Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Some reviews

At the end of last year, I posted links to the twelve doomiest stories of 2010 and fifty doomiest graphs and photos. Desdemona again offers his summary of 2011 with the fifty doomiest graphs and images and this time fifty doomiest stories of the year.

Not to be outdone, the ApocaDocs have compiled their 100 top news stories of 2011 relating to our global predicament.

The Conversation sums up the year in energy and environment news, containing links to dozens of interesting and significant stories throughout the year. They also summaries of their other major news headings.

And if all this is a little too bleak for your New Year's celebrations, then check out Charlie Brooker's take on 2011 available on BBC iPlayer (for UK residents only, I'm afraid). It's still somewhat bleak (it was that kind of year), but at least it has a few jokes.

Feel free to post links to other reviews of the year that are worth reading.

Mongabay: Top ten environmental stories of 2011.

May 2012 bring renewed hope, patience and illumination to face the gathering gloom.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The difficulties of climate ethics: time

"[There is] a pronounced temporal dispersion of causes and effects. In the case of climate change, this is caused mainly by the long atmospheric lifetime of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and by the fact that some of the basic physical systems influenced by the greenhouse effect (such as oceans) are subject to profound inertia, so that changes play out over centuries and even millennia. This is important because it suggests that whereas fossil fuel emissions have immediate and tangible benefits for present people, many of the most serious costs are likely to be substantially deferred to future generations."

- Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm:
The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 123.

This time lag is critical to grasping climate change (and, to a greater or lesser extent, many other ecological issues). Many people don't realise that the changes we are already experiencing (Arctic summer sea ice volume down by over 70%, shifts in timing of the seasons, more frequent heatwaves and intense precipitation events in some regions, poleward shift of ecosystems, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels and so on) are not the result of present greenhouse gas concentrations. We are merely reaping the start of the harvest of seeds sown decades ago. It will be decades more before the effects of today's levels begin to be visible, and centuries or even millennia before their full impact is known.

This temporal lag means that climate change occupies an intermediate position amongst future threats, too close to be safely ignored and too distant to avoid being perpetually trumped by the myopic focus on today's problem caused by the media and political cycle. Dangerous climate change is far more immediate than say, the heat death of the universe or even the death of our Sun (or the preceding gradual increase in solar radiation that will likely destroy all life on earth well before either of these), and yet not immediate enough to enter the horizon of political decision-making. That this is so can be seen in the frequent attempts to find proximate hooks of one disaster or another on which to hang the climate threat. Yet these are doomed to be of only ambiguous use since any single disaster always has multiple causes and climate change is about a shift in statistical distributions, rather than being the sole unambiguous "cause" of any given event. In this intermediate position, climate change is uncomfortably dangerous enough to be of real concern and yet always comfortably far enough away to ignore for one more day, lowering the chance that will anticipate with prudence such (slightly) distant futures.

Individually, we are frequently poor at responding to such delayed feedback. The causes of obesity, heart disease, lung disease, alcoholism and all kinds of other long term health problems are increasingly well-known and connected to various behaviours that are often deemed quite pleasant in the short term. Yet, despite the long term ill-effects frequently being catastrophic for our health, we continue to indulge.

And that is just for problems where the effects are on my own life a few decades in the future. But when we turn to issues where the worst effects are felt by others, separated from me by time, space, social distance and even species, then my ability to refrain from indulging in short-term pleasures becomes even more difficult.

And when we turn from individual responses to collective responses, yet another layer of complexity is added and the potential to pass the buck becomes even higher. And when these collective responses are required not only at communal, social and national levels, but also critically amongst all nations of any economic size, then the barriers can appear insurmountable. More on these issues in the days ahead as I begin this series looking at some of the reasons why climate change is a particularly knotty ethical issue.
As one illustration of the temporal lag, a new publication from NASA claims that, based on paleoclimate records, each degree Celsius of global temperature rise will, in the long run, be associated with something like a twenty metre sea level rise. For those who don't understand why it matters whether we rise two or three or four degrees, here is one example to clarify our thoughts. This is not saying that such rises will be immediate, but that we are committing our descendants to a very, very different world.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

If you're having trouble commenting, blame Facebook

Over the last few months I've had a few people tell me that they're no longer able to post comments here or on other blogs. Clearly, I've still be getting quite a few comments, so this puzzled me. I then found myself having the same problem from time to time, not even being able to get to the screen where comments are entered.

But I think I've now worked out what the issue is: Facebook. More specifically, the application known as Networked Blogs, which is an app that will automatically repost your blog posts to your Facebook page (and so to your friends' news feeds). Networked Blogs has been one of the main reasons I haven't (so far) given up on Facebook, since I know that quite a few of my readers come via this route. Until recently, if you clicked on a Facebook news feed item published by Networked Blogs this would take you to the actual blog post in question. But now Networked Blogs has changed its set up and creates a mirrored page identical to the original Blogger post, except that almost all internal links (apart from those in the body of a post) link to the mirrored site and links to comments are disabled. This very strongly encourages you to stay within the Facebook world if you want to post a comment and is another example of Facebook's attempt to become the internet within the internet (not that Google aren't also trying much the same thing).

