Monbiot: ‘wrong on Peak Oil’

Oh dear. It’s always sad to see a scourge of big business being an unwitting mouthpiece for the same big business. This is a quick response to George Monbiot’s latest Guardian article ‘We were wrong on Peak Oil’.

Firstly – the title. Monbiot says ‘we’, but he’s always been on the sceptical side of the Peak Oil discussion, as he is much more concerned about global warming. For me it’s the other way around – I think the science is demonstrably stronger for Peak Oil than for global warming (to be precise: than for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming – CAGW) to the extent that the real world is living out what Peakists predicted, but not what CAGWists predicted…but I’ll come on to that.

The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.

OK, good first sentence, agree with that.
It’s been around for much longer than ten years – as Monbiot accepts later on.
The reasons for this, however, are not primarily the ones that Monbiot lists – indeed, the fact that he thinks Peak Oil is adequately justified for these shallow reasons simply indicates his failure to engage with the fundamentals. Peak Oil is the observation (not a theory) that every oil field ever discovered is finite; further, the flow of oil from almost every oil field rises and declines; and that there are only a certain number of oil fields available in a finite world – so therefore the flow of oil available to the world will itself rise and decline. It’s extremely simple, and has been observed repeatedly in a wide variety of locations. The overwhelming majority of oil-producing countries in the world have passed their own local peaks. I could go on…
The first of the great resource crunches has struck – how else to describe the increase in the cost of oil by an order of magnitude? In the 1990’s oil was hovering between $10 and $15 a barrel – it has now ‘come down’ to around $100 a barrel from a peak of near $150. Clearly this is because Peak Oil is not a problem…Peak Oil might be simply summarised as ‘first it gets expensive, then it gets scarce’. We have emphatically reached the first phase.

Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.

Oh George…’wanted it to happen’. One of the things about Peak Oil is that our wants don’t have a very great deal to do with it. Reality is non-negotiable – and it seems straightforward to me that we are indeed living through a situation that has shocked the world into economic transformation (yes, finance is a major aspect – see The Automatic Earth – but as James Hamilton has demonstrated, the oil price triggers recessions).
As for governments responding… who is to say they haven’t been?

Some of us made vague predictions, others were more specific. In all cases we were wrong. In 1975 MK Hubbert, a geoscientist working for Shell who had correctly predicted the decline in US oil production, suggested that global supplies could peak in 1995. In 1997 the petroleum geologist Colin Campbell estimated that it would happen before 2010. In 2003 the geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes said he was “99% confident” that peak oil would occur in 2004. In 2004, the Texas tycoon T Boone Pickens predicted that “never again will we pump more than 82m barrels” per day of liquid fuels. (Average daily supply in May 2012 was 91m.) In 2005 the investment banker Matthew Simmons maintained that “Saudi Arabia … cannot materially grow its oil production”. (Since then its output has risen from 9m barrels a day to 10m, and it has another 1.5m in spare capacity.)

Good, some specifics.
Hubbert’s prediction was based on business continuing as usual – and the OPEC crisis of the 1970’s, which caused a drop in oil production – ie it left the oil in the ground – simply delayed things for ten years. So far his prediction is holding up pretty well (as, it could well be argued, are those of Campbell, Deffeyes and even Pickens).
The key claim in Monbiot’s article, however, is this: ‘average daily supply in May 2012 was 91m’. This is what is called ‘all liquids’ production – and this is not what Peak Oil is about (see discussion here looking at the US). For example, ‘all liquids’ includes ethanol production – you know George, it’s that stuff which Obama subsidises in order to transfer food from the third world into the petrol tanks of his target voters. Ethanol is not just evil, it is also a waste of energy (it uses up more energy to make it than you get out of it, in the US). To include ethanol – and bio-fuels, and even tar sands (slightly more debatable) – in discussions of Peak Oil is simply to confuse the issue, and, again, betrays a lack of understanding of the fundamentals. If we use the baseline consistent measure – called ‘crude and condensate’ – then we get a very different picture. Since 2005 production of C&C has remained stuck on a plateau of approximately 74 million barrels a day – and this despite the vast fortunes that are now being made for any new supplies that are coming on stream.

(Source: Stuart Staniford and see his commentary on it)

Now, as it happens, I think it perfectly possible that there will be another minor uptick in C&C production – perhaps we will get up to, say 76 mbpd (if that happens it’ll be because more is coming through from Iraq) – but any calm assessment of the numbers can only lead to the conclusion that we are currently at the top of the fairground ride, and that the only significant likely move is going to be downwards from now on. How steep that ride down becomes is the only interesting – and frightening – question.
Lastly on this paragraph, Matt Simmons was right (emphasis upon the ‘materially’).

Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time. A report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun. The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that. Maugeri’s analysis of projects in 23 countries suggests that global oil supplies are likely to rise by a net 17m barrels per day (to 110m) by 2020. This, he says, is “the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s”. The investments required to make this boom happen depend on a long-term price of $70 a barrel – the current cost of Brent crude is $95. Money is now flooding into new oil: a trillion dollars has been spent in the past two years; a record $600bn is lined up for 2012.

Peak Oil has happened in the vast majority of countries already, and is pretty much certainly happening for the world now (clue: look at the oil price).
The Maugeri report is discussed in detail at the OilDrum here.
The constraints on supply do include financial ones – but these have also been discussed exhaustively, especially by Matt Simmons (as you’d expect).
The biggest problem with the Maugeri report – and with Monbiot’s blithe transmission of such propaganda – is the confusion between production capacity and actual production. As the Peak Oil cliche has it – if someone puts a million pounds in your bank account, but restricts the amount you can take out to £50 a week – are you now rich?
So why is this propaganda? Because the oil companies have a vested interest in preserving their share price, and if investors woke up to the fact that they were massively declining assets, they would bail out quick – and people would lose money. It’s much cheaper to fund ‘research’ that preserves the illusion for a little longer. Apres nous la deluge and all that.

The country in which production is likely to rise most is Iraq, into which multinational companies are now sinking their money, and their claws. But the bigger surprise is that the other great boom is likely to happen in the US. Hubbert’s peak, the famous bell-shaped graph depicting the rise and fall of American oil, is set to become Hubbert’s Rollercoaster. Investment there will concentrate on unconventional oil, especially shale oil (which, confusingly, is not the same as oil shale). Shale oil is high-quality crude trapped in rocks through which it doesn’t flow naturally. There are, we now know, monstrous deposits in the United States: one estimate suggests that the Bakken shales in North Dakota contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia (though less of it is extractable). And this is one of 20 such formations in the US. Extracting shale oil requires horizontal drilling and fracking: a combination of high prices and technological refinements has made them economically viable. Already production in North Dakota has risen from 100,000 barrels a day in 2005 to 550,000 in January.

Yes, Iraq is the great white hope of the oil industry – at least the Western oil industry – that is why there was a war to secure the supplies. There could even be as much as a potential 10mbpd available from Iraq – given peace and prosperity. The only question is whether that peace and prosperity will arrive in time to offset the declines from all the other countries where oil is already in decline – like the UK.
The American situation is short-term. After the 1970s it became more profitable (and easier in terms of regulations) for the oil companies to move away from the US to develop oil. That meant that there were some ‘easy gains’ left behind – because there were some even easier gains abroad. The uptick we’re seeing now is the claiming of those easy gains (and ANWR and near-offshore will also help in the medium term). But the underlying dynamic hasn’t changed. As for the Bakken containing as much oil as Saudi Arabia, there are few comments which reveal ignorance of the subject so completely. It’s like saying that a field of unharvested grapes contains as much wine as a particular barrel of Chateau Lafite – what is omitted is much more important than what is said. In this case, it is the cost of extracting oil from the Bakken (finanical and in energy terms) that is the most important element (see the OilDrum article for commentary).

We have confused threats to the living planet with threats to industrial civilisation. They are not, in the first instance, the same thing. Industry and consumer capitalism, powered by abundant oil supplies, are more resilient than many of the natural systems they threaten. The great profusion of life in the past – fossilised in the form of flammable carbon – now jeopardises the great profusion of life in the present. There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground. Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed, with the collapse of the multilateral process at Rio de Janeiro last month. The world’s most powerful nation is again becoming an oil state, and if the political transformation of its northern neighbour is anything to go by, the results will not be pretty. Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.

Um… despite disagreeing with what went earlier, it does seem as if George is starting to climb the Dark Mountain. At last.
The thing about Peak Oil – and I haven’t even touched on some of the worst aspects of it, eg the Export Land Model – is that it is only the presenting symptom of a much larger crisis, that of the End of Growth. There remains much to be done. For a Christian perspective on all of this – exploring the spiritual roots of how we have come to be where we are and how to get out of it – see my book.

God and Mammon – a response to some comments

Byron has very kindly engaged with my God and Mammon declaration; herewith my response to some of his comments.

#1. Agreed, as long as the first commandment is always also kept in the context of “a second, which is like it”. How is the second “like” the first? I understand Christ’s words here to offer the second command not as a supplement (how can any love supplement the wholehearted, uncompromising and totalising obligation of the first?), but as an explanatory and expansionary gloss on the first. That is, we love God wholeheartedly in and through loving our neighbour as ourselves. This offers a greater depth to the diagnosis and analysis of idolatry, which will therefore likely (or perhaps by definition) be in breach of the second commandment as well as the first. But I doubt we’re on significantly different ground here and I don’t think you’ve denied any of this in how you’ve expressed yourself which is clearly intended to be brief and sharp.

