Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Dropsical Man

At State College Presbyterian this morning, Dean Lindsey was preaching from Luke 14:1-6, where Jesus, on his way to a fancy meal with "a leader of the Pharisees" on the sabbath, pauses to heal a man with "dropsy".  This is the set-up to another confrontation about healing on the sabbath, of course, but I confess that I had never paused to think about what "dropsy" might be and what significance could be found in this particular ailment.  Dean's message really grabbed my attention.  (Afterwards, I went to the big commentary on Luke by Joel Green, where I found the same information developed further.)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Zero Sum v. Abundance

It's probably a fair guess that the book of Zechariah is one of the less frequently studied portions of the Hebrew Scriptures.  It has some surprises though.  This morning I was reading Zechariah chapter 2 and found this

Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand.   I asked, “Where are you going?”
He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.”
While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him  and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it..

Monday, November 2, 2015

A heartfelt plea

My apologies for the silence on Points of Inflection over the last couple of months. I've been busy teaching my math for Sustainability course, and also a series of small group studies on Laudato si... so much to write about, so little time.

Today I am reposting a plea from John Baez over at Azimuth regarding the (what now seem like) annual giant fires in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. He writes

I lived in Singapore for two years, and I go back to work there every summer. I love Southeast Asia, its beautiful landscapes, its friendly people, and its huge biological and cultural diversity. It’s a magical place.
But in 2013 there was a horrible haze from fires in nearby Sumatra. And this year it’s even worse. It makes me want to cry, thinking about how millions of people all over this region are being choked as the rain forest burns.
Read the rest of his post here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Penn State Goes Boom?

It was perhaps in 2006 or 2007 that I first heard the word "fracking".

I was sitting in the chair at Fetterolf's Barber Shop, getting a trim.  Next to me was a Penn State geology professor, talking with animation about the Marcellus shale; how new technology was going to upend the energy industry, and (what's more) how it was going to upend the economy of rural Pennsylvania.    Know what? He was right.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"It is we who need to change" - Chapter 6 of Laudato si

Hope long deferred makes sick the heart; but a Desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
These words are from the book of Proverbs,  though when I read them I always hear echoes of the English mystic Thomas Traherne.  They remind us, as Traherne does, of the centrality of longing to authentic humanity.  Who we are is constituted, as much as anything, by what we deeply desire; and disordered, unattainable desire leads to a heart sickness that cannot be cured.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Small group study on the Papal Encyclical

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am privileged to lead an adult education class at State College Presbyterian Church in a couple of weeks, on the topic of "Caring for Creation with Pope Francis".

Together with Matt Carlson from St Paul's Methodist and John Brockopp from Grace Lutheran, we're planning a small group study for those who would like to explore the message of Francis' encyclical in greater depth.  The plan is to meet for a limited number of sessions (six; one for each chapter of the encyclical) at 2-week intervals from late September to early December - finishing around the time that the crucial COP21 climate summit gets underway in Paris.

If you live in the State College area and are interested in taking part, you can sign up through Google Forms and we will get back to you.

Image from the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Carbon Pricing and Trinity 13

On my Facebook page I regularly post the Collects, that is the special prayers for the week, that are prescribed in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.   I find it a helpful exercise to get to grips with these prayers and the ideas behind them.  Sometimes, despite the archaic language, they feel as though they might have been written yesterday.  At other times there is a grinding of mental gears as my thought world and Cranmer's fail to mesh.

In Anglican-speak this week is the "thirteenth after Trinity", and there is a bit of that grinding as I use the Collect for the day:

Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Escaping the Spiral: Chapter 5 of "Laudato si"

In this series of posts I have been blogging chapter by chapter through Pope Francis' encyclical "on the care of our common home", Laudato si.  We've now arrived at the fifth chapter, which begins, "So far I have attempted to take stock of our present situation... [Now I will] try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us."

