Sunday, December 29, 2013

Are People the Problem or the Solution?

Probably both.  At any rate, that is the title of an introductory lecture on demographics from Joel Cohen of Rockefeller and Columbia universities (which I learned of from the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times).  Here's a video
And here is a link to the transcript of the lecture (for those who, like me, prefer to read rather than to watch videos).

I've referred before to the command in Genesis to "fill the earth".  Looking at a graph like this, it seems that this at least is one command that humanity has succeeded in carrying out.

So what next? Professor Cohen makes his case for studying demography as follows:

I’d encourage any freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, adult, high school student—I’m not age prejudiced—anybody who wants to do three things to consider demography.  It’s not the only field that offers these attractions but it does offer them in spades.  It’s really very attractive.  First of all, demography gives you tools and analytical perspectives to understand better the world around you.  That’s understanding.  

Secondly, it gives you equipment to solve problems mentally.  It’s mentally exciting; you really have to use your noggin, and if you’ve got one use it or lose it.  So it’s use it.  And third, it is the means to intervene more wisely and more effectively in the real world to improve the wellbeing, not only of yourself—important as that may be—but of people around you and of other species with whom we share the planet.  

So it prepares you to go out and do something that’s worth doing for a larger good than only yourself.  So there’s an old saying, “If I am not for myself who will be; but if I am only for myself what am I; and if not now, when”?  So now is the time.  Pull up your pants and get to work.

Friday, December 27, 2013


Things run out.  The oil in the ground; the food we can grow; the days of our lives.  The nature of this blog (or maybe of its author) is to focus attention on such limits.  To live wisely is to live within bounds.  "So teach us to number our days", says the psalm attributed to Moses, "that we may gain a heart of wisdom". (Psalm 90:12)

Not just our physical resources run out.  Our emotional strength, our ability to forgive, even to pity.  There are limits to all of these, perhaps closer to the surface than we realize.  In Chesterton's story The Chief Mourner of Marne, the characters claim to "forgive" a crime whose nature they do not understand.  When realization dawns on them, they swing over to the opposite side like a door slamming. "There is a limit to human charity" cries the most sympathetic of them, 'trembling all over'.

Christians (in Chesterton's story represented by Father Brown) make the outrageous claim that there is one inexhaustible force at work in the world: the love of God.  Unlike "human charity",  Love never ends. (I Cor 13:8)  Christmas is the sign and token and proclamation that this love - electing, purifying, creative - has come among us and will persist - patiently, and at great cost - in bringing to fulfillment human beings and the world in which they share.  This love will not let go.  This love will not give up.  This love will not run out.  This love will win.

So, if I speak in the tongues of scientists and activists, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and my climate model is more accurate than any other; and if I have faith enough for geoengineering, but have not love, I am nothing.

And if I give away all that I have, and live off the grid an an ecovillage, and return my body to the cycle of nature through cremation, but have not love, I gain nothing.

For natural resources may be exhausted; tongues will cease; as for knowledge, it too will pass away.

But love never ends. 

Photo by Flickr user Fiona Shields, licensed under Creative Commons

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Recycling Heat

A lot of water flows to waste each day from the average American home. (Over 300 gallons per day according to the EPA.)  What's more, quite a bit of that water is hot. To heat a gallon of water (from domestic cold to hot temperatures) takes about 750 kilojoules of energy so 100 gallons a day of hot water represents 75 megajoules -  something like 800 watts of energy, all day, every day.

Even if cleaning and reusing the water itself might not be economic in a domestic context (and by the way, that is not so clear - especially as regards using "grey" water to flush toilets) it still makes sense to try to recover some of that heat before it goes down the drain. The most effective, but somewhat high-tech, way to do that would be to store the warm "grey" water somewhere and use it as the source for a heat pump.  However, simpler devices can be effective too. 

For instance, one can fit a shower drain with a heat exchanger like the one illustrated from ReTherm.  The idea is that the cold water supply to the shower exchanges heat with the waste water running down the drain.  The cold supply therefore arrives at the showerhead somewhat pre-warmed, and this reduces the demand on the hot water heater.

It is pretty easy to do an idealized mathematical analysis of the performance of this system.   What one finds is the following.  If a denotes the setting of the shower temperature mixer, then with the usual plumbing arrangement the showerhead temperature is
ah + (1-a)c
where h is the hot supply temperature and c the cold.  With the (idealized) heat exchanger in play this changes to
(2a-a2)h + (1-a)2c
If you know a little calculus you'll see immediately that this means the shower temperature control becomes "twice as effective" when it is at the lower end of its range.  Towards the upper end (i.e. if your shower is as hot as your hot water supply) recycling heat becomes less effective because the relative amount of cold water used is less.
Note  The ReTherm device illustrated is installed in a slightly different way than described above - it preheats the cold water supply to the hot water heater rather than the cold water supply to the shower.  Although this changes some of the details of the above analysis, the overall energy savings are the same. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Prius report

With both our kids reaching college age, the time came this spring for an important life transition: we sold our mini-van.  To replace it, we wanted to invest in a hybrid car and after thinking about it for a while it seemed that the standard in that class is still the Toyota Prius, which (amazingly to me) has now been on sale for well over a decade. 