Actually, I suspect we are on significantly different ground here. I view one of the most dire problems that the church faces, and which vitiates all of its attempts to engage critically with the world, as salt and light, as being due to the evacuation of the sense of the first commandment into a comfortable affirmation of the “second, which is like it”. There is a reason why Jesus says that the first commandment comes first. The first commandment contains a distinct meaning, which cannot be disregarded. Yes, there is an intrinsic link between love of God and love of neighbour – and where there is no love of neighbour then that is a clear sign that the love of God is deficient – but I believe that Christians have become very comfortable with the idea that by doing good works for our neighbours we are doing all that we need to do in order to love God. No. That is false, and a heresy. I go into this in some detail in chapters three and four of my book – which is the real intellectual heart of it – but for now let me say that if we get the first commandment right, the second naturally follows; the inverse is not the case, and, indeed, the inverse is eventually self-defeating.

#2. Is there really any necessary tension between obedience to the first commandment and seeking the good of a local political economy? I refuse to accept that unfettered economic growth is actually good for a local political economy when considered with a wide enough lens. Your phrasing seems to imply that Mammon is simply to be equated with “the needs of any local political economy”, apparently denying the possibility of faithful Christian discipleship in this sphere. In contrast, and as stated above, I take it that genuinely loving God will involve a disciplined, creative and humble engagement with the needs my local community, including its political economy.

OK, some clarification, although I’m happy with my wording (for the moment). I believe that we are called to pray and work for the good of the city in which we find ourselves (Jeremiah 29.7). There is an important little word here: ‘may’. There is nothing wrong with material wealth and prosperity – I believe that God calls us to the land of milk and honey. Furthermore, I believe that we are called to work for the particular goods that enable human flourishing (see below). Yet what is most crucial is to recognise that, however wonderful, such prosperity is secondary and can most assuredly be gained when the first commandment is given priority. That is what I see as a hallmark of the Old Testament prophets, and their insistence upon right worship. My point, therefore, is to insist that the good of the local political economy must, like everything else, be placed into a proper context. My point might be paraphrased as ‘nobody who loves local political economy more than Jesus is worthy of being his disciple’.

#3. Are wars “inevitable” when base human appetites are systematically fostered? I would suggest that conflict may thereby become far more likely, though there is nothing truly inevitable in the realm of human actions and the form of the conflict may be either hot or cold, depending on circumstances and opportunities.

Short answer: pretty much, yes. There is a reference here to ‘the American way of life is not negotiable’ which I see as a stark example of idolatry in action.

#4. You introduce here the concept of growth for the first time (I presume you are more concerned with the concept of growth than simply the language of growth). As you know, I share your deep concerns about this ideology and its (spiritual, social, political, ecological) consequences. However, picking out growth alone may appear somewhat selective. The ideology of economic growth as a primary, even highest, political good is one form in which the idolatry of Mammon takes in our society, though it does not exhaust this idolatry. It is quite possible (though perhaps somewhat more difficult) to repudiate growth while maintaining an idolatrous service of Mammon. Embracing some form of zero-growth economics does not automatically solve the love of money (though it may of course help, and may be an important part of repentance of such idolatry in certain circumstances).[Additonal comment snipped]

This I see as the heart of the declaration – the rest is preamble. I am concerned with both the concept and the language of growth – it is through our language that the idolatry spreads and is enacted, so I think being careful about our language is of the essence of the battle that we face. Moreover, I do not see the idolatry of economic growth as the source of all that has gone wrong in human nature – that’s the Fall; nor do I believe that overcoming this idolatry will lead to all things being fixed. My contention is that this is the battle for our time. The is the fight that we have to face, in our generation.

The analogy with the Barmen declaration is instructive. The trigger for that was the rise to power of the Nazi party. A sense of national pride presumably has some place in a healthy personality, under God; the problem comes when it is turned into an idol – as happened. I don’t imagine that Barth and his friends believed that they were going to address all the problems of the world through their action, they were simply pointing out that the underlying tensions and idolatries had broken out into the open in their day, in a particularly toxic form, and that Christians had to make a stand, and decide who and what they were going to choose (Joshua 24.15).

My point is equivalent. The idolatry of Mammon has been prevalent for generations; it is not a new issue. What is new is the wider context, that is, we have gone past the limits to growth. To pursue growth in this context is radically self-destructive; to use their own jargon, continued economic growth has negative marginal utility. To pursue growth will make things much, much worse. The only way through this crisis is by abandoning our desires for more growth.

