Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Chasing the wind

In The Know: Coal Lobby Warns Wind Farms May Blow Earth Off Orbit

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back again

For the last few weeks, I have been away on family holidays and so please excuse my lack of replies to comments, emails and even (possibly) phone calls (I managed to lose my mobile a few days into the trip and am currently trying to get my old number working on a borrowed replacement handset). Please also forgive (or perhaps ignore) some recent posts that may have been a little sloppy as I hastily composed these before my departure and scheduled them to go up while I was absent.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eco-parables for children: Old King Coal

Old King Coal was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe,
And he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Continuing my little series, this one writes itself. The great age of King Coal is a double reference to the geological time periods required to create coal and other fossil fuels (yes, they are renewable if you have millions of years) and to the age of the industry itself; the king became the father of the industrial revolution in his youth.

Why is he merry? Because coal is king, comprising the single largest source of energy currently employed by humans. At least for now.

His pipe? Emissions, of course: burning coal contributes the lion's share of all carbon dioxide emissions causing dangerous climate change (as well as having all kinds of other nasty side-effects).

His bowl speaks of the great wealth of the coal industry. Or perhaps it could be the begging bowl that the industry takes to various governments to ensure ongoing subsidies and political support.

And his fiddlers three are the spin doctors, think tanks and lobby groups that maintain his position of privilege.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What is wrong with growth?

"All these problems seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller every year and for every single one of them there are hosts of organisations clamouring for attention and offering solutions to the problem. But the more I read and think about the problems as a whole, the more I become convinced that they were all in fact symptoms and not causes in themselves. Trying to remedy a symptom is almost always useless if the root cause is ignored. Obiously all the problems have to do with human activities, and these activities have to do with the context they are taking place in, the economic context to be precise. This economic context is determined by the dominant economic concept, and in our case I think it is safe to say that for many decades now the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth has been shaping the economies of developed nations."

- Neven, Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail.

What is wrong with growth?

Nothing, until it doesn't stop. Then it is cancer.

On Michael Tobis' blog, Neven has written a thought-provoking guest post summarising many of the ecological and resource crises I've been talking about and drawing the links to distorted ideologies of (endless economic) growth.

The (quite long) discussion in the comments is also valuable.

At greater length and from a Christian point of view on the same topic, Andrew Cameron has written an excellent piece called Is Growth Good? which I recommend even more highly. Don't believe the bankers, CEOs, politicians and pundits: there are things better than growth and it is possible to discover more by joyfully embracing less.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What path are we on? Emissions update

Between 2003 and 2008, the global economy was tracking above the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) worst case scenario for carbon dioxide emissions. The financial crisis brought a brief respite in 2009, when emissions actually dropped (remember, this still means that greenhouse gas levels rose in 2009, just a little more slowly than they had been). But it was recently announced by the International Energy Agency that 2010 saw the largest jump in emissions in human history, putting us back up close to the IPCC worst case. What does this mean? If we continue on this trajectory, where will we end up? This piece by two climate scientists gives plenty of good context. The bottom line? According to the IPCC's most recent major report (2007), our current trajectory puts us on track for a 2100 temperature rise of 3-4°C above pre-industrial levels with likely associated impacts including:
Hundreds of millions of people exposed to increased water stress.
30–40% of species at risk of extinction around the globe.
About 30% of global coastal wetlands lost.
Increased damage from floods and storms.
Widespread coral mortality.
Terrestrial biosphere tends toward a net carbon source.
Reduction in cereal productions.
Increased morbility and mortality from heat waves, floods and droughts.
Remember that these projections are based on IPCC AR4 (2007), which was a compilation of research up to the middle of last decade. A lot has happened in climate science in the last five or six years, and little of it has made the picture any rosier. Crucially, the above projections do not include a variety of feedback mechanisms that were not well understood at the time of publication. And there have also been advances in modeling likely impacts in some areas, notably, sea level rise, which is now thought to be between 0.5 and 1.5 metres by 2100. Of course, if our emissions are towards the upper end of the scenarios, then rises are also likely to be higher than 50 cm. However, I think that it is reduction in cereal production that could be the most significant effect geopolitically in the next few decades.

