Faith in a Changing Climate
We are entering a new and rather scary world. Climate change, resource depletion and biosphere destruction all pose existential threats to human civilization. Until recently most of us either denied that these changes were taking place or we simply ignored what was happening. Climate change was just one problem among many. That way of thinking is gradually changing; there is an increasing awareness that human actions are causing climate change and that the consequences are not just one problem among many; the issue is bigger than that. The use of phrases such as “the end of civilization” are no longer confined to a fringe element of society. Nevertheless, there is still a general assumption that “they will come up with something”, that some new technology will allow us to maintain our energy-guzzling lifestyle and to maintain economic growth — even though we live on a planet with finite resources and which has only so much space into which can dump our waste products.
Yet even that perception is starting to shift. Technology can indeed slow down the rate at which the climate changes and can mitigate its impact. But technology cannot restore the climate to what it was a generation ago, technology cannot create oil and other natural resources from nowhere, and technology cannot restore species that are now extinct. Slowly, we are coming to grips with the reality that, if we are to avoid catastrophe, it we ourselves who will have to change. We will have to learn to live in equilibrium with the natural world, rather than merely exploiting it.
The situation is gloomy but it does provide an opportunity for people of faith and for the church to provide badly needed leadership. We need to leave the 'Church of Material Progress' and to develop a faith system that is appropriate for the world that lies ahead. The goal of this book is to explore what that faith system might look like, and provide some suggestions as to how the church may be able to provide leadership.
The following is the Mission Statement for this site. (It is described at the Mission Statement page.)
To work with people of faith and with churches to provide technically sound leadership in response to the predicaments of a finite world.
Most people are used to negotiating with other people — they expect a degree of give and take. For example, if two political parties are working out a health care program they can take the time needed to reach a middle ground. They work with a belief that, with a sufficiently good faith effort, we will be able to work out a solution. But when it comes to climate change, resource depletion and the destruction of the biosphere we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology as if they are people or human organizations. The laws of nature do not negotiate — they are what they are; they could care less about our wishes, hopes, dreams, fears or imagined destiny. From nature’s point of view we are just another species which has overshot its resource base.
The above chart shows how the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has risen steadily since the 1950s. It also shows the dates of some of the most important conferences (COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’) and IPCC reports. We see that our “negotiations” with nature have, so far, achieved very little.
One of the themes of this site is that we need to ‘Understand and tell the truth’. One of those truths is that ‘Nature does not negotiate’. A related truth is that ‘Nature bats last’.
Time Is Pressing
Not only are we treating climate change as a negotiable topic, we are also behaving as if we have sufficient time to work out and then implement solutions. Such is not the case. Already the impact of climate change is being felt throughout the world. Record high temperatures, droughts, coastal flooding, massive and frequent hurricanes — these are events that are happening now, not some time in the indefinite future.
The discussions at this site and in the blog posts revolve around the following three themes:
Understand and tell the truth.
Accept and adapt.
Live within the biosphere.
God No Longer Dead
Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900)
Friedrich Nietzche famously declared that,
God is dead. God remains dead. Abd we have killed him. . . Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
Nietzche meant that Enlightenment values and the success of science and technology in solving our problems removed the need for God. Humanism triumphed.
However, in our time, humanism has hit its own limits. Finite resources are being depleted, the climate is changing and we are destroying the biosphere. So maybe humanism is dead; maybe there is a need to resuscitate the idea of God.
Where Is God In All This?
Credit: Ian Sutton
After a long discussion to do with climate change, a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?”
It’s a good question; it probably has to be answered by trying to figure out a theology that is appropriate for our times. What form will the new theology take? Well, that is what this book is about — at this stage everything is much too fluid to come up with a definitive answer to that question. But, even at this stage, we can predict four possible features of a new religious structure.
1. Religion Becomes Important
Religion will, once again, be important. It will matter to ordinary people. Currently technology in its various forms is providing meaning to the universe, and also responses to our needs and concerns. The meaning is provide in the way that science can explain how things work. The successful response is seen in areas such as health care. If we are ill or if we have had an accident we first go to the doctor, and then put our name on the church’s prayer list. As climate change and resource limits start to bite, science and technology will be seen as being the cause of our problems. People will look for meaning in other ways, including religion. Their faith in the ‘Church of Material Progress’ will be badly shaken.
New expressions of religion are likely to be non-establishment. Climate change is such a basic challenge to the manner in which we run our society that the church will likely have to go through a reformation, not a restoration.
3. Many Cultures
We have already discussed the fact that we cannot negotiate with the laws of nature — they are what they are. This means, therefore, that church leaders (both ordained and lay) will need to understand those laws, at least at a basic level. Theologians of the future may not be mathematicians or scientists. But they will have a basic understanding of topics such as thermodynamics and systems engineering, along with the traditional skills to do with Bible study and historical analysis. If they do not know how to respond to an unsympathetic nature then they will need to call on experts within their congregations and local communities.
In this context, it is important that the church’s statements to the public pass the “red face” test. For example, the Episcopal Church published a policy statement to do with climate change that is worthy in intent, but that does not address engineering or project management realities. (The statement is discussed in the article Episcopal Renewable Energy Proposal.)
Church leaders will also need to work with people from other cultures and with people who have a variety of educational and career backgrounds. For example, the oil companies are criticized for causing the emissions that cause global warming (even though we are all more than happy to use the products that they supply). However, instead of just criticizing these companies, church leaders may find it advantageous to work with oil companies because they provide attributes that the church lacks. These attributes include:
A vertically integrated organization, all the way from finding a basic resource such as oil to selling their products to customers at filling stations.
An understanding as to how to manage high risk, multi-billion dollar projects, and
Skilled personnel who can develop new products that are not so damaging to the environment.
4. Leaving the ‘Church of Material Progress’
The final feature of the new theology is its most important. It will require a new way of thinking, of a new theology, In particular we will have to leave the ‘Church of Material Progress’ because ‘progress’, as we have come to understand the word, calls for unceasing growth. But we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet; non-stop growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.
The upshot of these thoughts is that people will have to understand that a new and simpler lifestyle is called for. And those who are already more prosperous will have to make sacrifices.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
1 Timothy 6
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?