Posts Tagged ‘Anthropocene’

C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and the Spiritual Problems of Our Time

January 2, 2018

In a great Post John Woodcock drew attention to the importance of visionary experience amongst other things. However he also drew attention to C.S. Lewis, and this is where I have a problem.

John reminds us of the end of the Perelandra Trilogy in which the (literally) demonic scientists aim to bring about immortality. He quotes them

It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing. It is to bring out of that cocoon of organic life, which sheltered the babyhood of mind, the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.

The people on the side of the angels (again literally) are joyous when Merlin (yes that Merlin) breaks up the possibility of the scientists communicating, and then summons hoards of animals to eat them. Unlike John, I don’t find this denouement either satisfying or hilarious.

Indeed, the passage from Lewis reminds me exactly why I find him so disappointing. He is caught up hopelessly in surfaces and binaries. It’s spirit/matter, godly/ungodly, good/evil and so on. If God is on our side then whatever happens must be right, whatever discomfort our enemies suffer is wonderful. There are no tensions because God will win. God is all powerful after all, and the good guys are on the side of all power. Suck on that Demons!

It’s reminiscent of the bits in Narnia where the young woman is exiled because she likes stockings and make-up and the good crusaders slaughter heaps of evil Muslims in the battle to end all battles. All surface, dressed up to be deep. Faced with imagined people who think life is a bit more complicated than he does, all he can imagine is to break up their attempt at communion and praise murder. What a righteous attempt at solution! What imagination! What empathy! Lewis cannot even suspect the shadow of his spirituality, or his God, which he projects onto what he sees as science. His own spirituality can have nothing to do with the problems we face – it is all elsewhere and he is not responsible even a bit.

Its easy to imagine Lewis an inquisitor sadly condemning someone to excruciation until death, and thinking that if there is any sin in the matter its the fault of the secular authorities alone – he is innocent and unsullied. [As a caution we should all note that when we start condemning people, especially collectivities of people, we are probably engaged with the Jungian Shadow – ie the ‘evil’ in ourselves which it is less painful to see in others.]

Lewis needed to dream more freely rather than confine vision to allegory, see deeper and depend less on dogma for his interpretations.

By comparison good science is precisely about not stopping with surfaces but exploring reality and letting it impress us; not trying to trap it in binaries and given understandings. And we find an awe – even in people like Dawkins – which is perhaps more spiritual than almost anything in Lewis. The world revealed by science is weirder and more complex than anything Lewis or his characters could imagine. The God revealed in creation is not the tyrant of the Bible, but a being who delights in complexity, chance, freedom, creativity, who puts life into the fundamental bits of existence. Sure science has limits, but what doesn’t? While scientists are more Merlin than Lewis’s Merlin, science probably needs a little more more alchemy (in Jungian terms).

Perhaps Lewis’s apparent spiritual impoverishment (yes that is strong, but that is the kind of language he might use) arises not because of his Christianity, but because of his Platonism. Platonism constructs an ideal world and then regards this world as a falling away, a bad copy, which is of little value, except for the elite to transcend. Dying is good, as it could get you to reality; we must make sure everyone dies. Hence Lewis’s anger that anyone might want to live for ever, unless this life is non-material and it involves his elite and no one else. We probably don’t need Nietzsche to point out the problems with a mythology that seeks its fulfilment in death, either personal or in the death of others (indeed they might well tend to be the same). In that sense Platonism seems to be at the root of our ecological problems, and perhaps our problems of power – in which everything living has to be ordered to be good, when everything that is living is, in reality, messy and unpredictable. For platonists the only good creature is a dead creature. Platonism, and the demand for order is almost certainly one of the roots of the Anthropocene.

Let’s compare Lewis with another and far greater writer: G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton does have his low moments (in Father Brown, you always know it was the atheist what done it), but his work is full of the sense of mystery impinging on and in the world, and the joyous knowledge that arises from catching a glimpse of this reality.

Chesterton’s books on Aquinas and Francis are amongst the best of their kind, and full of the glory of spirit, faith and intellect. He does not see intellect as evil but as part of God’s way, part of the way we go beyond appearance to reality. The Man who was Thursday explores the complexity of an omnipotent God, even if Chesterton denies it does, he can do it. Chesterton fights with what he sees as the evils of the modern world; fiercely as with Shaw and Wells (although he accepts their point that unfettered capitalism is not good), but he never lets go of the insight that his enemies are also expressions of the glory of God, and he remains friends with his foes and engages in dialogue – as that communion is more important than righteousness and murder, even while he admits that sometimes war may be necessary. There is no poverty of imagination here. The real ‘material’ world is potentially holy, or even holy already (God made it and it was good).

