Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hope for Creation: a day of prayer for climate issues

Following on from my previous post, an even larger event currently being organised by and for Australian Christians concerned about climate is a national (and international) day of prayer on Sunday 6th November under the banner of Hope for Creation. Hope for Creation is a worldwide prayer movement co-ordinating a day involving an increasing number of churches, Christians and organisations who have committed to pray for our rapidly changing world, for ourselves amidst our fears, guilt and impotence, and for the church and its proclamation of good news.

When I first arrived at New College a few years ago, one of the friendly faces welcoming me to the city was Cathy Cook, a Masters student who has since returned to Australia. Cathy explains what led her to join in and help organise this event. You can read some endorsements here, but do we really need permission to pray?

Of course, prayer is the heart and start of Christian action, without being isolated from other actions that express our faith, love and hope in the God who hears our cries. Yet it is in prayer that we are grounded afresh in the grace of God and call upon the Father's goodness. It therefore seems appropriate that this action, which consists first and foremost of patient waiting, an expectant silence and yearning groans, might become a unifying experience of trust in a listening Father.

The goal is simply to commit oneself - and if possible, one's church family - to pray for issues related to climate change on 6th November. You can find an invitation with more information on how to join in and get your church or local group involved. The website also has many resources available for download (and more here) to help plan for the day. Participation can be as detailed or simple as is appropriate for your context.

And of course, you don't need to wait until 6th November to start praying.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Christian climate symposium in Melbourne

I asked recently what kinds of discussions and actions were already happening amongst Australian Christian about climate. Kara sent me this flyer for a one day symposium in Melbourne that looks interesting.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Cove: would you eat a dolphin?

Continuing my recent run of excellent documentaries (see Food Inc and Inside Job), I also recently saw The Cove. For what it's worth, all three were nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary feature, and two won. All three currently receive over 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unlike the other two, however, The Cove has a more local focus. Focussing on a small cove on the Japanese coast, the film is paced as an mystery thriller in which the dark secrets of a place are gradually brought to light. The film's heart and central voice is Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer turned activist. O'Barry was responsible for catching and training the five dolphins who played the title character in the popular 1960's TV series Flipper. Yes, you now have the music stuck in your head. It was catchy. Yet when his favourite individual committed suicide (this is how O'Barry describes it), he was forced to reconsider the ethics of keeping wild dolphins in captivity. By the next day he was being arrested for attempting to liberate other dolphins from the marine park where he worked. O'Barry's years of marine animal activism led him to Japan, the premier supplier of dolphins for the multi-billion dollar marine amusement park industry. And from there to a single small cove where most of the wild dolphins for sale are caught. However, apart from the cruelty and stress experienced in captivity by these intelligent creatures, the darker secret of the place, initially only hinted at and deliberately concealed by local fishermen and police, is slowly revealed to the viewer as the film crew risk arrest to get footage. Hidden cameras placed under cover of darkness record the grisly fate of the ten thousands of dolphins who are rounded up annually and yet are not suitable for exploitation as marine entertainers. The film's denouement is not for the queasy or faint of heart.

This is a film that deliberately seeks a significant emotional engagement with the viewer. Our sympathy for the dolphins is carefully cultivated and righteous outrage stoked. The perspective of the fishermen is noted, yet there is no attempt at impartiality here. We are called upon to take sides. The role of villain is left to the Japanese, and there is significant danger of being invited into an all too easy condemnation from a distance. The violence and cruelty done to animals in our name closer to home is only passingly noted. Nonetheless, this film is worth seeing as another step in developing a deeper affinity for creatures beyond the human, and for thinking again about how we treat other members of the community of creation.

For those in Australia, it is freely available on ABC's iView for the next two weeks.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Is the fish on your plate older than your grandmother?

The Conversation: The real cost of taking fish out of the water. This excellent piece gives a good snapshot of overfishing (the carbon footprint of fishing was something I didn't realise until reading this). It also suggests one of the ways we can be part of the solution: by eating less fish, and eating smarter, which means either checking sites like Good Fish Bad Fish (an Australian version; UK readers can use the Good Fish Guide) or asking questions of potential fish meals such as: "Are they older than your grandmother? Did catching them kill tonnes of other innocent species? How much carbon was used to get it onto your plate?"

