Saturday, March 11, 2017

Partnership or enslavement? Human-bird relationships

Humans have multiple and complex relationships with all species on the planet now, as we have entered into the age of the Anthropocene. But then again, even before we reached the level where we have dominated all of the natural cycles and threaten all of the planetary boundaries that support us, we have had relationships with other animals that are complex. Take for example cormorant fishing in China.

This clip from the BBC series Wild China looks at this old practice, and describes the cormorants as slaves. Is this a fair assessment? Are all forms of domestication best understand as enslavement of animals, or partnerships? When and what the birds can eat is limited, but eat they do. In fact, as opposed to a caged bird, the cormorants get to enter their natural habitat. They are trained, and not fully wild, intelligent and able to bend the rules. 

The relationship is exploitative, but not just one way. The birds are employed to hunt for food, but are not themselves food. This kind of relationship may not extend much further into the 21st century, but it's a fascinating example of how humans can relate to non-humans in a non-consumptive fashion (except of course for the fish!)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Don't look down Donald - climate and political change

Have you ever watched cartoons where the character doesn't know that they are about to fall under the influence of gravity until they look down? I remember once watching a cartoon (I was sure it was Ren and Stimpy but can't find the episode) where the laws of gravity are held in the local court house. Someone accidentally rubs them out and gravity fails.

The equivalent of this appears to be happening in the US at the moment with climate change either being removed or planned to be removed from government webpages. This, together with planned sackings etc in the US (and indeed what has happened in Australia with the Climate Council which now is publicly funded and CSIRO) is the equivalent of trying to erase the law of gravity.

Now you might protest that climate change science and gravity cannot be equated, but hear me out.

Firstly, both may be observed by anyone. Drop a brick on your foot, or keep track over the years when flowers first open or birds migrate. Keep a record of rainfall on your farm. A friend who worked in aid and development in Nepal for many years said there were no climate change skeptics there - because they could see it.

But secondly, both need some more careful observation. When Newton said that a body continues at a constant velocity unless acted upon by a force, he knew that in the absence of air that a pound of feathers and a pound of lead would fall at the same rate due to gravity (a fact someone I once worked with denied), but this is a level of abstraction since none of us lives in a vacuum (at least in the literal sense). Likewise, careful longterm datasets help us understand how natural change cannot fully explain the warming we see.

Thirdly, while Einstein came along, and quantum gravity might yet arrive, Newton is still valid for everyday. Likewise, while we learn more about aerosols, the role of the oceans, the sun, etc in natural variability, the basics of greenhouse gases - depending on the fundamental physics of quantum mechanics and radiative transfer are also still valid. It really is warming, it really is our fault and it really will get bad if we don't act.

Trump's lies (sorry alternate facts) will not change the real facts - except they will become worse through inaction. Tell the truth and shame the devil my mum sometimes says. Or as it says in the ten commandments, don't bear false witness. Tell the truth about climate change during this era of Machiavellian, oligarchic lies.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Nothing's as precious as a hole in the ground. Adani and Australian coal

And some have sailed from a distant shore
And the company takes what the company wants
And nothing's as precious, as a hole in the ground

Blue Sky Mine. Written by James Moginie, Martin Rotsey, Peter Garrett, Robert Hirst, Wayne Stevens • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

I've been a Midnight Oil fan for a number of years, and this lyric sticks in my head when I think about the issue with Adani in Australia. We know that to keep climate change below really dangerous levels - and it is worth noting with about a degree of warming already that the world is undergoing significant impacts (see for example here) - that we need to stop further fossil fuel exploration and extraction. This is a no brainer.

And yet in Australia we see a state government wanting to fast track the Adani Carmichael mine as critical infrastructure. With the previous concept, how in any reality is a new coal mine critical to anything other than wrecking the planet? At the same, the Australian Prime Minister wants to lend A$1 billion to build the needed rail links. At a time when the poor and vulnerable are being targeted, and big companies pay little tax, how does such a loan in any way support the Australian economy. 

India is also pushing ahead with solar power, set to add another 6 GW by early next year. Roof top solar is growing, with the rural poor leapfrogging coal. India is moving away from coal - so why is one rich man giving tax payers money to another rich man to fund a damaging product? And don't forget all the issues with the Great Barrier Reef. The impacts of a new port and emissions all directly impact the Reef, which is already suffering (forget Pauline Hanson's deliberately obscurantist stunt). 