Life is a constant potential for transfiguration – although Chesterton would probably use the model of the mass rather than alchemy or hermeticism. Further, he has no need to be of the spiritual elite, because he knows real humility and not the display of humility. He can celebrate the joys of ordinary people who are not perfect, because it is not his business to exclude people from ‘heaven’ or the heaven of Earth. He knows surfaces are holy, and that there are depths beyond the capacity of allegory to imagine.

My only complaint is that Chesterton is largely ignored, except by those usually on the political right) who would confine him, and pretend he was one of theirs – when he most certainly is not.


Climate change and prosperity

September 23, 2017

People can argue that climate change will bring economic prosperity. This is supposed to arise because currently frozen areas will become less frozen, the northwest passage will open, and we can more easily obtain minerals and oil from currently inhospitable locations.

So, let’s be clear – there may well be parts of the world which do appear to get a strategic or financial advantage from climate change. That is indeed possible. That does not mean the rest of the world will not suffer severely, nor that the melting ice will not mean that sea levels will almost certainly rise impacting many communities, that mountain glaciers will almost certainly shrink lessening water supplies, that deserts will probably expand, and that existing farming areas may become less productive. It is also possible that this could cause global warfare as people fight over access to water and arable land.

Indeed, I might argue that one of our problems is that we live in an economic system in which fantasies of wealth are encouraged to take precedence over survival, or even over having a healthy eco-system. Wealth has become symbolically equivalent to life and happiness. However, there is no prosperity if a civilisation undermines the ecologies it needs to survive or flourish. With current trends of climate change, it would seem that there is only increased hardship for most people, whatever the new economic openings (at best – it is hard to predict what the worst could be).

The fantasy of boom, also tends to be unreal because our economic system is problematic. Since the 1980s it certainly does not look like the proceeds from economic booms have been shared around. They have mostly gone to particular, and very small, groups of people, while the problems of economic busts have been shared around. So an economic boom arising because of the artic opening up, or tundras melting, is not likely to help that many people, or compensate the rest of us for the climate becoming tumultuous and hard.

It is probably better to put the money and effort into stabilizing climate, before pursuing fantasies of gain.

How can scientists predict future temperatures when they cannot predict the weather accurately?

September 20, 2017

Firstly, climate scientists cannot predict the exact temperature of a particular place, in exactly 50 years, easily or at all, any more than they can predict the exact temperature at a certain time, in a specific place, in one month’s time. And while this is problem raised by ‘skeptics’, this predictive ability is not an ability claimed by any climate scientists that I have read, and is of no relevance to the ongoing issues of predicting general increase in average global temperatures.

Weather systems form complex systems, and prediction in complex systems is notoriously difficult over length of time. We can predict climate trends such as: the average global temperature may rise by a particular order of magnitude, or that sea ice will melt and ocean levels rise, that low lying land will be flooded, and that deserts will expand, that weather will become more tumultuous, that storms are likely to get bigger, and that people will move as a result. But you cannot predict exact weather patterns for particular places. If we could, it would actually make climate change less devastating, as we could plan for it.

You can also predict that given the continuance of the circumstances we are in, it is extremely improbable that average temperatures will trend towards decrease, or that weather will become simple and nicely warmer everywhere. Indeed the prediction that this will not happen has been born out for years, and there is no sign that such climate beneficence will happen. However, it is possible that as climate patterns change some particular places may get colder – for example, if the gulf stream stops or shifts southward, then this may happen with the UK.

The point to bear in mind, is that climate and weather are complicated, but continuance of, or return to, the normal weather patterns of 20 years ago seems improbable in the extreme, and it is far more likely that weather events will become even more extreme than they are now, until (possibly) a new ‘steady state’ arises when the forces producing climate change have ceased. However, I am told that when we look at the last time the earth had high levels of CO2 and high temperatures (50 million years ago), massive storms may well have marked that normality.

We might add that other factors of the Anthropocene (such as peak phosphorus), make the prediction of livability of earth systems even more complex and fraught, but that is another question.

Action on Climate Change

September 17, 2017

Some random comments.

Let us be clear, the issue is that people should not emit more greenhouse gases than the environment can handle, if we wish our ‘civilization’ to survive – not that we should not emit any. Not emitting any greenhouse gases is impossible, and the system emits and reprocesses these emissions naturally, just not as much as we are currently emitting.

Coal is particularly bad in terms of the poisons it emits at all stages in its production and use. There is very little positive to say about coal (that is not in the ground) at this stage in our history. Coal mining and power probably needs to be eliminated, as there is no evidence that coal can be made ‘clean’ or environmentally friendly to the degree that we need it to be.

We probably also need to work at changing what seems to constitute modern life. Modern life is not a product of free choice but of what we were offered and chose within a particular set of social arrangements that did not value ecological survival.

That needs to change – and frankly I’m not sure people really ‘need’ or ‘want’ disposable bottles, polluting and failing concrete, coal power, massive amounts of beef, destroyed fishing grounds, and so on. This can be modified, and hopefully will modify.

It will be hard of course. Some of the problem may well be that the system we live in seems to create a psycho-spiritual emptiness which we fill by purchasing products – and this keeps us acting as wage slaves and generally making ourselves feel empty. This is part of the pattern of domination which we often call neoliberalism, but is probably better ‘capitalist plutocracy’.

Recognising plutocracy is important. I’ve rarely met anyone who is interested in renewables, who is not aware that these new technologies are being resisted by people who have lots of wealth, power, status and symbolic resonance tied up in fossil fuels. It’s pretty much an every day experience, and the established powers have heaps of money to throw around to influence the debate. Without them, and without the triumph of neoliberalism, we probably would not be having a debate; we would be engaged in finding the best solutions. Resisting plutocracy is important but difficult.

My main problem with the “energy problem” is that it distracts attention from the other ecological crises which are happening simultaneously. These are produced by building (concrete), mining, farming methods and so on, which are destroying our fresh water supplies, downing our oxygen supplies, wrecking the phosphorus cycle, killing the oceans and so on.

To be real, we need a lot more action on a lot more fronts.

Christiana Figueres 03

September 14, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 03:

Technology and markets

We need to be aware that the economy and the energy situation forms a system.

Renewables are not fossil fuels, they have different characteristics. If your energy system is set up for fossil fuels then it is already not ‘technology neutral’, it is historically biased in favour of fossil fuels and the characteristics of fossil fuel power. Consequently, there is a legacy effect in the system which inhibits innovation, both politically and in terms of expectation of how energy should behave and what factors of that energy production can be ignored.

[For example we ignore the slow response time of coal power, the amount of poison and health problems, it generates, the fact that it cannot be turned down when we don’t need it, its tendency to fail with unexpected temperatures, the amount of subsidy we pay, and so on]

In Chile, which has the advantage of not having coal or oil, the electricity market is fully open. There are no subsidies for fossil fuels or for renewables. They simply have auctions and those companies which can provide the lowest electricity price win the auction. So far that has been renewables. It has not been coal.

India can also be freer of this legacy inertia, and India has recently announced that no new coal power plants will be built in India in the next ten years. This will give time for renewables to develop and demonstrate their worth. They aim for 60% of all power to be renewable by 2027.

Increases in electricity prices have nothing to do with renewables, as is often argued. Renewables have not been around long enough to cause the price rises in those countries in which price rises have been occurring. It is like blaming a baby for the ongoing dysfunction of a family. The baby cannot do it entirely by itself, and the problems were around before it came on the scene. Prices are high because of the way markets are structured and they are structured around fossil fuels. To repeat: fossil fuel markets are set up not to be technology neutral.

Fossil fuels are like libraries – huge centres of generation. Nowadays you almost do not need libraries. You have information online.
We are moving to a decentred market in power where you do not need to go to a centralised place of generation. Australia has the world’s biggest market penetration of rooftop solar, it is moving towards decentred power, irrespective of policy. Some of us will generate more power than we need for ourselves. We are moving from the library to the internet.

Christiana Figueres 02

September 13, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 02:
[some extra comments in square brackets]

Technological innovation is happening, and it is happening at a rate which is very promising; much quicker than we expected.

This innovation has five characteristics or needs.