For a more up to date assessment of the state of the science, see the recent Australian Climate Commission's publication The Critical Decade, whose three chapters are helpfully summarised by Skeptical Science: one; two; three. Here is the concluding paragraph:
As you’ve read in this report, we know beyond reasonable doubt that the world is warming and that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the primary cause. The impacts of climate change are already being felt in Australia and around the world with less than 1 degree of warming globally. The risks of future climate change – to our economy, society and environment – are serious, and grow rapidly with each degree of further temperature rise. Minimising these risks requires rapid, deep and ongoing reductions to global greenhouse gas emissions. We must begin now if we are to decarbonise our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. This decade is the critical decade.
Remember, we are not just talking about less ice or a few more days of sunscreen, the likely geopolitical consequences of our current path are dire. It doesn't have to be this way.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Don't worry

"Don’t worry. The planet isn’t warming up at all – the temperature record has been tampered with by dodgy climate scientists, in order to justify their funding, and anyway all the measuring devices are next to hot air vents in town centers. Actually, the planet has been warming, but it
stopped in 1998 – that’s why the sea ice has been growing this year. In the winter.

"Having said all that, the planet is in fact warming rapidly, but it’s nothing to do with CO2 – it’s all about sunspots and cosmic rays. Those crazy climate scientists were telling us there was going to be an ice age, and now they say we’re warming up! Which of course we are. Except there was a record cold winter in my town this year – where’s your global warming now, eh?

"The fact that CO2 is warming the planet is not in dispute – but humans make only a tiny contribution to it. The rest comes from volcanoes, and anyway if you look at the prehistoric record the warming came first, then the CO2! Carbon dioxide is good for us, it makes plants grow. Plus it’s warming on Mars, and it was warm in medieval times, I expect our 4x4s caused that too did they?

"The endless flaws and errors in the IPCC reports, plus the scandalous data from the hacked CRU emails shows that global warming alarmists are being used as the tool of governments to raise all our taxes and usher in a new communist world order. It’s a huge hoax, and they’re all in on it – the 7,000 measurement stations, the migrating birds, whoever’s making Greenland melt, all those carefully staged natural disasters – they do it in the same studio where they faked the moon landings, did you know that? Plus, global warming will be great! We’ll grow grapes in London and plant crops in the Arctic and no-one will freeze in the winter. Except it’s not happening at all, and is all part of a natural cycle – the world has always changed temperature, you know. And it’s all China’s fault.

"We can all adapt to it easily enough, and should be spending our time and money on the real problems. It’s all based on computer models, for goodness’ sake! Meanwhile, it’s too late to do anything and we’re all doomed anyway – we may as well party while we can. Because it’s not happening, except it is, and it isn’t our fault, although it is, but it’s not that serious, except it is, but there’s nothing we can do.

"In summary: Relax. It’s all going to be fine. You don’t have to do anything. Don’t look at the nasty scientific reports, or the people dying in floods and droughts and storms, or the melting icecaps, or the way the seasons have started getting really weird, or the strange insects showing up in your local park. Shhhhh. Settle down now. Everything’s going to be just fine.

"- Compiled by the Innocuous-Sounding Institute for Common Sense Climate Solutions, with thanks to various funders that you really don’t need to know about and don’t exist anyway."

- Danny Chiver, The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change, chapter 3.

For those who might still be feeling confused over whether the climate really is changing in the ways expected by climate scientists, this summary puts together a wide range of evidence. It is not comprehensive, and doesn't show the human fingerprints, yet it is still a very helpful compilation.
Image by ALS.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The triple crunch

Larry Elliot, economics editor at the Guardian, point out some key problems in economy, energy and ecology: three systems upon which human well-being and social stability depend. None are in particularly good shape at the moment, with potentially far worse on the horizon. Perhaps for the sake of space, he doesn't spend much time on the third one, and only mentions climate change, which is but one facet of our ecological woes. His four possible responses are schematic, and obviously, could incorporate a lot of variation within them. I think he is too pessimistic about the possibility of changing the wind on how we think about growth and things better than growth.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A world without beaches?