Al Jazeera: Overpopulation is not to blame for famine. The causes are famine in the Horn of Africa are complex. Simplistic analyses that blame a single factor do not help.

Guardian: Salty rice is not so nice - rising seas, rising salt in the Mekong. Concerns about sea level rise are not limited to infrastructure damage or coastal erosion; salination is the big issue in many places and especially for the densely-populated Mekong delta.

Grist: The great oyster crash. This is where ocean acidification is starting to bite.

CP: S&P Downgrades Planet Earth and Humanity. This will only make sense if you have been following recent US economic news.

Larry Elliott: The global economy is not in good shape. The crisis from 2008 has not gone away; it has simply shifted form.

Mongabay: Conflict correlates with warm weather, at least in the tropics. This isn't good news in a warming world.

Guardian: One billion cars. "Between 2000 and 2010, the number of cars and motorcycles in China increased twentyfold. In the next 20 years it is forecast to more than double again, which means there will be more cars in China in 2030 than there were in the entire world in 2000."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Economics and ethics: does everything have a price?

Fox News is not usually considered to be a great source of ethical insight. So when a friend sent me an article titled almost everything we're taught is wrong, I was dubious. The piece argues that child labour, price gouging, ticket scalping, selling kidneys and blackmail are all deemed morally reprehensibly and illegal in many countries, but when we consider them from an economic point of view, we see that each ought to be considered socially beneficial.

Child labour in poorer nations contributes to the economy and keeps children from prostitution. Price gouging during an emergency reduces hoarding and gives an incentive to distant vendors to supply what is missing, even if this means travelling long distances. Ticket scalping provides a service that adds value, namely, allowing those prepared to pay extra to avoid the time they would have spent waiting in a queue. Making the sale of kidneys legal would save lives by increasing the supply. And if blackmail were legal, then there would be more reason for people to behave; in asking for money to not exercise free speech, the blackmailer is engaging in a form of "private law enforcement" by putting a price on not gossiping.

Each of these arguments needs to be addressed on its merits. Child labour: I agree that simply banning it is insufficient, but any ethical analysis worth its salt is not going to be content with mere legislation. The same argument could well be used against the abolition of slavery: what are the slaves going to do once they are freed? It is worth looking more broadly at what forces have created an economic situation in which the alternative to child labour is child prostitution.

Price gouging doesn't mean prices rising when there is shortage, but dramatic and extortionate price rises during a crisis. Should prices rise in an emergency? Yes, but not too much for essentials, since access to the means to stay alive ought not be contingent upon wealth. Far better for essentials to be rationed.

The argument for ticket scalpers I actually have some degree of sympathy for, though where ticket sales are online, then there is no waiting in line.

The sale of bodily tissues is problematic for multiple reasons. First, it commodifies one of the sites that ought to be most resistant to the logic of the market, one's own body. Second, if people are able to sell irreplaceable bodily organs, then why not their freedom? Thus there is a economic justification for slavery here. Third, if there is a legal price for kidneys, then the price is going to be high and this is almost inevitably going to mean that a black market will develop, incentivising criminal and coercive surgery. The antipathy to the sale of human tissue actually arises partly from Edinburgh history, where in the eighteenth century there was a black market in fresh cadavers for the famous medical school, and it lead to a very famous case of serial murder, which, incidentally, occurred just a few metres from where I sleep.

Blackmail has the same problem; making it legal would incentivise further and worse criminal behaviour. We only need to look at what happened to News of the World (and probably other UK tabloids) when gossip became commodified to see the dangers of encouraging breaches of privacy for profit.