Here's some thoughts after six months.
  • Without trying too hard, it seems easy enough to average 50 mpg in the summer (I've definitely noticed the mileage going down as the cold weather approaches - partly this is because winter gas blends are less energy dense, partly I suspect because the system doesn't have time to reach its optimum operating temperature on a short trip). That would represent a saving of maybe 150 gallons of gasoline per year.  Each gallon of gas is responsible for about 9kg of carbon dioxide emissions (source: EPA) so that means our switch reduces our family's annual emissions by about a ton and a half. Not bad.  But, as I posted before, it pales in comparison with air travel: one round-trip to Europe will release roughly as much carbon dioxide as our Prius-driving will save us in a year.
  • I do think the car has an "educational" effect (at least on me).  Having instant feedback about fuel consumption and whether I am running on electric or gasoline power encourages me to drive more economically.  Moreover, acceleration is kinda leisurely and I find myself adopting a more relaxed driving style that goes with that.  All to the good I suppose.  On the other hand, a negative educational effect is possible too.  Perhaps, driving a car that carries the social "message" of the Prius can insulate the operator inside a bubble of passive-aggressive moral smugness.  A study reported in the New York Times suggests that drivers of "high status" vehicles are less likely to behave courteously towards others, and Prius drivers are up there with BMW drivers in terms of discourtesy.
  • Finally, the obvious point: in the end it is another consumption item (despite my perhaps disingenuous use of the word "invest" earlier). I referred just a moment ago to the "social message" of the Prius, thus providing an excellent example of the prevailing ethos of consumerism: the car we drive is not just a metal box on wheels, the stuff we buy is not just stuff, it is a way of conveying who we are.  Raising consciousness about the environment is all very well: but will it simply be co-opted to generate another niche market sector, which can increase overall sales still further?  This is the "business case for environmentalism".  Who shall deliver us?
Photo from Top Speed review of Toyota Prius Persona,

Friday, November 22, 2013

Protecting the resource

So I was able to take an hour out of my day yesterday to view the Wings of Steel movie.

Wings of Steel is an esoteric, difficult climb on the left side of El Capitan in Yosemite.  After the first ascent in 1982, twenty-nine years elapsed before the route saw a repeat.  This film follows the second ascent team as they struggle up the wall over thirteen days.

But there is more to the story than climbing.  The "assault" on El Cap was not just human vs. rock.  It was human vs. human.

You see, the 1982 first ascent team were "outsiders" to the Yosemite climbing scene.   During the many days of their ascent, local climbers became convinced that the route was being put up in bad style; that the precious rock of Yosemite was being damaged and disrespected by climbers who had not paid their dues in this almost-sacred place.

What followed was a scapegoating of the FA party as unclean.  Apparently, "everyone" knew that the route was a travesty, and the climbers underwent various kinds of public shaming and humliiation.  For years.  "We had to protect the resource", says one of those involved to the movie camera.

If you want to know "who was right", you'll have to see the movie (or read Ammon's article in Rock and Ice or, if you have a few days to spare, read the 3473 posts on the original Supertopo thread...) and then form your own opinion. That's not where I'm going here.

You see, what this got me thinking about is how much we humans tend to form our community by setting boundaries and defining who is outside them.  Even those (perhaps especially those) who identify with a cause greater than themselves.

Is the environmental cause, which wants to protect the precious resources of this sacred place, going to  become defined by who it scapegoats?

Or by who it loves?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Who is Conservation For?

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, following up an important theme in conservation discussions (see my earlier post of Peter Kareiva here).  What gives value to the natural world?  Some intrinsic worth? Or the sum of the "services" it provides for humanity?  The Chronicle article personalizes this in terms of the contrasting careers and goals of two scientists, Gretchen Daily and Michael Soule.  It begins:

Once, Gretchen Daily only had eyes for the rain forest.
Eighteen years ago, as a young scientist on the rise, Daily arrived at a renowned research station in the hills of Costa Rica armed with nearly 100 shellacked plywood platforms. As a student at Stanford University, studying under the famed biologist Paul Ehrlich, she had seen how large birds, defying expectations, seemed to thrive on small bits of forest spackled in the area's coffee plantations, when theory predicted their demise. On her return, she planned to spread her feeding platforms in staggered densities to test that observation; local kids promised to monitor the mesitas.
But when the morning came, so did the bees.
Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Of Math and Poopiness

horses n carsSo, I was on a panel yesterday at an all-day conference on "General Education" at Penn State. The panel members were largely faculty who regularly teach GenEd or "breadth" courses; I was included, I think, because though I have not yet taught such a course I am talking a lot about the MATH 033 (Math for Sustainability) project which will finally get going next year (yay!).

