Monday, October 24, 2016

At the end of the pipeline: decolonising creation and climate

With Columbus Day having recently just passed, the issues of colonialism and national identity will be fresh in many people’s minds. Columbus wasn’t the first European to arrive in the Americas, and indeed no European can be said to have discovered it given the thriving Indigenous peoples. Americans will be much more familiar and better equipped than I to talk about the vision of America’s manifest destiny. It was arguably a noble vision for a new nation. However, it is clear how far short of that vision the US has fallen, so that even in Alexander Humboldt’s, upon visiting America in 1804, could express such disappointment that revolutionary fervour didn’t yet extend to the emancipation of slaves.

The theological underpinnings of oppression are nothing new, and not unique to the US. However, in the “new world”, such ideas were given fresh impetus, running counter to the revolutionary spirit of freedom. As Alfred Cave notes in his paper, Canaanites in a Promised Land: The American Indian and the Providential Theory of Empire, Old Testament ideas of Canaan, the Promised Land and the conquest, were used to oppress and dispossess the first peoples. English settlers were cast in the role of God's new Chosen People, whereas the first nation peoples were cast as the Canaanites, and seen as idolaters, devil worshippers and savages. It was easy enough to justify violence and extermination.

What’s often less appreciated is the role the spread of diseases played in the invasion of the “new” world. In the journal Nature in 2015, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin examined a number of definitions of the Anthropocene, the age of human domination of the Earth’s major support systems. They document that estimates of the regional population of the Americas in 1402 range from 54 to 61 million people. Numbers plummeted to about 6 million by 1650 due to introduced diseases, war, enslavement and famine. Such a fall in population led to a collapse in agriculture and a measurable drop in global carbon dioxide levels. Such a meeting of “old” and “new” worlds demonstrates the connection between environmental destruction, empire, colonialism and genocide.

The conquest of Australia, my home country, lacked the narrative of chosen people and promised land, but instead suffered under the myth of terra nullius. In truth, Indigenous land use was many and varied, including permanent settlements, aquaculture and extensive fire management. Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia observes how often Europeans admired how much like a gentleman’s garden the land appeared, but totally ignore the gardeners. Terra nullius has been consistently used to deny first peoples land rights and right to self determination.

The colonialisation of land use and of national identity in both the US and Australia continues into our management, or better still, mismanagement of creation and continued ignoring of the wishes of First Peoples. In the US, the Standing Rock Pipeline in the North Dakota Plains once more highlights how ideas of progress and growth trump the rights of Indigenous people. With threats to drinking water and sacred sites, Dakota has become a focus of discontent with the colonialisation of creation. The response has been predictable, with dogs, pepper spray, strip searches and attempts to silence the media. In Australia, criminalisation of protest is also used as a tactic to protect unnecessary mining. This development affects indigenous artifacts and the site is the continued subject of indigenous protest.

It seems to me that there are various narratives that the gospel needs to undo. The first is that of endless growth, fueled by our addiction to fossil fuels. Bill McKibben has shown that most of the remaining fossil fuels need to be left in the ground. This means that in order to stay below 2 C of warming above pre-industrial levels, there needs to be no new coal mines and no new pipelines. Our path into the 21st century and beyond needs to be marked not simply with a shift to renewable energy. We also need to focus less on growth, as Jesus said to focus less on the building of bigger barns. Likewise, with a country like India signing on to the Paris climate agreement, we might give more thought to how be better neighbours to a country that is facing its climate responsibility, and yet has to lift millions out of darkness by connecting them to electricity. [Updated 24/10/16] The WTO’s ruling against India’s domestic content requirements for solar panels is in my view, and example of not being a good neighbour. Surely at this point addressing climate change is more important than insisting upon forcing open markets.

We also need to decolonialise our theology, and listen to indigenous voices on the sacred nature of creation, particularly indigenous Christian voices. We tend to read Genesis 1 through Francis Bacon, and view creation as a resource. John Walton has helped us see creation as a sacred temple. It’s time to hear more from the world’s first peoples on how they see creation as sacred. I’m most aware of what has been done in Australia with Rainbow Spirit Theology, and imagine that similar exists in the US. We need to have “ears to hear”, because we are not dealing with the Canaanites we are called to destroy. We are dealing with those whom God has placed in their places so that they might seek and find him (Acts 17:22-31) and with whom we share a common world. If we’re to honour these people as made in the image of God, this world as God’s good creation, and God as creator, we need to listen to them, to protest with them, and to speak truth to power with them.