Furthermore, ‘growth’ is an abstraction, it is a calculation and a mathematical figure entered into government ledgers. What human beings need are homes and jobs, schools and hospitals. The provision of those things may or may not generate ‘growth’ – but they are worthy goals in their own right. I believe that it is the veneration of the abstraction, at the cost of a blindness to reality, which most reveals this contemporary idolatry.

[Additonal comments snipped]
I also think even the idolatry of Mammon is only part of the picture. The roots of our ecological predicament are complex and involve multiple strands. The libido dominandi is at play. Technocratic hubris and the triumph of instrumental reason over sophia. The myth of progress. A falsely absolutised division between humanity and the rest of creation. A failure of political representation. An attenuation of moral imagination. And so just as selecting climate change as the only relevant symptom is too narrow, so selecting the love of money as the only relevant cause is as well. Yet, in either case it is possible to accept that for polemical purposes, some simplification may be tolerated, provided it is acknowledged as such and is then supplemented with a broader and deeper analysis. In effect, the pedagogic and communicative path through which to confront our predicament is a tactical decision, amenable to multiple solutions, which may vary based on contextual factors.

I agree with almost all of this – and my own ‘broader and deeper analysis’ is in my book. I’m not really wanting just to be polemical with this though. I am really coming to the view that this is indeed status confessionis – that is, it is a salvation matter, and ‘it is our blindness to this that constitutes part of our predicament’. Not, necessarily, at all times and in all places, to reject ‘economic growth’ – but here, and now, for us. I believe that God is repeating Deuteronomy 30 to us in our own time.

“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” – a declaration

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ was asked what the most important commandment was and replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37-38) As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to hold fast to this commandment, giving everything to God and not letting anything else take the place of God in our lives.

2. Furthermore, our Lord Jesus Christ said “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Jesus explicitly teaches that there is a tension between the demands of the first commandment and fidelity to God, and the demands that may be made by the needs of any local political economy.

3. Surveying the present state of our societies and economies it is clear that, as a people, we have succumbed to the worship of Mammon, and that it is the duty of all faithful Christians to resist such worship, to repent of our behaviour, and to seek anew the Kingdom of God. The fruits of such idolatry are clear: the injustice and unemployment and waste of human talents; the corruption of our political leadership and their collusion with immoral financial practices; the depredation and degradation of our natural environments and the exhaustion of our natural resources; the inevitable wars and other crises that arise from the systematic fostering of base human appetites and the refusal to compromise our ways of life, and pursue a more equitable sharing of the gifts bequeathed to us.

4. As part of my pursuit of faithful Christian discipleship I therefore resolve to abandon the idolatry of “economic growth”; to reject the use of such language in my own speech; to repudiate that language when used by others; to bring people’s attentions to the way in which such idolatry increases human suffering; and above all, to seek to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, trusting that in returning to the Lord I will indeed find mercy, and that he will freely pardon me of my offenses.

Background notes
This was inspired by the Ash Wednesday declaration of Operation Noah. That declaration was primarily concerned with issues around climate change, seeking to make action to combat that perceived problem as a status confessionis – in comparison with the Barmen declaration, which focussed German church resistance to the idolatry of national purity developed by the Nazi party.
I believe that we are indeed in a similar situation to that of the churches in Germany in the 1930s. Patterns of behaviour are in play that are leading to catastrophe if not addressed. However, I am not able to sign up to the Operation Noah declaration. That is because I believe that climate change is not the issue that needs to be addressed. The science of climate change is nowhere near strong enough to be considered for status confessionis, and even if it was certain, it only scratches the surface of the relevant idolatry. That is, climate change could be solved overnight, and the idolatry of Mammon would not be affected. It is the idolatry of Mammon that is at the root of this crisis of our time, and if we address that, then we also address climate change in so far as that is necessary.
For a more substantial discussion of the theology behind this declaration, see my book Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture.
If you agree with this declaration, please do make it your own.

What have the boomers ever done for us? *

As I write, Greece is experiencing a dramatic confrontation between the governing classes – imposed by the EU, rather than elected democratically – and those who are presently suffering the economic consequences of several decades worth of mismanagement. Most strikingly, this is an exchange as reported in the Guardian newspaper: “Six inches from the riot policeman’s shield outside the Greek parliament last Friday, a tall, pale boy was shouting at a man who could have been his uncle: “It’s your generation that brought us to this point, but it’s mine that has to pay for it. You have to take responsibility for what’s happening here.””

Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. How have we ended up with such a crisis in the European Union – supposed vanguard of all that is most modern – that is running such a risk of turning into generational conflict? For that is what is at stake. In order to keep the economy functioning – or, at least, to maintain the pretence that the economy can continue to function in the way that it has done – the young and the poor are being bled dry in order to maintain the appearance of good order and financial management, to stop people looking behind the curtain. Sadly, there is only a certain amount of illusion that can be maintained in the face of abject misery and suffering – which is what is happening in Greece at the moment, and may well be coming to a street closer to home sometime soon.

