The great strategic error of the green movement

We have witnessed scenes of appalling devastation in recent weeks as a sequence of hurricanes has caused havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. First Hurricane Harvey dumped vast quantities of rainwater on Houston; then Irma flattened many islands; now, at the time of writing, Maria has blasted Dominica and Puerto Rico.

In the face of such damage and suffering there are many arguing that there is a link with global warming. The Guardian, for example, carried a column by Bill McKibben comparing these hurricanes to the time when a long-time smoker starts coughing up blood – it is not that there will be bad consequences of our choices in the future, rather, the bad consequences are here, now.

The underlying point is that our human activity has caused this bad weather. There is one straightforward sense in which this is true, which is that if the climate is getting warmer (which it is) then there will, over time, be more energy available to produce these hurricanes. Yet this argument, especially when compared to the link between smoking and lung cancer, runs together arguments that should remain separate.

The first way in which it misleads is that it is not known how far the amount of warming that the climate is experiencing is being driven by natural variability rather than human activity, something which is known as ‘climate sensitivity’. There are different estimates for this, which are being adjusted regularly as the science evolves. At present, the best estimate for the human element – that is, what might be attributed to a doubling of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere – is around 1.5°C. (Source) It should be noted that this is much less than is claimed by what might be called the ‘alarmists’, and is difficult to pick out from the natural variability of the climate.

The second way in which this misleads is that it makes the science of hurricanes rather more simple than it actually is. The heat of the water is not the only factor that can lead to more intense hurricanes. This year it would appear that a significant factor is the very low amount of ‘wind-shear’ (cross winds) that would normally work to lessen hurricanes but this year has had the opposite effect. There is no clear link between wind-shear and global warming.

In simple terms, when someone like McKibben makes the comparison with cancer caused by smoking he is distorting the truth. Sadly, McKibben is not the only one. Whenever in recent weeks I have read an article about the hurricanes that claims some attribution to global warming caused by human industries I think about all the times that green writers complain about people, noticing snow outside, and saying ‘so much for global warming’. The plural of anecdote is not data, they say, and this is true. Just because it is snowing in England does not, of itself, invalidate a broader climate shift.

The same is true for hurricanes. Just because we have had a bad hurricane – or even a bad hurricane season – this does not, of itself, signify a climate shift. There would need to be a sustained pattern of change before we can confidently say that there is a phenomenon that needs explanation, let alone agree on what the explanation might be. If we look at the last ten years, we can see that there has been no rise in the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean.

My real worry is that, by placing so much emphasis upon global warming in their general advocacy, the green movement has built their house upon sand – and when the rains and the storms come, that house will fall down.

What I mean is that the green movement has really emphasised global warming as the problem that dwarfs all other problems. In doing this they have done two things: hitched their wagon to science, and a science that is not especially robust; and put to one side the much richer insights that previous generations of green thinkers have pursued.

What I have in mind are the wider, more spiritual aspects of green thinking, as best exemplified by someone like EF Schumacher and his ‘Small is Beautiful’. If we reflect upon what it means to be human, and what gives value to our lives, then we will be less concerned to fill our lives with more and more stuff, and more concerned to ensure that our natural environment is kept healthy, so that we in turn might remain healthy too. We would seek patterns of human living that emphasise a respect for all creatures, including other human beings in all their diversity – and be willing to protect our own elements of that diversity too. We would by more fully aware of all the diverse ways in which we are hitting the Limits to Growth – which, in contrast to climate science, has models that have been vindicated over time – and we would seek to tread lightly on the earth, in harmony with the natural rhythms of this wonderful world that we live in. We will, most of all, regain a much healthier understanding of the place of science within a wider and wiser understanding of our lives as a whole.

Such an approach would, I believe, have much more resonance than one that has become absorbed into a technocratic and bureaucratic juggernaut that has left concerns for basic truth behind (for more on why, see the jaw-dropping exposé of the IPCC process written by Donna LaFramboise).

People have a good, stout sense of when someone is talking rubbish to them. Sadly, the green movement has been rumbled on this point, and talk about global warming is now tuned out. The cost for this is immense. The green movement has something essential to contribute to the national conversation, at scales both small and great, yet their over-investment in one particular ecological scare has meant that their voice has been eclipsed, and a generation of activism has been wasted. I would respectfully suggest that, if the green movement wants to make more headway in our present society, they need to stop talking about global warming for a while.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

The theological basis of my politics

I thought this could be useful as a single place to outline some fundamentals, that I can then refer back to as needed. I’m not going to put any evidence in this, it is intended as a conceptual outline, not an argument.

1. The human being is made in the image of God. To deface the human being is therefore a blasphemy.

2. I view the Western development of human rights legislation as a secular working out of this Christian perspective. Christianity is, so far as I know, the only religious perspective to have abolished slavery, and it did this not once but twice.

