Responding to my post about management, Dave Paisley quoted my words “those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result” and commented: Surely that should be “those who have rendered themselves spiritually homeless as a result”? It’s a choice. I want in this post to explore what I think is wrong about that comment, because I think it is one of the factors that unnecessarily complicate our debate about women bishops.
Viewpoints that don’t accept women bishops, as I understand them Con Evo – scripture primary not anglican but not internally inconsistent not misogynistic Con Ang-Cath – tradition primary not anglican not misogynistic impossibilist position – the one I have most sympathy with (though I don’t ultimately agree with it) difference between male and female, priesthood/episcopacy/leadership can only be carried out by a male scriptural perspective and church perspective follow from that problem is binary polarity – doesn’t adequately describe human nature difficult to cash out ‘male’ in any relevant sense that would exclude all (biological females) progress does not come through arguing about presenting issue not a ‘choice’ A bit of academic background – post on Locke (extract from a temporarily abandoned book)
So let me tell you the story of John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy1.
John Locke was born on the 29thAugust 1632, and grew up in the Somerset countryside some ten miles from Bristol. His parents were staunch Protestants, and his father fought in the Civil War on Cromwell’s side – indeed, Locke himself was reputed to have said to Cromwell, when Locke was 21, ‘You sir from Heav’n a finish’d hero fell’.
At the age of 14 Locke attended Westminster School – which he did not enjoy, due to the flogging – and then went on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he stayed until 1665. After leaving the university, partly in order to avoid having to take holy orders, he took up a post as physician and adviser to Lord Ashley, the man who – better known as the Earl of Shaftesbury – became the most prominent Whig politician of the period.
Due to the controversies in English political life, principally the tension arising from the potential accession of the Catholic James II to the throne, Locke spent two significant periods of his life abroad. His first ‘exile’ was from 1675 to 1679 and spent in France; the second, and more significant, was from 1683 to 1689, and was spent in Holland. He returned on the same ship that bore Queen Mary to England. Locke was the pre-eminent spokesman for the Whig ideology2, most especially in the sphere of religious toleration and a limited monarchy. He published (anonymously) his Letter on Toleration, then his Two Treatises on Government, and finally his masterpiece, the Essay on Human Understanding, all in 1689.
Locke was a man of nervous constitution – what we today might call ‘highly strung’ and it is clear that his views on religious questions evolved throughout his life. Having lived through the English Civil War as a teenager, his mature life was marked by the faction fighting and religious conflict endemic in the Royal Court. Locke’s perspective was conditioned by a rejection of religious enthusiasm, which he saw as responsible for the reckless slaughter and political strife experienced in England and Europe in his lifetime. This made a profound impact on his mature philosophy.
Locke’s principal innovation was his argument that, in order to resolve the destructive disagreements between different religious views, we should resort to the light of Reason. He wrote:
‘since traditions vary so much the world over and men’s opinions are so obviously opposed to one another and mutually destructive, and that not only among different nations but in one and the same state – for each single opinion we learn from others becomes a tradition – and finally since everybody contends so fiercely for his own opinion and demands that he be believed, it would plainly be impossible – supposing tradition alone lays down the ground of our duty – to find out what that tradition is, or to pick out truth from among such a variety, because no ground can be assigned why one man of the old generation, rather than another maintaining quite the opposite, should be credited with the authority of tradition or be more worthy of trust; except it be that reason discovers a difference in the things themselves that are transmitted, and embraces one opinion while rejecting another, just because it detects more evidence recognizable by the light of nature for the one than for the other. Such a procedure, surely, is not the same as to believe in tradition, but is an attempt to form a considered opinion about things themselves; and this brings all the authority of tradition to naught’3
Crucially, what Locke rejected was the idea that we should have recourse to a tradition at all, as he saw traditions as the source of all vice and pernicious beliefs (the ‘best are riddled with error’). In this he was very much a Protestant thinker, for the central issue in the trial of Galileo was the very same: the authority of the tradition. In Locke’s new account, appeal was made to something outside of any given tradition: reason, understood as the discriminatory judgement of probable beliefs.