One of the ways in which this will gain a painfully clear focus is through pensions, and this is where generational conflict is likely to rear its head. The financial crisis is, to put it brutally simply, a result of an imbalance between claims to wealth and actual wealth. That is, the banks and other asset-holders have a certain amount of genuine wealth – shares in companies, ownership of land and other valuables like gold and so on. The claims to that wealth are vastly greater – that is, there are a very large number of IOUs being passed around, keeping up the illusion of how much wealth we have. It is essentially like a game of musical chairs, except that whereas, in the game, only one chair gets removed at a time, when the music stops for our financial affairs, most people will be left without a chair. Wealth that isn’t directly tied to an asset directly – eg the deeds to a property – is highly likely to simply melt away, in the way that those who have held Euro-denominated Greek government bonds are finding their wealth melting away. This applies, most of all, to pensions.

When this happens – and it probably won’t happen all at once; there will simply be a steady progression of pension funds finding that they are unable to meet their commitments – those who are reliant on such paper will find that they have to fall back on much more old-fashioned sources of wealth – such as family ties. Yet this is where the whirlwind is really likely to cause havoc. For what sort of family structure has been left behind by those who wish to be drawing their pensions? Let us remember that these are the generations who pushed through ‘no fault’ divorce, leaving misery in the lives of their abandoned children as they pursued the gratification of their own needs and desires. Of many possible exemplars, let’s take Bill Clinton as the type – someone who was for a time ‘the most powerful man in the world’ who was incapable of exercising power over his own passions.

Now obviously this is a vast generalisation – this is an opinion column, the natural home of vast generalisations – and it doesn’t apply to every boomer, nor even to a majority of boomers – but there does seem to be a prominent generational characteristic to the boomers of ‘live now, pay later’. Well, we have now arrived at ‘later’ and the trouble is that it is the next generation along that is going to have to pay the bills. Or, to change the metaphor, we have now reached the morning after, and it is the children who are having to clear up after the wild party of the night before. The great political negotiation of the next ten to fifteen years will be how far those who are presently working will be prepared to pay higher tax rates to cover the costs of failed pension schemes. My suspicion is that the answer to that question is ‘not very far’.

What I believe that we shall see is a political movement centred upon the restoration of classical virtues and traditional morality. After all, those are the only tools that we will have to cope with the immense poverty bearing down upon us. We will only be able to make it through if we return to the values of economy and thrift. Other nations in the world can already see the extent of the transition that we will have to go through; it’s only the make-believe of our governing classes that stops us grasping the truth. Mahathir Mohammed, the former leader of Malaysia, commented in a BBC interview recently: “Europe… has lost a lot of money and therefore you must be poor now relative to the past. And in Asia we live within our means. So when we are poor, we live as poor people. I think that is a lesson that Europe can learn from Asia.”

We are going to have to live as poor people – which means much greater reliance on the extended family and the local community. This is not an unattractive vision – after all, the happiest places in the world, such as the Philippines, have exactly this pattern of life, and there is no reason why we, too, couldn’t be (relatively) poor but happy. But it is not what our culture has supported for many years, and there is a bill to be paid for the destruction of family life. Who gets to pay that bill will, as I say, be one of the principal political issues of the next several years.

* For those who are unfamiliar with the marvellous Monty Python film ‘Life of Brian’, my title is an allusion to a particular scene in that movie – my point being that, of course, boomers have done lots ‘for us’.

The statistics of decline

I wanted to grab together a handful of statistics that give substance to the notion that the Church of England is declining, if not ‘doomed’. I accept the criticism that the the figures I linked to in my last post on this are flawed, but I believe the main point still stands. I’m not going to talk about what needs to be done in this context – that is what I’m exploring in my other posts.

These are the figures quoted by David Keen

This data from the Church Society (source) also seems useful:

And this one confirms it:

We can add to this the expected rapid decline in clergy numbers over the next ten years (as the baby boomers retire and aren’t replaced) and the way that this links in with the increasing age profile of attenders (and what this means in terms of a sudden drop for actuarial reasons). See also David Keen’s post on Diocesan growth here.

“One of our problems may be that decline is so slow and imperceptible that we don’t really see it coming clearly enough. I have seen large companies perfectly and impeccably manage themselves into failure. Every step along the road has been well done. Every account is neatly signed off… I sometimes feel the Church is a bit like that. I wish that all of us would have a sense of real crisis about this.”

