the planet-wrecking project"

While discussing such matters with my supervisor a few months ago, he wryly observed, "You know you are in trouble when you say, 'Only the Black Death can save us now'".

Monbiot points out in the full article that Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, admits that peak oil passed in 2006. Yet this hasn't lead to economic collapse (yet) because the shortfall in liquid conventional oil has so far been filled by tar sands and liquid methane. The pursuit of such resources to avoid a shortage of oil is taking us directly into the vast carbon reserves of non-conventional and alternative fuels, illustrating the Scylla and Charybdis of peak oil and climate change. Some commentators have expressed the hope that peak oil may save us from climate change by limiting the amount of carbon available to be burned. Unfortunately, there is plenty for us to ensure the long term destruction of the only climate under which human society has thrived.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The death of a wicked man

“Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live."

- Ezekiel 18.23, NLT.
H/T David Yung for reminding me of this verse.

Hold your breath

H/T Helen at The Seamonster, a great new blog about "ocean science, sports and discovery". This blog is an experiment in the communication of the perilous ecological condition of the oceans via getting people excited about their beauty and wonder. This video does it for me. Filmed entirely on breath (no underwater breathing apparatus for either subject or camerawoman) at the deepest blue hole in the world (Dean's Blue Hole, 202m), the "story" is fiction (in that no one has got to the bottom while "freediving"; the current record is 100m) but it is still an amazing little film.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

AV: Some historical perspective

Apologies to non-UK voters for picking on this issue a little recenelty. It will be all over by Thursday.