Category Archives: Thoughts

Laudato Si – first thoughts

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’  has been on the horizon for some time. Environmentalists, knowing his interest in the theme, have been looking forward to it. Some opponents have taken a pre-emptive strike against it, suggesting the Pope should stay out of politics. For instance, Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said:

I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.

It even got an (unofficial) movie-style trailer – rather ironically, given the comments on culture in the encyclical. But what does it say, and will it make a difference in human attitudes towards our environment, particularly in the lead-up to the Paris conference this winter? It is a long document (about 100 pages) and it’s only possible here to give a flavour of the main ideas: I plan to be writing more extensively about it and put it in its wider contexts through the autumn. (For now, I have a follow-up piece planned comparing it with Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), which Francis cites, and will also be posting a list of some of the other commentary on the encyclical which I’ve found helpful – or hope to when I find time to read it all!)

What, at root, is it about? This question is not as obvious as it might seem. Through the encyclical, Francis revisits a number of themes from different perspectives. Questions are not “dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again” [para. 16]. While this might appear as rambling, the journey has a purpose and helps us dig down into what is really going on. Compare two sections from the beginning and end:

We have come to see ourselves as [Mother Earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, the water, in the air and in all forms of life. [2]

… it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values…. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong. [224]

Much of the first half of the encyclical does deal directly with climate and creation issues: chapter 1 [17-42] contains a recap of the familiar science of pollution, climate change, water and biodiversity. And chapter 2 starts [62-92] with a theological treatise on creation, which “can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” [76].

But even here, there are other issues waiting to come out. One of them is the role of science and faith. Unusually for an encyclical, this is addressed not just to the Catholic Church, but is a desire for “dialogue with all people about our common home”[3, emphasis mine]. This desire is genuine: “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”[61] But with this comes a strong appeal that faith and spirituality has an important part to play [62-63] and that a purely scientific/technological response must necessarily be inadequate:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm…. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.[111]

This leads us into the first of two major anthropological and sociological problems which face us. Our mastery of science and technology has given us an “impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world” [104], which has had numerous positive effects [102-103], but “nothing ensures that it will be used wisely” [104, emphasis mine]. A strong case can be made that our maturity as a species has not kept pace in other regards: “we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.” [105] Similarly “the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide”.[164]

Even worse, we have been sucked into this “technocratic paradigm” in which technological advances are necessarily good, our purpose and culture is mediated through electronic communications rather than human relations, and in which everything possible should be mechanised, even if people are deprived of meaningful work as a result [106-110, 115-128]. Along with this comes a dominant globalised economic model based upon the false notions of unlimited growth and resources. [106,109]

The area of economics is perhaps one where the encyclical could perhaps have benefited from further argument. It was surprising to read that “scarcely anyone dares defend” purely market-driven economics.[109] Bjorn Lomborg has done just that, and a further, predictable, critique came from an Acton Institute spokesman, who accused the Pope of having a blind spot when it came to market economics. The Pope, however, is doing nothing new here: the Catholic Church has long taught that owners of private property have the responsibility to use it for the social good, and Francis quotes his predecessor John Paul II (who was no socialist!)[93]. Nevertheless, sections of mainstream economics provide a weightier foe than Pope Francis seems to have allowed for.

The second anthropological crisis is fuelled partly both by technocratism and our economics: it is one of “modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)”[210] Or alternatively, a “relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests”. [122] With such a mindset, we are happy – provided our own financial desires are met – for the “invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage”. We care little for the poor, those in the future, cultures or social structures [143-146] or indeed nature. “The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised”[115] – together with everything in it. Our failure to care for creation and each other are linked.

It is not even as though we as individuals in rich countries are necessarily benefitting.

…people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere…. Our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalised technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. [113]

… although I think many are sufficiently acculturated not to discern this malaise, at least consciously.

A consequence of all this is that any real conception of creation (or anything else for that matter) as common good is lost, whereas we should be thinking instead of extending the notion of common good to future generations also [159]. In our utilitarian, isolationist world, the question of “what kind of world … we want to leave to those who come after us”[160] is alien.

