Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Anote's Ark

Wow, I did't realise how long it had been since I last blogged. Things have been busy, including starting a Masters degree looking at a biblical hermeneutic for the Anthropocene, and writing two books. More of that later. Last night I went to the Melbourne screening of Anote's Ark.

Anote Tong is the former president of Kiribati, a collection of coral atolls in the western Pacific. He often describes Kiribati as being the centre of the world, since the islands are located on both sides of the equator and the dateline. He has been a tireless campaigner on climate change since taking office, and afterwards, even now the new government have taken a big (and sadly poorly theologically informed) step away from his policies.

This excellent documentary shows a true statesman, who while acknowledging that even 1.5 C of warming wont save his home in the longer term, it will make a difference in the short term for his country, and in the longer term for others. This is the conclusion too of a recent IPCC report on a 1.5 C world.

The documentary also follows a young family who choose to start a new life in New Zealand under a migration program (Australia take note). Sermery leaves home to raise funds for the rest of her family to join here in New Zealand. Watching her go through six months without her children was hard to take. We have the privilege of seeing her have a child in her new home, marking a new phase in their lives, but a phase that signals the slow end to their unique culture.

As Anote reminds us, the people of Kiribati are the canary in the coal mine. If we do not act, their present will be our future. What is all the more galling for me is that Australia continues to do little for the people of Kiribati. The Prime Minister is calling into question commitment to the Green Climate Fund which is designed to help nations like Kiribati to adapt to climate change. Funny how under colonisation we were happy to take their phosphate cheaply in the past, much like Nauru. I guess Kiribati is too far away for offshore detention? Love your neighbour as yourself.

The event was put on by the Environmental Film Festival Australia. Well worth your time and patronage.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Pie in the sky? Geoengeering not a fix for our problems

Mount Pinatubo produced enough sulphur to combat a double CO2 scenario, but also declines in global rainfall.

One of the things that has been keeping me from blogging of late has been a journal article on a theology of geoengineering.

I make no secret of not being a fan. Geoengineering is planetary scale intervention in the Earth system to combat climate change. It is plan B after we have failed to take proper action. A number of the technologies have nasty side effects. None of them will work alone. The effort would be better placed into a massive switch to greater efficiency, renewable energy and restructuring our cities (which will have to move anyway thanks for committed to levels of sea level rise.

But I also think there are theological issues which address the problems that geoengineering seeks to solve as well. We've lived for too long in the bubble of our own power. Inherited from Francis Bacon, technology and science are seen as a source of power to endlessly manipulate an inert environment. This view should be collapsing in the Anthropocene, but ecomodernism pushes geoengineering. Two theological frameworks can be constructed.

1. Based on Genesis, particularly chapter 1, creation can be envisaged as a temple, sacred to God. This means humans have a priestly role of service. This is not exclusive of use, but challenges mechanistic views alone of human mastery over inert matter. The Earth is not simply a resources or a laboratory. Add to this Aboriginal theology that sees the Creator Spirit as present in the land.

2. Based on 1 Kings 16-18, technology like geoengineering can be viewed as a form of Baalism - seeking from the cause of the problem also the solution.

To read more, see the draft on Academia.edu.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Of ballet and reefs

Great Barrier Reef. (Toby Hudson, Creative Commons)

I had the pleasure of speaking at Merri Creek Anglican today, following World Earth Day. The audio will be here soon. I gave one of my standard sermons on creation, following Psalm 104 - a meditation on the beauty of creation, including in its savageness. I've written a paper on this in the EcoCare journal and blogged elsewhere.

The night before, I took my family to the Shanghai Ballet perform Swan Lake at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne. A beautiful dance production with beautiful moves and costumes in a beautiful building.

And then I was reminded of the unifying theme, that of beauty. The world abounds in beauty. Humans at their best create beauty. Art, ballet, music, poetry, literature. These things are not the frilly bits at the edge of society and theologian Tom Wright points out, but stand at the middle of what society is about. Kenneth Clark understood that art was one of the cornerstones of civilisation.

There is a meme, which is false, circulating that Winston Churchill claimed that part of the point of fighting WWII was to defend ideas like art. Why cut funding to the arts during a time of war. Churchill did however say:

“The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

This is in contrast to President Trumps cut to the arts, which occurs at the same time to savage cuts to environmental care. Coincidence? I think not.

You see, I think that capitalism at its worst is all about brutalism in reducing everything to the utilitarian or that which can be consumed (which is not to say socialism is without its faults). The art, like nature, is not consumed. These things are appreciated, related to. And theologically, both and art and nature have artists that lie behind them.

My thought then is to give the best of myself over to the contemplation of love and beauty, to living lovingly and aesthetically, to preserve both.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Beauty can save the world

The following piece made it into the final ten for a writing competition for the magazine New Philosopher and is previously unpublished.

It is becoming an accepted scientific idea that we are living in a new geological age, the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is characterised by a profound disruption of the relatively stable climate humanity has enjoyed over about 12,000 years, during the period known as the Holocene. We have come to take this stability for granted; it’s the period where civilisations have arisen, characterised by structured states reliant on agriculture to feed growing numbers, writing, art, religion, trade, and the beginnings of science. Few of us can appreciate a time when summer did not follow spring, when crops were not disrupted for more than a season or so, and food was not plentiful.