Having been reading various papers and reports on climate change for some time now, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the range of negative effects associated with the unprecedented rate of change our actions are causing in the planet's atmosphere and oceans: higher temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation, more frequent heat waves and bushfires, more intense storms and floods, habitat destruction, biodiversity decline, cryosphere melt, reduced agricultural yields, increased water stress, increased area affected by drought at any one time, ocean acidification (which is not directly related to climate, but has the same cause: rising carbon dioxide levels), modified vector borne disease spread (such as dengue and malaria), exacerbation of respiratory health issues associated with ground-level ozone (smog), human migration patterns (refugees), desertification, shifting ocean currents, warming oceans, coral bleaching and mortality, poleward movement of the tropics, destabilisation of permafrost, shifts in the timing of annual events such as flowering, hibernations, migrations and peak river flows, sea level rise and the consequent threat to infrastructure during storm surges as well as salination of coastal water tables. All these I've read a fair bit about over the last couple of years. But only recently I have come across an implication that I hadn't heard before, one with a high visual and emotional impact for many people, but which, as far as I can tell, is not yet widely known.

Much has been said about sea level rise, and I don't intend to give a full account here. But quite apart from the risk of flooding, rising seas mean coastal erosion. I had not grasped how significant this could be. A rule of thumb used by some researchers is that, roughly speaking, for each centimetre of sea level rise, coasts will erode by one metre. When we are looking at a likely sea level rise between 50 and 200 centimetres by 2100 (and continuing thereafter for some time), you quickly get a sense of the scale of this particular issue. Sea defences can be built to minimise this impact, but they are only partially or temporarily effective (or extremely expensive), especially against the scale of change we are looking at.

Where the public at large are likely to particularly notice this, especially in Australia, is in its effect on beaches, many of which are likely to be progressively stripped of sand over the coming decades. The processes involved are complex and only partially understood, and there may be much local variation in how sea level rise affects coastal areas. Nonetheless, loss of sand is already a major (and costly) headache for many beaches and the best estimates are that this will generally get worse.

Many of us are likely to live to see a world virtually free of summer Arctic sea ice; our children may see the last of the great coral reefs die; our grandchildren may need an explanation of what a sandy beach was.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Would Jesus vote for family values?

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it."

- Matthew 10.37-39 (NLT).

Families are a wonderful gift from God. At their best, they can be places of loving acceptance and stable endurance, where virtues are nurtured and many needs met. They can also be ongoing nightmares, filled with bitter disappointment and all manner of brokenness. Christians need have no illusions about how difficult they can be at times. In affirming their goodness, we admit that this is often taken on trust, a step made in the hope of discovering such goodness in the slow unfolding of loving effort over time.

Some Christians want to say much more than this, and claim that defending "family values" ought to be the primary political goal of Christians. While there are many good things worth preserving bundled up in this phrase, it can also be somewhat misleading, or can receive too much emphasis. Familial relationships do not exhaust or even provide the focal point of Christian discipleship. I am a family man, married with a child and a large extended family with whom I enjoy good relationships, but holy scripture and the gospels assume that my love for my family needs to be converted, deepened and shared with a much broader family, namely the household of faith, and indeed with all, even my enemies. To focus on the family is to limit the scope of this call to what is easy. Even the pagans love their own (Matthew 5.47).

Christ even instructed his followers to "hate" their parents (Luke 14.26) and effectively disowned his own family (or at least radically redefined it) when they came to collect him lest his teaching attract too much attention (Mark 3.21-35). Whether hyperbolic or not, Christ presents a serious critique of an ethic built around familial obligations.

Therefore, I am not sure that Christian hopes and goals for political engagement are best summarised through the categories and concerns of “family”.

Karl Barth gives a good attempt at reading these passages and feeling the weight of the critique that it contains. He is not alone, but is in my reading firmly within the mainstream of Christian tradition on this.

However we end up applying the gospel passages in question, it will not do simply to set them aside as hyperbole. We may not cut off our hands (Matthew 5.30), but at the very least, we try to take Jesus’ words about the dangers of sin seriously.

If we are to follow Christ today, then family too must not be excluded from the orbit of his total claim upon our lives. Within that claim, the demands and goodness of family life are not simply endorsed without qualification, but are re-located and redirected towards a family that includes the widow and the orphan, the poor, the lonely, the single, the isolated and, ultimately, embraces the entire groaning creation.