Locke fleshed out a practical programme for how our beliefs should be guided, with three key elements: firstly, he argued that we have a moral responsibility for what we believe; secondly, that we should apportion our beliefs according to the evidence available to us, and finally, that in all things we should let reason be our guide. Put positively, the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation.Where a rational foundation is lacking then we are subject to unreason – to the excesses of enthusiasm that had led to the cultural crisis of the 17thCentury.
Locke’s programme had at its centre that assertion that, to be morally justified in believing something, you must be able to demonstrate its rationality:
“Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything, but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes, without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his maker, who would have him sue those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of this accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth, by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature, that though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves, according as reason directs him. He that does otherwise, transgresses against his own light, and misuses those faculties, which were given him to no other end, but to search and follow the clearer evidence, and greater probability.”4
What was the rationality that Locke had in mind? It should be noted that Locke was not claiming that Reason is the source of our beliefs, only that Reason should be the judge of our beliefs (that reason should assess how probable our belief is, and we are then under a moral obligation only to give an assent to a belief in proportion to the relevant evidence.
“Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I do not mean, that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine, whether it be a revelation from God or not.”5
It is important to emphasise that, for Locke, there was no contradiction between a commitment to judging beliefs by the light of reason, and a clear faith in Christianity. Although revelation could not be accepted contrary to reason, there was – at the time Locke was writing – no general sense that Christianity was incredible. Consequently, as part of his philosophical program, Locke published ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’ in 1695, arguing that it was clear to reason that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the essence of faith was the ‘school of virtue’ formed by taking Jesus as the moral guide for life.
This sense that Christianity could be upheld by rational inquiry was rapidly and widely accepted – thanks in part to two prominent supporters. The first was Isaac Newton, whose Principia was published in 1687, and whose stature and scientific authority lent credibility to the project. Newton had a lifelong interest in alchemy and theology, and his last writings were attempts to reconcile the biblical chronology (which he took to have been falsified by wayward Roman Catholicism) with the insights of modern science, especially astronomy6.
More significant, the Church of England itself embraced the Lockean program, and it acquired the name ‘Latitudinarianism’ – meaning simply a respect for individual judgement, an acceptance of Reason as an authority (in the Lockean sense7) and a more critical engagement with tradition. This view gained many prominent defenders in the Church, including John Tillotson, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1689, but the most important was Samuel Clarke. Clarke not only embraced the Lockean philosophy, he united it with Newton’s cosmology, in arguments showing the Providence of God – that God was a type of constitutional monarch, just as had been granted to England in the Glorious Revolution, who oversaw a realm that was governed by a stable framework of law.
These three figures, Locke, Newton and Clarke forged a particular religious settlement – a settlement that was welcomed as not only enabling an end to religious strife but as providing a theological support for the new political framework – a framework which, in essentials, has continued through to the present day. That framework remains the dominant paradigm through which discussion about religion is conducted, especially in the English speaking world8. The basic foundation comes from Locke, in that we are obliged to justify our beliefs through an appeal to reason. Supplemental to that basic foundation is the claim – held by all three men – that Christianity9could be justified by reason.
The history of English Christianity since the Glorious Revolution could be described as the progressive rejection of that supplemental claim.
1 I am drawing on a number of sources here (see the bibliography), but the most important is Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
2 Roy Porter calls Locke ‘the presiding spirit of the English Enlightenment’. His influence was huge – see the discussion in Porter, Enlightenment, Penguin, 2000, especially pp 66-71.
3 John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature, taken from Wolterstorff, p3.
4 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1990, IV, xvii, 24
6 This particular line of research culminated in the work of Archbishop Ussher, who calculated – on the basis of a rigorous and empirical assessment of the available evidence – that the earth had been created in 4004 BC. Such a task had not – and indeed, probably could not have – been undertaken in the previous history of Christianity.