The activist might read this as suggesting that the Pope is finally getting to the point!  After all the theological talk, time for some action!  But that would miss one of the central ideas of Laudato si, namely, that how we respond to environmental crisis is, ultimately, a function of how we see and celebrate creation.  I nearly wrote, how we think about creation, but that is too cerebral.  What lies behind activism (according to the Pope) is not just a way of thinking, but a way of allowing creation to impact our lives - to be seen - which is itself part of a personal relationship.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Caring for Creation with Pope Francis"

That's the title of an adult Sunday school class that I'll be facilitating on September 20th (just before the Pope arrives in the USA) to introduce the message of the Encyclical  (On Care for our Common Home)  and the way our Christian tradition summons us to environmental stewardship.  If there's interest, I can also offer some small group sessions to follow up.

For those in State College who might want to attend, here are the details:
  • Location: State College Presbyterian Church, 132 West Beaver Avenue, State College PA.   
  • Room: Westminster Hall (every Presbyterian church has to have a Westminster Hall)
  • Time: 10:15-11:05 approx.   Coffee and refreshments are available from 10:00
  • Date: Sunday, September 20th
  • Contact: you can contact the church office at 814-238-2422 or email me, but of course you are also welcome to just show up!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cecil, Job, and Climate Change

Ugo Bardi has an interesting article about climate change communication over at

In it, he reflects on what it takes for a "meme", a conceptual unit, to "go viral" - to replicate itself exponentially in a "conceptual space" like Facebook.

Bardi identifies three characteristics of a "supermeme": a simple narrative, a clear villain, and a reassuring message.

For instance, the story of Cecil the Lion meets all these criteria: simple tale (man kills lion),clear villain (evil hunter), reassuring message (our moral outrage proves that we are good). 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Chapter Four of "Laudato si": Integral Ecology

John Muir
John Muir once wrote, "Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".  (My First Summer in the Sierra, chapter 6)

This seems to me to be the central idea in the short Chapter 4 of Laudato si, whose title is "Integral ecology".  It starts out

Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected....We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Roy Scranton's "Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene"

Today I came across Roy Scranton's article from 2013, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.  I had missed it when it first appeared on the New York Times' philosophy blog.

Scranton is a philosopher who also served in the US Army from 2002-2006.  He begins his article with a vivid picture of post-invasion Iraq:

Driving into Iraq just after the 2003 invasion felt like driving into the future. We convoyed all day, all night, past Army checkpoints and burned-out tanks, till in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: Flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories, and narrow ancient streets.    With “shock and awe,” our military had unleashed the end of the world...
 In this hellish environment, Scranton learned to face the apparent inevitability of death.
I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it.
In fact he made it back to the US.  But something continued to gnaw at him.  Growthist civilization was bringing about its own demise.
Many thinkers have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene.
The essay is an impassioned plea to heed the challenge of climate change at an existential, not merely a technical, level.  Read it here.

Photo: Bust of Parmenides   Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Grain of Reality

US nuclear test (DoE)
In my last post, I drew attention to the way that  "in the Pope's vision, the Genesis account acknowledges but also limits the scope of human dominion, and therefore does not license arbitrary exercise of power; only that which works with the grain of reality."

This reflects language from Laudato si like the following
Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chapter Three: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

"It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms", begins Chapter III of Laudato si, "without also acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis." Francis wants to show that the looming threats that he has delineated in Chapter I have cultural roots, deeper than physics and thermodynamics: roots in the way that we human beings understand one another and the world.

The title of the chapter is a nod to Lynn White, (pictured; picture from whose famous 1967 essay "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis", touched off an extended debate about the relationship between religion (especially Christianity) and environmentalism.  "What people do about their ecology", wrote White,  "depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things in their environment".   This is also the basic point that Pope Francis is making in this chapter.  White came to believe that the Genesis creation account (the subject of Chapter 2 of the Pope's encyclical) had prepared Europeans to believe in "dominion as domination"; when the Industrial Revolution put power into their hands, therefore, they were predisposed to use it in a "contemptuous" way. "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt", he said. "We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Gospel of Creation

"Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God"
The second chapter of Laudato si is called "The Gospel of Creation".  It begins, "Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?"  It might seem strange for a pope to ask this question!  Aren't "the convictions of believers" part of his job description? But it is clear that Francis has a broader audience in view.  The deeply relational perspective he has on the whole of creation (which finds expression in the key phrase integral ecology, a phrase which will later get a whole chapter to itself) leads him to hope that the most wide-ranging possible dialog will be intense and fruitful.