I don't have a problem with websites expanding their range of services, but there is a significant difference between simple expansion and the parasitic exploitation of a competitor in an attempt to achieve or maintain hegemony. Another recent example of this is an application that enables you to scan barcodes on your smartphone from a physical bookstore and compare the price with

In any case, if you want to post comments outside of the Facebook bubble, make sure your browser's address contains "nothing-new-under-the-sun". For future reference, click here to go to my actual blog and then set up a bookmark.
Another effect of this is that stat counters for visitors will systematically underestimate the number of readers. It has been some years since I've really looked closely at my stats, but this is somewhat annoying as well.

UPDATE: After posting this, the obvious solution hit me: post my own updates on Facebook and ditch Networked Blogs. Done.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The price of consumerism

A new video I came across via the Breathe network. Not many bells and whistles, but it articulates an important argument: that less is sometimes more and if we are going to address our destructive lifestyles then we need to address the consumerist assumptions that drive them.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Where are the wise men today?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

- Matthew 2.1-3 (NRSV).

The Gospels are filled with characters whose reactions to Jesus serve as positive and negative examples to readers. The text invites us to reflect upon our own reactions and which characters we resemble.

The well-known story of the Magi (or wise men) often simply supplies so many more figures standing in the background of a nativity scene we have surveyed hundreds of times, or perhaps a brief gloss on why we give gifts at this time of year. But there is far more to them than their stunning generosity.

The Magi, whose precise origins are only gestured at ("from the East") and whose number can only be guessed from their threefold offering, were confronted with the emergence of something new and unexpected; they dropped everything and departed into the unknown, embarking on a long journey, whose dangers are compounded by the treasures they carry. They search for a figure who brings the future: a child born to be king of a nation presently under imperial occupation. Holding high status in their own society, they depart to where they will likely be misunderstood and mistrusted in order to offer a symbolic gesture of hope that points to new possibilities. They sit lightly to the status quo, dropping their various pressing responsibilities and disrupting their daily routine in order to acknowledge the new thing that has appeared and see where it leads. They are thus open and receptive to the future, and search for it beyond the boundaries of the comfortable.

As the story unfolds, the Magi's hope and faith inadvertently disrupt the political order. They are received at Herod's Court - perhaps the most obvious place to begin a search for a royal child: within the household of the one presently occupying the throne - and yet quickly discover that the new they seek is not simply the continuation of the present, but arises from an unexpected quarter. The royal child belongs outside of contemporary constellations of power and so represents a challenge and a threat to them. The Magi are willing to place themselves and the social order at risk in order to honour this new figure. Neither their own survival nor the preservation of the peace are sufficient to deter them from pursuing their quest.

When they reach their destination, they are overjoyed. Despite the humble surroundings and the great distance they have travelled, despite the incongruity of their wealth with Mary's poverty, despite the foreignness of the context and the difficulty in accepting an infant of no standing as the object and bearer of their hopes, they kneel and pay him homage.

There are many mysteries surrounding these Magi. Who were they? Where were they from? Why did they interpret a star as having significance for Judah? And why, having found the child and sworn fealty to him, did they depart from Bethlehem and from the pages of history? Yet their utter receptivity to the arrival of the messianic moment offers us a strange and disquieting model of faith and hope.

In contrast, King Herod presents a picture of suspicion, hostility, self-interest and the worst kind of deadly conservatism. Bearing the title "King of the Jews" through an act of betrayal that rendered its messianic symbolism largely impotent, Herod clung to the power granted him at Rome's pleasure. Faced with the arrival of foreign dignitaries with stunning and potentially explosive news, Herod's receptivity is pure pretense, his engagement with the traditions of holy scripture self-serving, his hospitality merely an opportunity to secure his own position and power. He does not want anything new to emerge without it being forcibly dragged within the sphere of his influence and benefit. The future must be made the servant of the present order and, ultimately, if that requires the sacrifice of future generations, then that is the price for stability. Suffering and violence are tools, justice and compassion secondary, honesty and integrity expendable: nothing must threaten my present comforts. The Herodian way of life is not up for negotiation.

Are we any less foolish today? Where are the wise men? And most importantly, where is the Christ-child to be found: amidst our comfortable status quo that requires the destruction of others' futures? Or as yet unseen, hidden in plain sight amongst the lowly and filthy and requiring a journey of faith conducted with little more than flickering starlight for guidance?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Obama is as bad as Bush

Guardian: Obama is as bad as Bush at watering down or blocking environmental regulation.

UTS: Australian news coverage of climate change is seriously unbalanced. No prizes for guessing the worst culprit.

Monbiot: EU farm subsidies continue to give tens of billions to the wealthy, which isn't a problem because Europe is of course swimming in cash at the moment.

New Matilda: What is happening at Sydney University? Nothing other than one battle in an ongoing war for the soul of the university occurring in most societies dominated by current economic orthodoxies.

