Monday, December 02, 2013

This is what idolatry looks like

Australia has its own permutations of this, but sometimes it can help to see just how ugly greed can be in a context a little distant from ours in order to help us to see our own context with fresh eyes.

The day after they've given thanks for all they have, people are trampling and even killing each other to grab more (largely unnecessary) stuff. I have thought for some time that the main antidote to the idolatry of consumerist greed is thankfulness, but reflecting on this juxtaposition in the US cultural calendar makes me question that assumption. While I have been thinking and teaching for many years that thankfulness is the path to contentment, perhaps I should be concentrating more on the cultivation of trust in God's future goodness as a more important source of satisfaction. Giving thanks may briefly shift my gaze from the next purchase to what is already in my hand, but if this is to be more than a momentary distraction from the insatiable hunger for more, we need a healing of the heart: a cleaning, filling and binding of the gaping wound that our purchases briefly and ineffectually seek to soothe. Indeed, sometimes what looks like thankfulness can merely be "entitlement in thankfulness clothing",* as our thanksgiving can serve to baptise our current level of affluence, neutralising any critical reflection on the purposes and consequences of that affluence. Perhaps this particular demon requires not just prayers of thanksgiving, but also fasting.
*A phrase from my friend Claire Johnston, who helped me rethink my understanding in a recent Facebook discussion of this video.

At a practical level, minimising exposure to advertising is critically important, since though we all deny being influenced by silly ads, corporations know that we're fooling ourselves and so willingly spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on an industry designed to erode our contentment and corrupt our desires. But it is not just avoiding the negative messages; we need to soak in the message of divine truth, grace and delight. The healing of desire is a slow process and there are no shortcuts.

One final unrelated thought: there are omnipresent riot police for every peaceful demonstration, but where are the shields and paddy wagons for these mobs? Just to be clear: I am staunchly opposed to heavy-handed policing and think that the criminalisation of dissent is a grievous injury to any claim to democratic society. I'm simply noting an irony that the surveillance and security state manages to coordinate a massive police presence at any event that might threaten the culture of endless corporate profits, but seem largely absent at these far more violent spectacles dedicated to the pursuit of that end.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Personal and political: why cycling and recycling are insufficient

What can I do in response to climate change? As I talk to people about climate and ecology, I get asked this with great frequency, and this is not surprising. Previously, I've tried to put together a bit of a list of suggestions. Yet in replying to such a question, I often point out that "what can I do?" is a secondary question. More important than what I can do is what we can do.

Now of course there are indeed all kinds of things I can do to reduce my contributions to climate-altering emissions: buying less stuff, ditching the car, cutting flying, purchasing renewable energy, eating less meat and dairy and so on (note that recycling or changing lightbulbs, which are the usual answers people want to hear are way down this list, since they are relatively minor compared to some of the things here).

Personal footprint reductions are good, being: (a) simply the right thing to do in a world throwing away its habitable climate; (b) culture-shaping (normalising solar-installation, for instance); (c) economic communication to corporations (though this influence is plutocratic in effect, since it is one dollar one vote); (d) a talking point for persuasion (people ask questions); (e) an actual (albeit tiny) contribution to global emissions reduction; and (f) important for avoiding the all-too-easy charge of hypocrisy (this is one of the most common lazy defeater arguments people use to keep these issues at bay and it's powerful to be able to show how you're shifting your lifestyle).

But personal footprint reductions are secondary. On the timescales we have and with the structure of the problem locating particular power in massive fossil fuel interests to block progress (through corruption/regulative capture of the political authorities), it is critical that responsible action focus on cultural and political action. If we had a century in which to reduce emissions then personal lifestyle changes and a bottom-up cultural change would undoubtedly be the way to go. If we were not facing one of the richest and most powerful industries in history with a track record of shaping the political landscape to suit its agenda, then building a new and better alternative would be relatively straightforward.

Unfortunately, we don't have decades to start reducing emissions. A significant fraction of our emissions today will still be altering the climate in tens of thousands of years and we're already at the point where the observed changes (let alone those in the pipeline due to the temporal lag between emissions and warming) are becoming increasingly dangerous to human and natural systems. Two degrees warming is flirting with disaster; four degrees is a recipe for catastrophe. Our current trajectory is heading for four degrees or more. Every year we delay, the price tag of the necessary emissions reductions jumps by something like US$500 billion.

We're well past the stage where quietly changing a few lightbulbs is going to cut it.