A theology which sees the picture of Genesis 1-2 as portraying the Earth as a temple-cosmos (see the work of John Walton or any of the relevant talks on YouTube) is not incompatible with the idea of mining (see Genesis 2:10-14) anymore than the idea of a temple precludes use (the priests in the Jerusalem temple ate part of the meat for example), but gets us to rethink the idea of resource (a big topic for another time). Michael Northcott for example points out it was medieval neo-Platonic Christians who had an issue with mining.

My point is that a simple minded extractionist model is not suited to the world the way it is now, not in a warming climate. This mine is not needed, nor wanted by those of us who want a future for our children, this planet, and who see our care of the Earth as a sacred duty from God.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Truth tellers in a post-fact world

We really should call a spade a spade. A post fact world is one of lies, spin, hype and ignorance as bliss. While science isn't perfect (it's done by finite and fallen humans), it does reveal things about the world. The relentless pursuit of the Socratic method in a systematic way yield results about cause and effect in the real world.

I think post modernism has something to answer for in eroding ideas of truth, but plain Machiavellian political cynicism, conservatism and fear of change seem to dominate politics in the West. This means climate change is given the poor treatment we see in the US and Australia. It is an 'inconvenient truth' for Donald Trump, a pragmatic, business minded demagogue.

When we understand something to be true, anything as Paul understands in Philippians (see my blog on Philippians 4:8 here), we need to weigh up how important it is. It is true that the capital of England is London, but most of the time that isn't all that important to me. That God exists or that human beings are warming the climate are far more pressing, worldview informing truths than mere facts.

The church are meant to be truth seekers, truth speakers - not giving false testimony. It is nice to see that the US political system hasn't given up on that yet, with California Governor Jerry Brown recently saying to climate scientists:

“It’ll be up to you as truth-tellers, truth seekers to mobilize all your efforts to fight back,” the governor said. “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future and you are there, the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”

Christians are also committed to the future. Given the hope for global transformation then, our work now is to try and transform our politics, science, economy and ecology as we wait for that future. Don't give up on truth.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Studying Ecomission online

When I started thinking in the area of ecological concern from a theological perspective, I had no idea really where it would take me, or who would end up reading what I wrote. I'm often running into people who have heard me speak or read what I've written (well not often but increasingly so) who have kind words to say.

So imagine my surprise recently when I received an email asking if I'd like to be involved in an online university dedicated to preparing people for mission work in all walks of life - and that I would be using my meteorology and climatology background as well as the theological thinking I had done? Enter Missional University.

This organisation 'is legit' as they say. Starting up its courses in 2017, this is a long term vision of Curt Watke, to be able to train people to do mission in a variety of contexts. What is exciting is how holistic the vision is, and that it includes the idea of eco-mission - that the reconciliation of God and the world happens at multiple levels and this includes the way we relate to the rest of creation. This is a development I'm sure the late Ross Langmead of Whitley College would have been pleased to see,

So watch this space as I keep you up to date with what I'll be doing. I'll be Professor of Environmental Mission, Ecotheology & Ecomissiology Specialist in the Department of Environmental Sustainability in the School of Ecological Mission, and be part of the Department of Cultural & Contextual Theology in the School of Theological Studies.

The website is still a work in progress but check out: 

You can see my mugshot here.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

How do we love our neighbours in a warming world?

The following is the text of an address that I gave at the Salvation Army Festival of Mission here in Melbourne. Thanks to sister Brooke Prentis for this action shot.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you. But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” For some, this passage forms a key part of their faith – that God is a God of justice and wants followers who are shaped by this. Justice should be part of the DNA of the church because it lies at the heart of God. Sadly, not all Christians see this as a priority.

I want to tell you a couple of stories, and then draw a common thread.  

I’m a TEAR rep at my church. You might be familiar with the work that they do, partnering with aid and development agencies around the world. One of the things they have done for years is the Really Useful Gifts catalogue, where you purchase a present for someone in the developing world, and give the card as a present to a friend. One of the things you used to be able to buy was a mosquito net. Malaria is a major problem in some parts of the world. There were over 400,000 malarial deaths in 2015, and yet that represents a 60% reduction in mortality since 2000.