This is not to say that the Holocene has been all beer and skittles. The Little Ice Age in Europe saw the rise of witch trials in politically insecure states, played a role in the French Revolution, and was a factor in the writing of Frankenstein. A prolonged change in the state of El NiƱo helped drive the collapse of the Mayan Empire. History is littered with such examples. But the Anthropocene is different; it involves moral agency. Not only do we remake the world in our ignorance, but we also do so intentionally. We have released enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet and make the oceans more acidic, manufactured enough nitrogen based fertiliser for agriculture to produce dead zones in lakes, rivers and oceans. We’ve filled our oceans with plastic, cleared vast tracts of land and threaten many species with extinction, maybe as many as 50% by 2050.

One could make many pragmatic arguments for protecting a natural world that gives us clean air and water, food and medicines, timber and other raw materials. But these don’t seem to work. And while an impulsive survival instinct will drive us in adrenaline driven sprint to protect what we have, it is neither sustaining nor effective. Instead, I believe beauty will save us.

For some, beauty is ephemeral, subjective, and a luxury at best, if not a distraction. Philosophy has not always done us favours. How do we approach beauty? For Kant, our experience of beauty is a “disinterested delight.” Beauty is something to be catalogued, analysed, and objectified. We analyse what makes something beautiful and miss the beauty itself. We need to transcend such analyses.
What seems to me a right reaction to beauty can be found in the writings of Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace spent many years in the Malay Archipelago, collecting species and theorising about their origins. He was the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution. His paper was read at the same time as Darwin’s at the royal society. Wallace’s reaction at discovering a new species of butterfly is worth quoting at length from The Malay Archipelago

“The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”

Note Wallace’s reactions. The experience of beauty is indescribable, i.e. it transcends his training and experience as a naturalist. It goes beyond language, and hence represents a visceral, emotive response. And yet at the same time, his expertise is what brings a certain attention to detail, a way of framing this discovery in the context of the search for true knowledge about the world. He acknowledges that to some, his strong reaction will seem over the top. Yet this is not a man who has lost leave of his senses or himself, but has discovered them in the presence of the other. That other happens to be a species of butterfly.

I’m reminded of Keats’ poem about Newton. Keats accused Newton of unweaving a rainbow and conquering mysteries. And yet any scientist will tell you that the scientific discipline will never run out of things to probe or objects yet more beautiful to appreciate. What if we understand laws that govern how light bounces around in a rain drop, or how natural selection works, do we marvel any less? Are not the grains of sand under a microscope or dark voids shown to be filled with galaxies by telescopes, all the more beautiful for our technological wizardry?

Beauty is part of the fabric of what exists, both the things that prompt our sensory, intellectual and personal experiences as Richard Cartwright Austin noted, but also the existence of beauty perceivers themselves. Beauty exists for a reason, it is true in that it exists as a quality or experience meant for creatures other than us, and is therefore is independent of humans. Beauty is also good, in that it fulfils the purposes for which it exists. Those purpose might be to warn off predators that you are protected by toxins. It does no good to die in the process of killing your killer. Beauty might be to attract a pollinator, or a mate. It might be the display of fitness that says ‘don’t eat me’ or the fleetness of foot that escapes the jaws that are also beautiful. Beauty might be the destructive power of shifting plates in forming pleasing mountains, ice sheets scraping away to produce deep lakes, forms of beauty quiet independent of an eye to see.

Beauty’s appreciation is found in the eye of female birds of paradise choosing a mate, or bower birds admiring their own constructions. It is hard to imagine that the complex mind of a cuttlefish does not in some deep sense appreciate the beautiful patterns a mate produces. And what creature does not enjoy the taste of their favourite food? Is it survival instinct alone or aesthetic appreciation also? Do humans alone make art? Do we alone appreciate the beauty around us? Surely our aesthetic senses are finely honed, but let us not miss the forest of beauty for the tree of objective analysis.

And neither let us become so reductionist that evolution explains away beauty. Am I back tracking on my disavowal of Keats’ charge? Not as such. Take for example evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia, the contention that we find beautiful in nature that which reminds us of life in the Pleistocene on the African Savanna. Our tendency to like habitats that resemble this environment have been mirrored in observations made by Europeans new to North America and Australia, who appreciated those landscapes that made them think of orchards or an English gentleman’s garden. The flipside of this preference was the attitude toward Australian rainforests, or native fauna, and the desire to import British wildlife. We can become stuck in our aesthetics, either by biology alone or also by culture. Surely then we need to transcend either thinking we are, or being bound by our genes in what we find beautiful.

The flip side of beauty is ugliness. English theologian John Wesley preached against ugly predators because he didn’t understand them. Predation might be hard to stomach, yet the Platonic triad reminds us that what is beautiful is also true and good. In the Anthropocene, what is not good and therefore not beautiful is what we have done to planet Earth. Australian politician Tony Abbott find winds farms ugly, but polluting, greenhouse producing coal fired power stations are not beautiful, what they do is not good for any creature, and to deny this is not being truthful.