3. A particular aspect of this is concern for the minority, those who are especially vulnerable. Biblically these are the widows, the orphans and the aliens. Concern for the vulnerable is more commonly known as ‘social justice’. I do not believe that it is possible to have a living Christian faith and not be concerned about social justice. There are, however, many ways in which that concern for social justice can be worked out.

4. This seed of the gospel is inherently radical and progressive, dismantling structures of exclusion and oppression. I like Girard’s teaching that it is due to the profound workings of the gospel text that things have got better – it is not that we no longer burn witches because we are scientific, rather, we are scientific because we no longer burn witches – and we no longer burn witches because we are more informed by the gospel.

5. Protecting the vulnerable, preventing the dehumanisation of our neighbour – this is a political programme. In order for that programme to be achieved there needs to be a support structure in place. This support structure can be expressed in legal form, but most substantively it needs to be expressed through the embodied forms of the culture. The Eucharist is a more progressive rite than the shared watching of X Factor. The Christian therefore must pay close attention to the cultural forms within which we live, and seek to preserve those which support a Christian approach, whilst struggling against those which would undermine such an approach.

6. In our present context, the forces which I see as most inimical to the Christian vision fall into the category of ‘industrial modernism’. This I see as having two aspects. The first is the ideology of making the world safe for multinational profits. All of the local and distinctive elements of human life, whether those be amongst the native tribes of the Amazon or the working mens clubs of a Durham mining town, prevent the smoothly functioning efficiency of a market state – that is, a state which sees its own primary purpose as enabling the multinational company to make more money. I believe that God rejoices in the manifold diversity of humanity and anything which reduces the human being to a unit of economic productivity is of Babylon. Profoundly and paradoxically linked in to this is the intellectual aridity of the various fundamentalisms which afflict religions, and within ‘religion’ I would include the dominant contemporary form, which is left-wing multiculturalism. If we are to preserve the human in the cultural context, then we must insist upon the value of the dissident opinion, and therefore ensure that the rights to free speech and free association are not inhibited. We either stand with the Rushdies and Ayaan Hirsi Alis of this world or we let go of any attempt to preserve our Christian patterns of life at all.

7. I see the most important political conversation happening within the UK at the moment as the question about whether to remain part of the EU or not. Given what I have said above, it will, I hope, be clear why I object to the EU. I see it as an overmighty principality in the Stringfellow sense, as something which is necessarily and relentlessly dehumanising. We need to be free of it. Given the impoverished state of our political system, I see only one option for effecting the change which I believe to be so necessary.

Anyone interested in more on this – especially the first few points – is directed to my book, which gives a much more substantial explanation of my views.

On being a politically conservative Christian

So, I go away for a few days, and on my return discover that my former boss John Selwyn Gummer, aka Lord Deben, has been casting aspersions on my spiritual and theological integrity (he probably didn’t like this post; my thanks to Cranmer for his kind words). I thought that it would be worth saying a little bit more about my political perspective, not least considering the statement publicised today by many Bishops.

I see it as axiomatic for a Christian to be concerned with social justice. As I wrote in my book, it is not possible to be a Christian and not have such a concern. Where there are political parties that are based around a repudiation of social justice, that explicitly embrace ‘devil take the hindmost’ then I would see an irresolvable tension between support of such a party and continued Christian faith.

However, that does not mean that there is no longer any room for political argument. Most especially it does not mean – as so often seems to be assumed amongst the less reflective of the progressive establishment – that it is impossible to be a conservative and a Christian. As I see it, the heart of the disagreement lies in how we are to understand the role of the state. Roughly speaking, the progressive side of the political divide sees the state as a generally benign institution, and one to which resort may be made whenever a problem presents itself. Whereas the conservative side of the political divide is sceptical about the state, sees it as tending towards being a malign institution, and would far rather find non-state solutions to problems that arise.

Lying behind this difference is a divergent understanding of human sinfulness. The progressive agenda proceeds on the basis that human nature is perfectible, that, if the structural conditions were only to be correctly arranged, then human flourishing would be enabled. The conservative agenda, in contrast to this, sees human sinfulness as endemic and therefore seeks to avoid concentrations of power – for where there is a concentration of power it is inevitable that such a concentration of power will be wielded by a sinful human being, causing much havoc in consequence. Moreover it sees the wider distribution of power as best being embedded in the peculiar and local institutions that have grown organically around distinct communities. It sees the warp and weft of historical culture as a safeguard against the unwitting tyranny of bureaucrats with a Procrustean “vision of the anointed”. So everything from a monarchy to a parish council can be part of a human ecology which best maximises human flourishing. It will never be perfect – but it is the acceptance of imperfection that is both the blessing that a conservative perspective brings to the political conversation and also its vice, when it curdles into blind reaction.