The fundamental failure of the article appears in its opening lines. Economics is not a substitute for ethics. Any society that treats them as commensurate is inviting the thoroughgoing colonisation of all human relationships by market forces and the logic of commercial transactions. Christians of all people have the most reason to be suspicious of this, since we are taught that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6.10) and that our lives are ransomed not with silver or gold, but the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1.18). Not everything can be translated into a single numerical language.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Five ways to beat the banks

On Monday, I mentioned the documentary Inside Job, which detailed the ways greed, shortsightedness and ideology caused a partial meltdown of the financial industry in 2008. Despite official reassurances, the radioactive material from these events is not safely secured, but continues to poison an ever wider part of the world.* If you have seen the documentary and share something of my anger, you might also share something of my feelings of frustration and impotence. When the scale of the problem is so large, and the corruption of key institutions so widespread, there is no single silver bullet. Especially for those of us outside the US, the issues in the documentary feel even more distant, as we can't vote for a representative promising change.**
*I realise I haven't written on Fukushima yet. A post on nuclear power is coming, one day...
**And who then does nothing about it. On this, as on many fronts, Obama has been deeply disappointing. I can't say I didn't warn myself.

So what can we do? We may not singlehandedly reform or overthrow the vested interests that created the mess, but we can live lives that point to another way. I have listed a few random suggestions, but would also love to hear more.

1. Repent of the love of money. Delight yourself in the goodness of God and open your eyes to the false promises made by wealth. Reject the idea that gaining more is at the heart of your identity or life, or ought to be at the heart of our political vision of life together. This one is foundational to all the others.

2. Reduce your debt. The apostle Paul tells us to "owe nothing to anyone" (Romans 13.8). The power of the banks is debt-fuelled, and never more so than in the last couple of decades. Perhaps there may be times when certain kinds of debt can be justified; but not when debt is used to fuel needless consumption, or goes beyond one's likely means to repay, or results in driving major life decisions ("I need to work long hours to pay off my mortgage"). For us, this has meant deliberately stepping off the property ladder and not using credit cards - almost everything is now paid in cash or, if we have to, then with a debit card.

3. Join the global movement calling for a Robin Hood Tax - also known as a Tobin tax, after the Nobel laureate who first suggested it forty years ago - that would place a tiny tax on financial transactions in order to make short-term speculative transactions less attractive. The money raised would ideally be earmarked for development aid and climate action, but the existence of the tax as a disincentive to rampart speculation is a distinct question and doesn't depend on where the money would be spent. This campaign is gaining significant traction in Europe, though relatively little in the US. The UK response is key as to whether it grows (and would likely pull in the US, if the previous link is correct) or stagnates. This point can be expanded to include supporting any other genuine attempts to reform the financial system.

4. Take your money from a big multinational bank and put it somewhere else, such as a local credit union or co-op bank. In the UK, try The Co-op Bank. I'd love to hear any recommendations in Australia, since we'd like to switch banks there too. Of course, not all banks are equally bad, but it is difficult to find a large multinational bank where your money won't be financing the arms trade, fossil fuel expansion, environmental degradation and so on.

5. As a church, let us not neglect to encourage, disciple and discipline our members who work in major financial institutions. I asked a while back whether Christians can be bankers, and my tongue was only slightly in cheek. Usury is condemned in scripture and throughout Christian tradition (until the last couple of centuries, when it has been redefined as lending at extortionate interest, rather than simply lending at interest). This is a large topic (and the subject of an upcoming post), but the church needs to ask these questions once more today, particularly in the context of the systemic abuses found in such enormous concentrations of power. When tax collectors asked John the Baptist "Teacher, what should we do?", he didn't tell them to quit their job, but gave the radical advice, "Collect no more than the amount proscribed for you" (Luke 3.12-23). What is the radical advice the church is to give our present day "tax collectors", that is, bankers?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Waking up from our illusions

"How much of this is real? How much of the economic growth of the past 60 years? Of the wealth and comfort, the salaries and pensions that older people accept as normal, even necessary? How much of it is an illusion, created by levels of borrowing – financial and ecological – that cannot be sustained? [...] To sustain the illusion, we have inflicted more damage since 1950 to the planet's living systems than we achieved in the preceding 100,000 years."

- George Monbiot, Out of the Ashes.

Monbiot again is making the case that the church ought to have been making all along (and in some cases, is making). Material prosperity is not the route to the good life; the more stuff we accumulate, the more anxiety crowds out our joy, the more social bonds are weakened, the more the living spaces of the planet are degraded. Of course, a certain basic level of material well-being is required, the scriptures acknowledge as much - "if we have food and clothing, we will be content" (1 Timothy 6.8) - but our society has long surpassed the foolishness of the rich farmer Jesus warned about in Luke 12.13-21. We are missing the plot, messing about with the shallows of life while the depths remain unplumbed. Personally, we could be plunging into more through having less stuff to worry about, and collectively we could be pursuing things that are better than growth.