Still, this chapter is addressed to Christians in particular.  "I would like from the outset to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters".  Under the heading, "The wisdom of the biblical accounts", Francis expounds the creation stores of Genesis, the sabbath and other ecological laws, and the Psalms (like Psalm 104) which call on all creation to give praise to God.  Then, in the next sections, he turns to a sort of natural theology: what does the interrelated nature of the universe that we perceive tell us about the God who creates it? "The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God".  Section VI is 'the common destination of goods".  "The earth is essentially a shared inheritance whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone...the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable."  Those who would like to see Francis as some kind of revolutionary socialist may focus on this section, but the doctrine that he is restating is a commonplace of Catholic moral theology: see section 179 in this Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church from 2004.  Finally, the last section, "The Gaze of Jesus", looks at Jesus' earthly life as an example of harmony with creation.  "The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated are now imbued with his radiant presence."

Christian thinking about creation care faces two significant dangers.  On the one hand, some have read the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 as a license to treat the nonhuman creation as mere "raw material", fit for nothing until humans have shaped it.  (This is bound up with the question of private property of course, via Locke's idea that property rights are conferred by the "mixing" of private human labor with the common stuff of creation.)  On the other hand, awareness of the intrinsic value of the nonhuman creation and the damage that sinful humans have wrought can pass over into a devaluation of humanity or even into regarding people as an "invasive species".  Here's Pope Francis threading the needle:
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.... A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.
Earlier posts in this series here and here.

Photo credit: author

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Behemoth v. Broccoli

The broccoli aftermath
"We are growing some wonderful broccoli", I said proudly to Russ on Tuesday.  And on Tuesday, it was true.

When I said "we", I should of course have said "Liane".  My main contribution, apart from making malodorous compost, was to put up a fence to deter the predations of local groundhogs - which, we discovered last year, have quite a taste for vegetables, and brassicas especially.  Then, under Liane's care, the seeds began to sprout and take form, following their own internal mystery - "you know not how" (Mark 4:27).

Unfortunately, we discovered yesterday that my fencing was not up to the job.  A groundhog had managed to rip out the staples that fixed the fence to railroad ties in the ground, and then to enjoy a fine meal of broccoli and Brussels sprout plants.

When I went this morning to staple the fence back, my hammering disturbed a colony of underground wasps.  I was too preoccupied to notice what was going on until their stings forced me into a hurried retreat.  Aaargh! Nature is fighting back!

In a very small way, I am experiencing what is symbolized in the tale of Behemoth, "the primal unconquerable monster of the land": Nature does push back against the farmer.  Even so simple a task as growing broccoli involves subduing the earth, adapting it to our designs.  Yet in the Book of Job, the untameable monster turns out to be God's pet.

Where between our broccoli patch and the factory farm does "following the creation mandate" pass into "making the natural order merely an instrument", the throwaway society that the Pope warns against in the first chapter of Laudato si?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Chapter One: Our Common Home

From Life, 1955
Following up on my brief overview of the encyclical Laudato si, I'd now like to start going through the chapters one by one.  There are six of them and the first is titled What is happening to our common home?

To introduce it, consider this picture, part of an article that appeared in Life magazine in 1955.  (You can access this issue through Google Books.)

"The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean.", begins the article, "But no housewife need bother." [Hold the sexism, please.]  "They are all meant to be thrown away".

For the happy family in the picture, the invention of throwaway "pans, draperies, diapers, barbecue grills, duck decoys, beer and highball glasses, and a feeding dish for dogs" (etc) is a cause for unconditional celebration.