Consider today’s statement signed by bishops. It is indeed a terrible blight upon our society that people face the choice between ‘heat or eat’, and also that there exists such malnutrition – although I suspect that latter might have as much to do with ignorance as with poverty directly. Yet the political conversation that Christians can have in such a context begins with ‘what shall we do about this?’ If the truth is that the state and only the state can provide an answer, all well and good. Yet if a more diverse response, with distributed power, is able to provide an answer then that, from a conservative perspective, is devoutly to be preferred. As Tim Worstall points out with regard to Jack Monroe, her story is actually about the horrors of being left with nothing to turn to except a remote and incompetent bureaucracy.

It often feels strange to enter into political argument with ‘progressive’ Christians, for it seems to me that the nature of the progressive stance does entail a great many consequences which the progressive would instinctively wish to fight against. For example, my opposition to Tesco was rooted in the conservative vision that I described above, a concentration of power leading to impoverishment of the local and the particular, in this case farmers and local communities. This is, on the surface, a cause that progressives seem to be sympathetic to. It is a form of resisting the imposition of a monoculture, and monoculture is the inevitable result of the concentration of power. The sick ideology that justifies what happens when Monsanto is given charge of seed provision is the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when monopoly supermarkets eviscerate our High Streets, but this is also the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when the centralised state is given a monopoly on social welfare.

We know what this sick ideology looks like. It is the enemy at the heart of so much popular culture. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. The matrix has you.

What I find most striking is that so much progressive language uses Christian tropes in the service of such a dark, dehumanising and nihilistic project. Then again, the enemy is called Lucifer because he has stolen the language of light.

To my mind, the greatest grief that comes from this conversation – and indeed the bishop’s statement – is the ignorance of the wider crisis that we face as a society, of which the increase in poverty is simply a leading symptom. Not only are our bishops distracted by second order issues, on which they cannot even get their facts right, but they have lost sight of the spiritual heart on which we are to stand as we engage with the deluge of problems descending upon us. For more on this, see my book.

In our present context, the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of the progressive worldview are now bearing their inevitably bitter fruit, and the centralised, legibility-seeking, monolithic, overbearing and incipiently dictatorial gigantism exemplified in the EU is going to crash. I see the single most important political step that needs to be taken as withdrawal from that Leviathan. This is why, as I explained in my earlier post, I support UKIP. I am both a Christian and a conservative, in that order of priority, and the only political party that comes close to reflecting my understanding of the world is, with all of its flaws and embarrassments, UKIP.

It’s all about the symbolism

josh cagw ice
I have long thought that the green movement made a huge strategic mistake by going ‘all in’ on global warming as the goad to try to change human behaviour. Sadly, after several rounds of ‘double or quits’, even the smallest events get used against the narrative. It’s time for those who are persuaded of the reality of the Limits to Growth to accept that the political argument about global warming has been lost, for at least another generation, and try and find a more productive way to communicate important truths. Hint: it won’t involve Chris Huhne.

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.

Reviews of ‘Let us be Human’

Hopefully this list will continue to get longer. I’ll update it as necessary.

At the Energy Bulletin review by Roy Smith“I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other.”

Jeremy Williams at Make Wealth History“If you move in mainstream Christian circles at all, you’ll know that Norton is swimming against the current here. In my experience at least, the church is no more aware of the growth dilemma than the general culture is. That’s a shame, because churches should be natural hubs for imagining an alternative lifestyle together – that’s pretty much what they’re for. Churches don’t build community, they are community. There’s a vital opportunity there if we can learn to see it, and Let us be Human deserves a bigger audience.”

At Amazon.co.uk“In this brilliantly insighful book Sam takes us on a broad brush journey. He highlights the failings of our current culture and the failings of the Church to really engage with it… A definite ‘Must Read’ for anyone who wishes to be part of the emerging discussion surrounding what it means to be human and Christian in our time.”

A comparison between my book and Tarkovsky’s ‘Sculpting Time’ by Jonathan Evens at Between “both have been addressing the same issue; that only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the crises of our times.”

Mad Priest is nice to me“THE BOOK on the Peak Oil crisis and what Christianity’s response to it should be. It’s a serious book but it is perfectly intelligible to non-experts like me. In fact, that is the point of the book. It is designed to get us all up to speed on this major issue of our times.”

It’s available here, and it’s very cheap on Kindle.

First official review of my book

“I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other.”

I say: thank God the first one was so positive; it’ll set me up for the later ones! Much gratitude to Roy Smith for his kind words. Full review here at Energy Bulletin.

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.