Go and read Monbiot. Then listen to Jesus tell us how to be truly alive:
He said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

- Luke 12.22-34 (NRSV).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Inside Job: what's the deal with the credit crisis?

Yesterday we finally got around to watching Inside Job (despite having recommended it all the way back here). If you, like me, often feel out of your depth in discussions of banking, finance, stock markets and the global economic instability of the last few years, then this is the film for you. Bringing dry and complex details into vivid comprehensibility, this film cuts through the bafflement factor and, via a series of fascinating and jaw-dropping interviews with key players, lays out many of the key threads that that led to the headline-grabbing events of 2008 and its aftermath (which continues to play out today).

The film won best documentary at the 2010 Academy Awards and currently sits at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is easy to see why. Tackling an important subject with insight, emotion and sensitivity, this film is pure outrage mixed with damning evidence of systemic problems in the US financial industry from traders to CEOs, from regulators to investors, from president to ratings agencies, from academic economists to congress. There is plenty of blame to go around. And yet, somehow, no one is in gaol for the greatest inside job in history.

And very little has changed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Analogy is the best medicine

Ben doesn't appreciate his doctor's alarmist advice.

It would be quite possible to push this image further: "I can't afford healthy food!"; "Are you telling me to starve to death?"; "The cheap calories I get from high fructose corn syrup means I have more money to help others"; "Think of how many jobs would be lost if the fast food industry were to shut down"; and so on.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Are all foods clean? A review of Food Inc.

"The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous ten thousand."

- Food Inc., opening line.

"'Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, 'It is what comes out of a person that defiles.'"

- Mark 7.18b-20 (NRSV).

Jesus' words were a radical challenge to the Jewish practice of his day, overturning the Old Testament food laws and the traditions that had grown around them. Jesus' redefinition of purity as a matter of the heart and what comes out of it rather than the mouth and what goes into it has left an important mark on our eating habits; we don't think twice about tucking into a crab soup or creamy bacon pasta.

But perhaps sometimes, as a result of this very passage teaching us to see food as a non-issue, Christians can miss the ways in which our hearts may be deceived even as we eat food that Christ declared clean. In particular, there are ways of eating that fail to love our neighbour and fail to adopt a properly human, humane and humble attitude towards the rest of the created order. Our hearts may be defiled, even as we consume delicious feasts.

For anyone who is largely ignorant of contemporary industrial agriculture and its practices, Food Inc. is a good place to start to investigate where our food comes from. It is primarily a US perspective, and some of the details do differ elsewhere in the industrialised world, but not always by a great deal. Most urban dwellers are unaware of the social, ecological, animal and economic realities that get our typical diet into the supermarket. And most are surprised to find just how far we have departed from the stereotypical pictures of rural life still found in children's books and on food packaging. As in all kinds of other ways, the last fifty years or so have been truly revolutionary in this regard. I will not attempt here to summarise the various threads followed by the film, tracing the damage done to workers, animals, soil, waterways, other nations and farmers themselves by contemporary methods of industrial food production, though I was a little surprised to note that there were significant points still left unsaid, even after a string of unpalatable revelations.

But the film is not all ugliness and disgust. Having lifted the lid on the true cost of our cheap food, it moves on to explore two somewhat contradictory approaches to an alternative. On the one hand is an attempt to fight fire with fire, to build an organic and ethical food industry that can compete with factory farming by building a market for organic products in mainstream distributors at a competitive price. On the other is the pursuit of regenerative farming that moves beyond merely being organic to question the broader economic and political structures that govern the whole business. One asks us merely to change our consumption patterns and has faith in the market to deliver the goods that we demand; the other questions the very forces that help to (de)form those demands. The former, more pragmatic, approach is making significant inroads when measured by market share, but does it represent a form of greenwash, a slight improvement that actually serves to dull the necessary critique of a deeply flawed economic and political system? Or is the latter too idealistic and risks missing out on making small but real gains that are actually available for the sake of goals too radical to ever gain widespread acceptance?