But Pope Francis sees it as a symptom of spiritual malaise.  Media coverage wants to call the encyclical "the Pope's statement on climate change" or something like that, and it is true that climate issues are front and center, both in Chapter 1 (which begins with a brisk summary about climate change) and elsewhere.  But on my reading, one of the key phrases of the first chapter is throwaway culture, which is introduced right after the initial discussion of climate:
These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. (22)
 As he develops this theme, Francis closely links two ideas:
  • The first is that an economic system that is based on a one way journey from resource to waste is not sustainable and, more importantly, that it is not in accord with the model revealed in the closed-cycle workings of the natural order.  Such an economic system may be expected to fail both by exhaustion of sources and by overfilling of sinks (the encyclical gives examples of each: water resources in the first case, climate pollution in the second).
  • The second is that treating the nonhuman created order as "throwaway" and treating other human beings as "throwaway" are part of the same moral deformation.  
 The second point is important because some (not all) of the pushback against the Encyclical is likely to argue that there is a tradeoff here: even though climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poorest, it does not follow that mitigating climate change is the best way to help the poor - perhaps we should regard mitigation as a luxury we should forgo in order to use resources to alleviate poverty in other, more effective ways.   (For instance, Bjorn Lomborg's response in USA Today tends in this direction.)

It seems to me that the Encyclical does not accept the "tradeoff" idea at all - and this is partly because it is operating at the level of ethics rather than policy.  Making of any part of the natural order merely an instrument or resource - "the chicken turned into an egg machine", as C.S.Lewis said - - already carries within it the roots of destructive greed.

So there is no place for the "weak response" of complacency in the face of the consequences of greed: the chapter mentions climate change, water shortages, biodiversity loss, and the decline in human relationships.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Reading "Laudato Si"

Pope Francis Korea Haemi Castle 19 (cropped) I've been reading the Papal Encyclical on the environment - or rather, as Pope Francis calls it, "on care for our common home".  I have never tried to read a papal letter before so I did not know what to expect.  It's certainly a lengthy document - and wide-ranging!  Perhaps a quick tour through the table of contents will be a place to start.

The Pope begins with the most wide-ranging appeal, set in the context of his predecessors, of the Patriarch of the Eastern Church, of Saint Francis, and of the whole human family in its "common home":

I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.
After this come six extensive chapters, as follows:

  • What is happening to our common home?
  • The Gospel of Creation
  • The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis (this title is surely an allusion to the famous Lynn White thesis)
  • Integral ecology
  • Lines of approach and action
  • Ecological education and spirituality.
The Encyclical closes with two prayers.  Here is the first

All-powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned
and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty,
not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.
I'll try to post more later about the specifics of this vast letter.  For now, let me just note the links to a couple of posts I found helpful in thinking about it.
Photo attribution: / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, June 8, 2015

Thoughts from Dave Newport about "sustainable brands"

Dave Newport is a campus sustainability officer at UC Boulder and maintains a blog at "Inside Higher Education" on the interrsection of sustainability and academic life.

Today's piece describes his visit to a "sustainable branding" conference.  He begins:

"It would be easy to flip off the Sustainable Brands conference. Corporate raiders spouting the S-word? How much gooey new green wash can these suits concoct?

But that would be stupid.

Want proof it’s stupid? Well, the flip-off was my first impulse. ‘Nuff said.

So after a few years of people telling me it was worth the price (hefty) and the time (four days), at great personal sacrifice I went to the chichi San Diego oceanside resort hosting this green corporate orgy to rub cotton with the suits.

My excuse? Paul Hawken told me to. Well, sorta."

Read the full piece here

Friday, June 5, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 2

Continuing my thoughts on MATH033... At the end of each class at Penn State, students get to fill out "SRTE" forms - that is "Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness", a.k.a. "course evaluations".  I was especially interested to see what the students in Math 033 would say and I emphasized as strongly as I could that the course was brand new and that through their comments they had an opportunity to improve it for next time it was offered.  I was very glad to see the many extensive responses to this request.  In addition to comments via the SRTE process, three students took the time to write me longer emails describing their experiences in the class and their thoughts about how it might be made more effective.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How Worried Are You About Climate Change?