The future must be one of pursuing beauty. Humans must live and eat, we seek a good life marked by truth and beauty in our relationships. Shouldn’t our technology be more beautiful, not just more efficient? Alain de Botton says that our buildings should do justice to the land that they occupy and the creatures that they have displaced. Perhaps even more now, our civilisation can become more beautiful by displacing less, more being in harmony with its surroundings, like architect Elora Hardy’s magical houses of bamboo.

The last word must be given to love. Austin claims that ‘the experience of beauty creates and sustains relationships.’ And what are relationships founded on, if not love? Can we come to love the world, form relationships with landscape and creature and appreciate their beauty in a manner analogous to the way in which we appreciate the beauty of a lover or spouse? Surely we must, for while having an environment that allows us to survive is important, humans long for more than mere survival. In learning to love the beauty of the world around us, we will do more than survive, we will thrive.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Creation care in the country - my trip to Wagga Wagga

From time to time I get speaking invitations, which I relish. Preaching about climate change and other aspects of the Anthropocene is a passion of mine, albeit a mixed passion given the dire nature of where we find ourselves.

After a friend of a friend visited our church and heard me preach, I was invited to Wagga Wagga, a country town in New South Wales of about 30,000 people, to speak at a morning and evening service at Wagga Wagga Baptist (audio here, video here).

In the afternoon, I ran a workshop where we discussed a theology of mission in the Anthropocene (after some tech hassles) and practical outcomes. I also had the opportunity to speak to years 9-11 at the Christian school.

As the photo shows, I spent some time on a sheep farm as well, hosted by the head of their new Creation Care group.

One thing that impressed me about the church was the number of keen and capable people with a solid theology of creation care and practical skills in farming, geography, etc. They already have solar panels, and give away their savings in electricity bills to people who suffer the impacts of climate change overseas. Plans include a garden, involvement in Clean up Australia Day, and a number of other activities. They are taking to heart the suggestion that creation care ministries should be Public, Practical and Proclaiming the gospel.

I look forward to keep track of where they are at in years to come.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Partnership or enslavement? Human-bird relationships

Humans have multiple and complex relationships with all species on the planet now, as we have entered into the age of the Anthropocene. But then again, even before we reached the level where we have dominated all of the natural cycles and threaten all of the planetary boundaries that support us, we have had relationships with other animals that are complex. Take for example cormorant fishing in China.

This clip from the BBC series Wild China looks at this old practice, and describes the cormorants as slaves. Is this a fair assessment? Are all forms of domestication best understand as enslavement of animals, or partnerships? When and what the birds can eat is limited, but eat they do. In fact, as opposed to a caged bird, the cormorants get to enter their natural habitat. They are trained, and not fully wild, intelligent and able to bend the rules. 

The relationship is exploitative, but not just one way. The birds are employed to hunt for food, but are not themselves food. This kind of relationship may not extend much further into the 21st century, but it's a fascinating example of how humans can relate to non-humans in a non-consumptive fashion (except of course for the fish!)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Don't look down Donald - climate and political change

Have you ever watched cartoons where the character doesn't know that they are about to fall under the influence of gravity until they look down? I remember once watching a cartoon (I was sure it was Ren and Stimpy but can't find the episode) where the laws of gravity are held in the local court house. Someone accidentally rubs them out and gravity fails.

The equivalent of this appears to be happening in the US at the moment with climate change either being removed or planned to be removed from government webpages. This, together with planned sackings etc in the US (and indeed what has happened in Australia with the Climate Council which now is publicly funded and CSIRO) is the equivalent of trying to erase the law of gravity.

Now you might protest that climate change science and gravity cannot be equated, but hear me out.

Firstly, both may be observed by anyone. Drop a brick on your foot, or keep track over the years when flowers first open or birds migrate. Keep a record of rainfall on your farm. A friend who worked in aid and development in Nepal for many years said there were no climate change skeptics there - because they could see it.

But secondly, both need some more careful observation. When Newton said that a body continues at a constant velocity unless acted upon by a force, he knew that in the absence of air that a pound of feathers and a pound of lead would fall at the same rate due to gravity (a fact someone I once worked with denied), but this is a level of abstraction since none of us lives in a vacuum (at least in the literal sense). Likewise, careful longterm datasets help us understand how natural change cannot fully explain the warming we see.

Thirdly, while Einstein came along, and quantum gravity might yet arrive, Newton is still valid for everyday. Likewise, while we learn more about aerosols, the role of the oceans, the sun, etc in natural variability, the basics of greenhouse gases - depending on the fundamental physics of quantum mechanics and radiative transfer are also still valid. It really is warming, it really is our fault and it really will get bad if we don't act.

Trump's lies (sorry alternate facts) will not change the real facts - except they will become worse through inaction. Tell the truth and shame the devil my mum sometimes says. Or as it says in the ten commandments, don't bear false witness. Tell the truth about climate change during this era of Machiavellian, oligarchic lies.