This tension is a frequent one in ethical thought, where compromise needn't always be a dirty word, but where the possibility of self-deception via superficial changes is also ever present. This documentary is worth seeing, whether you are blissfully unaware of the origin of your next meal or already struggling with the ethical questions raised by contemporary food practices.

Jesus, who taught us that all foods are clean, also taught us to pray "give us this day our daily bread", and identified his body and blood with elements we take into our mouths. He was not seeking to remove food from the realm of faithful living before God, but to deepen our perception of what joyfully wholesome food might look like. It cannot be identified merely by its flavour or appearance, but depends on the relationships with our neighbours (human and otherwise) that it represents.

Can you give thanks for what will be put in front of you today?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The end is nigh? Apocalyptic thought and our present distress

Apparently, the apocalypse has already come and gone. Did you miss it?

The relation of apocalyptic thought to our present and likely future distress is an interesting and complex question, not easily answered in a few sentences. I've recently been reading a book edited by Stefan Skrimshire titled Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic Imagination, which I mentioned back here. As is usual in an edited collection of essays, quality and relevance vary considerably, but the theme is an important one. How do our images of "the end" shape our understanding (or misunderstanding, as the case may be) of climate change?

For some activists, the pace and scale of anthropogenic climate change on our current trajectory represents an existential threat to the present order of the biosphere, including the human order of a globalised industrial civilisation of almost seven billion and rising. The language of apocalyptic is borrowed in order to try to gain some traction with policy-makers and the public. It matters not whether this borrowing represents a reflexive reliance on a thread of thought with its roots in religious discourse or the deliberate appropriation of concepts and tropes that still inhabit our imagination and so which will resonate widely. The goal is to induce an emancipatory shock, a recognition of our situation as extreme, a justification for emergency measures that disrupt the usual flow of commercial, political and social life with a radical reordering.

Some Christians, noting the borrowing of apocalyptic language by activists, are inclined to ignore the whole thing as another human attempt to claim control of even how the world is going to end. Instead, affirming that the end is in God's hands alone, they argue that any claims of humanity bringing about the end by our own efforts (even inadvertently) must be treated with extreme suspicion.

Personally, while it is difficult to get a good grip on the magnitude of the threat represented by climate change without recourse to some very strong language, I think that it is best to remain agnostic about the relationship between our preset distress and threats and the divine promises relating to ultimate realities. It may be that there is some link, but there is no particular reason in my opinion to think so. Even if our actions lead to the downfall of our way of life and the utter transformation of our society into something so different that in hindsight it is appropriate to speak of industrial civilisation having experienced a self-induced collapse, this need not be the end of the world. To use a line that is growing increasingly common, the end of the world as we know it is not necessarily the end of the world.

And where this cuts the mustard for me is that sometimes apocalyptic thought can become a lazy way out of ethical deliberation. Apocalyptic becomes lazy where it is in the service of a fatalism that assumes our destiny is doomed by the greater power of nature (whether acting blindly, under its own authority as a personified (and angry) mother earth, or as the instrument of God's inexorable judgement) or which conversely rejects the possibility of social self-destruction in principle. In each case, the future is seen as closed and human actions as ultimately irrelevant, in which case, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. It can also be lazy where it is used to create panic and a desperate acceptance of whatever medicine is closest to hand. This is a kind of non-emancipatory shock that stuns the hearer into passive acceptance of the salvific social, economic and/or political solution that swiftly follows the apocalyptic account.