So I used my allotted to make a pitch that sustainability should be taught as a GenEd theme, and that sustainability is a quantitative matter, involving questions like "How much?" and "How long?"  As an illustration, I mentioned a question that I have heard Richard Alley ask: suppose that an automobiles excretions were solid and visible, like those of a horse - then which would be poopier, per mile of travel? Would our roads soon be covered with car poop, as they would certainly soon be covered by horse poop, supposing that the same number of people traveled by horse as currently travel by car?

It's a good question for getting a quantitative appreciation of the scale of carbon dioxide emissions; and I hope it helped us relax amid discussion of the important discussions of the purpose of education!

Afterwards, someone I had not met came up to me and said, "I really like the horse poop illustration. I could help you teach that part of your course."  And he gave me his business card.

I said "Great" - I think partnership in teaching will really improve this course.  But I wondered what this guy's academic field might be that specially qualified him to help me with this unit.  I took a look at his business card.

Professor of Equine Nutrition

I guess that would do it!

Photo by Flickr user safoocat, licensed under Creative Commons

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Global Climate Change Negotiations

Reposting this really intriguing article by John Baez over at Azimuth.  He writes:

There were many interesting talks at the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop last week—too many for me to describe them all in detail. But I really must describe the talks by Radoslav Dimitrov. They were full of important things I didn’t know. Some are quite promising.

Radoslav S. Dimitrov is a professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario. What’s interesting is that he’s also been a delegate for the European Union at the UN climate change negotiations since 1990! His work documents the history of climate negotiations from behind closed doors.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 4)

Pope Francecso IIn my last post (#3) on "theology of mining", a while back now, I mentioned the theological and ethical questions that mining raises, and I wrote: "I hope that better qualified people than I am will get into this discussion!"

Well, it seems like someone was listening.  The Vatican news website today reports Pope Francis' message for a  day of reflection on the mining industry, which was celebrated on 7 September and attended by representatives of the world's most important mining companies, including the Anglo American, China Minmetals Corporation, Rio Tinto and Zamin Resources, as well as experts in the sector from within the Catholic Church, Caritas and Oxfam America.

The statement says: "The participants in this meeting are aware that, so as not to repeat grave errors of the past, decisions today cannot be taken solely from geological perspectives or the possible economic benefits for investors and for the states in which the companies are based. A new and more profound decision-making process is indispensable and inescapable, one which takes into consideration the complexity of the problems involved, in a context of solidarity. Such a context requires, first of all, that workers be assured of all their economic and social rights, in full accordance with the norms and recommendations of the International Labor Organisation. Likewise it requires the assurance that extraction activities respect international standards for the protection of the environment. The great challenge of business leaders is to create a harmony of interests, involving investors, managers, workers, their families, the future of their children, the preservation of the environment on both a regional and international scale, and a contribution to world peace."

My earlier posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3

(H/T Fletcher Harper for the link to the Vatican statement.)

Image from Flickr user Jeffrey Bruno, licensed under Creative Commons

Thursday, October 24, 2013

More thoughts on math and sustainability

The blog "Getting to Green" is written by a university administrator who "pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium." Today's posting has some extended reflections on the importance of the quantitative aspect of understanding sustainability, which closely mirror my own. You can read it here.

I'm excited to report that my Math for Sustainability course was approved by Penn State's Faculty Senate, and will run for the first time next fall (Fall 2014): later than I had hoped, but the stately pace of university bureaucracy is hard to hurry.  The university put out a nice press release which has already brought me a couple of outside requests for interviews or information.  Here's the hook:

Quick, how many trips to the landfill does Penn State’s recycling program save each year? If I double the thickness of my loft insulation, how much energy will I save? How much might the melting of the polar ice caps amplify the effect of global warming?

After a semester in Professor John Roe’s Mathematics of Sustainability course, his students will know how to figure out the answers to these questions. Roe, and undergraduate research assistant Kaley Weinstein, are preparing a series of sustainability-related problems for a new general education course in mathematics. Their target audience: the student who is not going into science, mathematics or engineering.
You can read the rest here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Thoughts on "Faith for Thought"

It's three weeks since the Faith for Thought 2013 conference, Seeds of Hope, and the rush of the day has subsided a little bit.  So I need to set down some thoughts about the event, trying to measure it against what we had hoped for, and to see what went well and what could be improved for any future iteration.