 I filled in a survey recently, which was intended to "help determine the most effective religious messaging on climate change". 

One of the questions in the survey was the one in the title: How worried are you about climate change? The survey offered a range of options from "extremely worried" to "not at all worried".  The last was further subdivided into two categories: "not at all worried because I don't believe climate change is happening" and "not at all worried because it is all part of God's plan for the end of the world".

I had a lot of trouble answering this question, and I came to feel that was because two questions had been fused into one - and that the way these two questions had been fused together itself has something to say about "religious messaging on climate change".

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Matthew Dickerson at the ACMS conference

I've just returned from the biennial conference of the Association for Christians in the Mathematical Sciences.   This organization brings together several hundred students, faculty members, and others working in the fields of mathematics, statistics and computer science who want to explore how the Christian faith relates to their teaching, research and scholarship.  I remember discovering the ACMS when I was working in Oxford, and my delight at discovering that there were other people who were pondering the same kind of questions that bothered me.

There were two plenary speakers, Matthew Dickerson from Middlebury College (computer science) and Annalisa Crannell from Franklin and Marshall College (mathematics). Each gave two presentations, and both were excellent speakers.  Here I want to focus on Dickerson's second presentation, where he found himself discussing the ecological implications of "transhumanism" (Ray Kurzweil et al) and its relationship to the thought of C.S.Lewis.  I was quite surprised to discover that our Computer Science plenary speaker was also the co-author of a book - Narnia and the Fields of Arbol - on Lewis' environmental thought which I had recently read and which I had been planning to review some time on this blog.

Dickerson contrasted the implicit Platonism of Kurzweil - what matters is our "software" (that is, the "program" which constitutes our minds), our "hardware" (that is, our bodies) is defective and can and should be replaced by an artificial substitute - with the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body.  He quoted Lewis from chapter IV of Miracles:
The earliest Christian documents give a casual and unemphatic assent to the belief that the supernatural part of man survives the death of the natural organism.  But they are very little interested in the matter.
Surprising worlds from a defender of the supernatural! Lewis goes on
What they are intensely interested in is the restoration or "resurrection" of the whole composite creature by a miraculous divine act.
 Narnia and the Fields of Arbol appeals to Lewis' fiction to develop the idea that this hope - of the restoration not just of the human creature but of all creation - provides a foundation for an appropriate relationship between humanity and the rest of the created world.  Contrary to the famous thesis of Lynn White according to which Christianity, by demythologizing the sacred groves, had licensed humanity to exploit them, Lewis presented deforestation as a blasphemous project, as for instance in The Last Battle:
"Woe, woe, woe!" cried the voice. "Woe for my brothers and sisters! Woe for the holy trees! The woods are laid waste.  The axe is loosed against us. We are being felled.  Great trees are falling, falling, falling."
In this passage the natural world, represented by a Dryad, the "nymph of a beechtree", cries out to its human steward, King Tirian, for justice and protection from exploitation - exploitation which has been justified in the name of religion, yes, but of a false and cruel religion. Dickerson reads Lewis as an agrarian with a deep sympathy to nature and place, almost Wendell Berry as an Oxford don.

I very much agree with the basic theological point here. Humans are part of creation, not "above" it, and our hope is to be restored along with it, not to leave it behind after a technological Singularity or an eschatological Rapture.  Still, I would have been interested to hear more about how this works out in practice.   How do these principles inform our decision-making as Christians confronted daily with stewardship-related questions both large and small?

PS: More reading on this blog related to Lewis and the environment can be found here, here and here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Reason in a Dark Time" continued

Last year I wrote a review of Dale Jamieson's book Reason in a Dark Time for this blog.   Jamieson is a professor of philosophy and environmental studies, and his book struggles with two questions: what made it so hard for humans to avoid committing the planet to irreversible and damaging climate change? (it is clear that he regards this commitment as, effectively, already having been made) and what resources do we have to move forward from here?