The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes ‘a seedbed for collective selfishness’. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume…. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.[204]

But, as one might expect, in Pope Francis’s wider setting, this question alone is insufficient:

When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values…. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the world have of us? [160]

So how do we address such questions and what answers might we find? Francis is clear that our reflections need to be both deep and decisive: “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.” [161] It is clear that he will be using his influence on all he meets in the leadup to the Paris climate talks.

But that is only one front on which we need to take action. In the final two chapters, a number of avenues are proposed. The most significant, or at least the most general, is the promotion of dialogue between groups and sectors currently separated from each other: rich world and poor world, national and local politics, economics and other spheres, science and religion, one faith and another, and different sectors of the environmental movement. All need to collaborate to devise an integral ecology (in the widest sense of the term) and “a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.”[196]

A second strand is the need for better governance: what has been lacking for the climate are enforceable international agreements, and we need “agreements on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons”[174] with clear transparent decision-making in all relevant areas [182-188]. Better governance is also needed in poorer countries where corruption and high levels of inequality have led both to great environmental damage and the failure to bring many out of poverty.[172]

Part of this has to be the need to reform both economics and our notion or progress to become once again the servant of humanity’s common good rather than the master.

Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. [194]

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. [195]

For this reason, Francis is sceptical of some of the proposed market-based solutions to environmental problems, such as carbon trading and putting a price on nature.

Finally, we need to foster a new heart both individually and socially, educating people towards a new lifestyle. Understandably, Francis describes this in terms of Christian belief and heritage, but most of the concepts fit into an idea of general morality. A few quotations give the flavour:

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. [229]

An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us. [225]

… love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value…. Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. [231]

Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. [240]

Plenty of more abstract ideals there, but some practical ideas are interwoven in, notably thoughts on ways to improve urban planning. However, as has been said, the purpose of the encyclical is more to promote dialogue and encourage people towards accepting ideas already out there than to provide a grand plan for the future of humanity.

I hope that this (rather long) summary gives you a good feel for what is in the encyclical, but do encourage all to read it for themselves and join Francis on the journey. It is written in generally accessible language with only a minimum of Catholic jargon.

Returning finally to Jeb Bush who thinks “religion ought to be about making us better as people”. Unintentional, I’m sure, but that’s probably the best one-line summary of the encyclical you’re going to get, so please read it again, Jeb!



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Why is it hard for Christians to talk about population?

I was talking with Lowell Bliss, one of the authors of our Climate Change and the Gospel book when the issue of the lack of discussion of population among Christian environmentalists came up. He wondered whether at the Jamaica conference which led to the book, there had been any explicit mention of population levels as a specific problem, either global or local, and we thought no, it hadn’t. Migration had been talked about, in particular in a session looking at influxes into Asian cities and the difficulties that caused, but as an issue of redistribution than sheer numbers.

In turning the conference proceedings into the book and looking for gaps that needed to be filled, I’d pushed for a chapter on population to be added, and fortunately had an expert in mind to write it. But the number of people with such expertise in the Christian world seems relatively small, and population is often mentioned merely as an aside in books on the climate, if at all.

For example, taking a couple of books off my shelf largely at random, Jonathan Moo and Robin Routledge’s As Long as the Earth Endures seems to have no mentions of population at all, although it is clearly a factor in how humans take dominion over the earth, the subject of one chapter. Michael Northcott is not one to shy away from difficult issues but his A Moral Climate starts with a chapter detailing the problems facing the world, without mentioning population as a multiplier for other issues. This point does get made in a later chapter in a discussion of Ethiopia, but only in a single paragraph.

There are definitely exceptions though. Lowell gives a few pages to the issue in his Environmental Missions book, and he tells me John Stott gives it as the lead environmental issue in his last book, The Radical Disciple.

This is far from the interest shown in some previous decades. I=PAT and similar formulations seem to have been common parlance in secular environmental writing of the 1970s for instance: I’m not familiar enough with Christian works of the period to know how much it carried through. But why might it be so difficult to mention today? Here are my initial thoughts (purely from a UK context), but it would be interesting to think through these further.

  1. Most obviously, anything involving children can be a very emotive issue. For most people, having a child, or at least the possibility of having one, is a blessing. Those who find it difficult or impossible to have a child find it a struggle and sometimes even a stigma. Anything which involves the suggestion that this opportunity should be taken away or limited needs to be handled with care, and those who decide to remain childfree are often thought to be rather odd. All this goes even more so in our more modern UK society where personal freedom and choice has been increasingly promoted over any idea of common good.
  2. If you talk about the need for population reduction in the Global South – which is of course where the fastest rises occur – various charges can be laid at your door. One is post-colonialism, wanting to interfere in others’ affairs, or perhaps even racism. Here we see a reflection of a cultural shift since the 1970s: at that point it was still considered acceptable for the UN and similar bodies to advocate policies for the whole world, even if the ideas came largely from Global North experts and perhaps favoured Global North countries. A second objection brought is that asking the Global South to reduce their population deflects from the real problem: over-consumption in the North. (Of course, those trying to address this problem get told that it will be soon swamped by the rise in consumption of billions in China and India, with other nations following behind. Sometimes you can’t win.)
  3. Talking about population reduction in the UK has a different set of problems. Opinion polls have shown that a sizeable majority think it would be better if the population were lower, but the practicalities of getting there pose challenges. This is particularly true if we look at environmental considerations and set a target based on those: for example the Global Footprint measure would advocate a cut to about a third of our current population. There are three major (perceived) obstacles: the need for coercion along the lines of China’s One Child Policy, the need for younger working people to balance the elderly to keep the economy going (the ‘demographic time-bomb’), and again accusations of racism: population is growing both through immigration and a higher birth rate among recent immigrants. Cases can be made against all of these, but it is hard to get a public hearing or a rational debate.
  4. There also seems to be a general perception, at least among those who claim to know something about population, that it isn’t as much a problem as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. I would suspect this is due to a combination of two factors. First, graphs of the mid-range population forecast suggests that rapid population rise will be over by about 2050, and the overall peak around the end of the century will be 10 billion or a little over: that doesn’t feel so much more than now. Second, it’s known (rightly) that much of the rise is already locked in. A combination of these two factors leads to the view that everything will be fine and there’s not much that can be done to improve things in any case. (Neither of these is true: in particular, though we know that educating and empowering women are amongst the most effective ways of curbing population rise, we have plenty of that left to do.)
  5. Environmentalists have tended to focus on climate change as “the issue”. This has tended to squeeze out many other concerns that we should have. A typical counterresponse to population campaigns can thus be to argue that the other issues are more important – at least according to environmentalists – thus giving an excuse to not worry about population. Those arguing for population decline have now improved their argument to put population in a wider portfolio of environmental and socio-economic issues which interrelate and need addressing together. More mainstream environmentalists need to make the equivalent move in the opposite direction.
  6. All of the above apply equally to secular and Christian campaigners. Christians have their own separate problems. One is that the Bible teaches that children are a blessing, we should fill the earth and we should seek to have descendants who can carry forth our inheritance. These points are made both explicitly and implicitly through the Old Testament; one of the most significant themes is that Israel is formed of those who trace their lineage back to Abraham. The New Testament does not repeat these themes, but does not counter or update them either, save for the replacement of Israel with the people of God who form a spiritual rather than biological family. What is needed is better understanding of how these theological principles apply today, reading them in conjunction with wider environmental concerns. This hasn’t been studied adequately, partly due to the controversy of the topic.
  7. A second problem for Christians is the teaching of Roman Catholics and some others against some methods of birth control. This is a difficult issue: as a non-Catholic I can sympathise with the reasons for holding such a view even though I do not agree with it.

So what needs to happen? Certainly environmentalists, both faith-based and others, need to know more about the facts of the case. When they do so, they will discover that action is still definitely needed, even if that action is just more of what we are already doing, and that a clear argument needs to be made against some of the false reasoning that many believe. The information is out there, but just needs to be expounded and included in environmental writings in an appropriate way. Secondly, a sensible theological debate in the Christian world is overdue, and theological input lacking: more research is needed.

But perhaps most important of all is for population to retake its place amongst the key environmental indicators: part of what we all consider when we look for a better future for our world.

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Disentangling carbon budgets

The World Resources Institute has put together a very helpful infographic showing the four example emissions pathways (RCPs, or representative concentration pathways) used in the latest IPCC reports. Well worth using if you’re giving a talk on the area – I’m adding it to mine. I took the opportunity to look a bit more into the carbon budget numbers, and found a few things which initially confused me, so wanted to set them out here to caution others.

The standard figure given for the total budget is a nice round figure: a total 1000Gt (gigatons, or billions of tons) of carbon since the start of the industrial revolution: if we stay under that we have a 2/3rds chance of staying under a 2C temperature rise. (Here’s the first thing to avoid: that’s carbon, not carbon dioxide, which some sources quote instead, multiplying all figures by about 3.67.) We’ve emitted a total of 515Gt so far, so that’s 485Gt left, right? (See the WRI’s previous infographic.)  On this basis, the WRI’s forecasts look reasonably friendly: we stay under budget on the low pathway (RCP2.6) and don’t exceed it until the 2040s or 2050s on the other three. Plenty of time to take action. (For reference, current emissions are close to 10Gt per year.)

However: this doesn’t allow for two other factors. Firstly, emissions of other greenhouse gases, which contribute a substantial proportion of warming. The IPCC Working Group I report from which the 1000Gt budget is taken notes (see page 27 of the summary for policymakers) suggests an alternative figure of 790Gt – or a budget down from 485Gt to 275Gt –  if we are looking at the low pathway (RCP2.6) – there is a further complication as the other greenhouse gases tend to be much more potent but not stay in the atmosphere so long, so it’s impossible to reduce everything to CO2-equivalents as one might like. Other calculations you can find online use this figure (or 800: the figure was revised just before publication) so coming up with much more pessimistic forecasts.

Secondly, the way the WRI puts things suggest that it is possible to get near the time the budget is due to run out, take action, and all will be fine. What this doesn’t take into account of course is the massive amount of inertia in the system: we simply can’t just stop emitting carbon altogether (barring complete socio-economic collapse). One report I’ve seen suggests that the last date we can seriously start taking action is 2017: beyond this we will have built sufficiently much carbon-using infrastructure that simply using everything to the end of its natural lifespan will be too much.

There’s a final issue, which is the large uncertainties in the IPCC’s figures. They don’t put error bars on the budget figures, but they do on the emissions to date: 515 [445-585], which in their notation means a 90% chance of being within that range. 70Gt either way makes a substantial difference.

So, onto the WRI’s figures. On the larger 485Gt budget, the lowest pathway (RCP2.6) stays under, the medium one (RCP4.5) passes it in 2056, the high (RCP 6.0) in 2057, the highest (RCP8.5) in 2045.

How about the lower budget, to give us a 66% chance of staying under 2C. Our emissions are currently tracking RCP8.5 reasonably closely, with an average emissions rise of about 2% a year. If we continue on this path, we exceed the 275Gt budget in 2033. (Note: I’m using my own approximations rather than the official figures for ease of calculations so we may be slightly out, but my answers are within a year of WRI’s where we’re doing the same model.) How about if we cut emissions from 2020? Even with a 4.2% a year cut from then on, which is close to the RCP2.6 model, we still exceed the budget by 2043 and end up in the territory of between 33-50% chance of avoiding a 2C rise. A rather more swingeing cut of about 6.5% pa is needed to stop exceeding the 275Gt/66% budget. I think that’s at or about the top end of what is considered possible.

One other thing to note: in the WRI figures, the medium pathway seems slightly worse than the high one when it comes to meeting the carbon budget (2056 v 2057). This is an artefact of the pathway models which I hadn’t spotted before: the four are based on four independent models from different research groups, and the “high emissions” one has lower emissions than the other three initially, and lower than the medium one until the late 2030s. A bit unfortunate.

What do we conclude from all this? Firstly, due to the various uncertainties it is difficult to communicate climate figures in a way which is both simple and accurate. Secondly, the situation is urgent (or very likely so) – 2020 isn’t too far off, and the need for strong concerted action is greater than ever. Even the lowest emissions pathway has quite strong negative consequences – and the infographic brings that across well, even if, as I hope is clear, I have difficulty with their figures for carbon budgets.


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Should faith groups divest from fossil fuels?

There’s a big push in some quarters at the minute for faith groups (and others) to divest investments from fossil fuel companies. It’s been going for a year or so, led or at least strongly encouraged by Bill McKibben and the campaign, and has now spread to Australia and the UK. Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign, launched last September, is encouraging UK churches to do the same. So far the Quakers have signed up. The most recent figure to argue for this course of action is Christiana Figueres, the UN Climate Chief, both in a Guardian article and at an event at St Paul’s Cathedral I attended on Wednesday night.

There is a clear case in favour, made in Bill McKibben’s well-known Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math article of July 2012. On his figures, if we are to stay under a rise of 2 degrees C we can emit only 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere by the middle of the century. However, proven reserves of fossil fuels come to 2795 gigatons. To avoid dangerous climate change, most of this needs to stay where it is. (Although there is a fair degree of uncertainty over these figures, whatever they are, “most” still applies.) The companies that own these reserves, however, are assuming they can extract and sell them: they have no financial value otherwise. Moreover, they are continuing to invest vast amounts ($1.8 billion a day in total) in exploration, far more than they invest in renewable energy.

So the moral case is this: putting our investments into these companies is effectively funding runaway climate change: churches should put their money where their principles lie, remove them from fossil fuel companies and invest in (amongst other things) renewable energy instead.

However, many are not convinced. Peter Pereira Gray of the Wellcome Trust, who also spoke at the St Paul’s event explained his group’s reluctance: I understand the Church of England’s investors hold a similar view. Firstly, as shareholders they have an influence over what the companies do, and the ability to encourage them to shift more into renewables, which many are beginning to do. Secondly, by getting out of a major sector, they are constraining the returns they can get, and possibly damaging their ability to do good in other areas. Thirdly, is there that much of a moral difference between investing in a fossil fuel company and investing in a company whose business model depends on buying and using fossil fuels – and there are few that do not!

You can clearly argue with these principles. But it is instructive to step back and take a wider view. An interesting article by Christopher Hayes “The New Abolitionism” draws parallels between the divestment movement and the abolition of slavery in the USA. His central point is this: while there was a clear moral case for the abolition of slavery and increasing public support for it, there was an economic case against it. Freeing slaves would deprive thousands of Southern slaveholders of valuable property, and require a major transition in the economy which needed handling carefully.

Historically we know that much of the South ended up poor for decades, and many former slaves struggled economically, although much of this was due to the effects of the war, and it is debated how much better things could have been handled. We also know that in the build-up to the war, when it was clear that there was a shadow over slave-holding, those who supported it became more militant and belligerent and constructed new arguments in favour of it.

Hayes sees similar trends today. Fossil fuel companies know that if their reserves become written off and worthless, their value will drop considerably: Hayes estimates something like $10 trillion over the entire industry. They are fighting hard to stop this happening, but even if they weren’t, our still-fragile globalised economy with a network of investments would be hit hard if there was a sudden drop in value of this form. And, much of the funding for renewables that is coming out of the big energy companies is presumably dependent on the money coming from fossil fuels. We would like greater cross-investment but there is a risk of it stopping.

Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be calling for divestment: there is a moral case for it, just as there was for calling for the abolition of slavery but we need to be clear on the consequences. As Hayes writes:

In fact, the parallel I want to highlight is between the opponents of slavery and the opponents of fossil duels. Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth. That liquidation of private wealth is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground. It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking.

A rider to this. It may become necessary for money to be paid to the fossil fuel companies for them to agree to abandon their assets. This happened when British-owned slaves were freed (the slaves themselves got nothing!), and there are modern parallels: at least one country has asked for foreign funding in return for leaving its rainforest alone. Something I heard at a talk by a descendent of William Wilberforce this week gave me pause for thought: one of the larger amounts paid in recompense went to the Church of England, and in particular the Bishop of Winchester. What would the current Church do in this scenario? Would it be prepared to give up its apparently ill-gotten gains, or give them to support adaptation work in some area of the world hit by climate change?


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Time for a Missional Ecophilosophy?

Erik Assadourian (Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and involved with the annual State of the World reports) has written an interesting piece on the new Milllennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere (MAHB) blog. Entitled Time for a New Environmentalism it reflects on the success of religious missionary groups, who some decades ago realised that just telling people about their religion wasn’t enough: they needed to help them in practical ways too, because there were needs to be met, to help build community and to demonstrate in practical ways how religious belief could be a benefit.