My hunch is that taking seriously God’s commitment to relationships means relativising the place of blood family, not ignoring them or undermining their dignity (which I appreciate can happen in some quarters), but neither setting them up as the model of all human relationships and the highest social good.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A tale of two debtors

Two island nations who experienced enormous economic bubbles on the back of cheap credit prior to the financial crisis that began in 2008 are separated by only a single letter in their names. Yet Iceland and Ireland, while each suffering crushing economic woes in the aftermath, have nonetheless followed diametrically opposed paths in their responses to the crisis. Ireland followed the textbook: a bailout involving huge figures being pumped into the banking industry to keep it going and to ensure international creditors did not miss out, effectively nationalising the bankers' mistakes. These debts then led to austerity cuts. In Iceland, the crisis brought down the government and the new administration did not guarantee the banks' debts. A referendum refused public backing to the bad decisions made by their bankers, allowing them to fail and for this to have its effect on Iceland's overheated economy. They have even now prosecuted the prime minister at the time for criminal negligance in failing to provide adequate regulation of the banking industry.

When debts are defaulted upon, it is not only the debtor who may be shown to have erred. Creditors take a risk and there is such a thing as a credulous creditor. Although it remains difficult to predict what the ultimate outcome will be for both nations, I admire Iceland's willingness to allow the banks to pay for their own mistakes and their desire to hold those involved in causing the problems to account. Despite the staggering sums involved in the credit crisis and the gross negligence of various political and financial figures, Iceland have been the first to bring criminal charges against those responsible.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Perish the thought

With the proviso that current climate science remains agnostic about the likely relationship between tornado formation and a warming world, Bill McKibben's recent op-ed (turned here into a video) once again hits the nail on the head. Of course, it is not actually laying out the scientific case for a warming world, but is simply trying to draw attention to some odd things going on that might make us stop and ask further.
Lou suggests a few other ideas it is probably best to suppress.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

On the brink

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has taken a challenge this year to become more mindful of and thankful for the food he eats. As part of this, he now only eats meat which he has killed with his own hands. This is quite a good discipline in order to learn what our diets actually mean.

Thirty-six of the world's forty dolphin species are in trouble. Dolphins have to come close to the top of the list of charismatic megafauna. Many of the other contenders for top place are also in trouble. Lions used to the be the second most widespread mammal (after homo sapiens), found throughout all continents except Australia and Antarctica, but have been hunted to extinction everywhere except parts of Africa and one tiny piece of India. Their numbers continue to drop precipitously: from perhaps 400,000 in 1950 to about 20,000 today.

John Cook: Are you a genuine sceptic or a climate denier? I've been planning a post along these lines for a while btu have never got to it. Now John has beat me to it.

Guardian: Australian ethicist Peter Singer is now leaning towards moral objectivism (that things are right or wrong independently of our desires) due to the difficulties faced by subjectivism in the face of climate change.

Seventeen Nobel Prize laureates and forty other experts warn: "we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years".

The World Meteorological Organization believes that extreme weather made worse by climate change will (continue to) undermine global food production.

Clive Hamilton argues the case for environmental radicalism. Asking nicely didn't cut the mustard for the suffragettes or the civil rights movement.

Joe Romm lays out the disturbing findings of a Royal Society conference last year discussing the impacts of a 4 degrees temperature rise. This is pretty much where we are headed at the moment with our all too modest attempts at mitigation. Or rather, this is where we are headed within the lifetime of those already born. Our ultimate destination may be far, far worse. This was the conference that convinced Clive Hamilton that it is necessary for us to despair.

Onion: Yet another species on the brink of extinction.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Where have all the fish gone?

"Just don't go to the mall. Bush told us to win the war by going shopping. But if we want to really win the war about the economy, don't go shopping, and don't buy all the crap that sits in your cupboard and you never use. So, we can't [just] unscrew a lightbulb. We have to fix everything at the same time now. We have to stop overfishing, we have to stop pollution. We have to stop climate changing. When people ask me, 'what's the biggest problem: fishing, climate change or pollution?', I say 'yes' because it's all of it. And this requires fundamental changes in the way we fish, the way we raise our food, the way we produce our products and the way we get our energy for everything we do. And that's scary."

- Jeremy Jackson, Ritter Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Today is world oceans day, so I thought I would share this thoroughly depressing lecture. If you'd like to sleep tonight, might be better to skip it. I am not sure why the slides are blurred (I assume some kind of copyright issue). It's a shame, but you can still make most of them out. A couple of pithy quotes worth taking down:
"Ninety-five percent of what passes for conservation biology is the ever more sophisticated refinement of the obituary of nature, rather than doing something about it."