In the New York Times yesterday, Jamieson is interviewed by Gary Gutting for the regular philosophy blog series The Stone.   Here is an extract from the interview, where he summarizes some of his thoughts on "resources to move forward".
G.G.: Do you have suggestions for coming to terms with such questions?
D.J.: I think we need to think ambitiously about what a morality would be like that was adequate to the problems we face in a high-population, densely interconnected world undergoing radical climate change. At the same time philosophers don’t invent moralities that people then go out and adopt. We need to figure out how people can act from within their existing moral psychologies in a way that is both more environmentally friendly and will help to give them meaning in a world that is so different from the one in which most of our values were created. I’ve tried to develop an account of the “green virtues” as a first effort in this direction.
G.G.: What are some of these “green virtues”?
D.J.: The ones I discuss in my book, “Reason in a Dark Time,” are cooperativeness, mindfulness, simplicity, temperance and respect for nature. They will not solve the problem of climate change on their own but they will help us to live with meaning and grace in the world that we are creating.
Read the whole interview here, and my review of Reason in a Dark Time here.

 Photo hotlinked from The Stone article referenced, believed to be fair use.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 1

So, we completed the first semester of teaching MATH033 - "Math for Sustainability".  About forty hardy students signed up, and as the semester progressed I felt that a learning community and class spirit began to come together.  For me as the lead instructor, I can say for sure that I have never had to work so hard on preparing a course!  It reminded me strongly of the time when I was a new faculty member - but even then, though I had not taught the courses before, I had at least experienced courses somewhat like them.  This time around, I felt like I was trying to create something almost entirely new.  It was stressful, but also extremely exciting.

I have this summer to reflect on the lessons learned from this first test run, and then we will offer the course again in the fall.  I'm planning to write a series of posts on this blog reflecting on various aspects of our experience with MATH033.  These will be part of my personal review process.   Among the topics I want to reflect on are:
  • The course content.  How well did the "four themes" organization (measuring, changing, risking, networking) work as a device for framing "sustainability math"?  How clear was it to students and faculty?   Especially in the fourth segment, "networking", I found myself talking more about decision-making (game theory) and less about connectivity (graph theory) than I had expected; I wonder if it would be better to re-name that last unit "Deciding".
  • The case study component: about a third of the class sessions were designated "case studies", applying course ideas to a particular environmental topic, and of those about half were delivered by visiting speakers.  How successful were these sessions in contributing to the overall objectives of the course? Could/should we try to focus on "case study themes" which cut across the "mathematical  segments" of the course?   Case studies which referred specifically to the PSU campus seemed to particularly engage many students: can we build on that?
  • The writing requirement component of the course needs to be thought about at greater length.  I wanted students to post regularly on a blog, using the skills that they had learned to make mathematically sound arguments about sustainability-related topics.  In general, I was disappointed with the results (though there were some excellent posts).  I didn't think enough about the fact that we would need to teach how to use mathematically ideas in writing pieces, and I didn't set the grading system up to give students enough push to revise and improve their pieces.  I strongly believe though that learning through writing quantitative arguments is an important component of the course, for reasons well expressed in this syllabus from Marilyn Frankenstein.  So this is something I need to work on restructuring over the summer.
The web site for the course is here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 6)

My last post in this series was nearly a year ago.  In December, blogger Cellarius left an interesting comment on that post - following along, I discovered his paper "God of piston and wheel" (can be found here) which begins
The psalmist hymns the benevolence of God who tells the number of the stars and yet also provides for his animal creation, including 'herb for the use of man' (Ps 147.4, 8b BCP). What happens when the same theological attention is given to the furnaces of the stars as Christian tradition has given to the biosphere? In what sense and to what purpose has the non-living fruit of creation been provided 'for the use of man'?
In thinking more about questions related to mining, I want to acknowledge the writings of Donald Hay.  Donald was Tutor in Economics at Jesus College in Oxford when I arrived as a very young mathematics fellow in 1986.  He was and is an example to me of how to live an academic life which is also a life of Christian vocation, and since his retirement he's invested himself in the program Developing a Christian Mind which helps students and others integrate vocational and intellectual training.  I think it's also fair to say that, as a professional economist, Donald would be skeptical about my embrace of a "limits to growth" philosophy. So it is interesting to turn back to his Economics Today: A Christian Critique, first published in 1989, to see what he has to say about nonrenewable resource extraction (which is what I mean in these posts by "mining").

