Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tim Flannery's Quarterly Essay

I've just finished Tim Flannery's Quarterly Essay on the management or rather mismanagement of biodiversity in Australia. I just want to briefly summarise his argument (made in characteristic fashion with the odd swear word and powerful invective)

  1. Setting aside areas is not enough unless they are properly managed. We have nature reserves with animals going extinct
  2. Conservative governments by in large are cutting funding to conservation projects and eschew the word biodiversity.
  3. Nowhere appears safe and anything short of World Heritage areas can be mined if it suits the government of the day
  4. Some key wins can be made by organized private citizens in protecting biodiversity and keeping governments accountable when they don't even follow their own rules.
  5. Government/private partnerships may be a useful way forward
  6. Management is necessary because Aborigines were responsible for the extinction of large marsupial herbivores that kept vegetation down and greatly reduced the risk of hot, widespread destructive fires, but then they themselves became intimate parts of the ecosystem by their fire practices. An absence of this since Europeans have arrived has seen an increase in destructive fires and other impacts, such as lack of herbivore control by predators and too much growth of some vegetation types. Where such control has been introduced, species thrive
The essay is not all bad news, though while it is realistic about the present threat of extinction, there does appear to be useful ways forward if governments have ears to hear.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Basic videos on climate change science

The National Research Council is pleased to present a video that explains how scientists have arrived at the current state of knowledge about recent climate change and its causes. The video is broken into 7 parts and can be found here

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Forget Jesus? Life, death and meaning in the cosmos

This picture and quote from Lawrence Krauss is taken from the Pantheism group on Facebook. I wouldn't pretend to fully understand Pantheism (ancient or modern) but in general it is an attempt to see nature as in some sense sacred and understand ourselves as connected to the rest of existence.

The above quote is nothing new; Carl Sagan was saying this sort of thing ages ago. Life depends on death (like it or not), be it of stars recycling the very material in our bodies (above quote), or the process of evolution (apologies to my Christian friends who don't believe in it) or at the very least making room for species and individuals alive now.

In this sense we can see we are connected to the rest of reality. Of course, the writer of Genesis 1 could also see that, all animals are living creatures (nephesh), with animals and humans created on the same day. There are of course multiple threads about creation running through the Old Testament; both humans as being simply a part of creation (Psalm 104) and humans as being God's image and priests serving in the creation-temple. One doesn't need to be an atheist or a pantheist.

Of course the aside of Krauss that we can "forget Jesus" is not derived from his science at all, and is representative of the new atheism. One can hold both that death and change is a part of the natural fabric of reality (even if it is to be in some sense overcome eschatologically) and that Jesus' death is significant for human existence and cosmologically - it is just that science cannot inform the later and Krauss oversteps the mark.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sacred nature?

I recently had a discussion with a fellow Christian who not so much lamented as commented on the stance of ethicists he knew, including puzzlement I think it was at the idea that we might hold nature as sacred. This is a first post in a series thinking about this.

I'm going to ask three basic questions:

  1. What do we risk as Christians if we view nature (or better still creation) as sacred?
  2. What do we gain if we do?
  3. What do we miss out on if we don't?
1. What do we risk as Christians if we view nature (or better still creation) as sacred?

 One of the concerns that I imagine strikes some Christians is that we risk idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of something created rather than the creator, and Paul is very clear in Romans chapter 1 both as a critique of Greco-Roman culture but also of the failed history of Israel (echoes of the Golden Calf if not their prolonged love affair with Baal and Asherah) that this is what leads to sin.

One might argue then that seeing nature as sacred will lead to seeing it as divine, hence idolatrous. At the very least the concern will be that we will worship God through nature, breaking the commandment not to make a graven image. This represents an ontological confusion between God and creator and an overemphasis on divine immanence.

It might follow then that we insist creation/nature is beyond touch, which leads to a form of protectionism and exclusion of humans and their activities. This is a big stick against development in the underdeveloped world and as a general philosophy as led to the mistreatment of indigenous groups throughout the world who rely upon the natural world for grazing, firewood, medicine and homes.

Some might also argue that we loose sight of heaven, which is said to be our proper home. We are just passing though this world and so see it as sacred is to confuse heaven and earth. We lose a sense of the impermanence of the world and its corruption under sin.

One might also wonder then if creation is sacred why "natural" disasters are allowed! Does God desecrate his own temple?

I guess I feel some sympathy with all but the last one being confused (in my opinion).

2. What do we gain if we do?

It seems to me that we gain quite a bit if we adopt the view that nature is sacred. We can properly identify creation as belonging to its creator, and stress immanence where a Deistic slant has overly stressed transcendence. We bring God closer to his world, and make him the player in all that occurs rather than being detached. We show that God loves what he has made, enough to (partially) inhabit it.

We do justice to passages that speak of Heaven coming to Earth and God's will being done on here as in heaven (Lord's Prayer). We avoid rampant dualism and elevate ourselves properly as God's image at the same time as elevating creation to its rightful dignity without losing sight of what the Image of God (imago Dei) means.

We gain a powerful narrative for creation care and what it means to be a nation of priests in all of our priestly functions, including to till and tend. This reading of Genesis 1 deals with the strong language of rule in vv26-28 and shows that while etymology is important, context is even more so.

We gain a strong apologetic and a seat at the table of ecological discourse, for we have something unique to say.