Yet people are catching malaria in some places where they have not previously been exposed to it. Take for example the story of Nicholas Hakata. Nicholas is an elder on Han island, part of the Carteret group near PNG. He describes life in the Carterets as a holiday island paradise of fishing, checking on your banana crops, or sitting around and relaxing. However, over the past few years, life has become more difficult. Pools of fetid water left over from inundations of the island have come breeding grounds for mosquitoes. There are many more mosquitos than there used to be. All the children have become sick with malaria. This combined with irregular delivery of food from the mainland producing widespread hunger, has kept them from school.

Malaria is not just a problem in the Pacific. World malaria expert Andrew Githeko grew up in the Kenyan highlands on a coffee plantation. When he was a kid, no one in his village got malaria because there were no mosquitos where he lived. Imagine his surprise when he received a phone call to tell him that his niece had a fever that wouldn’t go away. She had been diagnosed with malaria, which she caught in the very same village that Andrew grew up in.

On a different note, William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect are heroes to some Christians for their opposition to slavery. Sadly there are now more people in slavery around the world than there was at the height of the slave trade to the Americas. In the Indian state of Assam, ethnic tension and natural disasters leads to internal displacement. In recent years, flooding of the Brahmaputra River has washed away crops and villages, caused erosion and covered rice paddies in silt.

Women suffer disproportionately in such situations, women like 16 year old Uma Tudu. After floods destroyed her village, she traveled more than 1600 km to Delhi to find a job and a new life. Instead, she found herself sold as a slave. Girls like her are deliberately targeted by slave traders after violence or floods, and can end up as domestic help, forced labour or even in forced marriages.
The common factor in all of these stories is climate change.

Rising sea levels threaten the Carteret Islanders, as well as people across the Pacific, in Bangladesh, and the Torres Strait, where people have taken to sandbagging graves to prevent them from washing away. Higher sea levels make small islands more vulnerable to erosion or inundation due to storm surge from tropical cyclones. Water left over from inundation due to a tropical cyclone that has provided the breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes. In Kenya, increasing temperatures have led to a spread in the range of malarial mosquitoes. Meanwhile, the flooding of the Brahmaputra has been caused by rising temperatures melting Himalayan glaciers.

All the justice issues that Christians are concerned about, health, education, and slavery, are all made worse by climate change. Even the huge crisis in Syria has been complicated by climate change. A five year long drought contributed to failed crops, economic hardship and internal dislocation. To preach the gospel in the modern world is to proclaim God’s kingdom of peace and justice, and to deal justly in the modern world means dealing with climate change.

The Parable of Good Samaritan is our guide for justice in a warming world. We need to recognise that we live with one atmosphere and a globalised economy. Greenhouse gases know of no national boundaries. In this world, everyone is my neighbour. So how do we love our neighbours in a warming world?

Firstly, the gospel is the ultimate message of restoration. Justice means restoring people to a place of dignity. As Eugene Cho notes, people are not projects. They are individuals made in the image of God. The Good Samaritan goes to great lengths to see that the victim’s wounds are tended so that he could be restored to full health.

In a warming world, there are many ways we can help people maintain their dignity, by assisting them to adapt to climate change. Aid works when people become involved in their own restoration and are enabled to carry on their lives as before. But aid also costs. The Good Samaritan realised that returning the man to full health might cost more than he initially laid out, and promised to return later with more if needed.

It seems that many politicians in the West are not willing to count this cost. Australia’s aid contribution is less than its 0.7% commitment, and just this year our giving was cut by $200 million. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw funding for climate change adaptation. Christians need to continue to campaign on aid and debt relief in the same way we have done for decades. There also would be more to give if large corporations weren’t given a free break, so we also need to continue to campaign for tax fairness.

It’s not a good or moral use of money to lock asylum seekers up in detention and deny them any possibility of seeking asylum in our country. The relative trickle that we experience now will become a flood in future years as drought, floods, sea level rise and political instability lead to more people being displaced.

It is a violation of a person’s dignity when they are forced to leave behind their homes and way of life because of violence or climate change related environmental disasters. We must then show refugees hospitality, not as an act of charity but as an act of justice. Our God is a hospitable God, and we cannot share the gospel of divine hospitality without ourselves being hospitable. Our approach to asylum seekers must change.

So far I’ve spoken as if all justice was restorative and we were always the Good Samaritans. But climate change should make us pause to reconsider this. The character who is often ignored in the parable is the bandit. Often we might be tempted to think of bandits as simple thieves, a foil in the story. Yet the back story is far more complicated and far more interesting.