1) Technology is developing exponentially.
Every time the International Energy Agency makes a prediction about the use and price of renewables it is wrong. It underestimates their success. It is not used to dealing with this level of innovation.

The price of offshore wind is now 50% cheaper than it was expected to be by 2030.

Electric cars are taking off [everywhere but Australia were they are taxed as luxury items]
Volvo, Jaguar, Landrover, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen have all said that they will stop making internal combustion engines soon.
China may prohibit internal combustion sales. India aspires to all new cars being electric by 2030

2) However this change is not automatic
Change is intentional. We have to keep asking what do we need to do. We need to help the change happen. This is the space for individual action and policy thinking.

3) Technological change has to be comprehensive.
Everything we do is affected by energy and climate change. So the changes have to affect every sector (food, transport, IT etc). It is everyone’s responsibility. Nothing can be sheltered indefinately.

4) Technological Change is Symbiotic
Innovations in one area relate to changes in another. For example there is a relationship between the grid, renewables and electric vehicles. Cars need batteries, as does the grid. Innovations in batteries make both cars and grid better. Perhaps grid storage could be in distributed car batteries?

5) Technology needs to be restorative
We need to be able to repair damage to land, air and water. Otherwise we are going to find it hard to keep people alive.

[It is cheaper not to damage the environment in the first place. No more mining in agricultural zones, water catchment areas or in artesian basins]

Christiana Figueres 01

September 13, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 01:

There are two different principles which need to guide us.

1) The moral imperative: Protection of vulnerable people
Poor people throughout the world are the most at risk from Climate change, even though they have emitted very little of the CO2 that is the problem (even en mass). If we continue to destroy the climate, there will also be massive people movements away from unlivable areas.

2) The economic imperative
We can only emit another 600gt of greenhouse gases before we go into irreparable climate instability with uncontrollable and destructive weather.

We are currently emitting more than 40gt per year. We are exceeding what the natural systems of the planet can deal with.

If we stopped emissions completely that would be great, but we cannot do that without stopping the economy. So we need a transition period in which we move out of greenhouse gas emitting energy sources.

Now 600/40 = less than 17 years.

We have a time problem, but basically we need to start reducing greenhouse emissions within 3 years at most. We need to develop a trend of decreasing emissions until we reach zero emissions (or less).

That involves changes in policy, a shift of finance and technological innovation. It is all doable, and is in people’s interests to do.

Climate Justice???

July 25, 2017

The idea of “Climate Justice” perturbs me. It seems self-destructive, or self- undermining.

‘Justice’ as it works, usually involves two kinds of processes:

1) Defining someone as evil and punishing them for it. This requires violence for enforcement and the mechanisms for applying that violence. This is especially difficult between States, without a willingness to go to war or at the least break contact. By demanding that people be labelled criminal or evil, mechanisms of justice create both resentment and self-righteousness. It encourages projection or shadow behavior, in Jungian terms, whereby we ignore our own failings by blaming someone else. In this set up there is only good and evil, whereas in a complex ecological and social systems there is neither, there is mainly mutual implication.

2) Appeals to fairness. But it is never fair that we have to give up anything while others benefit… hence we do nothing. Piers Ackerman was arguing the other day that it is unfair for Australia to do something when we produce so little CO2 (even thought we produce massive amounts per head of population). This is a common anti-global warming tactic, which avoids responsibility.

Justice arguments are continually used by India and China to justify their massive expansion of coal. They are used by the Australian government to justify the Adani mine – shared prosperity for all, the war on poverty and so on. They are routinely used by people to argue that Australia can make no difference, so those people who request that we act are making unjust, or unfair, demands upon us, consequently we don’t have to act.

As a result of these problems or co-options, it might be better to avoid ‘justice’ altogether and phrase action in terms of “climate generosity”, attempting to come from humans ‘good’ side (and through modes of status acquisition through gifting) rather than our punitive side.

Climate Generosity requires that we do more than is necessary or just – we are generous, we act beyond what is required of us, without much hesitation. We are magnanimous, excessive.

Climate generosity does not have to involve allocations of guilt and blame and suggests that we are ‘in this together’ and ‘working together’, and thus acknowledges the systemic nature of the problem.

Generosity upsets the power relations based on old habits, while justice requires enforcers. Generosity combines both individual and social action, and appeals to the greater good of everyone, without demanding victory. It does not say ‘we won’t act until its fair’, it simply sets an example to be emulated or ignored. It gets on with the job, and cultivates a sense of responsibility.