3. What do we miss out on if we don't?

It seems to me that if we do not hold out God's creation as sacred we loose our voice in ecological pragmatism or pagan idolatry. We capitulate to the Enlightenment idea of nature as machine - and we can see where this has led us. We lose any distinctive in speaking in the ecological space. Note that while relevance is not something to be chased in theology (that's the cart before the horse), we will lose any sense of relevance in the issue.

Finally, I think we lose access to one way to worship God, and a powerful apologetic and evangelistic tool by appeal to common grace, beauty and awe.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This world is not my home?

I heard a quote supposedly attributed to evangelist Billy Graham (I have no idea if he said it), shown in the image here

As an ecotheologian or Christian writer/thinker, I don't find this a particularly helpful idea. Indeed, it's not even biblical.

I spoke this weekend at a conference of Franciscans on climate change. In their bible study just before my talk they were looking at the Lord's prayer. God's will is to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven; indeed Earth is in the emphatic position. Combine that for example with Romans 8 where creation has a future at the resurrection, and such silliness is undone. To be in the world but not of the world means not to be a part of a culture of sin. It does not refer to God's good Earth, which itself will be liberated.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ride to Worship Week 2012

For the planet, the poor and your health, join in Ride to Worship Week 2012
The third annual Ride to Worship Week runs from Friday 5th to Thursday 11th October 2012.  To join in the fun, all you need to do is to cycle, walk, or use another form of environmentally friendly transport to get to and from worship. You can join in as an individual, a family, or as a whole church.  And if the scheduled dates don't suit, feel free to choose another time that does. Check out the Ride to Worship Week clip, read more about Ride to Worship Week, and register your participation at  Ride to Worship Week is an initiative of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).


One of the things I really like doing is speaking - underwater with a mouthful of marbles if need be. Apart from my day job that involves me presenting material, I get asked to speak at conferences, churches and so on. Most recently I spoke at the Ethos conference in Melbourne, where the invited speakers were  Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh. My workshop was on the groaning of creation in Romans 8, and what that might mean for an ecotheology/ecomissiology.

Then, I went to the TEAR gathering in Helensburgh (south of Sydney), which again featured Keesmaat and Walsh. This time, it was a workshop on talking about climate change in the church. I may work on a booklet (pdf) to download when I have more time.

Finally, I got to speak at a Franciscan Conference at Trinity College here in Melbourne, again on climate change and theological reflection.

I'm usually useless at emailing people my slides so I've decided to use Slideshare to upload them. The links follow. Note that they can be downloaded.

Groaning with creation
Communicating for change
A changing climate

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The song of the magpie

Ok so I've been slack - it's been a while. So many environmentally related days, Rio, it all seems like so much to write on, so much to absorb. So I'll start with something simple.

When I was a kid, we lived in rental houses on farms. Both parents were older and on pensions so they were cheap. In one place there was a huge gum tree (well it seemed huge to me when I was 10 or 11) in which galahs and magpies roosted at nights. I loved watching them settle from a distance; I learned to love Australian fauna.

This morning on the way to the tram stop I heard the familiar warble of a magpie song and looked up to see a young one singing. It is one of the most beautiful sounds in all of creation to my ears. And it struck me. Magpies are not eaten, they are so common few people would reflect upon them and I guess an overseas birdwatcher might not have them at the top of their bucketlist, you can find them in most suburban areas.

Yet, it is their beauty and also apparent ordinariness that reminds me of Psalm 104 (ESV)

16 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 her home in the fir trees.

These creatures live along side of us, independent of us in the sense of not really being for us, or needs or economy and yet God cares for them, they are important to him. They are dependent upon us for the way in which we modify their environment by clearing trees, warming the planet and so on.

Hence, I am reminded of God's care for all he has made, that not all things are simply for me but for his glory and I need to 'live and let live'. Yet also I can enjoy them in a similar way to God, being made in his image.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Wonders of creation: Portuguese Man o War

As an aspiring ecotheologian I spend a fair time worrying about the state of the planet, global warming, species loss, etc. It occurred to me recently that I don't spend enough time thinking about and enjoying the very thing I want to see looked after. This is the first in a series of blog entries featuring photos I've taken of things that have caught my eye.

Over Christmas 2011 my family and I stayed in the sleep village of Loch Sport, located along the 90 Mile Beach in the Lakes District of Gippsland (map here). I found a few of these Portuguese Man o War on the beach.

The Portuguese Man o War is also known as the Blue Bottle for obvious reasons. They are named Portuguese Man o War because the gas filled bladder looks like the sail of the ship of the same name. A Portuguese Man o War is not jelly fish but a member of the Siphonophorae order, a colonial animal consisting of different zooids or polyps which cannot exist independently.

The four polyps are the gas bladder (pneumatophore), the tentacles (which can reach up to 50 metres in length), the digestive organs and the reproductive organs. Note that the Portuguese Man o War is a carnivore, the tentacles are covered in venom-filled nematocysts which paralyse prey before muscles in the tentacles draw the prey up to the digestive organs. One of these tentacles is shown in the picture above and they can still contain venom even after the Man O War has died and is washed up on the beach, so avoid contact. While rarely fatal to humans, they are (apparently) very painful, and I was sure that myself, son and dog avoided them. In Australia there are more than 10,000 reported stings each year!

Their range is typically more equatorward than where I found these, preferring warmer waters. With no means of propulsion, the Man O War is at the mercy of wind and waves, so perhaps the warm current along the east coast of Australia moved them southward before becoming beached where I found them.

Further reading
National Geographic
Jellyfish sting statistics