[This blog piece has been submitted to another site, but since I haven't heard back I'm putting it up here. I've updated the text on the WTO ruling, which previously read that it was against the Indian solar industry, rather than the amount of local components.]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Post Justice Conference Melbourne 2016

So it's Sunday night and I am still on a high after the Justice Conference. Chance to catch up with a few friends, make some new ones, and be inspired by some amazing and faithful Christians who believe that justice is at the heart of God. I think a few people must have provided feedback after last year's conference, because climate change was more prominent this year. Kuki Rokhum from EFICOR in India spoke powerfully about the impacts of climate change in India. Did you know that there is a direct connection between slavery and climate change? People forced off their lands by failing rains become vulnerable to all sorts of abuse, including slavery. Kuki noted that "While we are debating about climate change, people are dying." As I noted in our workshop together with Claire Dawson, my co-author (or I'm hers) on A Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World, denial is part of while male privilege.

Our workshop was ably led by Jo Knight of TEAR. We talked about what brought us to being so concerned about climate, basic science and impacts, framing theology and directions forward. In an hour it was impossible to be comprehensive in all of this - I teach a 12 hour course at Eastern College here in Melbourne!

I am motivated to do more, write more and speak more - where my strengths are. Hopefully that translates into more regular blogging.

There will be talks online soon on the Justice Conference website. So much goodness, so make sure you get a hold of them when you can. And don't lose hope!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Justice Conference Melbourne 2016

This blog has been too quiet. It's not that I haven't been busy, but more of that soon.

I will be at the Justice Conference in Melbourne, speaking on a panel on climate justice. I will be with Claire Dawson, my co-author on A Climate of Hope, and Kuki Rokham who works with EFICOR, TEAR's partner in India.

Reflections on our workshop will follow. Hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Harambe, politics and the social media echo chamber

In the echo chamber that is social media, ideas quickly blow up and become polarised. This week, a 17 year old western lowland gorilla was shot when a three year old boy fell into the enclosure. It appears that experts largely agree this was the only course of action. Thank God the child was largely unhurt. One can only wonder what would have happened had Harambe the gorilla not been shot, of if the child had fallen into the enclosure of a carnivore like a big cat.

Now one cannot have an issue that the gorilla was shot to protect a child's life. However, much of the social media echo chambering and political footballing concerns me.

Early on, people were asking why it was the the gorilla was shot - could there have been another way, like tranquilizing? It seems this would have been too slow. Others questioned whether or not the gorilla needed shooting at all. Was Harambe being protective of the child as Jane Goodall thought it might? Anyone who has seen David Attenborough's footage with mountain gorillas knows that they are capable of great tenderness towards each other, and humans. And yet a male's first responsibility is to protect his own. No, we must accept what happened. No doubt in time, the questions will be answered about the enclosure, and whether or not it was sufficiently safe for the child, and the gorilla. Likewise, we need to be very slow in blaming the family.

But I'm concerned about the polarisation that has occurred. There are some who are quick to mock those of us who show genuine concern over the fate of non-humans, for political and or religious reasons. To care for a gorilla is not to care less for the child, or for refugees as some would contest, using this incident as a political springboard. Yes, coverage of moral issues is skewed, but do we belittle one set of issues (non-human moral status and extinction risks) for another (our concern over refugees). I'm not convinced two wrongs make a right.

I saw recently a blog that said that one human was of more value than a million gorillas - the image of God theological argument. My response is, what kind of calculation is that? Isn't that providing the wrong answer to the wrong question in this case? Doesn't this kind of approach feed exactly into the predicament of this species being endangered in the wild?

The other kinds of responses are equally silly. Calling the killing of a non-human murder , even one as closely related to us as a gorilla, is wrong headed. We do not have to directly equate the death of a gorilla and a human as morally equivalent to understand that this was a tragic event. Would those people rather that the child died instead? Maybe Peter Singer might make this argument, but not a Christian thinker like myself.

The calls for gorillas not to be kept in zoos is a more complex one, but also a knee jerk reaction here, as they are endangered in the wild. If zoos can help keep this species alive (and that includes obviously providing a safe space for them), then there they should stay. Releasing any zoo animal back into the wild is not that simple.

To summarise then: I'm grateful the child is alive, though I'm saddened it has come at the loss of a creature both endangered and a magnificent work of the creator God. The reactions on both ends miss the point and just seem like an exercise in stone throwing across the divide. Once more, social media seems incapable of supporting a reasoned discussion or reaching some kind of understanding between people. Perhaps I'm just ranting, but it's only that I care about three year old children, displace refugees, and a natural world that's dying. And all these things matter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Still two cultures: Reflections on Bird Sense

I've been busy writing for various book projects and a lecture course, so it's been a while. After enjoying The Soul of an Octopus, I've followed up with Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. And I'm mildly annoyed before finishing the preface!