"What is farmed salmon? We're raising cows to feed to tigers, to eat tiger burgers. That's what salmon is. It's an apex predator. We go out and we drag the oceans and we get all this trash fish which we turn into forty percent protein pellets to feed to the salmon."
While we're on memorable quotes about the ocean, here are two from a fascinating documentary on overfishing called End of the Line, which I've been intending to blog about it for some time. The two money quotes are “We are fighting a war against the fish - and we are winning!” and “People always ask me - where have all the fish gone? and I tell them, we have eaten them!” Here is the trailer.

And while I'm compiling a somewhat random collection of things related to ocean ecology, here are three more links:

Acidification: why small numbers matter. A change of pH of 0.1 might seem small, but if it occurred in your bloodstream, it would be sufficient to make you quite sick.

• FAO: Fish consumption reaches all time high.

• Science Daily: Ocean acidification will reduce diversity.

Happy World Oceans Day!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What's that got to do with the price of bread?

The warmest UK spring for 350 years and the second driest for 100 has left the southeastern UK in drought. Water restrictions are in place in much of France and the government has set aside €700 million to support struggling farmers, while crop losses will be widespread in Germany too. Indeed, low water levels in major rivers could shut down French nuclear plants as the heat in 2003 did. The southern US has its own problems, with an estimated US$4 billion in losses due to drought already this year, despite the recent heavy flooding on the Mississippi nearby. Drought in China had left shipping on the Yangtze stranded and four million with trouble finding water until recent downpours now threaten floods in some areas. And this follows within twelve months of the Russian heatwave that was six standard deviations above the average and led to wheat exports being cancelled until recently, floods in Pakistan that displaced around twenty million people and decimated crops, while those in Queensland caused billions of dollars in lost crops.

These disasters combined with high oil prices (and no likelihood of them falling significantly barring a further worsening of global economy), an increasing share of fertile land being diverted into growing largely pointless biofuels, declining water tables (more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling), a growing demand for land and water intensive western-style diets in the rising Asian middle class, soil degradation removing an area the size of Greece each year from the world's arable land, declining improvements in yields from agronomy (where something of a plateau seems to have been reached in many places as farmers catch up with scientists), and a volatile commodities market with cash looking for the next quick profit and we have a perfect recipe for the very kind of event that climate scientists, ecologists and economists have been warning about for some time: food price spikes. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has calculated a Food Price Index since 1990 and the last six months have seen figures rise to their highest since tracking began.

It might be frustrating for us in the UK if the price of bread goes up and we can't afford our holiday to Northern Africa (not that we're going this year; drought-stricken France it is then), but it is a bit more than an inconvenience or a disappointment in places where up to 80% of income is spent on food. It is a recipe for hunger, disease and social unrest. The last dramatic spike in 2008 led to riots in thirty countries and the government of Haiti being overthrown. The spike that has continued since early this year has already played a part in the Arab Spring and is pushing tens of millions back into malnutrition.

This is what climate change looks like (at least for now - remember we are only 0.8 degrees into what may well be a 4 degrees plus experience). Not that every hot day or drought or flood or snow storm can be blamed on us, but that our actions have affected the system to a degree that overall productivity of our agricultural system is made less reliable (one recent study claimed that our changing climate has already put a 5.5% dent in wheat yields), threatening in turn the political system. Climate change is not the only pressure on the food system, but it is the wild-card in the pack of predicaments. Another disturbing development is that projections for expected food production may need to be downgraded in light of another recent study that found that higher carbon dioxide levels contribute less benefit to crops than previously thought.

Rising population and dietary changes mean that food requirements are projected to double by 2050. There are bright spots of opportunity, but the target is looking increasingly out of reach.

A recent report released by Oxfam predicted a doubling of food prices by 2030, which has led to a flurry of media analysis (I found this case study to be particularly illuminating of the systemic problems in how we currently do things).

What are we to do in light of this? All kinds of things. But we can begin by taking a closer look at the food on our plate and becoming interested in where it has come from, what it cost (socially and ecologically) to get it there and what alternatives are already available to us. If we pray "give us this day our daily bread", we cannot take food for granted.