7 There is much scholarly debate concerning the influence of Anglican theology on Locke, and whether the Lockean notion of Reason had been accepted earlier, in particular by Hooker. For a recent discussion, denying that this is the case, see Newey, The Form of Reason, Modern Theology, January 2002. My own view is that Locke was substantively original.
8 One might even call it a ‘Whig interpretation of religion’ that still awaits its Herbert Butterfield.
9 We now know, from the study of private correspondence, that the Christianity of Newton, and probably of Locke, was Arian, and therefore unorthodox, as it denied the full divinity of Jesus. That was not made clear at the time.
Archdeacon Janet Henderson recently wrote “I’ve noticed a lot of articles (blogs and media) lately suggesting that the church is dying. The authors of these pieces are hand-wringing over the fact that there aren’t enough resources to keep things going, bemoaning the fact that churches are getting caught up into ‘management-speak’ and chastising these churches for losing sight of gospel values.”
I can’t imagine who she has in mind! I thought I’d use her post as a prompt to set out a few summary points about how I see the Church of England at the moment, as it would seem that my approach is being misunderstood.
Firstly, I do believe that the Church of England – in its present form – is dying. That seems to be a straightforward conclusion to reach from considering the evidence of long-term numerical decline, as David Keen has chronicled. So I do not wish to ‘suggest’ that the church is dying – that doesn’t seem like a very interesting conversation to have any more. I want to proceed on the assumption that the church is in fact dying, and then ask what do faithful Christians – who are loyal to the faith as the Church of England has received it – do now?
The corollary of this is to recognise the difference between the church and the gospel itself. That is, I have great faith in the gospel as something inherently contagious, and which in all likelihood will become a majority world faith some time in the twenty-first century. I trust Jesus’ words that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church. However, that does not mean that any particular local instantiation of the church cannot die – clearly, in history, many have done and do. The question is: is there, in the structures of the Church of England, still an effective vehicle for the transmission of the gospel, or has the glory of the Lord departed from it for good?
Archdeacon Janet writes: “death is perhaps the least surprising concept to apply to the church which, in theological terms, is the body of Christ – Christ who died and who rose again.” Yes – but it needs to be a real death, as Christ’s was. My take on the Church of England is that it is like a man who has had a really bad car accident and is now in a perpetually vegetative state, being kept alive by an apparatus (establishment) that keeps the vital signs ticking over, and therefore the illusion of life continuing, but there is nothing new or generative possible. We need to really believe in the gospel – and really believe in the resurrection – and therefore have the courage to turn off the machine (and thereby give all the genuinely encouraging green shoots room to grow. You’ll only get new trees in the forest when the ancient trunks have toppled over and created space in the canopy).
To adapt that image, what I am interested in, therefore, is surgery, not butchery. I want to examine those elements of the body that are unhealthy, that have died, and excise them, in order that the healthy parts have room to flourish – and thereby that the body itself might be creatively renewed. What troubles me about the Archdeacon’s post is what could be called the ‘aroma of unreality’ – the sort of ‘nothing to see here, move along, everything is under control’ which happens so often in all walks of life when uncomfortable truths get covered up. To discuss the death of the Church of England is not bemoaning and hand-wringing, it is simply to seek an honest description of the situation in which we find ourselves. It may well be – indeed I hope that it is – possible for there to be a future Church of England, in recognisable continuity with the present one, in which the particular English genius of local via media Christianity is able to be carried forward. I just think that if we are to pursue such an aim with integrity, prayer and moral honesty then we need to be willing to speak directly and be prepared to take some very tough decisions.
On which subject, I hope to finish a second book (to be called “Haunted by Herbert”) in the next few weeks, where I shall spell out what I mean by saying that the Church has forgotten the gospel and what the hard decisions that need to be made actually are. In the meantime, these are links to some of my recent writings on the subject, which will give you a flavour of the argument I shall be making.
“When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.”