This is one of the reasons why I am excited about the campaign to get individuals and institutions with a social conscience (churches, universities, city governments) to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment is not primarily an economic strategy, since my few dollars will always be dwarfed by the massive sums and inertia associated with business as usual. Divestment is a cultural and political strategy, changing the nature of what is normal and thinkable (i.e. culture) by putting fossil fuels into the same category as other "unthinkable" ways of making money (e.g. asbestos, tobacco, weapons, gambling, etc.), and in doing so, also changing the way that the political winds are blowing, repositioning the fossil fuel lobby to be as politically toxic (or more) than, say, the tobacco lobby. When politicians are embarrassed to be seen publicly with the fossil fuel lobby, we're winning; when they know they have to stop receiving all donations from them due to the political costs involved, then we've won.

At least round one.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Good planets are hard to come by

Speech delivered at the Sydney rally for the National Day of Climate Action on 17th November 2013 at Prince Alfred Park.
Good planets are hard to come by.

And, thank God, haven't we've scored a beauty with ours? Abundant, diverse, complex and full of wonders. So what on earth are we doing to Earth?

I've spent years reading climate science, and the big picture is crystal clear. The planet is warming rapidly; we are the primary cause; a fossil-fuelled future is a recipe for catastrophe; but another future is still possible, if we change course now. That's why we're here today. We want to see and take part in ambitious responsible sane effective climate action.

We're here from all kinds of backgrounds: various ages, colours, different faiths or no faith, differing political persuasions. What unites us is a shared concern for our future on the only planet we've got. We want to be able to pass on to our children, like my son Marlowe here, a world that is as good or better than the one we received from our parents.

(We're here because we cannot keep silent any longer. Australia contributes far more than our fair share to the climate problem. With just 0.3% of the world's population, we dig up almost 5% of the world's fossil fuels each year. Wouldn't you love to be part of a country doing more than the minimum, a country taking the lead in implementing real solutions?)

I've been asked to share what motivates me as a Christian who is passionate about climate. There are all kinds of reasons, but one that has got under my skin is that Jesus invites me to love my neighbour. Not just the neighbours on my street. Nor just our neighbours in the Blue Mountains who lost homes to the fires, but our global neighbours in China choking on our coal smoke, our Pacific Islander neighbours facing rising sea levels, our African farmer neighbours losing crops to drought.

Jesus invites us to love our neighbours. Will we love our neighbours in future generations who will inherit our mess? And not just Marlowe's generation; our emissions today will still be affecting the climate many thousands of years into the future.

Jesus invites us to love our neighbours. And don't forget our non-human neighbours in the millions of other species with whom we share the gift of life and this marvellous home.

All these neighbours – the global poor, future generations and other species – have done little or nothing to contribute to this problem, but are facing the worst consequences of our recklessness. I want a better future for Marlowe. But I also want a better future for all of us.

And the good news is that another way is possible. Jesus said that our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. We don't need to spend our lives accumulating as many toys as possible, expending as much energy as possible, hoarding as much wealth as possible. We don't need to use the dirtiest forms of energy just because they seem marginally cheaper in the short term. We can live more simply, and leave space for others to simply live.

And when you meet people who disagree, vested interests who want to keep profiting from pollution, politicians who drag their feet and propose too little, too late, then ask them, "with all due respect, which planet are you on?"
Despite heavy rain the rally in Sydney still numbered in the many thousands, as can be seen in this picture from the stage just before I started speaking. Unfortunately, there were some serious technical issues with the sound system during the first half of the rally, so I think only a fraction of the crowd could hear anything. Also, the heaviest rain of the morning commenced as I was introduced, which further reduced the acoustics for a crowd standing under umbrellas.

The references to Marlowe (my one year old son) were included in the script as I intended to have him on my shoulders as I spoke but were modified in delivery because he was too freaked out by the cheers of the crowd and so we decided to leave him with his mother. The paragraph in parenthesis was to be dropped if time was short.

The top image is a banner my wife, mother-in-law, sister and some friends made yesterday. It got a lot of attention (and featured on SBS news) and people kept asking if we had a website. It's coming!

There was another rally in Sydney today against climate action held at the same time in a different corner of the same park. Total numbers? I counted about five or six people carrying signs and shouting, plus about twenty police since the five or six were being particularly obnoxious (rude, angry, malicious) and clearly the police weren't particularly needed for the big rally, which was peaceful, family-friendly and very well attended for a soggy day.

My friend Mick Pope spoke at the Melbourne rally, which had something like 30,000 people (and fine weather!). You can read his speech here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gravity: a review and brief reflections on earthbound existence

(Numerous spoiler alerts.)

"Life is impossible in space."

So begins the critically-acclaimed and blockbusting new film Gravity - the most humble, human and hopeful sci-fi film I've ever seen.

How can a sci-fi flick be humble? This was no "to infinity and beyond" celebration of hubristic human intergalactic imperialism. This was an extended study in our inability to survive a mere few hundred kilometres above the surface of the only habitable piece of rock in the known universe, a precarious existence in orbit (i.e. perpetually falling back to earth and missing, which is what orbit is) threatened not by aliens, not by an absent God, not by international tensions and conflicts, but simply and depressingly by the unforeseen consequences of our shortcuts and fundamentally by the inability to deal with our own junk.

Even amidst death and destruction, the Earth itself was the star of the show, the jewel in space, the pale blue dot on which all human hopes depended. The sheer beauty of the planet was the backdrop against which the crises and tragedies of the tiny cast played out. Indeed, the last line from the one human who felt somewhat at home in space was an appreciation of the beauty of the earth, praising the wonder of sunlight reflected on the Ganges.

When it all comes crashing back to earth, we are thrown again onto the ground, finding in the mud between our fingers the basis of our only hope. The sense of being "home" at the end was overwhelming. We are creatures of the dirt. It is no coincidence that the only survivor is named Stone.

The film was redolent with images of gestation and birth, symbolism that even became a little heavy handed at one point as Stone floated in the fetal position trailing a breathing tube. Numerous rapid dangerous movements through narrow spaces and a final desperate breaking into and out of water completed the natal symbolism. Stone, having found in space the ultimate womb in which to hide her maternal grief, the ultimate car ride to delay the full recognition of her loss, is reborn back into the world of pain and loss, the world of gravity, the word of dirt and mud. Her final embrace of the mud was a return to roots, an acceptance of her existence on a finite planet, a rediscovery of being fundamentally a pedestrian rather than celestial species.

We are humans from the humus, 'adam from 'adamah, and our destiny is tied intimately to the planet that is our only home, a home threatened by our inability to deal with our own junk.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Three missing numbers: climate in the 2013 Australian federal election

"These are the three crucial numbers missing from the climate debate in Australia. Neither major party is likely to mention them. These three bipartisan agreements are fundamentally incompatible with the demands of either justice or prudence, let alone the love for neighbour at the heart of Christian ethics, a tradition from which both Rudd and Abbott claim to draw inspiration."
The ABC Religion and Ethics site has published a piece I wrote for CPX outlining some of the missing numbers in this federal election. Between writing the piece and its being posted, Abbott indicated he is not, after all, committed to even the paltry 0.5% emissions reduction target that he had previously (repeatedly) promised. Also, if I'd wanted to pick five, rather than three, numbers, I would have included these two as well.

• One twelfth: the share of global carbon reserves Australia controls.

• Eighty billion: the number of dollars in the Australian Future Fund, which ought to divest from fossil fuels, given that it is a future fund after all.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

An open letter from 200 evangelical scientists

Two hundred US evangelical scientists write an open letter to Congress calling for meaningful climate action. Here is a taste:

The Bible tells us that "love does no harm to its neighbor" (Romans 13:10), yet the way we live now harms our neighbors, both locally and globally. For the world's poorest people, climate change means dried-up wells in Africa, floods in Asia that wash away crops and homes, wildfires in the U.S. and Russia, loss of villages and food species in the Arctic, environmental refugees, and disease. Our changing climate threatens the health, security, and well-being of millions of people who are made in God's image. The threat to future generations and global prosperity means we can no longer afford complacency and endless debate. We as a society risk being counted among "those who destroy the earth" (Revelation 11:18).

Friday, July 05, 2013

Solidarity is more fundamental than stewardship

Two young fish were swimming along when they came across an older fish swimming the other way. “Isn’t the water lovely today?” the older one remarked. The youngsters nodded politely and kept swimming. When the old-timer was out of earshot, one fish turned to the other and whispered, “what’s water?”
Some things are so close to us that we can’t see them, so normal that most of the time they are effectively invisible. Often, it is only when the normal goes wrong that it comes suddenly into focus. This was certainly true for me a few years ago when I received some life-threatening health news. Suddenly, the good health that I had taken for granted jumped into focus. By being threatened, what had always been true suddenly became visible to me. I had been swimming in the water of good health without really noticing how much of a blessing it can be.

One of the realities as necessary and ubiquitous to us as water is to fish, yet which is so obvious we rarely consider it, is our relationship of utter dependence upon the proper functioning of the rest of creation. Every breath we take and every mouthful of food and every sip of water relies on a complex web of relations. The fusion of hydrogen atoms in the heart of the sun radiates energy at the right wavelengths and amplitude to reach us in a form that can drive photosynthesis and the water cycle, having first been filtered of dangerous frequencies by stratospheric ozone. This solar energy strikes the surface of the planet and heads back towards space as long-wave radiation; on the way, some of is trapped by asymmetrical trace gases, ensuring that our planet is not a frozen ball, but that most of it contains liquid water – water that is everywhere in motion and necessary for plants to produce the oxygen we breathe and the carbohydrates we eat – water that is prevented from stagnating by the tug of the moon, the spin of the earth and the warmth of the sun, and which can be carried on the winds so that life-giving rain falls even far from the ocean – water that flows and carves rocks, gradually smoothing the pebbles I threw as a child into Ladies Well, and which carries nutrients out into the oceans, where they are needed by the microscopic phytoplankton that not only supply half the world’s atmospheric oxygen but which also form the basis of the marine food chain.

And on it goes. In any direction we look, we quickly discover that we are very much part of this creation, that we are tied in myriad uncountable ways to the planet on which we find ourselves. Our shelter, clothing and everything we use to make life more comfortable and liveable are derived from what we find around and under us. Indeed, all the atoms that we are and use, from our eyes to our iPhones, all are the scattered debris of long dead stars, reformed and refashioned over countless millennia into the complex structures we recognise today. We are, quite literally, star dust.

Perhaps we may sometimes think of ourselves as so clever as to have risen above non-human creation. We think of ourselves as masters, as being in control, as having outgrown our dependence upon the fickleness of nature. Yet even at the peak of our technical knowhow, even at the best of our rocket science, when we put a human being on the surface of another world, we are thrown once more upon our utter dependence upon and participation in the created world. For go and ask any astronaut: they are more aware than most of us just how precious and vital simple things like oxygen, water and somewhere to put our bodily waste truly are.

So when we approach the concept through which most evangelicals focus their understanding of the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation – that is, the concept of stewardship – we must come to it mindful that it is a secondary concept. It only makes sense when placed within a broader framework, a wider vision of humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation that emphasises our membership of a whole community of creation. Our primary relationship to other creatures is as fellow creatures together, recipients of all that we are and need and can be from the hand of a generous Creator. Whatever else we may go on to say about the place of humanity within creation does not override this fundamental interdependence and solidarity we share with our co-creatures. We do not approach the rest of creation as though we exist prior to and outside of or above it. If we read the creation accounts, we see that God proclaimed creation “good” six times even before humanity enters the scene. There is no hint that the rest of creation was made simply for humans to use. Indeed, such a view is idolatrous, as numerous places in scripture make it clear that if creation has a purpose beyond itself, it exists for God rather than for us. Thus, other creatures have their own relationship to God that is prior to and more important than their subsequent relationship to humanity. And we share with them this fundamental origin in God and orientation to God. No account of human stewardship truly makes sense until we grasp this.

Psalm 148 takes this reality and places it in the context of worship. As we listen to the Psalmist’s praise of the Creator, notice how most of the psalm takes the form of invitations to all the other creatures to join in a universal chorus of praise. The picture is of a massive and diverse choir, all singing in harmony: the angels (who after all are creatures too), the sun, moon and stars, the waters, the weather, the trees, the animals and, finally, the humans. This picture is an excellent antidote to two mistaken approaches: the first, adopted by some extreme environmentalists, is to treat nature as itself divine. The scriptures affirm that through the created order we do indeed catch all kinds of glimpses of God, but we’re most in tune with the universe when we join with it in praising our Creator. The second mistake, and one that is far more common in our society and amongst our churches, lies not in overstating the importance of creation, but in understating it, taking it for granted, treating it as though it is mere raw materials to be mastered by our technology and used for our projects without consideration of any broader context. By the way, humans are not the only creatures to use other creatures. In making use of other creatures, we are not exercising our particularly human role but are merely being creaturely. And scripture places clear limits on the ways that human may use other creatures, especially other living beings. We look at creation and see only resources for our economies, failing to see that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. But once we really get the reality that other creatures are our co-worshippers, then we can no longer worship creation nor treat it like dirt.

We shouldn’t even treat dirt like dirt, since from dirt we came and to dirt we will return. The first man ‘Adam was made from the dirt ‘adamah, in Hebrew. ‘Adam from ‘adamah – it’s a Hebrew pun. It works in English too; the word “human” has the same root as the word “humus”, soil, dirt. The human from the humus. It’s the same root as the beautiful word “humility”. Being properly humble, being close to the dirt, not thinking of ourselves as demi-gods or outside of creation, but rather seeing ourselves as dependent upon and bound together with the rest of creation is central to what it means to be properly human.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

A little exercise

Let me take you back to your childhood. Think of an outdoor location that was special to you as a child, a place in the natural world that was and still is close to your heart, a place with cherished memories or where you had a significant experience. For me, I think of a holiday cottage owned by my extended family on the upper Allyn River in the Barrington Tops, and in particular a spectacular bathing hole nearby called Ladies Wells where as kids we spent many hours swimming, jumping off rocks, watching waterfalls and playing with smooth river stones.