Monday, June 06, 2011

On broken (political) promises

Much has been made in the media here and in Australia about broken election promises. Nick Clegg promised (indeed, publicly signed a pledge) to not raise tuition fees. Then voted to raise tuition fees. Julia Gillard promised there would be no carbon tax, then announced plans to introduce a system which includes an initially fixed price on carbon.

Are these simply more examples of lying politicians, out to pursue short term political advantage by whatever means? Possibly, but the outrage whipped up by certain sections of the media in each case is, in my opinion, somewhat misguided.

In both cases, we are talking about elections that failed to deliver a clear majority government, thus requiring negotiations between parties to deliver a stable result. There is nothing especially wrong with hung parliaments, minority rule or coalitions. Yet under such conditions, it entirely possible that pre-election promises will have to be broken or modified in order to reach a new agreement.

Consider the UK. We are governed by a coalition between a party who promised more nuclear power and to support the Trident nuclear programme and a second party that promised to end Trident and to build no new nuclear stations. How is it possible for such a coalition to not break promises?

I think there is actually too much emphasis on campaign promises (in the media and by politicians). Representative democratic government is not, despite all the rhetoric, about implementing the will of the majority. It is system whereby elected representatives are entrusted with the authority to make wise judgements on our behalf. A government that makes an unpopular decision is not thereby undemocratic since representative democracy is not about how decisions are made but how representatives are elected.

It is possible that many people do not like this and would prefer a direct democracy. While this has many advantages, especially in polities of a smaller scale, under our present conditions, I'm not sure I trust my fellow citizens enough (or rather the media that all too often guides us by the nose down paths of its own liking - or should I say, of Rupert's liking). In any case, it is not the system we have.

We consent to certain decision-makers, not to certain decisions. How then are we to discern who is to lead us if we are not simply looking for someone who promises to do things we like? All kinds of ways. We examine their history, their qualifications, their character, their party values, their voting record, their ability to demonstrate critical thinking in their public and personal communications, our impression of them from meeting them personally and engaging them in conversation, their ability to persuade, their ability to bring people with them, their vision for the future - and so on. While pre-election promises are clearly part of what we base our electoral judgements upon, they are a relatively small part of the package and must always be taken with a grain of salt in a world where politics is the art of the possible.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Scientists are not the enemy: death threats, smears and intimidation

What kind of mental world must someone inhabit to participate in an orchestrated intimidation campaign against professional scientists?

The Canberra Times reports that more than thirty Australian academics engaged in various forms of climate research receive a constant stream of abusive emails containing violent threats. Many have been moved to secure buildings and given other forms of special protection. Their experience is not unusual. Climate scientists and public figures associated with climate issues in many nations face what are clearly organised and vicious campaigns of intimidation.

For various reasons, some people are scared of the sciences. Perhaps some participate in bullying in order to express their frustrations at a system they find hostile, finding in these scientists an outlet for their anger and feelings of impotence. Some find in the work of these thinkers (or in the impression of this work they have received via certain mediators) claims about the unforeseen consequences of our behaviours - even apparently noble behaviours in pursuit of desirable personal and social goals - that threaten the integrity of their own life story and self-understanding.

I hope that Christian preachers and pastors are aware of the social and personal forces at work that find expression in these kinds of behaviours. Although those who threaten and abuse scientists may represent more extreme cases, the feelings of anxious guilt and bitter resentment are real for many people. There is good news for us all in a saviour who can set us free from the demons of the past and give us strength to face the future.

Friday, June 03, 2011

I am, you are, we are Australian

Guest post by Michael Paget

A civil religion?
April was a busy month for religious occasions. Easter, of course: the high (and low) point of the Christian faith. ANZAC day, the zenith of cultic nationalism. And a royal wedding (the nadir of republican fervour).

And it led me to wonder: in a post-Christian world where, nonetheless, many of the most socially significant events take place (or are at least echoed) in churches, what is the relationship between Christians and the country in which they live?

I admit to being particularly provoked by the repeated parallel drawn by preachers between the death of diggers and the sacrifice of Jesus. Now, let’s be clear: I’m not a pacifist. (Though if I were, ought my argument to be heard differently?) My grandfather and father were senior officers in the Australian military; they both saw combat. I have a photo of them in Vietnam during the war, the only Western father/son photo in that theatre of which I’m aware.