Prompted by the conversation over at David Keen’s blog, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Tiller Report’ – “A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry” by John Tiller, then Chief Secretary to ACCM, which was published in 1983. The Tiller report was, itself, building and moving on from a previous ‘Paul Report’ from 1967, which covered similar ground. It makes depressing reading. All the issues that are currently being discussed (eg how to cope with a reduction in clergy numbers) are identified in Tiller, and all the same solutions are advocated – empowering the laity, distributing responsibilities, making the Deaneries the focus of mission and so on. I have this dark vision of another report being written in 30 years time, describing our present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the CofE rolling on with only 4,500 clergy.
This is not to say that I disagree with what Tiller wrote – or with what is now being advocated, eg through Transforming Presence. It is simply to say that, if these managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. In my view, the fact that identifying these problems and outlining solutions has been done so competently suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. The root of our problems does not lie in technocratic incompetence – prevalent though that is – but deeper. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.
This can be seen most clearly in the present debacle concerning whether or not to have women bishops, and how that might be carried forward. Manifestly, at this point in time, there is no single understanding to which all give consent; therefore there is fragmentation and each party simply seeks to advance its own interests. The discussion is not being carried forward as between brothers and sisters in the faith, but in the manner of opposing and mutually despising political parties. There is, in short, a spiritual collapse which has this faction fighting as a consequence. The debates that are taking place in Synod, and more broadly, seem indistinguishable from the political struggles that we are familiar with in Parliament. How can we get sufficient numbers to drive through our agenda? How can we get sufficient numbers to prevent the enemy faction from succeeding?
The trouble is that we do not have a culture in which these events can be described honestly. The hierarchy simply colludes with a culture of concealment (despite the fact the the world outside is full of small children pointing out the nakedness of the emperors) – because lip service has to be paid to the Christian virtues, even when those virtues are not embodied. Let me explain what I mean.
When the initial vote to approve women priests was made in 1992, it was only enabled to happen through a political compromise. In essence, those who were opposed to the ordination of women were assured that this was to be a ‘trial’ – that there would be a ‘period of reception’ during which the Church would come to a view about whether it was in fact the right thing to do – and that in the meantime, those who were opposed to the measure would not be forced to act against their conscience, and their views would continue to be respected. Notoriously, the language was of their being ‘two integrities’ possible within the Church of England. This political fix enabled just enough people in the ‘middle’ to switch sides and pass the measure. Since that time, it would be fair to say that the opposition to the ordination of women has only hardened amongst those who were originally opposed – and, similarly, it has been affirmed and embraced enthusiastically by those who were originally in favour. In other words, the division that was present in 1992 has, through the adoption of crude political methods, become heavily entrenched. Such spiritual camaraderie as was present in 1992 has now mostly evaporated, and we are in an even more emaciated spiritual condition than before.
This is the context within which the women bishops debate is taking place. Those who were in favour of women’s ministry before can now point to twenty years of experience and say ‘see?’ Those who were against, however, can now say ‘you have not kept your promises, we have not been respected, we have instead been persecuted, scorned and scapegoated, why should we start to trust you now?’ In this context, to say ‘we have to rely on our common Christian grace to get by’ is radically inadequate and dishonest. It is a pretence built upon a failure to own up to sub-Christian behaviour. The continued repudiation and moral opprobrium heaped upon those opposed to women’s ministry does nobody any credit, most especially when proper theological reflection gets substituted out in favour of a shallow acceptance of the secular language of justice and rights.
If our church had any spiritual strength it would – before exploring the question about women bishops – close the conversation about the ‘period of reception’ with which this experiment with the ordination of women began. It would come to an honest decision, once and for all, as to whether the decision in 1992 is to be affirmed or rejected (or, perhaps, agree to defer that decision). It would have that discussion in full and honest and open acceptance of the consequences. That is – given that the church is not going to repudiate the ministry of getting on for half of its clergy – it will have to say ‘we are not going to have the ecclesiastical abomination of flying bishops any more’. It will have to say to those opposed ‘this is the decision that the church has reached, this is the integrity of the Church of England now’ – and it would then have to act as charitably as possible to care for those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result. There are creative ways to do that – but those creative and charitable possibilities cannot be explored in a situation of systematic abuse and bad faith.
