The Journey (So Far)


The priest answered them, “Go in peace. Your journey has the Lord’s approval.”

Judges 18

When it comes to incredibly complex issues such as climate change none of us know the answers — we are all on a journey. We are constantly learning. Hopefully, we are honest enough and humble enough to change our opinions and strategies as we learn more about what is taking place and as the journey progresses.

At this page I would like to say a few words about my personal journey — how I learned about issues such as Peak Oil and Climate Change, and how I responded to these insights.

I am a chemical engineer. I have worked in the process and energy industries for my entire career. (The picture is of me standing on a North Sea Oil and Gas platform. Although hard to see, it was snowing lightly when the picture was taken.) This engineering background helps me understand much of the science and technology that lies behind discussions to do with the climate change and related issues.

 

In addition to being a chemical engineer I have a Masters in Literature from the University of Houston, Clear Lake. I believe that this combination of engineering and literature helps me better understand the nature of the issues that we are facing, and that it helps overcome some of the Two Cultures issues.

One of the themes of this book is that church leaders need to have a grasp of scientific and technological issues. The same idea applies in reverse to technical people — it is important for them to be familiar with the insights that can be provided by the liberal arts.

Ian Sutton Faith in a Changing Climate
st james less ashland va

I am also a member of the Episcopalian/Anglican church. My home church is St. James the Less in Ashland, Virginia — about 20 minutes north of Richmond, and an hour and a half south of Washington D.C. I participated in the Education for Ministry (EfM) program organized by the University of the South. This is a four year program.

Students attend a weekly class and carry out the necessary background reading. The first year curriculum covers the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. My class colleagues heard me talk about how the Peak Oil / Climate Change issues create opportunities for fresh Christian leadership, so they suggested that I become a modern-day prophet. Taking on such a role is obviously presumptuous. How can a semi-retired chemical engineer handle such knotty theological questions? Nevertheless, someone has to do it, so I decided to give it a go.

 

This page describes my journey as I learned more about the Age of Limits — issues such as climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot and biosphere loss. The page has been divided into four sections:

  1. The Starting Point: A Forest Dark

  2. Twilight in the Desert

  3. A History of Knowledge

  4. Predicaments and Oxymorons

  5. The Church’s Opportunity

1. The Starting Point: A Forest Dark

 

My journey to do with understanding the Age of Limits started many years ago when I was a teenager in high school. We were required to read that remarkable novella The Machine Stops by E.M Forster. Although written in the year 1909, the book captures so much of what makes up our current society, including dependence on computers and social media. It also shows just how corrupting and destructive such a world becomes.

My journey then moved on to an article I read in a chemical engineering journal. In the article the author shows how ethanol as a fuel hardly makes sense. Although the author does not use the term ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), it is a concept toward which he is moving. (Unfortunately I cannot track down the reference.)

 

The next stop on the journey was Jeremy Rifkin’s book Entropy Into the Greenhouse World. Although published over 30 years ago, like The Machine Stops, this book captures much of what we are learning now about the consequences of climate change. He also explains the reasons behind the deforestation of Europe in the Middle Ages, and the resulting need to use fossil fuels. Finally, he shows how the concept of “progress” has become baked into our way of thinking.

Around the  same time I became familiar with the work of Matt Simmons and his investigation into the extent of the oil reserves in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His conclusions were summarized in his book Twilight in the  Desert. Simmons did not use the term ‘Peak Oil’ but that was the concept behind his findings: there is only so much oil in the ground, and when it is gone it is gone.

Machine Stops
Matthew Simmons Twilight in the Desert

2. Twilight in the Desert

 
 

Around the year 2008 I read an article in a chemical engineering journal to do with the use of ethanol as a biofuel (unfortunately, I do not recall who wrote the article or when it was published, so I cannot provide a citation). The article described the then relatively new concept of converting corn (maize) into ethanol which could be added to gasoline, thereby reducing the need for imported oil.

What was striking about the article was its tone of surprise. Having explained the chemical process, the author looked at what we now call Energy Returned on Energy Invested  (ERoEI). He evaluated the overall system in terms of net energy and found that the energy needed to manufacture ethanol is almost a great as the energy that the ethanol provides when used as a fuel. It was as if the author had started a straightforward journey to a known destination, but had somehow been sidetracked into unexpected territory.