The Roman Empire was supported by heavy taxation and slavery. There was a steady supply of goods flowing into Rome, and out to feed their vast armies which protected the borders and enforced Roman rule. Harsh taxation in an agrarian society could to lead to debt and loss of ancestral lands in Israel, with the Jewish religious elite ready to profit by buy up the land cheaply. People were left with the choice of being tenant farmers, day workers, or bandits. In addition, there was also a temple tax to pay, which benefitted the Levites and Priests. Perhaps their reticence to come to the man’s aid in the parable was less about ritual purity and more about self-preservation?

When it comes to climate change, we are not just engaged in restorative justice, but in repentance. We must recognise that we ourselves are part of a system, an empire of consumption that has produced the conditions under which other people suffer. Western economies have benefited from outsourcing the impacts of our wealth onto others; by dispossession of Indigenous people – remember, always was, always will be Aboriginal land, poor environmental and labour laws, and the impacts of climate change on the developing world and future generations.

So do we stand with empire or against it? Are we to acquiesce to the Babylonian Captivity of the church, or resist its idols? As privileged westerners, we have much power to both preach the justice of the kingdom of God and to work for it. We are near the centre of power, in Pharaoh's court. Our votes can carry power, but so can our protests. Campaigns like divestment from fossil fuels are more than just symbolic, because not only do they declare our desire to change the way in which we obtain our energy as consumers, but it should also be a statement about the whole nature of power itself (pun intended) and our relationship to it.

Our mission as the church is to proclaim the gospel and embody it. Our acts of justice as we face a rapidly changing global climate are not optional. They are both acts of restoration in respect of the dignity of others, but also acts of repentance.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

E O Wilson, ecology and Christian hope

I recently received out of the blue a Facebook message from a concerned Christian mother about her daughter having to watch a video by Harvard Emeritus Professor E O Wilson. Her concern was that Wilson's views don't line up with a Christian value of hope in preserving our environment. It's question worth pursuing for a blog post.

Anyone who has read The Creation knows that Wilson grew up a Southern Baptist, but abandoned that faith. The book is an attempt to draw common ground between Christians of this tradition and related and non-Christian scientists like Wilson. I think it is an admirable aspiration. We share one planet regardless of what we believe about its origins on future fate. It is full of a biological richness which exists for both its own sake, but also of which we are a part.

Christians of course believe more than this, and we can bring more to the table than a narrative of random processes (see more below). E O Wilson is an evolutionary biologist and the founder of sociobiology, the evolution of values, ethics, etc from simpler origins, based on his work with ants. Now while I don't share his world view, when someone of his importance speaks of the need say to set aside half the planet to save biodiversity, I'm going to listen to him because of his expertise, not his world views. The same goes for when I visit the doctor; thanks to our public health care system I don't mind which doctor I see so long as they have a medical degree and a track record of not misdiagnosing, etc.

So what is a Christian hope of preserving the creation? It is articulated in Romans 8, where using the language of the Exodus, where our bodies will be redeemed (from slavery to sin as Paul talks about in Romans 7) and the creation will be set free from bondage to decay (again, slavery/redemption language). I've written elsewhere about how this is best understood as a response to the claims by Rome that "Thine age, O Caesar has brought back fertile crops to the fields".

So a Christian hope is that Christ will return, the dead will be raised and (I infer) because humans will be redeemed in their natures, so the rest of creation will not be misruled by us. This provides us with an incentive. Just as our natures are being renewed so we do not go on sinning (Romans 6:1), so given the future is one of harmonious relationships with the rest of creation, we should be getting on with this now. And if our wisdom comes from a non-Christian scientist, so be it and thank God for their knowledge as he is the source of common grace.

Now given the state of the world, the Christian hope is both a) it will all be sorted out when Christ returns and b) at least in part that people of all faiths will be faithful to our creation care task (see Genesis 1-2), but does not exclude things becoming really bad in the mean time. As Paul points out in Romans 1, idolatry, be it of idols of stone or wood, of money, success, nation etc mean we are given over to our sins. This is no less clear in the current extinction or climate change crises, to name but two.

So my own 2 cents is that regardless of what Wilson thinks about "creation vs evolution" (and this is a topic for another time, but does call us to listen critically), I think he is worth listening to on a variety of issues, cooperating with where needed on the important task of "saving the planet" (more on this another time). We share one planet, and we're called to live in love with one another on it.