Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Justice Conference Melbourne 2016

This blog has been too quiet. It's not that I haven't been busy, but more of that soon.

I will be at the Justice Conference in Melbourne, speaking on a panel on climate justice. I will be with Claire Dawson, my co-author on A Climate of Hope, and Kuki Rokham who works with EFICOR, TEAR's partner in India.

Reflections on our workshop will follow. Hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Harambe, politics and the social media echo chamber

In the echo chamber that is social media, ideas quickly blow up and become polarised. This week, a 17 year old western lowland gorilla was shot when a three year old boy fell into the enclosure. It appears that experts largely agree this was the only course of action. Thank God the child was largely unhurt. One can only wonder what would have happened had Harambe the gorilla not been shot, of if the child had fallen into the enclosure of a carnivore like a big cat.

Now one cannot have an issue that the gorilla was shot to protect a child's life. However, much of the social media echo chambering and political footballing concerns me.

Early on, people were asking why it was the the gorilla was shot - could there have been another way, like tranquilizing? It seems this would have been too slow. Others questioned whether or not the gorilla needed shooting at all. Was Harambe being protective of the child as Jane Goodall thought it might? Anyone who has seen David Attenborough's footage with mountain gorillas knows that they are capable of great tenderness towards each other, and humans. And yet a male's first responsibility is to protect his own. No, we must accept what happened. No doubt in time, the questions will be answered about the enclosure, and whether or not it was sufficiently safe for the child, and the gorilla. Likewise, we need to be very slow in blaming the family.

But I'm concerned about the polarisation that has occurred. There are some who are quick to mock those of us who show genuine concern over the fate of non-humans, for political and or religious reasons. To care for a gorilla is not to care less for the child, or for refugees as some would contest, using this incident as a political springboard. Yes, coverage of moral issues is skewed, but do we belittle one set of issues (non-human moral status and extinction risks) for another (our concern over refugees). I'm not convinced two wrongs make a right.

I saw recently a blog that said that one human was of more value than a million gorillas - the image of God theological argument. My response is, what kind of calculation is that? Isn't that providing the wrong answer to the wrong question in this case? Doesn't this kind of approach feed exactly into the predicament of this species being endangered in the wild?

The other kinds of responses are equally silly. Calling the killing of a non-human murder , even one as closely related to us as a gorilla, is wrong headed. We do not have to directly equate the death of a gorilla and a human as morally equivalent to understand that this was a tragic event. Would those people rather that the child died instead? Maybe Peter Singer might make this argument, but not a Christian thinker like myself.

The calls for gorillas not to be kept in zoos is a more complex one, but also a knee jerk reaction here, as they are endangered in the wild. If zoos can help keep this species alive (and that includes obviously providing a safe space for them), then there they should stay. Releasing any zoo animal back into the wild is not that simple.

To summarise then: I'm grateful the child is alive, though I'm saddened it has come at the loss of a creature both endangered and a magnificent work of the creator God. The reactions on both ends miss the point and just seem like an exercise in stone throwing across the divide. Once more, social media seems incapable of supporting a reasoned discussion or reaching some kind of understanding between people. Perhaps I'm just ranting, but it's only that I care about three year old children, displace refugees, and a natural world that's dying. And all these things matter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Still two cultures: Reflections on Bird Sense

I've been busy writing for various book projects and a lecture course, so it's been a while. After enjoying The Soul of an Octopus, I've followed up with Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. And I'm mildly annoyed before finishing the preface!

Firstly, Birkhead refers to Thomas Nagel's paper about what it is life to be a bat. Birkhead is waving the flag of science (fair enough, it's a book on science and looks at what we know about animal perception, etc), but in the process he wants to relegate philosophy (how trendy). While science he thinks can tell us quite a lot about how animals perceive things by extending our perception using technology (his pragmatic approach), Nagel's understanding that we can't know exactly what it is like to be a bat is "subtle and pedantic." Is it too subtle for a scientist or science journo? That reflects badly on Birkhead.

As for pedantic, once more we see the view of science offering us a better way and relegating issues of meaning, significance, etc to the scrap heap. Actually, science contains a lot of subtly, and anyone who's tried to publish a paper will know about its pedantic nature. More than that, understanding perception tells you little about qualia, and claims of epiphenomena assume a lot. Nagel's gone a step further to challenge materialism. As well he might.

A second annoyance is the statement "our behaviour is controlled by our senses." Isn't it the case that our senses inform our behaviour? Control seems too strong a word. But then I'm being pedantic.

Thirdly, he argues that "natural selection ... provided a much better explanation for all the aspects of the natural world than the wisdom of God." Sigh. Anyone who's read any history knows that even Christians found much of Paley's natural theology as suspect. Darwin was reacting against this, after having formally embraced it. There's a world of difference between rejecting Paley's laboured design arguments, and complex pneumatological (Spirit), perichoretic (Trinitarian) and kenotic (self-emptying) arguments about creation/evolution. [Addition] He actually discusses Paley in more detail in chapter one, making the above statement all the more ironic!