(Andreas Whittam Smith)

The Lord being my helper I expect to be working for the church until my family dies until 2040 or so. If things don’t change, I may outlast the good old CofE…

Is the Church of England doomed?

As someone who is persuaded of the merits of the ‘Limits to Growth’ argument – and who believes that we missed the opportunity to change course back in the 1970’s and that therefore our industrial growth culture is over – I have become very familiar with the language of ‘doom’ and the way in which it can be misused. Just because something can be misused, however, does not mean that it is always false. The core argument of the Limits to Growth, after all, was that if present trends continued, then we would end up arriving where we were headed – and, indeed, we have now arrived there. Can the same analysis not be applied to the Church of England?

After all, it is fairly unambiguous where we are headed – by the mid 21st Century there will be less than 100,000 members (source It is not as if the trend has been hidden and come upon us unawares – it has been the unpleasant background music for several decades now. Clearly, unless something changes, the Church of England as it has been known and understood for several centuries is going to die within the next generation or so (the institution will collapse under its own weight well before we get to 2050). Perhaps the history of the Church will be described as resting between the two Elizabeths – the first pulled it together, and the second watched it pull itself apart.
Let me at once clarify two things. The first is that this anticipated fate of the Church of England needs to be separated out from the expected fate of Christianity within the world as a whole. I expect that well before 2050 disciples of Christianity will pass beyond 50% of the world’s population. Key to this will be the continued growth of Christianity in China, which already has more practising Christians than Western Europe, as well as all the other places where the faith is being spread. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and I am confident that one day, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.
The second point to make is that the Church of England is not the be all and end all of Christianity in England. Whatever the merits of Catholic Emancipation – and I suspect the Church has still not caught up with what it meant – the consequence is that there are now more practising Christians in England outside the Church of England than in it. Whereas it has historically been the definitive form of English Christianity – as epitomised by its establishment status, and (in many ways) in its ongoing self-understanding – it has become, to all intents and purposes, merely another sect. Theologically the status quo is untenable, and the Church of England has to either fight that fate or embrace it.
Now an objection might easily come to mind: what if there was a revival? For sure, a major revival might well stop the Church of England declining so much – and I’m sure that evangelisation is one of God’s priorities – but we have been needing such a revival for some time now. I am persuaded that the tide of faith has turned, the Spirit is moving; I am convinced that the bombast of atheistic secularism is the last gasp of a dying ideology, and the potential for growth is immense – but might it not be the case – and I say this with all due humility – that God doesn’t want the Church of England to continue? I’m sure God wants Christianity to continue, but the Church of England, in its present form? Of that I am not so sure.
How might the Church of England respond in a timely fashion to the circumstances within which it finds itself? Well, here is one proposal, made with a modicum of hope that God does not want Anglican witness to be extinguished within the country that gave it birth. At the heart of what I am arguing for is a sense that the local church must be set free. Put differently, what I believe is that the Bishops in a properly episcopal church are called to exercise oversight rather than control, and that this can only be properly rooted when they exercise faith rather than fear. What might this mean?
First and foremost, I believe that the parish system should be abolished. The idea that everyone living in the country had their own parson, to whom they might turn when in need, was a noble one – and yet it is an increasingly untrue piety. I believe that this needs to be recognised – and what this means is that the Church needs to genuinely recognise the reality of the Christian ministry undertaken by other churches. Of course there are theological differences – some of them I would view as rather important! – but in the context of what is shared, especially in contrast to the surrounding culture, they are mostly trivial. The consequence of this is that the Church of England accepts that it is a ‘sect’ – that is, it is a Church which has a particular inheritance of faith. It is the distinctive theology which supplies the identity of the Church, not the establishment ecclesiology. In many ways all I am arguing for here is that an existing reality is affirmed rather than denied and that the inheritance of establishment, which assumes an equivalence between ‘resident of the parish’ and ‘member of the church’, is done away with. Canon law must be changed, most especially with regard to the occasional offices.
What this would mean is that each existing church is allowed to pursue its own sense of mission and vocation. Much of the substance of this would end up being financial. The existing system of parish share has very few defenders. Bob Jackson puts it well:
“In conclusion, the whole chaos of quota, parish share, or common fund systems is simply not serving the church well.
1 It is inconceivable that every diocese, with its own unique system changing every few years, has currently found the best possible one, or even a good one;
2 Systems risk provoking conflict and dishonesty. They can lead to more serious division;
3 They do not provide a secure and stable framework in which churches can do long-term planning;
4. They fail to provide the fairness their architects desire;
5. They absorb the best energy, time and expertise of diocesan leaders and officials. They divert people at every level from concentrating on the real ministry and mission of Christian churches;
6. They asset-strip the large churches and tax away the growth of growing churches. They encourage the declining and sleepy in their ways;
7. They encourage false judgements to be made of clergy and endanger the future provision of dynamic senior leadership;
8. They cannot cater for fresh expressions of church;
9. They fail even to maintain the current levels of parochial staffing, let alone to produce the resources for growing the new sorts of expression without which the Church may wither away.”
Jackson recommends a solution incorporating the following elements:
1. Churches pay the costs of their own ministers
2. Fee income stays with the local church
3. Diocesan costs are shared by local churches
4. The total bill (1&3) is presented to each church each year, and published in the church accounts.
Essentially what Jackson proposes is a way of a) localising the process; b) making the system completely transparent (and therefore much more defensible); and c) restoring the relationship between those who give and those who receive. I think this is the way forward, and I would add that responsibility for clergy housing should also be passed down to the parishes.
What might this mean for the central authorities of the Church? Well, rather than Bishops being concerned with ensuring that a parish pays its quota, they might be set free to ensure that those clergy who are licensed by them are exercising their ministry in an appropriate way – most especially that they are orthodox (I touched on this in my Spanish Train post). In other words, the core function of the Bishop becomes less administrative and financial than about preserving the truths of the faith and exercising pastoral care and leadership of the clergy. I have a sense that this is what Bishops are supposed to do…
This is likely to provoke great fear and concern – what about the poor parishes? What about our need for mission? Well, what about them? Aren’t they precisely the natural concerns of Christians – so why wouldn’t the Church seek to pursue such priorities, even if there wasn’t a central system to enforce it? Put differently, if we do not do the right thing because we are afraid that our people will not act as Christians then we are already doomed. Which does perhaps raise what is the most central issue facing the Church of England: not that the model of ministry for the priest has to change – although it must – but that the distinctive Anglican patrimony has to cash out in a distinctive ministry of the laity. I’ll have to write more about that another time, as this post is long enough.
The blunt truth is this: the Church of England is at death’s door. All I’m arguing for here is that I’d rather that we went out fighting for the gospel rather than trying to save a particular historically conditioned administrative pattern which has turned the cornerstone of our faith into the proverbial millstone around our neck.

