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Book launch and Chris Wright talk

The book I’ve been editing for the past couple of years for the Lausanne Movement has just been published! Creation Care and the Gospel is available from all the usual outlets (ask your local Christian bookshop to order it, perhaps). An e-book is in preparation.

We are also having a launch for it in London on Monday 6 June, at which eminent missiologist Chris Wright will speak. Free, and all welcome, but registration required.


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Reconciling a Wounded Planet

Over the weekend of September 18 and 19 I had the privilege of attending a conference at Coventry Cathedral entitled Reconciling a Wounded Planet. The idea was to bring together those concerned about our environmental crisis, to share stories of hope, and make positive partnerships for future action. And this it did – we had the opportunity to get together in groups, including by region and interest – and it has led to the organisation of an event at which Richard Bauckham will be speaking in Cambridge on 21 November.

For me, the location and theme of reconciliation were perhaps the most powerful. Coventry was heavily bombed in World War II, and the cathedral largely destroyed. The immediate response from the then bishop was that the ruins be left and a new cathedral built adjacent, and he started a ministry of reconciliation that continues to this day. The physical space, both from the presence of the old cathedral and some rather “brutal” aspects of the architecture in the new, emphasises that past evils are real, and cannot be erased from history, yet there is hope for better relationships in the future.

This idea is, I feel, a helpful one for talking about our planet. As Richard Bauckham showed us in his reflections on Colossians 1:15-20 (and has written about elsewhere) we should be living in a “community of creation”, each human, animal, plant and so on participating and fulfilling his, her or its own role. There is room for debate as to exactly what that role should be for humans, but it is clear that we have fallen short of it as a species, and need to seek peace with other humans the remainder of creation. But what we have already done cannot be washed away: for many decades if not centuries we will have to live with and live around the damaging legacy of our prior and contemporary environmental neglect.

Another powerful but related image, this time presented by Bishop James Jones, is the idea that we are on a cruise ship on the ocean, destination and timescale unknown. Those of us fortunate to live in the UK or a similar nation are in first class, benefiting from the fruits of the voyage. But our luxury is often based on the hard labour of others: the global south in this picture is on the lower decks. The revolution needed for greater equity between humans on the planet will be difficult and take time. And, what’s worse, the legacy of the suffering will last longer. Inter-human reconciliation will still be needed to resolve issues resulting from this lingering hurt: those who live in areas of the world damaged beyond repair by climate crisis feeling rightly aggrieved at the descendants of those who caused it. It is this kind of ministry where Coventry has much to teach us – interestingly it was noted that they had had an environmental conference as far ago as the early 1970s.

Turning to the more practical side, we had speakers and participants in all sorts of spheres, working in churches and communities, through to businesses, and one of the streams looked at the potential benefits of technologies. In all of these, the encouragement was that much is being done, but the worry is that it is too little and too late, and a constant refrain just under the surface was the question of how we get the mainstream of the church to take these issues seriously. This came out in the group I was participating in: health, education and welfare, which I’ll write up in more detail in another post. As noted in both my comments on Adrian Brown’s Grove booklet and the talk by James Hindsen, a school teacher engaged in trying to promote sustainability, there are plenty of excellent ideas out there for improving sustainability education, but a big gap between activists and the majority who seem unable to care. This is an issue that I fear we are failing to solve.

At the time of writing, we are waiting for the organisers to synthesise the various bits of feedback and ideas into some sort of joint statement – potentially quite a challenging process given the amount of material generated – but it has the potential to be a helpful and inspiring new manifesto for the church in the leadup to Paris. In the meantime, if I’m representative of those who went, there are plenty out there with new ideas, inspiration and contacts, continuing the work to reconcile human to human and human to planet.

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Review of “Changing the Climate” by Adrian Brown

Changing the Climate is the most recent in the education series of Grove Booklets – short summaries of aspects of Christian life and ministry. I was fortunate to discover this one when I met the author at the recent Reconciling a Wounded Planet conference in Coventry, as I don’t normally follow the education ones, and this one has plenty to offer the general reader too.

Brown’s main thesis is that the way we have educated children in recent decades has failed to adequately equip us to find creative ways to address our crises of environment and sustainability; in fact it has tended to make them worse. Education is increasingly about success in “fulfilling short term tasks set by outside agents”; it puts knowledge in subject silos with little cross-disciplinary thought (at least at secondary school and beyond) and divorces it from ethics and the consequences of actions; and continues to teach the myth that knowledge is everything, that in theory at least we can manage the earth and essentially become gods.

Education has always been a balance between, on the one hand helping induct young people into what society considers normal, and on the other hand helping them develop the skills to critically evaluate the status quo and reinvent it for the future. Our current system, while advocating the latter, fails in either showing pupils the big picture of what today’s world is like, or having the wide-ranging vision to do something about it. Many young people – as always – have the passion and interest to do something, for instance, about the environment, but feel worn down by what they’re taught in school.

A particular problem is economics, taught as though it is “an empirical science with no need to factor in questions of values and obligations”, and that (since the fall of communism) it is inevitable – even both of these are known not to be true by academics. The ideology of this sort of economics has led to our current consumer society, where even Christians dislocate creator from creation and we lose any sense of right relationship with either. Our education system could help us challenge it, but instead it is aligned with it: education is primarily about success, which is about money, and with that money we can consume more.

Or, as Brown writes: “The planet does not need more ‘successful’ people; it desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people with the moral courage to fight to make the world habitable and humane.” Our Christian faith, correctly applied, can help shape such people. In particular, the prophetic texts help us to step outside the box, see our world in a more objective manner and inspire us to change it. They help us to share the despair of a broken world, acknowledges the difficulty of change, but see hope and bring hope for the future.

There is much rich material here to reflect on, and Brown has drawn together many strands (and cites many books). My one regret is that while there is a convincing case made for the failures of the current system, little is said as to how we can practically move on. What is a secondary school teacher to do when constrained by the strictures of a GCSE syllabus that leaves virtually no room to teach anything else? What can those of us not in education do to address the problems?

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Satire and environmentalism

Something a bit lighter but still of interest. A friend this morning was telling me about a recent piece on the satirical news website The Onion about Chevron proposing solar-powered oil drilling platforms. The Onion has also run more than one piece on the Pope, of which the funniest in my opinion is one in which he rejects his criticism of capitalism when he sees the wide variety of Oreos on sale.

These I think tell us something helpful about the US mindset – for comedy of this sort to work,the audience needs to have an appreciation of the issues being referred to. Or else it just goes straight over their head. So we can assume that many in the US understand the importance of reducing carbon emissions (or at least that others think so) and the hypocrisy of the oil companies. And, indeed, that the Pope feels there is a problem with capitalism – although it’s unclear whether its a more nuanced opinion than “the Pope thinks capitalism is bad”.

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Barack Obama’s latest climate speech

As I write this, Pope Francis is on the way to the United States to speak to political leaders and the UN on the subject of climate change in the lead up to the Paris conference, so it is worth noting what sort of response he might get. President Obama has been speaking regularly on the subject this year, most recently in Alaska (text here).

As we know, at the end of last year came a surprising but very welcome announcement of joint action between the United States and China, and this speech continues in the same vein. Much forms a familiar route through the crises we face:

Our understanding of climate change advances each day.  Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought.  The science is stark.  It is sharpening.  It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present.

Details are given of the particular threats found in Alaska and the Arctic: greater temperature rises than the world average, melting glaciers and permafrost, and damage to the very way of life of many. But, paradoxically, it is the unwillingness to change lifestyles which forms a major obstacle to action. People are in particular worried about the threat to the economy. “In countries where there remains significant poverty, including here in the United States, the notion is, can we really afford to prioritize this issue.”

He notes that climate change will, ironically, be a major threat to economic growth. So what is the solution? Efficiency, technology and ingenuity. “This is a solvable problem if we start now.”

So far so good. But some questions need to be posed.

Firstly, is it solvable in these ways? Possibly if this speech was being given in 1995, not 2015, but to make carbon cuts of the levels required seems to need more radical action?

Secondly, how far can Obama speak for the remainder of the US estabilishment and in particular the next administration. The various Republican candidates are – in the main – not so keen to take action, and doubts have been expressed about Hillary Clinton too.

Thirdly, Obama’s view is well short of the Pope’s agenda. How will talk of retreat from the idolisation of technology, placing economics back under the thumb of politics and heightened world equality play with the President, let alone the average American? We will find out starting later this week!

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Laudato Si’ and human-nonhuman relations: unanswered questions?

The following is a draft of some ideas I’ve working through as I reflect on Laudato Si’. Comments welcome!

In the response to Laudato Si’ by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a notable climate sceptic thinktank, the following criticism appears:

“To us the encyclical is coloured too much by a hankering for a past world, prior to the Industrial Revolution, which is assumed to have been assumed to have been generally simpler, cleaner and happier. There is little historical evidence for such a vision… How is the inevitable human impact upon the natural world to be moderated and mitigated?”

To what extent is this true? Laudato Si’ argues for two major changes in human behaviour – improved relationships with the non-human world, with each other, and with God; and, following on from these, moderation in damage to the environment, and consumption, at least for those currently rich.

But are these sufficient to provide practical guidelines for human behaviour. Or, as the GWPF also asks: “To imagine that human civilisation could develop with no adverse or competitive impact upon the wider natural world would be a misleading idealism. Might the encyclical have been rather more open about these realities?” Before we turn to the encyclical, let us consider what questions are at stake and set them in the context of wider issues in human/non-human relations.

One question to consider is: is the world intended primarily for humanity, primarily for non-human creation, or some point in between. Or, alternatively, what is the relative value of the interests of humans and other species?

At one end of this spectrum are views traditionally labelled as “dominion”, or their secular equivalents. At the extreme end of these views, the world is entirely for human benefit. Nature is worth preserving only for its value to humans – as something to eat, a source of chemicals (drugs, for instance) and wilderness and open space as something for us to enjoy.

At the other end we find ideas such as deep ecology. Here, humanity is just another species with no more rights than any other animal or plant. Humanity’s extinction would be mourned no more or less than the black rhino or a species of orchid: indeed, some thinkers even go so far as to consider our extinction could be a positive, given the damage we cause to most other species.

A second group of questions is to what extent humans have a responsibility to attempt to manage the world and ecosystems on behalf of the species in it, whether to attempt to preserve what is there or to improve it, or whether they should leave it alone. One complication here is that no part of creation is stable: we know that over the billions of years before humans arrived on earth, climate, geography and the range and distribution of species varied over time, and the processes leading to those continue, so by attempting to preserve something, we are, in some way, standing against what would have happened in nature.

For both of these questions, few environmentalists would find any extreme position credible, but exactly what middle ground to take is open to some debate. The same applies to Christians. The Bible makes a variety of relevant statements, but offers no single synthesis. For instance, we have both the command in Genesis 2:15 to tend the garden, and by extension at least part of the world, but the end of Job warns us that some aspects of it are beyond our comprehension, let alone our control.

These questions also go beyond academic interest into the practical realm. For instance, questions arise all the time about the balance of land use: should a forest be left in its current state, managed in some way, or cut down to provide space for human habitation and crops? These questions range into the realm of ethics and often economics. One controversial set of ideas proposes putting some sort of “value” on the natural world, enabling decisions to be made on the basis of some sort of cost-benefit analysis. This at least has the benefit of ensuring that non-human interests are taken into account, but there are major concerns about both the principles and practicalities of doing this.

The Bible alone cannot help us resolve these questions. How about a wider ethical or theological framework? All options seem to founder. For instance, consequential ethic methods or utilitarian methods require some basis for weighing the relative happiness of humans and the various species of non-humans: essentially the same problem involved in weighing the value of nature we have just considered.

Many environmental theologians have advocated a theocentric view, where the goal is to focus on God’s role in creation and seek perfect relationships. Or an ethics based on virtues, in which we improve ourselves to the extent we make right decisions and live in right relationships. These are both strands of Pope Francis’s thinking: in the world he imagines, ‘the human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures’ ultimately leading to ‘a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity’ [both 240, see also 208 and 11 for more on the two issues separately]. But while these characteristics enable one to enact good decisions when they are made, the issue of how we discern where the correct middle grounds lies remains, unless you hold to a theology of God that he can and will direct our paths in arbitrary detail. Or indeed some kind of overrealised eschatology where the ‘lion can lie down with the lamb’ in this world.