UN: New FAO report says that 25% of the world's land area is "highly degraded" from human activities.

Independent: The dying Dead Sea.

Guardian: UK government secretly supporting Canadian tar sands - yet another piece of disconnected thinking from the "greenest government ever".

Gittins: What does it profit a corporation to gain the whole world and lose the souls of all its employees and customers? Gittins thinks Michael Schluter from the Relationships Forum is a genius.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth III

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the third in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the second here.

In the previous posts I’ve explored the way justice is prized in the biblical literature. To conclude this short series I want to return briefly to the puzzle I started with: why is it that Martin Luther King’s (thoroughly biblical) demands for justice strikes us today — even those of us who profess to be Christians — as somewhat naïve and perhaps even deserving of suspicion?

Is it that we have fundamentally lost our moral bearings and no longer care about justice? I don’t think that’s quite right. We do still care about justice—both individually and collectively. (Even bankers, it turns out, have moral intuitions about fairness and desert.)

It’s not so much that we’ve forgotten all about justice; it’s just that justice has slipped down our list of priorities. This is evidence of a subtle reorientation of the basic theological horizons of society: In the place of divine justice and mercy, economic growth has become our primary source of hope. Our faith is now firmly in free markets (alongside scientific and technological innovation) to provide for us a happy and prosperous future. And as a consequence, economists have become our high priests, periodically prescribing for us the sacrifices required to ensure economic growth (bailouts, stimulus packages, austerity measures, etc.).

One consequence of this theological reorientation is that our imaginative grip on the role of government has changed. We tend no longer to demand that governments order their activity above all else to the goals of justice and righteousness. Indeed, such demands seem to us potentially irresponsible insofar as they threaten to curb economic growth. The imperatives of justice compete with the things we truly believe to be the source of life and happiness, and so we keep them on a short leash. The ideal of government as an agent of justice to punish wrongdoing and to prevent injustice has thus become marginal for us. In its place we now tend to imagine government first and foremost as the manager of the economy and as a provider of services.

The shift has been gradual and it remains partial — we haven’t given up the previous cultural paradigm entirely — but it has been a marked shift all the same. Indeed, it is so deeply entrenched in our thinking that it has become second nature to us to size up our elected representatives almost entirely based upon their performance as managers of the economy and providers of services. Come election time, every politician knows that it would be electoral suicide not to promise economic growth and better — or at least more efficient — provision of health care, schools, roads and so on. These are the fixed parameters of public debate.

It goes without saying that economic growth and technological development have in many ways been a great blessing and have brought about staggering improvements in the quality of life. And if (and this is a big ‘if’) we can find ways to sustain economic development within the ecological limits of our planet and the moral limits of care, respect and solidarity, it may continue to be a path that we can and should pursue. But this should not obscure the underlying issue. Claims of justice have been displaced from the position of primacy given to them by the Christian tradition, and this is no mere oversight but is entirely consistent with the new reigning theology of our ‘secular’ world.

For those of us who are Christians, then, we need to reflect soberly and honestly on where our deep faith lies. We who confess faith in God and claim to share his concern for justice and righteousness — practically, what do we put our faith in? What do we support with our money, our voice and our vote? Are we prepared to choose justice over increases in our own personal material wealth and wellbeing? Are we prepared even to countenance decreases in our wealth and limits on our lifestyles for the sake of justice? And do we ultimately believe that this is the more excellent way — not just for us but for everyone?

Managing the economy and providing services are important, of course. But before all else the gospel teaches us that we need our institutions of public justice to answer the muted cries of those who are exploited and cast aside; and, today more than ever, that we need them to respond to the silent groans of the creation whose capacity to extend hospitality to the human race and all living things is being over-taxed in myriad ways that we are only now beginning to understand. We cannot execute these tasks merely as private citizens; we must also execute them collectively through public institutions that act in our name.
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth II

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the second in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the third here.

The one essential and foundational task of government, according to the biblical texts discussed in the previous post, is the execution of justice and the promotion of righteousness. Contingency planning is expected; but, surprisingly perhaps, economic prosperity and even military success are not centrally expected of kings or governments. Such happy outcomes are typically attributed to divine providence and not to human skill or virtue; material prosperity and military victory are characteristically interpreted as the sign of God’s blessing or favour, but — importantly — they are never considered the automatic consequence of good government.

Nowhere is this priority of justice and righteousness over riches and security more forcefully and starkly proclaimed than by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
We can draw a straight line from the message of Jesus to the message of Martin Luther King. Both share a deeply-held conviction—let’s call it a faith—that the highest social good, the thing to be pursued above all else, is justice and righteousness; that in this lies true riches and security; that walking down this path is what demonstrates a genuine faith in God.

All of the great civilizations have esteemed justice and elevated it as an ideal, and contemporary Western nations are certainly no exception. But what is so profoundly challenging about the biblical texts for us today is how relentlessly they maintain the view that life without justice is barely tolerable, barely human, and that justice and righteousness are to be prized above all as the most fundamental social goods.

I’m not sure that we hold quite the same view today. But, again, why is that?
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.