Denying knowledge of the relationship between our time and time's telos keeps open the space for neighbourly care. It does this not by rendering apocalyptic inscrutably distant ("since we can't know when the end will come, then let us ignore the coming of the end altogether"), but constantly relevant. In Christian apocalyptic, the hidden meaning of history is revealed to be the stage of divine action, not in competition with human action, but as the previously unknown judge and liberator of human action. Since the day of divine judgement approaches like a thief in the night, unbidden and unobserved, the wise servant knows that her actions are made more weighty, not less. Instead of paralysing fear or enervating schadenfreude, she is liberated to conduct her faithful service in reverent hope of divine vindication. By such acts, she is not heroically securing the future; saving the world (or the present world order) is not her motive or modus operandi. Instead, she trusts that because the hour of her vindication approaches, she has time to prepare, to reflect with prudence on her ability to be a blessing in the limited time she has received. Waiting patiently, she need not dread the outcome of history, but is free to love her neighbour as an instantiation of her wholehearted love for the master with what strength and wisdom she has received. It may be that the immediate future holds suffering, even vast suffering, but not yet the end of all things. In which case, her actions undertaken in hope are not in vain; they are secured by the promise of the resurrection, and thus they are freed from the impossible burden of having to deliver her own life or the continued existence of her society.

And so, there is a sense in which the apocalypse has indeed already come, in the sense that apocalypse means "revelation", an unveiling of what was hidden. After Christ's coming, Christian believers now see the world and its future in a new light. No longer do the dark shadows of anticipated difficulties leave us blindly stumbling along in denial, distraction, desperation or despair. Once relieved of the responsibility to pursue survival above all else, we see the future as a stage on which faithful words and deeds may witness to the redemption of history through the cross and resurrection, and to the coming renewal of all things.

Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary

Warren Buffett, the 3rd richest man in the world, asks legislators to stop coddling the super-rich in this New York Times op-ed where he welcomes higher taxes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Justice and love: why this Christian cares about climate

"The crux of climate change for Christians is the poorest, most vulnerable countries are those hardest hit by global warming. The poor are least able to adapt to the impact of climate change and ironically, have contributed least to it. The carbon footprint of the poorest 1 billion people on the planet is estimated to be around 3% of the world’s total footprint. This is the social injustice of climate change: poor, developing countries will suffer because of the fossil fuels emitted by developed nations. We are commanded to love our neighbour. [...] God requires that His people oppose social injustice and open their hearts to the poor and vulnerable. For the church to turn a blind eye to the injustice of climate change is to turn our back on God’s heart for the poor."
John Cook, founder of the justly famous site Skeptical Science, has written a short piece in Eternity magazine explaining why he takes climate change seriously as a Christian. You can read the rest here.
H/T Liz.

Monday, August 15, 2011

If Jesus had studied economics...

...instead of the Law.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The dead wolf cannot bite you

Language warning. H/T Michael Tobis.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Christian voice on climate in Australia

This piece from John McIntyre, Anglican Bishop of Gippsland, is an example of a genre that appears only very occasionally: an Australian Christian speaking directly about the ethics of climate change in the mainstream media. Does anyone have other examples? Please provide a link in the comments.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Twenty seven planet Earths by 2050

AlterNet: Do we need a militant movement to save the planet (and ourselves)? Three writers say yes. By this, they mean a committed small minority willing to go beyond even civil disobedience to direct destructive action against key industrial infrastructure. While such ideas remain on the fringe today, I suspect that the coming decades may well see debates shift from "do we have a problem?" to "just how radically and rapidly do we need to change?".

IPS: Growing Water Deficit Threatening Grain Harvests. This isn't a problem confined to one area. Water stress is already affecting agriculture in parts of the USA, China, India, Middle East, Mexico, Pakistan and large areas of Africa.

Mongabay: Protected areas not enough to save biodiversity (a.k.a. life on earth): "Humans now impact over 80 percent of the world's land and 100 percent of the oceans. Around 40 percent of the Earth's surface has been 'strongly affected' by our consumption. [...] According to recent estimates, about 1.2 Earths would be required to support the different demands of the 5.9 billion people living on the planet in 1999 [...] if global society continues down the road we are on, we will need 27 planet Earths to sustain our consumption by 2050. [...] We're talking about losing 50 percent of species in the next half century—that's faster than any previous mass extinction event—and anybody who thinks we can go through a mass extinction and be perfectly fine is just deluding themselves." This is perhaps the most seriously dark paper I have come across in some time. And that is saying something.

Scientific American: Will 10 billion people use up the planet's resources? "The human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper. [...] Hundreds of millions of people in Europe, North America and Asia live a modern life, which largely means consuming more than 16 metric tons of such natural resources—or more—per person per year. If the billions of poor people living today or born tomorrow consume anything approaching this figure, the world will have to find more than 140 billion metric tons of such materials each year by mid-century. [...] Between 1980 and 2002, the resources required to produce $1,000 worth of consumer goods fell from 2.1 metric tons to just 1.6 metric tons and global per capita income has increased seven-fold. The bad news is that trend will not necessarily continue and—in absolute terms—resource consumption has increased 10-fold since 1900 [...] already it takes three times as much total mining material to produce the same amount of ore as 100 years ago [...] Nor is it clear that "decoupling"—rising economic growth paired with reductions in resource consumption—actually is now taking place; most gains to date, such as those in Germany or Japan, may simply have been achieved by outsourcing resource-intensive manufacturing and the like abroad to countries like China."

NYT: Profile of a (very rich) Cassandra: "The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70 percent. From 2002 until now, this entire decline was erased by a bigger price surge than occurred during World War II. Statistically, most commodities are now so far away from their former downward trend that it makes it very probable that the old trend has changed — that there is in fact a Paradigm Shift — perhaps the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.”

MWH: Ten things you didn't know you owned.

DD: Unemployment in the USA. A scary graph.

Mongabay: The glass is half-full: conservation has made a difference.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Critical Decade

Australia's Climate Change Commission recently published a very readable report entitled The Critical Decade. In sixty pages it does a very good job of answering all kinds of common questions and addresses the issue from an Australian perspective. If you don't have time for the full report, you can get a good impression of the gist by reading the bold paragraph at the stage of each section and the purple box underneath it (which turns the 60 pages into more like 5). The takeaway message is that what we do in the next ten years is critical to the path we will find ourselves on later this century.

The report cites this (far more technical) 2009 study, in which it is pointed out that if we want to have a 75% chance of keeping warming by 2100 below 2ºC, then we can burn less than half the current proven economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves. That is, we don't need to do any further exploration, cannot employ any non-conventional sources (such as shale gas or tar sands) and of those that are already considered recoverable, more than half need to be left in the ground. That is a very pithy summary of the challenge, and gives a basis for attempting to focus the minds of decision makers.

The argument that the next ten years are the critical decade for climate has been made pretty consistently since the late 1980s. This has not been inaccurate, though as a message, it can become confusing when it keeps getting repeated with new goalposts. It is not inaccurate because the question is "critical for what?". Back in the 1980s, we had perhaps a decade to address the climate issue at relatively low cost and with relatively minimal consequences. Each decade of business as usual makes the costs of mitigation higher, the benefits lower and the chance of reaching results beyond our ability to adapt more likely. The time for action was long ago, but today is better than tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

London's burning: any clues?

Having not followed any news over the weekend or yesterday, I discovered today that there have been three days of rioting in London (and now elsewhere in England), with one man dead and over five hundred arrested and perhaps £100 million worth of property damage, including widespread arson. The discussion boards are alight with people calling for water canons and baton rounds (a.k.a. rubber or plastic bullets), curfews and the deployment of the army, none of which have been used on the mainland UK in living memory. Last time I was in London a couple of months ago, I stayed in Hackney, not far from the area where the trouble started.

Has anyone come across any good analysis or does anyone have any personal insight into this situation? Please include links in the comments.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Giving vodka to a drunk

Do not try to prove your strength by wine-drinking,
     for wine has destroyed many.
As the furnace tests the work of the smith,
     so wine tests hearts when the insolent quarrel.
Wine is very life to human beings
     if taken in moderation.
What is life to one who is without wine?
     It has been created to make people happy.
Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation
     is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.
Wine drunk to excess leads to bitterness of spirit,
     to quarrels and stumbling.
Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his own hurt,
     reducing his strength and adding wounds.

- Ecclesiasticus 31.25-30 (NRSV).