Occupy London, St Paul’s and the Rebel

One of my formative philosophical influences – and I can say that without being pretentious because I was about 17 when I read it, and pretention is expected at that age – was Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’, most especially the first few pages. These describe the reaction of a slave who has simply taken too much abuse and turns round to say ‘No’. From that refusal comes a sense of value and a sense of self – and these are the building blocks for creating something new. This is the primal reaction from which all else comes. Camus writes “An awakening of conscience, no matter how confused it may be, develops from any act of rebellion and is represented by the sudden realisation that something exists with which the rebel can identify himself…”

I’ve been pondering this whilst following the events outside St Paul’s. There has been much criticism of the Occupy movement for not having ‘clear goals’ (on which see this great cartoon). That is immediately to try and force the rebellion to conform to the dominant discourse, to be co-opted into the patterns that pose no threat to the establishment. Specific claims will, I do not doubt, follow in due course. For now, however, it is enough for there to be the protest, the rebellion – the saying ‘No’ to manifest injustice, arrogance, ignorance and greed.

So what of St Paul’s at this time? I can’t be the only one who is dubious about the ‘Health and Safety’ rationale for closing the cathedral, not least because those grounds have not been clearly communicated to the Occupiers, who are therefore prevented from being able to take action in response to allay the concerns. Clearly it is a way of trying to bring moral pressure upon the protesters to get them to move along and not cause such bother. Yet if I’m right about the rebellion being the ‘awakening of conscience’ then the cathedral authorities are lining up on the wrong side of the divide – their moral pressure is simply an expression of convention rather than a receptivity to the right. In Camus’ terms they are embodying the abuser, metaphorically and literally. What I find most intriguing is that the Occupy actions have inadvertently put the spotlight onto the national church, rather than causing immediate difficulties to the financial institutions. What are the real values that guide the Church of England? With whom shall we stand? At the moment, sadly, it looks as if the Church is simply another element of the governing class, an Erastian placeholder cavilling at those protesting wickedness because it is simply not the done thing. Will the Church ever get to a point where it can say to the establishment ‘thus far and no further’? It would return to the Church that sense of value and sense of self which is conspicuous by its absence. I believe that it is what the people of this country are in fact looking for – the Occupiers not least among them.

(In the meantime plaudits and kudos to Kathryn Rose for following where the Spirit leads!)

Let us be human – book draft available, comments invited

For the last several years I’ve been working – in whatever gaps from the daily grind I can find! – on a book exploring the resource crisis from a Christian point of view. More precisely, what I’m trying to do is understand what is going on, and why, and trace the origins of the crisis to particular theological shifts – and therefore recommending certain theological (ie worship) solutions. So it’s not a ‘use less petrol’ sort of book, more a ‘pray more to God’ sort of book, even though it opens with Peak Oil and the Limits to Growth.