Put simply, the church needs to live up to its words; not the high-flown language of spiritual aspiration and love, but the workmanlike words of the 1992 resolutions. The Church actually has to grow up and take what it has done seriously, not continue to indulge in a politically convenient forgetting that advances the agenda of one part at the expense of another. Until we have this honesty – and the patience to pursue the path of honesty wherever it might take us – we will never get anywhere.
Which brings me back to management. Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in?
I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this.
I write this as a supporter of the ordination of women, and the eventual opening up of the episcopacy to women. It’s just that the gulf between what the church thinks to be important – and the vituperative way in which this is proceeding – and what I believe to be important feels very wide. Christian progress does not proceed across the graves of our baptised brothers and sisters.
Some good conversation around the topic of ministry happening here and here. This is by way of a brief aside, following on from a good chat with a clergy friend last week.
My question is: is it too late to save the good ship CofE? I ask this because it seems that if it was going to be possible to reform the system to make it viable, it would have happened by now. The analysis of the problems that we are facing are not new (indeed, I recently discovered that the root problem was diagnosed over EIGHTY YEARS AGO!). For someone who considers themselves profoundly Anglican – as I do – the naturally desirable course of action is to stay and try and change things for the better. Yet I cannot escape Leonard Cohen’s mordant commentary, “they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom… for trying to change the system from within”. It occurs to me that if it was possible to change the system from within – through incremental shifts – then it would have been done already. The generation of priests ordained in the sixties and seventies were, I suspect, not given any more or less grace than the present generation – and there were many more of them – so why the tacit assumption that ‘one more heave’ might make any difference? In other words, I think that the rot has gone much deeper than any possible structural reform can address. We no longer have the capacity to make the right decisions, because our spiritual strength has been exhausted – and it is that spiritual strength which is my principal concern.
Which leads to the second, supplementary question – is it possible to be a priest in the CofE any more? The generating and nurturing of spiritual strength is, after all, the core role of the priest. At least I think it is – the idea that the main task of the priest is the cure of souls; that this is a distinct and important (most important!) task; that this is what priests are called to and paid for and enabled to carry out; that this is, in fact, something into which someone can be formed – all this seems to be structurally forgotten, and only referenced in rhetoric at ordinations. In actual practice, what a priest is for is to keep the wheels of the institution turning – and the worst sin is not a failure of spiritual cure but to bring the institution into disrepute. As I have said elsewhere, incumbency drives out priesthood – and the future that we are staring it is the exaltation of incumbency.
It seems to me that if there is to be any future for the Church of England it will involve ‘giving up’ – giving up an illusion of centralised control, that if only we get in the right leaders doing the right programs then all shall be well (and in saying that, I’m conscious of taking the precisely opposite conclusion to David Keen). It will involve setting parishes free, and it will involve setting priests free – free to actually be priests, and not establishment functionaries. What I’m pondering is a way of handing over all ‘incumbency’ rights and responsibilities to local laity – to revive lay incumbencies no less (which is not the same as lay presidency!) – and to only have ‘mission priests’ – people whose responsibility it was to feed the faithful by word and sacrament and nothing else. The institutions keep loading on other options onto the creaking shoulders of the clergy and they are almost all distractions from the core task. It is because we no longer know what a priest is for that we have devised an institution that makes it impossible to actually be a priest within it.
Which is what I mean by abandoning ship. I want to deploy my favourite quotation from MacIntyre in this context too: ““A crucial turning point in history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness… This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
Is it time for priests of good will to turn aside from shoring up the CofE and start constructing new forms of Anglican community?
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.
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.
I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall, it always gets bloody, always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch – they go bat shit crazy.
(From Moneyball; the more I ponder it, the more lessons I see there for the church)