  1. All the response we had was positive, and I think everyone who took part had a wonderful day.  The three main speakers - Lisa Sharon Harper, Richard Alley, and Ben Lowe - brought different insights into the central questions of faith, justice and creation care.  In between, the small-group breakout sessions gave people the opportunity to reflect, process, and engage more deeply.  At least one participant described the experience as "life changing".
  2. I love the overall feel of the day, with its mixture of large and small groups, informal interaction, Byron Borger's wonderful book table, and the  way the whole event is framed by worship.
  3. The number of participants was enough to give the day critical mass - and, in surveys, some said they liked the intimacy of the occasion - but it was many fewer than we had hoped, based on the experience of previous Faith for Thought events.  Related to this (at least in my mind) is the high proportion of survey respondents saying that already existing environmental concerns were among their main reasons for taking part in FFT.  In other words, we were reaching teh committed, but we were not as successful as we'd hoped in sharing the message that creation care belongs on the agenda of every thoughtful Christian believer.
Perhaps it is inevitable that a one-day conference comes across as an event for the already committed, especially in a world where overscheduled students often seem to measure out their available time in microsecond increments.  If so, we might need to think about shorter events which will motivate those who don't think of themselves as "green" to think a bit more deeply about the call to care for God's creation.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Book review: Playing God

Andy Crouch's Playing God has received a lot of press recently.  For in-depth, thoughtful and positive reviews from smart people, you could look here, here and here.  I'm sure there will be more.
The thing is, I agree that this is an important book on an important topic, closely related to our recent posts on "chastened activism".  But I also think it is gravely flawed.  I don't usually do negative reviews but I've chewed over this one for a while.  If you want to know more, read on.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hope and the Environment

The September, 2013 issue of the Anglican evangelical journal Anvil presents a series of papers that have arisen from a consultation on "Environmental Hope".  Margot Hodson sets the stage for this special issue in an editorial, describing a discussion with a fellow theologian in 2010:
We both regularly share platforms with environmental speakers who present a bleak picture of the state of the planet. We follow and our role is to present Christian hope. As the environmental situation deteriorated, so our hope had become less proximate and more eschatological. It lacked reality and we were both struggling to find an authentic hope for this age...
 While Christians share in the "ultimate hope" of God's redemption, what is the relationship between that and the "proximate hope" of solving our very present problems - especially as those problems seem to become ever more intractable. Richard Bauckham draws on Revelation as a model for the relationship between these hopes:

The church has frequently had to think afresh about Christian hope in changing contexts. It is not that the essence of Christian hope – the great hope, founded on Jesus Christ, for God’s redemptive and fulfilling renewal of all his creation - changes. But if Christian hope is to retain its power to be the engine of the church’s engagement with the world, if it is to be more than an ineffective private dream, hope itself needs renewal as the world changes. From the infinite riches of God’s future for the world we must draw those that can be transformative for our time. That way we can re-envision the world in the light of hope. That is what happened when John the prophet, in the book of Revelation, was taken up to heaven in order to see how the critical moment of history in which his first readers were living looked from God’s perspective - from the perspective of God’s purpose to actualize his kingdom on earth as it already is in heaven. John had to be abstracted in vision from the world of the beast, the world as projected by the imperial propaganda, in order, not simply to see the future goal of God’s purposes, but also to see how that goal shed light on the present, how God’s people there and then were to live towards the coming kingdom of God and the coming renewal of all creation.
It's a sobering but encouraging atricle.  Here's the reference: Bauckham, Richard. “Ecological Hope In Crisis?” ANVIL 29, no. 1 (September 1, 2013): 43–54.

Picture of Richard Bauckham from the article cited.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Faith for Thought - next weekend

The Faith for Thought conference is next Saturday, September 28th.  This is a one-day conference in State College, PA, about living out the Christian faith - with the specific theme, this year, of "faith, hope and creation care".
If you're in the Northeast, why not come and check us out? The speaker and facilitator lineup is excellent.

I have to confess that putting this event together is extremely stressful for me.  There is an apparently endless succession of details to get right.  And despite my theoretical doubts about human activism, I struggle with the temptation to believe that if I was only more active, more in control, then I could get the details organized - put the worries to rest - set everything to rights.

So there is a little parable, in my working on Faith for Thought, of the activist temptation that I've written about earlier: the idea that the world actually is ours to save.

When really, what I should be hoping for is that at the end of the day, I am still on my feet!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sun Come Up

A friend shared with me an invitation to purchase an educational copy of the documentary Sun Come Up directed by Jennifer Redfearn.

Here's the trailer:

From the website: Sun Come Up is an Academy Award® nominated film that shows the human face of climate change. The film follows the relocation of the Carteret Islanders, a community living on a remote island chain in the South Pacific Ocean, and now, some of the world’s first environmental refugees.

When climate change threatens their survival, the islanders face a painful decision. They must leave their ancestral land in search of a new place to call home. Sun Come Up follows a group of young islanders as they search for land and build relationships in war-torn Bougainville, 50 miles across the open ocean.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Risk, Tradition and Change

What is familiar may not be safe.

This is a difficult thing for us humans to understand. In our minds, familiarity means comfort; comfort means safety. When John Snow locked London's Broad Street pump in 1854, he was cutting off the source of a deadly cholera outbreak; but he was also cutting off the local people from their familiar water supply.  It was not easy for some to accept.

In the eighties, climbers enthusiastically embraced new low-stretch, high-strength synthetic materials like Spectra and Dyneema for runners and anchor slings.  But then came this video:

It turned out that the high-tech material with which we'd become familiar carried risks that we had not clearly perceived. When the time came to change out my slings, I went back to nylon.  Many others did the same.