I recognized the author’s tone of surprise, but did not make a full transition into Stage 2 until I came across a series of Powerpoint presentations by Matt Simmons  (1943-2010) around the year 2009. Simmons was part of the oil investment community — he knew the business intimately. In  the year 2000 he became suspicious of the claims made by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to do with the size of their oil reserves. To get around this secrecy Simmons spent many hours in the library of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in Richardson, Texas, reading many papers to do with oil production in the KSA. Although most of these papers discussed only a narrow topic, he was able to piece together a bigger picture. His conclusion was that the reserves in the KSA were much less than generally accepted, and that the nation would soon be entering a period when oil production would decline. Hence he wrote a book with the title Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. After reading Simmons’s book it “clicked” that the supply of oil throughout the world, not just in Saudi Arabia, was finite, and that when it was gone, it was gone.

Twilight in the Desert
ImageNameUsed Charles van Doren

3. A History of Knowledge


The next phase in my journey came from reading the book A History of Knowledge by Charles van Doren (1926-2019).  Two insights were particularly important. The first was to do with Augustine of Hippo and his book City of God, written around the year 420 CE. Augustine recognized that all “cities of men”, i.e., human organizations, decline and eventually fail. (The fall of the city of Rome in 410 was particularly traumatic for Augustine and other early church fathers.) The only “city” that is permanent, Augustine argued, is the spiritual city — the City of God. Augustine is often seen as being the most important Christian theologian after Paul of Tarsus. I suggest that we now need a theology that is relevant to the crises of our time. (Further discussion to do with Augustine and his insights is provided at the post Augustine of Hippo.)

 

A History of Knowledge was also important because it showed how science and technology developed, starting with the Galileo Galilei and his observation of the “heavens”. Galileo declared that heavenly objects such as the moon and planets are made of the same materials as objects here on Earth, and are subject to the same laws of physics.

 

This line of thought continues with discussion to do with the insights of Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton. Each of them, in his own way, contributed toward the intellectual success of science, and the material success of technology.

The section concludes with a discussion of the book Hard Times, written by Charles Dickens. Like many of his novels, this book describes the impact of the industrial revolution and the miseries that it brought to so many people. He was deeply concerned with what we now refer to as social justice, particularly justice for children. (The book is discussed in more detail here.)

Painted in  Corner

4. Predicaments and Oxymorons

 


The issues that we discuss at this site are complex and difficult to understand. Moreover, they interact with one another in ways that are difficult even identify. Moreover, many of the conclusions and action items that we come up will not work in practice. This is why the term “technically feasible” is included in the site’s Mission Statement.

For many years the author John Michael Greer published a blog entitled the Archdruid Report. One of his insights is that we face predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. This thought provides the basis for my second theological point Accept and Adapt.

Next in this section comes the philosopher Georg Hegel and the concept of Hegelian Synthesis. The idea is that we have a “thesis” — an existing condition. It is followed by an “anti-thesis”. It, in turn, is followed by a “synthesis” that incorporates elements of both of the preceding states, but is different from both of them. In the context of this site the thesis is pre-industrial society, the anti-thesis is the industrial society we have created through the use of fossil fuels, and the synthesis is the world that we are in the process of creating.

Jevons' Paradox is a very important concept that is discussed in the article Jevons Paradox. In our context, the paradox suggests that efforts we make to “save the environment” will not only fail, they could be counter-productive and could actually make matters worse.

Next up we have the late Dr. Albert Bartlett and his well-known lecture Arithmetic, Population & Energy that explained how the exponential function affects us. Quotations from his talk include, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”, and, “Sustainable growth is an oxymoron”. Regarding resource and environmental limits, he put these issues in the context of population growth. It is not the absolute quantity of a resource that matters, it is the quantity of that resource per head of population. And if the world’s population is growing exponentially then all our efforts to turn things around are likely to be confounded.

Finally in this section, we have Ugo Bardi and his blog Cassandra’s Legacy. His post The Empire of Lies was particularly helpful because it helped provide a basis for the theological theme, Understand and Tell the Truth.

Episcopal Shield

5. The Church's Opportunity

 

The final stage in this journey is very much a work in progress. It is a realization that we are not going to receive effective leadership from secular institutions. In spite of all the well-researched reports from well-funded organizations such as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) we continue to consume the Earth’s resources without constraint, and we continue to fill the environment with our waste products, particularly CO2. Even the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed this trajectory significantly.

As I learned about the predicaments that we face, I also learned that the situation presents an opportunity for people of faith and for the church to provide much-needed leadership.