I think Birkhead needs a history, philosophy and theology education. I'm expecting his science to be much better.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Why I marched with a multifaith group at the climate march

In sense this should be a big non-issue, but it is also an excuse to blog (it's been a while). I'm there on the left holding a multifaith banner. The other in a circle is meant to catch anyone else not captured by the logos.

As a Christian from the Evangelical tradition (I won't try and identify myself on the spectrum except to say the label is broader than some will allow for), I place a premium on the person, deity and uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ (Messiah, anointed king). But this was not an opportunity for covert prosletysing.

Because I come from a religious tradition, I believe in Earth as sacred space, sacramental if you like. This derives from an understanding of nature as creation, of the Genesis accounts as using temple language. It doesn't represent the entire of the Christian tradition, but I think it's biblical. It isn't a view at odds with some idea of stewardship, or fair use, but stretches it to see the Earth as value to God, home to all of humanity and all of Earth-bound life.

All of the people there hold to some idea of the sacred, and it's a concept that even secular people can identify with, from Stuart Kaufmann's attempts at constructing a secular sacred to the rapturous language of Richard Dawkins in his writings on evolution, captured in music by the symphonic metal band Nightwish in their album Endless forms most beautiful.

Regardless of what we believe, we share one world. Denialism to me is bearing false witness, breaking one of the 10 commandments. Call it what you will. I marched with these men and women for God, for creation and for humanity, to love my neighbour as myself. Here's praying good things come out of COP21 in Paris.

PS: Here is a blog I wrote for Red Letter Christians on why I was marching.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

St Francis and the preaching of the birds

October 4 is the feast day of St Francis. Now of course there are a lot of church traditions who don't recognise the concept of sainthood or feast days. And yet, an increasing number of people are adopting Francis because of his attitude toward the non-human part of creation.

This image shows Francis preaching to the birds. Now while it has been demonstrated that certain birds (some corvids, African Grays, etc) are intelligent, they require no sermon or conversion. The fault of environmental damage lies at the feet of humans alone, rooted in uncontrolled and unbounded growth and desire.

Perhaps this feast day is more a reminder that we need to hear a sermon from the birds. Once, the Passenger Pigeon occupied the skies for days, now it is extinct. Once, birds were threatened from DTT thinning their eggs, at least for now the use of this substance is controlled. Rising temperatures stress birds - one heat wave in Western Australia killed half the population of an endangered parrot. Rising sea levels are causing some countries to think about building sea walls that would cut off coastal flats that matter to migrating birds. The birds are preaching to us and telling us we are out of control. They are quite literally, the canary in the coal mine.

In my favorite psalm, Psalm 104, we are told:

12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
    they sing among the branches.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
    the stork has its home in the fir trees.

We learn here that there is a place for everything and everything has a place - though this is in a time before virsuses, bacteria and disease was understood, so this isn't everything that could be said, although lions also have a place in this Psalm, and hence the picture isn't all rosy either. 

That caveat aside, here we see the birds preaching to us. Why don't we start listening?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dutton's disdain in a drowning world

I've recently been reading Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys Through Britain's Secret Wilderness by Paul Evans. In chapter 5 entitled Flood, he talks about eldritch places, those places that feel eerie and sinister. He visits the old town of Llanwddyn, which now sits at the bottom of Lake Vyrnwy, which provides water for Liverpool. In the 1970s, a drought uncovered many of the buildings of the old town in a phenomena that people found disturbing. Besides the buildings, Evans wonders what else drowned down there.

This eerie feeling will become a common one as IPCC projections of about 60 cm of sea level rise by end of century seem quaintly optimistic. Even this is enough to condemn some island nations, but given the proportion of people living close to sea level, the impacts will be real and far reaching. Long term, several metres, if not 10s of metres are in store if we don't act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No, coal is not good for humanity.

The disconnect between those currently affected and the rich and powerful is summed up well in a recent slip up by Australian Minister for turning away the boats, Peter Dutton. In a conversation with colleagues, he commented that "time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door."

Now given the current Australian policy of tight borders, tow backs and imprisonment in offshore detention centres, such a comment indicates how climate change refugees would be treated. It belittles a coming catastrophe and a profound disregard for human life. No, it's not simply a joke, it's a symptom of an inability to "love your neighbour as yourself." Given the number of politicians who flash Christian credentials, I'd like to see this biblical saying of Jesus embodied in climate change, energy and refugee policies ASAP. To say nothing of attitudes towards the victims of our success.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Responding to Laudato Si

Last Thursday at a meeting of the Social Policy Connections, I spoke about the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si' for about 20 mins with Professor Joe Camilleri.

An online article for Ethos has just gone up which is closely based on what I said.

There are also two snippets now on YouTube.