What's the point? Three take-aways from this little story.
  • Though we shouldn't be too quick to assume that we are the smart ones, we also shouldn't assume that "traditional practices" are always the best.  Air pollution from cookstoves is an obvious example here.
  • A gripping presentation of the risks (like the DMM video above) can change community practice quickly. (We had had technical discussions about tensile strength and modulus of elasticity before, but they didn't have the same dramatic effect as watching a sling fail in a drop test.)
  • But - another thing that made it possible for the climbing community to switch so quickly was the ready availability of an alternative.  We just had to buy something else (which was already on the market) - a small change within a larger paradigm that remained the same. 
If the paradigm itself needs to change, how easy will that be to accomplish?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Blame and Restitution

The Rim Fire near Yosemite is the now closing in on a quarter-million acres burned, making it something like the third largest recorded in California. Thousands of firefighters are still working on controlling the blaze; the cost of firefighting operations to date exceeds $80 million.

And now this: "The U.S.Forest Service has determined that the blaze was started by an illegal campfire set by a hunter... Investigators would not say whether the hunter had turned himself in.  When the investigation is complete, the U.S. Department of Justice would decide whether to seek restitution."

Restitution! According to the dictionary, that is "restoration to the former or original state or position". What "restitution" could an individual hunter make for the incineration of 385 square miles of forest and 111 buildings?  But there is something in us which finds it deeply comforting to have an individual to blame, someone upon whom to unload our demands, however unfulfillable, for the "restoration of the original state".

Our moral vocabulary is adapted to univalent causes with definite effects.  That's one reason for the excessive weight that's attached to connecting climate change to individual natural events (like Hurricane Sandy).  If we can definitely "blame" the inundation of lower Manhattan on climate change, the thinking goes, then it's an enemy worth taking seriously; but if such definite blame can't be attributed, then the "science is uncertain" and we can retreat to business as usual.

The world of climate change, however, is a world where causation is polyvalent, effects are statistical, and restitution may well be impossible.  This is not a world where looking for someone, or something, to blame is likely to be a helpful strategy.

But that makes it a world rather like that of the New Testament.

As the New Testament writers reflect on the death of Jesus, they see in it the end of the system of blame and retribution: "what the Law was powerless to do, because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering" (Romans 8:2,3).  The system of blame - the Law - is a dead end, says Paul; but beyond the dead end is a new work of God.

Can the Church receive, and live out, a manner of life "in the Spirit" beyond the dead end of contemporary climate-change blameshifting?

Image from the Fresno Bee,

Friday, August 30, 2013

The importance of stupidity in scientific research

El Greco (1541-1614) - 1590-95 St, Francis Receiving the StigmataI was thinking where to go with the series of posts on "chastened activism" and spiritual warfare, when I was reminded of this marvelous article:
Schwartz, Martin A. 2008. “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” Journal of Cell Science 121(11):1771–1771. 

Schwartz talks about a fellow student who left a PhD program because of discouragement at the feeling of "stupidity" that it produced.  He writes:
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling. I even think it's supposed to be this way. Let me explain.
Though Schwartz does not use this language, what he is talking about is a species of spiritual discipline: that personal and intellectual growth results from deliberately embracing our ignorance, our powerlessness: not from doing energetically, over and over, what we already know we can do.  "When I am weak, then I am strong" says Paul.

And if science offers excellent opportunities for such "productive stupidity", that is partly because it can be so ruthless in exposing our misunderstandings, our ignorance, our incompetence.

Part of the spiritual battle is to really hear that judgment, God's No, against all our competence and activism in his service; so that we may also hear his Yes in Christ.

Picture: St Francis Receiving The Stigmata, El Greco; photo by Flickr user RasMarley, licensed under Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Having Done All, To Stand

Self-Proclaimed Storm ChaserI'm wondering whether the search for a "chastened activism", which I've described in a couple of recent posts, is actually related to an earlier theme: whether our struggle with climate change can helpfully be understood using the category of  "spiritual warfare".

At first this seems a pretty boneheaded idea. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Reading Science

I was fascinated by this post on the NPR site.  Astronomer Adam Frank describes the process of science in his field (protostars and planets) and what is meant by a "consensus understanding", an understanding widely shared in the expert community.
Then he reflects on his own experience getting acquainted with other scientific fields, and on how hard it is for a similar expert consensus in the field of climate science to gain public traction.

His conclusion: " Perhaps what is needed is an army of journalists who can become meta-scientists, allowing them to straddle the literature (this is what the best science-journalists already have to do). Perhaps that is what is necessary now. But there must be other ideas. What are yours?

Understanding what science understands means going beyond opinions to embrace the collective understanding of the community. And ultimately, on issues that shape our lives, we are all the community."