Monday, May 4, 2015

Cool Head, Warm Heart at TEDx

It's been a while, but the video of my presentation at TEDx has finally been officially released.  You should be able to click it in the window above, or follow this link to YouTube.

I am really grateful to all the TEDx crew who helped put this together and especially to Katie Kirsch who produced the wonderful visuals.

The Science paper that I refer to is

Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, Elena M. Bennett, R. Biggs, et al. 2015. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet.” Science, January, 1259855. doi:10.1126/science.1259855.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Holy Week thoughts

Salvador Dali, Corpus Hypercubus
"...that you may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:18,19)

Always a puzzle for mathematicians, this one.   Didn't Paul realize that there are only three spatial dimensions, not four? Is this just a case of his words getting ahead of him (which certainly seems to happen elsewhere in this letter)?

I was thinking about this passage today and I started focusing not on "love", with its dangers of becoming an abstraction, but on Christ's concrete body (in John's gospel, to "eat My flesh" is equivalent to receiving the love of Christ).  And I remembered that we live in a four-dimensional continuum if you include time also.  Thinking about this during Holy Week leads to a prayer...

your arms were stretched out wide for me;
your heart endured so long for me;
your body lifted high for me;
at last was buried deep for me.

this emptying, it had to be
so fulness could burst out for me.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Transparent Solar Panels as Metaphor

"A fully transparent solar panel that could make every window and screen a power source."  This article (published in 2014) has been showing up quite a bit in my Facebook feed over the last couple of weeks. Apparently some researchers at Michigan State have come up with a technology that "could turn any window or sheet of glass into a photovoltaic cell".   Sounds attractive, right?

The words "transparent solar panel" should be enough to set off anyone's BS detector.  After all, "transparent" means that it lets light through without attenuation.  And solar cells work by converting light energy into electricity. In that case it's gone, used up.  To imagine that light can be both used for energy generation and let through unimpeded to illuminate my room is like imagining that I can pay for my dinner this evening with the dollar that I already spent on breakfast this morning.

Now the scientists who developed these materials are, of course, perfectly aware of this fact.  If you look at the paper (Zhao, Yimu, Garrett A. Meek, Benjamin G. Levine, and Richard R. Lunt. 2014. “Near-Infrared Harvesting Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrators.” Advanced Optical Materials 2 (7): 606–11) you'll find that what they have actually produced is a material which gathers energy in the infrared region of the spectrum while letting visible light pass through more or less unchanged.  I can well believe that this is a significant technical development.  On the other hand, if you take a look at the solar irradiance spectrum (above) you will see that a substantial portion of the power of sunlight does lie in the visible region.  A "solar panel" which does not make use of this portion of the spectrum would be at a significant efficiency disadvantage right from the get-go (to say nothing of the other losses which might arise from the more complicated nature of the "reluminescent" process employed vis a vis conventional solar panels).

These caveats though have mostly disappeared in the ExtremeTech article which has been circulating on Facebook, which only manages to describe as "not probable" the idea that you could put one of these gadgets over your smartphone screen and generate enough power to run it indefinitely.  If violating the first law of thermodynamics now counts just as "improbable", it is hard to imagine any context in which ExtremeTech might feel the word "impossible" to be appropriate.

Why is the "transparent solar panel" idea - the ExtremeTech version, not the reality - so appealing?  I suggest because it is an almost perfect metaphor for the world envisaged by one strain of green optimism, one that many of us would devoutly wish to be true.  In this "bright green" world, growth, production and consumption would continue unabated, but they would be overlaid by an almost invisible skin of miracle technology - a technology that finally would empower production without pollution, growth without guilt, and consumption without check.

A  little thermodynamics is usually enough to puncture such dreams.  That does not mean that technological improvements are worthless or futile, of course.  I think it does mean that the idea that technological progress will enable us to continue "business as usual" is a delusion.