Missionary religions have rooted themselves across a variety of geographies, eras, and cultures, and today have billions of adherents. Religious philosophies offer something fundamental that the environmental movement has so far failed to provide: a way to understand the world and humans’ place in it, as well as how to behave in that world. Just as important, religious movements build committed communities of adherents — helping each other in times of need and celebrating and mourning together — and draw their resources and power directly from these communities.

Why haven’t environmentalists done the same?

Assadourian thinks they should, in two key respects: firstly to provide real help to those in need and to help with the skills required for a future more sustainable world. But secondly to devise and spread a new philosophy or philosophies, based on the principles of care for the environment, that the Earth is sacred and sufficient to answer issues of meaning and suffering, but ‘who cannot accept the otherworldly orientation of existing missionary philosophies’.

In many respects this project has a similar goal to the one that people like me are aiming for: a set of beliefs that include a faith to live by and a responsibility for the environment and future generations. One of the projects I’m working on is editing a book for the Lausanne Movement which fundamentally is aimed at making the point that care for creation has to be an integral part of our mission as Christians.

It also has some similarities to Transition, which again has something of a missionary and community focus, and (in some places at least) seeks to link in with people’s spirituality and philosophies. But this isn’t enough for Assadourian.

He argues that Transition isn’t philosophical enough, and isn’t laying down roots that will enable it to stay intact through the forthcoming crisis and collapse to a time when a new human civilisation emerges and needs something to keep it from the same growth-obsession that plagues us. Here I fear he’s being too ambitious. Transition seeks to be open and to evolve in response to local and global circumstances and community wishes. If it has successfully built communities of sustainably-minded individuals, it seems far more likely to derive organically the new principles needed to take us forward post-collapse than trying to do it now. The lesson of Christian theological history at least is that creativity and new thinking comes about best when previous theology is applied to new circumstances. The rich strand of post-exilic thinking that we find in the later Old Testament could only emerge as the people of God reflected on and regrouped after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem.

The other challenge is to derive some philosophies that both gain broad agreement and provide a rationale for people to believe them. Assadourian may not appreciate the otherworldly, but uniting under the banner of a particular divinity or pantheon lies behind most of the world’s successful religions.

So we can appreciate the need being pointed out, and the passion to do something about it, but is it a feasible project? We’ll see.



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A firmer timescale on global warming

A recent article in Nature is getting a lot of coverage: see for instance The Guardian, Daily Mail and The Sydney Morning Herald.

A group of researchers led by Camilo Mora in Hawaii have taken the bold step of attempting to predict how long we have before the climate will depart from its normal variability, specifically when our existing record climatic extremes will become typical. These records have been taken over a period of about 150 years to 2005, so already taking into account some climate change. The analysis is done over particular areas, ecological areas and types of species.

Typical dates come out at about 2050 if we continue down our existing emissions path (the IPCC’s RCP8.5) or about 20 years later if we start making substantial cuts (RCP4.5). But the tropics come out considerably worse, and in particular coral reefs, where we have already reached unprecdented levels of acidification in the past few years. Some locations, including parts of Indonesia, and Jamaica, have only ten years before they reach a new climate.

This may not be an enormous surprise, but it puts the issue into clear relief, perhaps more than the recent IPCC report did. The authors are pessimistic: they note that most of this change is already locked into our system. Even if our particular area might be further down the track (Britain seems to have until into the 2050s), our global economic and ecosystem means that we will be hit by secondary effects earlier.

It all calls for a renewed dose of hope. I’ve been reading on this topic recently: particularly some excellent writing by Richard Bauckham – watch this space.

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Renewable energy without intermittency?

One of the main arguments against a widespread switch to renewable energy is dealing with intermittency: if the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining, no power gets generated. So we need to have a backup source, say a gas power station, to fill in the gaps. Just maintaining it increases cost enormously, so you might as well run it full time.

However, there seems to be some good news on this front. This article on the thinkprogress site describes a new generation of wind turbines which include a storage battery so that excess electricity can be stored for the lean times (I can’t see for how long though). They also employ some more advanced technology to take account of weather forecasting and the state of the power grid to optimise how they run.

So: some good news on this front. Let’s hope we can get some of these installed in the UK.

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