Firstly, Birkhead refers to Thomas Nagel's paper about what it is life to be a bat. Birkhead is waving the flag of science (fair enough, it's a book on science and looks at what we know about animal perception, etc), but in the process he wants to relegate philosophy (how trendy). While science he thinks can tell us quite a lot about how animals perceive things by extending our perception using technology (his pragmatic approach), Nagel's understanding that we can't know exactly what it is like to be a bat is "subtle and pedantic." Is it too subtle for a scientist or science journo? That reflects badly on Birkhead.

As for pedantic, once more we see the view of science offering us a better way and relegating issues of meaning, significance, etc to the scrap heap. Actually, science contains a lot of subtly, and anyone who's tried to publish a paper will know about its pedantic nature. More than that, understanding perception tells you little about qualia, and claims of epiphenomena assume a lot. Nagel's gone a step further to challenge materialism. As well he might.

A second annoyance is the statement "our behaviour is controlled by our senses." Isn't it the case that our senses inform our behaviour? Control seems too strong a word. But then I'm being pedantic.

Thirdly, he argues that "natural selection ... provided a much better explanation for all the aspects of the natural world than the wisdom of God." Sigh. Anyone who's read any history knows that even Christians found much of Paley's natural theology as suspect. Darwin was reacting against this, after having formally embraced it. There's a world of difference between rejecting Paley's laboured design arguments, and complex pneumatological (Spirit), perichoretic (Trinitarian) and kenotic (self-emptying) arguments about creation/evolution. [Addition] He actually discusses Paley in more detail in chapter one, making the above statement all the more ironic!

I think Birkhead needs a history, philosophy and theology education. I'm expecting his science to be much better.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Why I marched with a multifaith group at the climate march

In sense this should be a big non-issue, but it is also an excuse to blog (it's been a while). I'm there on the left holding a multifaith banner. The other in a circle is meant to catch anyone else not captured by the logos.

As a Christian from the Evangelical tradition (I won't try and identify myself on the spectrum except to say the label is broader than some will allow for), I place a premium on the person, deity and uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ (Messiah, anointed king). But this was not an opportunity for covert prosletysing.

Because I come from a religious tradition, I believe in Earth as sacred space, sacramental if you like. This derives from an understanding of nature as creation, of the Genesis accounts as using temple language. It doesn't represent the entire of the Christian tradition, but I think it's biblical. It isn't a view at odds with some idea of stewardship, or fair use, but stretches it to see the Earth as value to God, home to all of humanity and all of Earth-bound life.

All of the people there hold to some idea of the sacred, and it's a concept that even secular people can identify with, from Stuart Kaufmann's attempts at constructing a secular sacred to the rapturous language of Richard Dawkins in his writings on evolution, captured in music by the symphonic metal band Nightwish in their album Endless forms most beautiful.

Regardless of what we believe, we share one world. Denialism to me is bearing false witness, breaking one of the 10 commandments. Call it what you will. I marched with these men and women for God, for creation and for humanity, to love my neighbour as myself. Here's praying good things come out of COP21 in Paris.

PS: Here is a blog I wrote for Red Letter Christians on why I was marching.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

St Francis and the preaching of the birds

October 4 is the feast day of St Francis. Now of course there are a lot of church traditions who don't recognise the concept of sainthood or feast days. And yet, an increasing number of people are adopting Francis because of his attitude toward the non-human part of creation.

This image shows Francis preaching to the birds. Now while it has been demonstrated that certain birds (some corvids, African Grays, etc) are intelligent, they require no sermon or conversion. The fault of environmental damage lies at the feet of humans alone, rooted in uncontrolled and unbounded growth and desire.

Perhaps this feast day is more a reminder that we need to hear a sermon from the birds. Once, the Passenger Pigeon occupied the skies for days, now it is extinct. Once, birds were threatened from DTT thinning their eggs, at least for now the use of this substance is controlled. Rising temperatures stress birds - one heat wave in Western Australia killed half the population of an endangered parrot. Rising sea levels are causing some countries to think about building sea walls that would cut off coastal flats that matter to migrating birds. The birds are preaching to us and telling us we are out of control. They are quite literally, the canary in the coal mine.

In my favorite psalm, Psalm 104, we are told:

12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
    they sing among the branches.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
    the stork has its home in the fir trees.

We learn here that there is a place for everything and everything has a place - though this is in a time before virsuses, bacteria and disease was understood, so this isn't everything that could be said, although lions also have a place in this Psalm, and hence the picture isn't all rosy either. 

That caveat aside, here we see the birds preaching to us. Why don't we start listening?