Those kinds of views might be more suitably attributed to the pope’s namesake Saint Francis, whom the Pope cites as an inspiration. ‘Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise’ [12] is potentially overidealistic, even if this is qualified with a note that such feelings must necessarily lead to action. [11]

Despite that, Pope Francis does list many problems which need solving, together with some pointers to solutions in some cases. In [60] he notes the spectrum between deep ecology and dominion (for him the latter is represented by those who ‘doggedly uphold the myth of progress’), but in [61] he notes that ‘on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer opinion’ and advocates an open-minded debate.

In some respects this is a step forward for the Catholic church. Previous documents in the Catholic Social Teaching tradition have wanted to dismiss ideas such as ecocentrism and biocentrism out of hand due to them ‘[eliminating] the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings’ [Compendium 463]. Laudato Si’ at least sees them as positions which can contribute to the debate.

However, much of its thinking seems still rooted in the human-centred thinking of past CST documents. For instance, despite biodiversity being a good, and non-human creatures having value in themselves [33, 69, 82], it is unclear how much influence they will get in discussions. Nature reserves of various sorts are commended [37] but, despite a call to ‘restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium’ [210] there is no suggestion that humanity should retreat and ‘rewild’ what we have previously colonised. Policies are to be ‘developed and debated by all interested parties’ [183] but while local humans get a key place in these discussions, nothing is said about representations by, or at least on behalf of, non-humans.

In the same way, the key notions of Common Good and the Common Destination of Goods are extended to all humans, and to the future [156-158 and 93-95 respectively]: non-human creatures are not in view.

It is important to take into account the answer to the question of how much the ‘failings’ of creation are due to sin. Taking two books I’ve recently read Jonathan Wilson’s thesis in the book God’s Good World is that our theology of creation should be linked to a theology of reconciliation: hence the work of Christ can bring a world of peace – even in this world. Terence Fretheim, coming from the perspective of suffering, argues by contrast that creation is perpetually ‘messy’ and in a state of flux, and some level of suffering is inherent to some as species come and go, for instance.[1] Both Wilson and Fretheim argue that humanity should be co-creators with God of a world which is “more good” but how good can that world theoretically get?

This is in one sense the eschatological question we’ve already touched on: how much can we expect the future harmony of the new creation to be prefigured today? But the important practical implication is whether a theocentric view and better virtues are sufficient to “solve” the environmental crisis, or whether we will still need to adjudicate in disagreements both between different humans and between humans and other creatures. Neither author addresses this ethical question directly. The implication from Fretheim is that such conflicts will still exist. Wilson seems to take the former view. but he excludes environmental action from what he wants to cover. Where Pope Francis stands is less clear. Frequently, and particularly when referencing Saint Francis, he seems to be taking a similar line to Wilson. But when he talks about environmental action, the need for political agreement ‘on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called “global commons”’ [174] is placed alongside the need for improved virtues.

So it is concerning that neither the question of the relative values of human and non-human, nor the potential issue of resource conflict between human and non-humans is presented as an issue. (With the exception of water [27-31] although here, like elsewhere, it appears that human needs are more of concern.) Associated with this is perhaps the most alarming statement in the whole encyclical: ‘it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development’ [50]. Of course we know that the Catholic Church would struggle with this issue. But it is of concern that both the surrounding text and the reference speak of the needs of humanity alone: far from even considering human/non-human balance as a question to be addressed, here we see a further pushing back of the bounds of non-human creation as acceptable.

So, let us return to the GWPF’s question. How is the inevitable human impact upon the natural world to be moderated and mitigated? By better relationships and with better ethics – which are certainly needed – but some of the key questions seem not to be being asked by the Pope.

[1] Fretheim, Creation Untamed.

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What does a 2C rise look like?

We talk about a 2 degree Celsius rise, but what does that look like in terms of climates we know? Here’s a table I put together to help me think about it. The places are chosen to give a roughly equal gap of just over 2 degrees, with a primarily Atlantic climate to give comparability.

City Latitude Average max Average min Daily average Difference from previous
Lerwick (Shetland) 60°10 9.5 5.3 7.4
Glasgow 55°57 12.7 5.9 9.3 1.9
London 51°30 15.3 7.8 11.6 2.3
Bordeaux 44°50 18.5 9.1 13.8 2.2
Coimbra (mid Portugal) 40°13 21.2 9.8 15.5 1.7
Agadir (SW Morocco) 30°26 23.4 13.4 18.4 2.9

Obviously this is pretty crude, but it gives a feel for the kinds of shifts we can expect, especially in ecosystems.

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