What about you?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Return to Oz: Smith family news

The time has come for us to depart Scotland and return to Sydney. After the better part of five years, we're sad to be leaving such a beautiful city and so many wonderful friends. At the same time, we've been missing antipodean friends and family and now eagerly anticipate many reunions. We'll gradually be making our journey during May.

I am still en route on my PhD odyssey, though am hoping my wanderings reach a conclusion somewhat faster than those of Odysseus. Regular blogging will resume once we've polished off our packing and peregrinations.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Using your head: why pedestrians need helmets

Canadians take the lead in public safety regulation with a new mandatory pedestrian helmet law coming into effect tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On pause

As has been clear for some time, this blog has been more or less paused for a few months due to a variety of real life factors. I do promise more activity before too long. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benedict on responsibility

"Human beings let themselves be mastered by selfishness; they misunderstood the meaning of God’s command and exploited creation out of a desire to exercise absolute domination over it. But the true meaning of God’s original command, as the Book of Genesis clearly shows, was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility."

- Benedict XVI, Message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace 2010.

Since he is sure to be much in the news today (becoming the first Bishop of Rome to abdicate his See in almost 600 years), I thought a quote might be apposite.
H/T Liz Jakimow.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Five soundings in national energy policies

China announces peak coal usage. This is fascinating. It may be an ambition that fails by a wide margin, but it is nonetheless a very interesting development, not least for Australia, which is still planning to double coal exports in the next decade.

Spain announces that wind produced more electricity over the last three months than any other source (a first).

The US has been reducing carbon emissions by some surprising amounts, for a variety of reasons (not all of them straightforwardly good).

Meanwhile, UK plans for nuclear renaissance seem to getting further bogged.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ethics of emissions trading

"Emissions trading sounds like a compelling idea in principle but the practicalities are much less attractive. [...] it's depoliticized over-consumption (i.e. we are told it no longer matters who causes what harms, provided we all pay the right amount) [...] emissions trading carries a series of practical problems. A weak cap means increased emissions but a tight cap, based on a effective climatic targets would likely lead to regressive social consequences, for instance, privileging a Londoners' stag party over a Polish OAPs' warmth."

- Dr John Broderick in "Should we stop worrying about the environmental impact of flying?", Guardian 31st Jan 2013.

This neatly summarises one of my concerns with emissions trading schemes. The question of the relative social good associated with a particular set of emissions is assumed to be answered through a direct equation with the economic cost of that good. If a stag party for a rich Londoner costs as much as heating the home of an elderly Polish couple, then these social goods are deemed equivalent, despite the fact that one is a luxury while the other may well be a necessity under certain circumstances. In some ways, it is a similar issue to the globalisation of the food market. If there are wealthy people willing to pay for a luxury cash crop on another continent, this is taken as justifying the eradication of local food autonomy in a developing country.

But not all goods are commensurate on a common scale. It is not possible to put a price on everything. The logic of the market is not universally applicable.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Happy Amnesia Day

Language NSFW. Colonialist guilt NSFL.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Carbon offsets: you've got to be kidding

"[Y]ou shouldn't "kid yourself" that carbon offsetting can somehow lead you towards a status of carbon neutrality. It patently can't. But that shouldn't disguise the fact that many of the projects that carbon offsetters support are in of themselves "good" projects worthy of our support. My problem has always been - and is, in all probability, likely to remain - that carbon offsetting is both a distraction and a delusion. Fine, support those projects, but do so because they are worthwhile causes, not because you think it is somehow ameliorating your carbon "sins"."
- Leo Hickman, "What's the best form of carbon offsetting?", Guardian 6th July, 2010.
This is a good summary of my own position on person carbon offsets. I have not yet found reason a compelling reason to revisit that conclusion.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Climate change prayer

Holy God,
earth and air and water are your creation,
and every living thing belongs to you:
have mercy on us
as climate change confronts us.

Give us the will and the courage
    to simplify the way we live,
    to reduce the energy we use,
    to share the resources you provide,
    and to bear the cost of change.

Forgive our past mistakes and send us your Spirit,
    with wisdom in present controversies
    and vision for the future to which you call us
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

©Anglican Church of Australia Trust Corporation. Used by permission This text may be reproduced for use in worship in the Anglican Church of Australia