I would benefit from a sustained conversation with a professional editor but I haven’t been able to get a UK publisher interested – popular theology isn’t really a commercial proposition in the UK. I thought it might be of interest to people here.

Anyhow, enough preamble send me an e-mail if you want to read it! (I’ve taken down the direct link so that I can do some more work)

I’d be delighted if anyone actually read it and commented 🙂 I’ve had very useful and constructive criticism from some friends already and I’m hoping to have the time to incorporate responses to their insights in the summer.

George Monbiot is still in techno-thrall

A moderately interesting article from George Monbiot arguing that “The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal….”

This is daft, on several levels. Monbiot ignores:
– the problem of EROEI, meaning that substituting in tar sands and shale gas etc delivers less net energy than light, sweet oil;
– the problem of infrastructure – all the existing petrol stations, internal combustion engines and (to a lesser extent) highways that are geared around the easy availability of light, sweet oil, which can’t be rapidly altered;
– the financial meltdown, making long-term finance much more problematic;
– the export-land problem, meaning that exports of oil will decline much more rapidly than production;
– he assumes that the further alternatives he mentions are technologically, politically and financially feasible within a fairly short time-frame;
– he ignores the political melt-down and wars that will be sparked by the inequitable division of resources;
and so on.

I agree that poor people will chop down trees if they have nothing else to go on. Sadly, we’re all going to end up with ‘nothing else to go on’ – in a sense, the future of the environment depends upon how quickly men kill other men as compared to how quickly men kill the trees and the fish.

It’s a very weird feeling to have given lectures describing all these consequences several years ago (insights not original to me, for the most part), and to watch things now taking place in the way expected, and to still have people denying the situation. This is why our civilisation is breaking down – it’s still too insulated from reality.

Short thoughts 2 – responding to Orlov’s pessimism on Peak Oil

Dmitri Orlov has written an excellent article here, which I’d recommend reading, the gist of which is that the ‘descent’ of oil production will be much steeper than the standard Peak Oil analysis expects. I have no dispute with his analysis, so far as it goes. I agree that reserves are overstated (and we have front-loaded the extraction); that the Export-Land problem is very serious; that EROEI will exponentially reduce the available of energy as such oil as is extracted; and that there will be systemic break-downs of the infrastructure needed to extract oil. All of which makes me think that, taken together, we (average Westerners) are looking at severe oil scarcity within about ten years (possibly sooner) and that, if we haven’t as a society shifted away from oil-dependency, then our future is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

So why do I think his pessimism is overdone? Two principal reasons, one specific, one (flowing from the first) more abstract.

The specific reason why I believe the pessimism is overdone is that our culture is massively wasteful of energy. Take transportation: most cars in most morning commutes carry a single occupant, when they were designed to take four. Setting up car-sharing agreements is technologically straightforward and would have all sorts of wider social benefits in addition to the reduction in petrol consumption. In other words, this is an ‘easy win’ – and it is an easy win that can be adopted rapidly, which means that it buys time to deal with the more fundamental issues, which is the most crucial point. There are other easy wins (like home insulation, CHP) along with some other not-so-easy-but-very-likely-to-happen ‘wins’ like: we’ll be colder in the winter and have to wear more jumpers rather than turning up the thermostat. My ‘wild-assed-guess’ is that we (the UK) could face a 50% reduction in the availability of oil and just about keep the show on the road – not without a great deal of hardship, and not without having to rely on a very great deal of social solidarity and rationing etc – but I think we could do it.

Now this is just a temporary fix – it will give us, I would guess, ten to fifteen years of time ‘coping’ with Peak Oil – which leads to my more abstract grounds for optimism, which is that the Western way of life is dynamic, not static. The greatest problems facing our civilisation are not technical, they are social, political and spiritual, and the biggest problem of all is a refusal to face up to the reality of our predicament. If my first point is anywhere near true, then the one certain thing that will flow from it is that people will realise the nature of our crisis and, in typical human fashion, respond rapidly and adaptably. When motivated, we are able to do all sorts of ingenious things, the best example of which is probably the retooling of our factories in order to fight WW2.

To my mind, the issue is not whether the world as we know it is coming to an end (it is, we will see [DV] the end of a society based around the assumption of perpetual economic growth), nor whether civilisation of some sort will continue on afterwards (I have no doubt that it will). What I ponder is what sort of civilisation will there be to succeed our present one, what values and achievements will we be able to salvage from the wreck of Modern Industrial Civilisation? I am optimistic that we will be able to save a lot – but that is undoubtedly a moot point.