Image credit: Wikipedia,


Monday, February 23, 2015

Peterson Toscano presentation on climate change

A few months ago I heard activist Peterson Toscano present his piece Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible. Toscano uses a combination of third-person teaching and first-person enacted drama to help us engage with Scripture in a new and unexpected way.  He makes us see fruitful connections between the ancient text and the present-day experience of people who do not conform to the traditional gender binary.

At the event, he mentioned that his latest performance piece would focus on climate change.  I just heard about a presentation of this piece (free and open to all) at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, on Friday March 13th.   Details may be found here.  I don't know whether I will be able to attend, but I think that it should be an excellent and thought-provoking evening.

Photo credit: Peterson Toscano via Wikimedia Commons.  See

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Qohelet and "Sustainability"

I've just finished rereading the book of Ecclesiastes.  Through a series of translations and semantic shifts, that is what Christians have come to call the decidedly un-ecclesiastical document whose principal figure is (the?) "qohelet" - the "one who assembles" or "calls together".  Is "Qohelet" a proper name or a job description? Does he "call together" a meeting or a collection of proverbs?  Is the book a reflection of wisdom and piety or of cognitive dissonance?  All of these questions are very much live ones, and none of them are very "churchy".

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" begins the book, according to the ESV translation.  (The NIV, similarly, has "Meaningless! Meaningless!").   These translations render the Hebrew hebel, whose literal meaning is "a puff of air", "a breath" or "a vapor" (I owe much of this discussion to Kathleen Farmer's book in the International Theological Commentary series).  Farmer points out
Metaphors are intentionally provocative figures of speech which can be understood in quite different ways.  For instance in Luke 13:20-21, 1 Cor 5:6-7 "leaven" is used as a metaphor for both good influence and bad.  It is possible then that hebel (meaning a puff of air) might be understood in either a positive or a negative sense.  Most translators [though] obscure the metaphorical nature of the original statement and replace the concrete, nonjudgmental phrase ("breath" or "a puff of air") with various abstract terms . . . When we look closely at the ways in which the word is used in other parts of the OT, it becomes clear that the essential quality to which hebel refers is lack of permanence rather than lack of worth or value.  A breath, after all, is of considerable value to the one who breathes it.  However, it is not something one can hang on to for long.  It is airlike, fleeting, transitory and elusive rather than meaningless...
While this perspective certainly doesn't resolve all the puzzles that Qohelet sets his readers, I found it very helpful. It seems to me that the translations criticized by Farmer may have imported into the text the rather foreign idea that nothing can be truly valuable unless it is eternal, contrary to some parts of the book itself which encourage us to celebrate and honor life despite its fleeting nature.

Which brings me to "sustainability".   Think about the famous definition from the Brundtland Report
...meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
In its frank acknowledgment of the succession of generations, the language here agrees with Qohelet that each individual human life is hebel.  But what about the life of the human race (or perhaps of "our civilization") as a whole?  One way of reading the word "sustainability" is that though our individual lives are "fleeting", it is of supreme moral importance to ensure that the life of humanity as a whole is endless.  Is that the only way to understand it? Is that a faith-full interpretation?

C.S.Lewis writes (in The World's Last Night),
 We all believe, I suppose, that a man should 'sit loose' to his own individual life, should remember how short, precarious, temporary, and provisional a thing it is... what modern Christians find it harder to remember is that the whole life of humanity in this world is also precarious, temporary, provisional.
Indeed, it is consistently the villains in Lewis' fiction who are obsessed with racial immortality (think of Queen Jadis, or of the space-traveling Professor Weston, or the sinister overlords of the N.I.C.E.) I think that as believers we may need a subtler definition of "sustainability" than "humanity going on for ever"... one which recognizes our duties to future generations even while acknowledging that all life "under the sun" is hebel - fleeting, mysterious, sometimes tragic, but also laden with joy and value.

(More questions than answers here!)

Image: Woodcut by G. Dore illustrating the Book of Proverbs.  Public domain: