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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Living Adventurously

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Advent is the time we remember the mystery of the incarnation. Among some people I know, it’s a time to reopen debates about Christology, the nature of that incarnation. For those of us willing to take it as a given and think about the implications, it should be a time to jump to the end of the book of Revelation and pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.
Of course, there is all manner of debate and confusion over Jesus’ ‘second coming’ as there is over his first, but it’s always worth grounding the later in the former. And I mean so quite literally. We are used to thinking of Jesus as a man. And he was (is) a male human. Sadly, often in our imaginations and movies it is a blue-eyed Jesus we see, rather than a dark-skinned Galilean Jew. We can all too readily press Jesus into whatever mould we want. Scholars as well as laity are not immune from this.
John’s Gospel goes to great lengths to affirm Jesus’ divinity. More particularly, he is identified with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not some abstract conception of deity that might find home in the debates of philosophers, less still the rain-sending ‘Hughie’ of popular thought. For John, Jesus is the One who pitches his tent, or tabernacles, among his people, just as God did in the wandering in the wilderness. He is the Word who was present at creation, through whom all things were made. The echoes with Genesis 1 are quite clear.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Nature of Things - New Ecotheology book

Early last year I traveled across to Adelaide to give a paper at a conference at the Serafino winery on a theology of wilderness. The conference was an amazing one with a variety of speakers, an Aboriginal smoking ceremony (something I found profoundly moving) and some great views and company. The edited volume has finally been released by Wipf and Stock and is available online here.

The forward reads:

"In 2015 a conference on “Rediscovering the Spiritual in God’s Creation” was held at the Sera no winery complex in the McLaren Vale region of South Australia. The aim of the conference was not to seek consensus but to survey the landscape with a view to intentional responsible action in caring for God’s creation. Delegates were challenged to recognize their own worldviews and to widen their horizons to encompass the enormity of the transcendence and immanence of God’s presence in all creation. A group of leading international scholars and experts in the fields of science, ecology, theology, and ethics participated in a multidisciplinary conversation on the spiritual in creation, with the aim of discovering fresh horizons with regard to creation care, liturgy, justice, and discipleship within the Christian community. The chapters in this volume reflect the diversity of perspectives summarized in the Sera no Declaration, which was created towards the end of the conference. This declaration (which opens the volume) outlines a range of views relating to the presence of the spiritual in creation, views that are both traditional and radical. This volume highlights the current concern over ecological destruction and finds sources of inspiration in the deepest roots of our traditions and forms of spirituality to sustain efforts towards custodianship of the land and care for God’s creation."

The list of contributions is impressive with international names such as Paul Santmire, Celia Deane-Drummond and Ernst Conradie. There are many Australian contributors too such as Mark Worthing, Anne Elvey and Vicky Balabanski.

Monday, October 24, 2016

At the end of the pipeline: decolonising creation and climate

With Columbus Day having recently just passed, the issues of colonialism and national identity will be fresh in many people’s minds. Columbus wasn’t the first European to arrive in the Americas, and indeed no European can be said to have discovered it given the thriving Indigenous peoples. Americans will be much more familiar and better equipped than I to talk about the vision of America’s manifest destiny. It was arguably a noble vision for a new nation. However, it is clear how far short of that vision the US has fallen, so that even in Alexander Humboldt’s, upon visiting America in 1804, could express such disappointment that revolutionary fervour didn’t yet extend to the emancipation of slaves.

The theological underpinnings of oppression are nothing new, and not unique to the US. However, in the “new world”, such ideas were given fresh impetus, running counter to the revolutionary spirit of freedom. As Alfred Cave notes in his paper, Canaanites in a Promised Land: The American Indian and the Providential Theory of Empire, Old Testament ideas of Canaan, the Promised Land and the conquest, were used to oppress and dispossess the first peoples. English settlers were cast in the role of God's new Chosen People, whereas the first nation peoples were cast as the Canaanites, and seen as idolaters, devil worshippers and savages. It was easy enough to justify violence and extermination.

What’s often less appreciated is the role the spread of diseases played in the invasion of the “new” world. In the journal Nature in 2015, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin examined a number of definitions of the Anthropocene, the age of human domination of the Earth’s major support systems. They document that estimates of the regional population of the Americas in 1402 range from 54 to 61 million people. Numbers plummeted to about 6 million by 1650 due to introduced diseases, war, enslavement and famine. Such a fall in population led to a collapse in agriculture and a measurable drop in global carbon dioxide levels. Such a meeting of “old” and “new” worlds demonstrates the connection between environmental destruction, empire, colonialism and genocide.

The conquest of Australia, my home country, lacked the narrative of chosen people and promised land, but instead suffered under the myth of terra nullius. In truth, Indigenous land use was many and varied, including permanent settlements, aquaculture and extensive fire management. Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia observes how often Europeans admired how much like a gentleman’s garden the land appeared, but totally ignore the gardeners. Terra nullius has been consistently used to deny first peoples land rights and right to self determination.

The colonialisation of land use and of national identity in both the US and Australia continues into our management, or better still, mismanagement of creation and continued ignoring of the wishes of First Peoples. In the US, the Standing Rock Pipeline in the North Dakota Plains once more highlights how ideas of progress and growth trump the rights of Indigenous people. With threats to drinking water and sacred sites, Dakota has become a focus of discontent with the colonialisation of creation. The response has been predictable, with dogs, pepper spray, strip searches and attempts to silence the media. In Australia, criminalisation of protest is also used as a tactic to protect unnecessary mining. This development affects indigenous artifacts and the site is the continued subject of indigenous protest.

It seems to me that there are various narratives that the gospel needs to undo. The first is that of endless growth, fueled by our addiction to fossil fuels. Bill McKibben has shown that most of the remaining fossil fuels need to be left in the ground. This means that in order to stay below 2 C of warming above pre-industrial levels, there needs to be no new coal mines and no new pipelines. Our path into the 21st century and beyond needs to be marked not simply with a shift to renewable energy. We also need to focus less on growth, as Jesus said to focus less on the building of bigger barns. Likewise, with a country like India signing on to the Paris climate agreement, we might give more thought to how be better neighbours to a country that is facing its climate responsibility, and yet has to lift millions out of darkness by connecting them to electricity. [Updated 24/10/16] The WTO’s ruling against India’s domestic content requirements for solar panels is in my view, and example of not being a good neighbour. Surely at this point addressing climate change is more important than insisting upon forcing open markets.

We also need to decolonialise our theology, and listen to indigenous voices on the sacred nature of creation, particularly indigenous Christian voices. We tend to read Genesis 1 through Francis Bacon, and view creation as a resource. John Walton has helped us see creation as a sacred temple. It’s time to hear more from the world’s first peoples on how they see creation as sacred. I’m most aware of what has been done in Australia with Rainbow Spirit Theology, and imagine that similar exists in the US. We need to have “ears to hear”, because we are not dealing with the Canaanites we are called to destroy. We are dealing with those whom God has placed in their places so that they might seek and find him (Acts 17:22-31) and with whom we share a common world. If we’re to honour these people as made in the image of God, this world as God’s good creation, and God as creator, we need to listen to them, to protest with them, and to speak truth to power with them.

[This blog piece has been submitted to another site, but since I haven't heard back I'm putting it up here. I've updated the text on the WTO ruling, which previously read that it was against the Indian solar industry, rather than the amount of local components.]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Post Justice Conference Melbourne 2016

So it's Sunday night and I am still on a high after the Justice Conference. Chance to catch up with a few friends, make some new ones, and be inspired by some amazing and faithful Christians who believe that justice is at the heart of God. I think a few people must have provided feedback after last year's conference, because climate change was more prominent this year. Kuki Rokhum from EFICOR in India spoke powerfully about the impacts of climate change in India. Did you know that there is a direct connection between slavery and climate change? People forced off their lands by failing rains become vulnerable to all sorts of abuse, including slavery. Kuki noted that "While we are debating about climate change, people are dying." As I noted in our workshop together with Claire Dawson, my co-author (or I'm hers) on A Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World, denial is part of while male privilege.

Our workshop was ably led by Jo Knight of TEAR. We talked about what brought us to being so concerned about climate, basic science and impacts, framing theology and directions forward. In an hour it was impossible to be comprehensive in all of this - I teach a 12 hour course at Eastern College here in Melbourne!

I am motivated to do more, write more and speak more - where my strengths are. Hopefully that translates into more regular blogging.

There will be talks online soon on the Justice Conference website. So much goodness, so make sure you get a hold of them when you can. And don't lose hope!

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.