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Chastened Activism, part 2

Nuh uh. I am.So I finished reading Wigg-Stevenson's The World Is Not Ours To Save.  I'm struck by how much its thesis matches that of Ehrenfeld's Arrogance of Humanism, which I've already referred to several times.  In fact, the "activist" spirit whose fundamental orientation concerns Wigg-Stevenson just is Ehrenfeld's "humanism" - "the conviction that all problems can be solved by people."  Ehnrenfeld's conscious abandonment of this perspective, together with his refusal to reach explicitly for a metaphysical eucatastrophe, is what gives his book its elegiac quality.

Wigg-Stevenson, though, does want to commend Christian hope, but he knows very well that "hope" must not be so deployed as to render insignificant our present existence, its glories and sufferings. How then does he address the relationship between present and future? Like this:
...the contours of the coming kingdom call to us from the future, like the memory of a reality that doesn't yet exist. When we respond to this call, the present is shaped as an echo or shadow or trace of what will be.  (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 965-967). Kindle Edition.)
 He expounds the "peaceable kingdom" vision of Micah 4 and gives a range of examples (from Britain in the second world war, from his own anti-nuclear work, and from apartheid South Africa) which, he says, illustrate this response from afar to the contours of the coming kingdom.

In the last chapter he has some detailed advice for evangelical activists.  Here is a particularly hard-hitting point:
An evangelical variant of the moral arbiter tactic has sprung up like kudzu over the past decade. It involves taking a cause not usually associated with political conservatives, which a majority of evangelicals continue to be, branding it with the evangelical label, maybe through a signed letter from evangelical leaders, and then attempting to use the "man bites dog" shock value for the purposes of political positioning. The terrific irony of this tactic is that it pays for its campaigns out of a stolen checking account, because its efficacy depends wholly on the political capital built up by the Religious Right... After about ten years of this, most media and elected officials have wised up, and our broad new agenda doesn't surprise anyone anymore. As a result, evangelical political salience has dropped, which in my estimation is a good thing, since it requires us to engage public issues from a deeply and clearly biblical basis, rather than relying simply on the political cachet of the evangelical label and a few representative endorsements. (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 1965-1972). Kindle Edition.)
Climate change campaigners take note!  The ellipsis that I introduced into the above quotation conceals a characteristically self-aware admission: "The Two Futures Project" (his anti-nuclear organization) "has profited from this very trend." Wigg-Stevenson wants to steer us away from an activism which sees Christian faith as a means to some already-determined public good, and towards the question "What unique and authentic contribution can the Christian church make in the public square."  (He lists nine modes, not exhaustive, of such contribution.)  This last chapter provides a detailed positive alternative to Screwtape's vision of using activism to delude believers:
Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop. Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner...(C.S.Lewis, Screwtape Letters)
Batman photo by Flickr user Mark Strozier, licensed under Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Intermediate Activism

Obviously the dawn of a messianic age would be better than an economic depression, but I scarcely thought that this needed mentioning.  Not knowing how or when God will usher in such an age, or what it will be like, I have confined myself to the immediate future and to processes that already exist.  This is what I would call "intermediate or appropriate prophecy", with apologies to the late E.F.Schumacher.  (David Ehrenfeld, preface to the paperback edition of The Arrogance of Humanism.)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Call by Name and Call by Value

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you... Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name , and you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1,2)
Every computer science student has to learn about how you pass parameters to a procedure, and how you get results back.  Code like

procedure add(a,b,c);
 a := b+c;

is unlikely to have the effect that the novice programmer intends.  The parameters a,b,c are evaluated on procedure entry, and only their values passed to the procedure (this is known as call by value). As a result, the actual parameters on procedure exit are all unchanged.

To write a procedure that will actually update a, as the above code is intended to do, one has to do something different. When I was learning to code (in BCPL) one had to use indirection, passing a pointer to the variable rather than the variable itself; but many high-level languages have alternative calling mechanisms that can be invoked by a declaration, such as call by name, and these allow passing a parameter that can be modified by the procedure.  Oversimplifying things quite a bit leads to a phrase which, for me, resonates a lot with the quotation from Isaiah:
Only what is called by name can be truly changed.
Isn't this thought a central one in the biblical drama? The LORD calls his people, not because they yield something of value to him, but because he wishes to establish a relationship, to "call them by name".  And in this relationship there is the possibility of true change, of something new and beautiful appearing - a possibility which is not there in a relationship based on "value" and reward (Philippians 3:3-11).

Now in the creation story, humanity is described as being created in the "image" of God.  I find the interpretation quite plausible which suggests that this refers to humanity's acting as God's vicegerent towards the created world.  If so, humanity's manner of relating to that world should mirror God's manner of relating to us.  So, when we treat the creation simply as a supply of "natural resources" for use in our projects, is that "call by name" or "call by value"?  I think the answer is clear.  What would "call by name" look like?

Image: detail of Michaelangelo's fresco The Creation of Adam.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sustainable Shalom

The Peaceable Kingdom (De Young Museum)It's often pointed out that while the biblical story of humanity begins in a garden, it ends in a city.