But the death of diggers and the sacrifice of Christ are alike in only the most superficial manner. Soldiers die as a tragic and occasional side effect of the (sometimes) courageous use of violence to achieve ends. Every death is a failure. Avoiding the loss of soldiers is a growing priority for military leaders and technologists. The more removed humans can be from the field of combat, the better. The use of so-called 'smart' and laser-guided bombs from a flying fortress high out of harms way is an example.

But Jesus died as a direct result of his courageous refusal to employ violence. And the death of Christ was no side-effect – it was a necessary and planned step in his defeat of death itself.

When we Australians tell the stories of our past, then, we need to tell the truth. The freedom of our country is not built on the sacrifice of the many soldiers who died. Military success is not measured by the lives lost, but the lives preserved. The independence of this nation was sustained because Australia and its allies used violence more effectively than our enemies, killing sufficient strategically important humans on the other side and damaging or threatening damage to enough of their infrastructure to bring things to a close.

But we Christians have received a different story about ourselves as Christians: our freedom was won by one who had all the power in the world at his disposal, but refused to employ it to destroy.

All this suggests to me that the stories we tell about ourselves as Australians and the stories we tell about ourselves as Christians seem to be in fairly sharp conflict.

Which brings us to the wedding. And what a wedding! The pomp and ceremony made it impossible to forget, whatever the tabloids and magazines may have said, that this was not just a celebration of a couple in love. It was also a pageant for Great Britain’s imperial past and economic present, and a clarion call to reawaken the monarchy as the centre of British identity.

Oh, and it was in a church. An Anglican church, at that. So was it a state event, or a church event? And does it matter?

I think it does. The church acts on behalf of God – not the state – and receives his institutions. That the Christian – and Anglican – ceremony of marriage is recognized by the state as normative for the provision of certain civil benefits is a serendipitous (providential?) product of the historical coincidence that is Western history. All the chaff around the wedding of William and Catherine, then, is just that – an attempt by the monarchy and the state to lay claim to what happened in the church, but nothing more.

When the church is asked to celebrate and witness a marriage, it can and should do so in the story that Christians receive about marriage, not the story our world tells about marriage. These, again, are very different stories.

Why are our stories – of identity, of marriage, of meaning – so different? Because, ultimately, this is not our country. Our hopes and dreams are not found in our national success – on the battlefield or the sporting field, in romance or in business. We do not look to political or corporate leaders to save us or guarantee our happiness. We do not look to ANZAC for who we are, or royal weddings for who we long to be. We look to the cross - to Easter. As Paul says:
Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.

- Philippians 3:20.

We await a saviour from somewhere else. That is who we are. That is the story we have to tell. About us. About our world. We await a Saviour, Jesus Christ, from somewhere else.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The cost of carbon

Although I'm not present, I have been keeping an eye on the Australian debate about carbon pricing. This is an interesting recent poll. The highlights include:

• 58% of Australians think the best way to reduce emissions is to tax big polluters. Only 17% think paying polluters (Tony Abbott’s plan) is better.
• 66% of Australians support a price on carbon that tax the biggest polluting industries, returning all revenue to compensate households and businesses, and provide investment in climate programs such as renewable energy. Only 23% oppose.
• 84% of Australians would like to see fossil fuel subsidies redirected to renewable energy research and development. A mere 9% think they are an worth retaining.
If you agree with the majority in each case, then please join with thousands of others on 5th June in making your voice heard during this critical period of debate.
SYDNEY: Prince Alfred Park, 11 am
MELBOURNE: Outside the State Library, 11 am
ADELAIDE: Victoria Square, 11 am
BRISBANE: Riverstage, 1pm
PERTH: Perth Cultural centre - Wetlands stage, 11am
HOBART: Franklin Square, 11am
CANBERRA: Regatta Point (near the bridge), 1.30pm
More information about the family-friendly and upbeat rallies can be found here (or follow links on the page for non-Sydney residents).

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

What does development mean?

This is the best brief account of development I have heard. If you are at all concerned for global poverty and the role of faith communities in global development (whether from the perspective of personally belonging to one, or from the experience of being puzzled or suspicious about the place of religious groups in these matters), I commend these thirty-seven minutes to your attention.
H/T Jarrod.