Going to the pub for a drink with mates can be a very enjoyable experience. A pint or a dram, some good conversation, some laughs, maybe another drink and some time soaking up one another's company. Another drink? Why not, we're having a good time. With a proper sense of proportion, alcohol can make the heart glad (Psalm 104.15). But before long, drinking becomes drunkenness, and repeated drunkenness makes one a drunkard (cf. Ephesians 5.18; Galatians 5.21). By the time someone is seeing relationships fall apart and their liver, brain, heart, pancreas, nervous system, kidneys, bones, skin and/or sexual function give way from abuse we are well past the point at which enjoyment has turned into self-destruction. Alcohol use represents a gradual progression from a good blessing into a significant evil, without necessarily a clear line where one becomes the other.* The physical and social ills of alcoholism are vindications of (or at least corroborations of) scriptural warnings against drunkenness, yet spiritual injury can occur even prior to obvious relational or physical damage and the believer does not require sociological or medical research on the effects of alcohol abuse to trust the biblical witness on this matter. The latter are helpful confirmations of what has already been revealed, illustrating the principle that we reap what we sow and that part of God's present judgement upon human wickedness is to allow us to experience some of the consequences of our misdeeds.
*Many jurisdictions create such markers through legal limits on blood alcohol levels, but all such lines must be somewhat arbitrary when extended across a whole population with quite different physiological and mental reactions to alcohol.

But this is not really a post about alcoholism.

Seeking more economic growth* for developed economies is like offering vodka to a man already lying a pool of his own vomit. Justifying it by pointing out secondary benefits misses the point; the extra waitstaff will be out of a job unless enough booze is sold, but why should the security of someone's job justify aiding the dissolution of life? With a proper sense of proportion, some kinds of economic growth can be a good blessing on a society. But the pursuit of growth in all circumstances by all means at whatever cost is ultimately self-destructive. There is no hard and fast line between the one and the other. Attempts to calculate ecological footprints and planetary boundaries may give a ballpark idea of where growth starts being suicidal, but that doesn't mean that it is where the problem starts. The desire for growth without reference to the rest of the body is wrong in principle, not just once the symptoms of overshoot start to appear. The ecological and resource crises that are increasingly manifest may illustrate the ruinous trajectory of the desire, but from inception, the desire for growth without reference to context is already based on some combination of greed, myopia, lust for power and a reckless disregard for creaturely limits.
*There is some debate about just what is meant by economic growth. Most definitions at least strongly imply the increasing extraction and exploitation of physical resources for economic purposes, which is my primary concern in this discussion.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Who killed economic growth?

Whether economic growth is over now or in another decade or three is a matter for debate, but the point of the video remains valid. Endless growth on a finite planet is a dangerous delusion. In its place, we have the opportunity to imagine a future that doesn't rely on more and more stuff - more and more water, fish, trees, soil; more and more finite energy from under the ground making a more and more unstable climate; more and more advertising for more and more unnecessary toys bought with more and more debt; more and more fear, greed and frustration.

Sometimes less is more.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sanctification: an Edinburgh dogmatics conference

At the end of this month Rutherford House are organising a theology conference here at New College on the topic of sanctification (i.e. the why, what and how of holiness). Speakers include Oliver O'Donovan, Bruce McCormack, Henri Blocher, Kelly Kapic, Michael Horton, Ivor Davidson, Julie Canlis, Grant MacAskill and Rick Lints. Given the program, in which all but one of the main papers are happening prior to lunch (over three days), I may find it difficult to attend,* though I commend this event to the attention of any theologians or ethicists within the UK.
*This is not a comment on my sleeping habits (not anymore!), but is because I look after our daughter most mornings while Jessica works.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


As a bearer of three tattoos myself, I particularly enjoyed this xkcd. The extreme measures we take to address unrestrained growth in the body may be a good inspiration for tackling unrestrained growth in the body politic (or at least the body economic).

Monday, August 01, 2011

Rethinking growth: bigger is not always better

Do you think that in the future all economics will necessarily be ecological economics?
That’s what I expect. I mean, we’re faced with two impossibilities. On the one hand, it’s politically impossible to stop growth. On the other hand, it’s biophysically impossible to continue it ad infinitum. So, which impossibility is fundamentally impossible? Well, you know, I’ll take my chances with trying to change the politically impossible, because I don’t think I can change the biophysically impossible.

- - Interview with Herman Daly.

This very readable interview is undoubtedly the best brief introduction I've seen as to why endless economic growth is a problem. You can read the whole interview here.
H/T Jin.