What's being said here is that human culture - city-building - is an integral part of the new creation.  Our destiny is not simply to head back to a hunter-gatherer existence - or rather a "gatherer" existence, for Adam and Eve are not portrayed as hunters - but to be participants in creating a new vibrant reality, a peaceable city in the peaceable kingdom.

This isn't always easy to envision.  Environmentally concerned people - especially if, as with me, one of the roots of that concern is experience of the wilderness - are tempted to think of human influence as largely negative, as a contaminant.  Where is a positive vision of the creation "coming into its own" along with the children of God? 

A friend shared with me a review article entitled Sustainable Shalom: The Hope of Bright Green Urbanism.  The author, Jonathan Hiskes, writes
Our most hopeful response to climate change  echoes a biblical vision: not just abstaining from harmful acts but participating in creative ones.
After sketching his vision (for which he acknowledges a debt to Alex Steffen's Carbon Zero), Hiskes concludes

Right now, we lack imagination. Plenty of people can see that our fossil-fuel economy is sputtering (as every pipeline spill and offshore drilling blowout reminds us). It's just difficult to see what comes next. "We can't build what we can't imagine," says Steffen. And from the Book of Proverbs: "Without a vision, the people perish."

Sketching and building out that vision demands the best of minds. The most exciting dimension of bright green activity is that it's being imagined and tested and tried out by entrepreneurs, home-builders, planners, architects, engineers, scientists, cyclists, gardeners, investors, and others who don't identify as typical environmentalists. Because a climate-resilient world is a more just and peaceable world, we need the help of pastors, teachers, and parents too. We need everybody.
Read the whole article here.

Image: The Peacable Kingdom by Edward Hicks.  Photo by Flickr user jimforest, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Monday, August 5, 2013


Housing stimulusThe words economy  and ecology both derive from the Greek oikos, home.  That makes sense. The planet really is our home, and it's natural to think about our stewardship as a kind of "domestic economy" writ large.

But in some ways the analogy is seriously misleading.  Especially when we start trying to think about the resources available to our "household".

For a single household (in the developed world), money is usually the limited resource.  We have a certain amount; we use ("spend") it once; it's gone.  We may get something in return, but as far as the individual household is concerned that money is lost forever.

Economists regularly have to explain that this is not true for the economy as a whole.  The money I spend buying something from you is not thereby dissipated beyond return; it ends up in your pocket.  The total economy does not dissipate money, for money cannot be destroyed.  (In fact, this symbol of materialism could be the most "spiritual" thing with which we regularly interact!)

So the resource we worry most about wasting turns out, from a global perspective, to be inexhaustible.  We are indulging a "limited money illusion".

On the other hand, for a single household (in the developed world, again), stuff presents itself as effectively inexhaustible.  The world is a giant Wal-Mart.  There is no shortage of goods that cry "Buy me!"  And even if some shelves are empty for a moment, that is only temporary.  The ships, the trucks, will soon arrive to restock them.

But from the perspective of the economy as a whole, this too is a mistake.  Unlike the endless recurrence of the money cycle, the journey of "stuff" really is a one-way journey: from resource to waste.  Some resources are more limited than others, but none is inexhaustible.

So when we identify ourselves as consumers first and foremost (as in a recent Facebook meme that states: "Progressives need to hammer home the point that the real job creators are consumers"), we are indulging an "unlimited stuff illusion".

On both points (money and stuff), our natural extrapolation from household experience yields an illusion.

Image from 1926 Sears catalog.  Courtesy of Flickr user arbyheather, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Creation Care As a Focus For a Mathematics Course

I was asked to write up my presentation at the recent conference of the ACMS (Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences).  The talk aimed to suggest that creation care could be the integrative focus in a mathematics course for non-technical students, combining quantitative themes with wider ethical, social and spiritual questions.

I've put the write-up online here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Climate Change and Spiritual Warfare

St Michael and SatanI reposted the Avatar review to get a start with some reflections on the theme of spiritual warfare in the context of faith-based environmental work.  What got me thinking about this was a remarkable series of posts on Richard Beck's blog under the overall title "Warfare and Weakness".   He begins the series by quoting William James

If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

The New Testament agrees.  While the locus classicus, Ephesians 6:12, underlines that our enemies in the battle are not other human beings, it has no doubt that there is a high-stakes battle going on: "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."  

Beck argues that "progressive" Christianity, in (correctly) shying away from militancy and domination, has failed to articulate a compelling vision of the life of faith as a "real fight":

Basically, I think progressive Christianity struggles because it often fails to give people a real, honest-to-God, bible-thumping fight. More precisely, progressive Christianity has a lot of fight in it, but it has often struggled to articulate that fight in robustly biblical ways. (Let alone the major problem of progressive Christians being too reactionary, focusing much of their fight against conservative Christians.)

So in these posts I'd like to try to paint a picture of what such a bible-thumping fight might look like from the perspective of progressive Christianity.
I wonder, what would it look like to conceive of the struggle to rein in climate change as a "bible-thumping fight" against "the prince of the power of the air"?  I'll try to write more about this.