If we only do what is just then we will not do anything much, we will only go to the boundaries of what is needed – we will be continually check to make sure others are not freeloading or acting unfairly. We will not act first.

However, if we replace justice by generosity, then we can go over those boundaries – “yes it might be cheaper and just to sell goal, but how about we help you build renewables? How about we cut back more of our emissions than would be our fair or just share? Why should we wait for others to act so that it is fair, lets be generous and act now!”

Conscience, knowledge and Action

July 4, 2017

Stephen Hawking has been talking about Earth becoming like Venus: unliveable.

Generating conditions such as those on Venus, is probably unlikely – and its probably not useful to mention them, as it gives people an excuse not to believe anything about ecological crisis, or to cop out from action, claiming these are just tales of gloom and doom, nothing real.

I have also heard tales of gloom and doom my entire life. However, it is true that we only avoided nuclear war by the finest of margins. Both Russia and the US were about to make mistaken responses on several occasions, and it was only the reluctance of the people on the ground to launch that saved us. We have depended on individual people acting according to their conscience and understanding. They risked unapproved action. Avoiding catastrophe now, requires the same conscience and understanding and action.

It is a simple matter of logic that you cannot keep destroying, and demanding more from, the environment that you depend on for ever. It would seem that we are reaching the ends of what we can demand from the world in quite a few different systems, some of which get no media attention at all (peak phosphorus for example). The breaking of these systems will produce massive tumult and destruction.

If we continue as we are doing, conditions for any complex civilisation will get more and more precarious. Continuing is not a conservative policy, it is a destructive one.

It is not Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that is the problem. It is Trump’s slackening of rules which allow corporations to poison people and the environment, together with his regulative hostility to renewables that is the problem.

Basically, action in the US has to be at the State level. It has to refuse more coal mines and coal based power stations and phase out those which exist. We have to stop fracking, and stop the leakage of gas through crappy pipelines. We have to encourage renewables. We have to make corporations responsible for the pollution and poison they produce. There are no economic externalities in a (more or less) closed system. Non of this will be easy and it may have deleterious consequences as we sort things out and change expectations.

It will involve a massive political conflict, but Trump just makes this explicit. Under Clinton it would have been obstruction in Congress, and the hope that things will be alright. Under Trump there is no Congressional obstruction to destruction, and people have to take back their own power and conscience. There is no alternative. It is up to you and your ability to cooperate with others.

How many people might die from climate change?

June 2, 2017

Sorry that is the sort of question which cannot be answered accurately.

Social systems, environmental systems and climate systems are complex systems which means they cannot be predicted in detail. All these systems will be interacting with different forms of landscape – such as low lying areas, loss of glaciers and water and so on. We need all of them to remain stable to make valid detailed predictions. All we can predict is the general trends, and these can be disrupted by rapid changes of state into new systems which may not be human friendly.

The trends are likely to be extreme. People will try and move from parts of the earth which become difficult to live in, because of temperature (heat stroke, heart failure, dehydration), lack of drinking water and sea level rise, and that will likely cause wars – in which people will die as well. The massive storms we have seen will cause deaths as well, as well as disrupt the balance and interconnection of social functioning which will produce more deaths. Destruction of agricultural stability will produce problems with food supply, which is likely to produce malnutrition, which makes people more vulnerable to the other effects. Tropical diseases will move into what have been temperate climates, as well as be carried by people movement. It is likely that those of us who live in temperate environments will have little resistance to these diseases. We may see some parts of the world which have previously been uninhabitable become open to human life and the great powers will compete over those areas, which is also likely to produce war and death.

We also keep polluting the oceans which will disrupt the climate and ecological systems. Many biologists think that ocean death is possible, this will mean we will lose most of our fish stocks, we may also lose oxygen supplies if the plankton die and we keep cutting down forests, although it is unlikely we will kill ourselves, this will also lessen resilience.

With pro-corporate policies which help corporations release chemicals pollution without much in the way of check we will also poison ourselves and the other creatures and plants we need to live. The results of these chemicals on bio-system evolution cannot be predicted at all…

Basically there are a whole heap of endangering ecological processes going on, of which climate change is only one. What the results of multiple chaotic disruptions will be is absolutely unpredictable. However, it can be predicted that normality is going and that many people will die as a result.