Here are all Beck's posts for reference.  This is a wonderfully thought-provoking, insightful series.

Image: close-up of the statue of St. Michael and Satan, Coventry Cathedral, by Flickr user Simon Hammond, licensed under Creative Commons.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.  (Proverbs 13:12)

Using the most advanced technology, the spaceship cautiously descends to the surface of the remote planet. The men on board have made this journey for plunder: heavy metal, rare on earth, abundant at their destination. But to mine it, they will first have to “clean the place up”, as one character explains: to relocate, subjugate, or eliminate the peace-loving inhabitants. One crew member rebels. After living for some weeks with the indigenous people, he comes to a holy place and into the presence of the great spirit that watches over the planet. By the power of that spirit, the invaders are sent back to Earth – never to return.

James Cameron’s Avatar? No, this is the plotline for Out of the Silent Planet, a novel published in 1938 by Oxford scholar and prolific Christian author C.S. Lewis. Behind Lewis’ elegant prose, as behind Cameron’s gorgeous and beautiful computer-generated visuals, lie recognizably the same anxiety and the same hope. Anxiety that sees a greedy human society spreading like a stain across the galaxy, and hope that peace and security can be found not in an ample supply of “natural resources”, but in a right relation to the spirit that watches over the universe.

True, Lewis’ (and my) Christianity conceives of that spirit, and that relationship, differently from the pantheism of Avatar. How disappointing it is, for example, that in the last hour of the movie, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is in full swing, as though the  "one thing lacking" for the Na’vi is an ex-Marine to show them how to blow shit up.  Lewis’ ending, a richly comic yet serious scene in which the invaders are brought to condemn themselves out of their own mouths, has learned from the story of the cross: there is a real battle going on, yes, but victory is achieved not by trumping the violence of the adversary, but by subverting it

C.S. Lewis’ more rationalistic followers regard him as a producer of “arguments for God”, but I do not think this is his greatest gift. Rather, he is someone who can evoke the desire for God (as Austin Farrar said, “His real power was not proof; it was depiction”) and for relatedness, in God, to all creation. I think that if Avatar is remembered as a great movie it, too, will be remembered for its desire-evoking power. Not for its spectacular effects by themselves, and certainly not for its threadbare plot and cardboard characterization, but for its power to make us long for a connection – with each other, with the creation, with God – that we almost do not dare even to dream of. Lewis would have said that to begin to long for this connection is itself a step on the road to experiencing it.

Artwork: Avatar theatrical poster (lo-res copy). Original at It is believed that this reproduction for the purpose of critical commentary constitutes fair use under US copyright law.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mr Hopkins Goes To Paris

Eiffel Tower at sunset from Mont ParnasseReposting a very interesting article by Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition movement, about a high-level meeting he attended in Paris last week.  Here's how he starts:

Last week I attended an extraordinary occasion in Paris, which felt momentous and historic, but in the somewhat confused and mixed way these things often do.  Hosted in the incredible, palatial National Assembly, with its statues, chandeliers and gold leaf, the event, called ‘An Innovative Society for the Twenty-First Century’ was hosted by IDDRI (the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations) under the aegis of Francois Hollande, President of the French Republic (although the President himself didn't actually attend).  It was the first event I have been to which has had such high level support and an explicit questioning as to whether economic growth is the best way forward from here. 

Read the rest here.

Photo by Flickr user tijmengombert, licensed under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More on "Hope in an Age of Despair"

Rainbow ValleyLast week I posted a review of "Hope in an Age of Despair" by Jonathan Moo and Robert White.  At the end of that review, I wondered whether the authors felt there was any place for a "proleptic", provisional application of apocalyptic language to our present predicament.

Jonathan Moo responded by email, and has kindly allowed me to share part of his message:

You're right that I was rather cautious (perhaps overly-cautious) about applying Revelation's eschatological language to the crises of our time. As you point out, John himself does this for his own era by linking the fall of Babylon (Rome) with the end of the age and in-breaking of God's kingdom and, in much of his book, by using 'apocalyptic' language just to describe the way the world is in this age between Christ's first coming and his coming again. So I do think there is legitimate scope for creative re-application of such language in other times and places, so long as we always are clear about both the proximate nature of such anticipations/realizations and our own limitation in discerning the significance of the events of our time. The same applies, of course, to what we do stress in the book more positively about our attempts by God's grace to anticipate, to realize and to embody the priorities of the new creation in the present.

What we need are artists, poets and writers who can help us creatively re-deploy such language and imagery; but what we don't need are more crude pronouncements by fundamentalists that such-and-such disaster has occurred as God's judgement upon such-and-such a place because of 'x' or the same sort of reflexive equation that more liberal types make between America/the West and Babylon or the interpretation of every 'natural' disaster as a just punishment upon humankind's profligacy. But in my concern about over-simplification and misapplication, I perhaps was not bold enough to suggest better ways of using such biblical language!
 So, what might be good examples of such present-day "creative redeployment"?

Image by Flickr user rwangsa, licensed under Creative Commons