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The greatest challenge

Although global warming and sustainability have become increasingly common in sermons, not many have included peak oil.

The author, Dr. Cook, is a senior research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (article).

-BA


For decades, many prophets’ words have been lost in the winds of exuberant growth of human presence in this biosphere; the thin layer between the earth’s surface and space on which all life depends. But now, the reality of the finite energy and material resources available to the biosphere as a limiting factor for life may finally be creeping into the public consciousness.

There is growing awareness that increasing energy costs, associated with demands that exceed supplies, can have profound effects on economic systems and human behavior in the near future. This awareness is accompanied by increasing concern for rapidly advancing impacts of climate change associated with exponential increases in rates of fossil fuel combustion. Our collective global human demands for power, food, and consumer products, many of which are quickly used and discarded as waste, are forcing these problems.

Losing weight - more food for others

We in the United States have achieved the status of the world’s most conspicuous consumers. This leads to all kinds of calculations of our largess. For example; one recent study reports that if all Americans were to lose enough body weight to reach their ideal condition, not only would there be more food for others in need and a healthier population, but annual consumption of gasoline for vehicular transportation in the U.S. would be cut by one billion gallons! It seems that there are many good reasons for traveling lighter as we move forward into the future.

We live in a material growth worshipping society, yet we know that we do not seem to be thereby growing peace, justice, and environmental quality – no matter how much we genuinely wish to do so. Lately, the stock markets and other investment venues have been bullish. How can that be if we have growing concerns for the future? The answer lays in the fact that market investments are made with expectations of gain on a very short term basis. It seems like our whole strategy has been to gamble on a giant pyramid scheme. As long as we keep going on with the perpetual growth model, those with money to invest can hope for an even wealthier personal future as they work to increase the size of the pyramid (or, at least their personal piece of it). Most decisions are made without a fundamental concern for others, in part because of the belief that growth provides opportunities for all. And, prosperity also is thought to breed charity. Yet, increasingly, abundance in developed countries depends on imported energy and natural resources from less developed countries whose people and ecosystems do not seem to benefit from the trade. And charity often does little more than comfort the wealthy.

How did we evolve to this way of living? Evolution – what a beautiful word (at least to scientists); the fundamental mechanism behind the development of biological diversity and complexity of life forms. Evolution also involves the extinction of many species; sometimes through rare catastrophic events and other times thorough pathways blindly followed to species obsolescence. Among the youngest of species, homo sapiens, is uniquely capable of informed choice and contemplating the future. There was a time when humans worshipped many Gods who were responsible for all change and so the future was beyond prediction.

Seven years of plenty, seven years of famine

But in Genesis (41, v 14-57), Joseph, son of Jacob whom God named Israel, was brought from a dungeon by Pharaoh who wanted his dreams interpreted. Joseph told Pharaoh: “The dream of Pharaoh is one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but then seven years of famine will consume the land.” Pharaoh gave great authority to Joseph who led a program to store up all the food during the time of great abundance so there was enough bread in the land of Egypt during the seven years of famine to share with people from other lands.

Today most of us collectively choose through our societal behavior to be the instruments of change – rapid change. In this manner some claim to be acting in accordance with God’s plan. Our society follows a belief that the biosphere can be managed and manipulated for maximum profit. But what are just profits and who will share them?

Armed with conviction that we know enough and have unlimited energy and resources, we move forward following the path of least resistance. Rather than acting in accordance with a divine plan for creation, it seems like we really have just chosen to live two lives; one outside of our religion and the other within our religion during the often little time we put aside for our faith.

To maintain such a bipolar existence it seems that our actions must be controlled by our frame of reference. Like choosing reading glasses to focus on that which is close, we choose to relate to what we see in our own present experience and context. So it is difficult much of the time to base values on needs of future generations or costs of accumulating externalities like environmental degradation.

Too often we see things in black and white; as comfortable or uncomfortable; right wing or left wing; evil or good. On this basis, we choose sides and pick our favorite issues, often with a personal more than an ecological and truly spiritual perspective. The net outcome is a chaotic sum of actions based on our individual, rather than community, perspectives. So, like riding a rocket accelerating into space with an uncertain fuel supply, we really haven’t figured out where we’re going together and whether we’ll ever reach a sustainable condition for life.

Peak Wood

In biblical times fossil fuels were unknown. People could not know of the changes and events to come many centuries later. It is interesting that the eastern Mediterranean region suffered severe deforestation during the Bronze Age because the demand for wood fuel exceeded the available wood supply. This is referred to as the “Peak Wood” crisis today by those who draw analogy to today’s “Peak Oil” concerns. Of course “Peak Wood” was a regional problem whereas “Peak Oil” is a global concern. The Bronze Age culture collapsed because the wood supply was depleted. Eventually the Iron Age (circa 1300BC) led up to the time of the Roman Empire.

Was Christ aware of the profound ecological changes that had occurred in the region as a result of human activity centuries before? Regardless, we can wonder how he would have responded to a vision of our future exploitation of fossil fuels for momentary luxuries for a relative few, while ignoring the Common Good, and degrading ecosystems.

Certainly, Jesus in both word and act taught the need for sharing and conserving limited resources. Consider today’s scripture reading from John (John 6: 1-13) in which five loaves of bread provided by a boy are shared among 5000. And when they had eaten their fill, Jesus told his disciples “Gather up the fragments left over that nothing may be lost”. And what they saved filled twelve baskets.

Today, as world grain stocks are decreasing to levels of concern, too few of us ponder the costs and benefits of shifting grains from food to biofuel production to make up for declining oil reserves. Our desire for easy solutions can lead us to unproductive outcomes. Biofuels like ethanol may ultimately provide some degree of truly sustainable energy but realistically can not allow continuation of the present rates of transportation fuel use. And, contrary to what many believe, combustion of biofuels will not help significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we intend to continue our present wasteful and escalating use of energy. The increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are largely determined by the rate at which the gas is delivered to the atmosphere from all sources, including burning of fuels derived from plants and deforestation. Beware of strategies that assert business as usual on the basis of a cornucopian view that assumes that technological fixes are certain to be found.

Rather than looking at energy depletion, climate change, and ecological damage as things we need to fix by just expending more energy and using more non-renewable resources, we need to confront the real problem which is how to change our behavior when we realize that such is required. True conservation of resources should be the defining virtue of a sustainable society.

Those who are convinced that we have a looming global crisis are torn between alternative approaches to addressing this problem. All are united in concern but differ in views of what human responses are possible. Many have observed that the space between denial and hopelessness seems terribly small for most people faced with the reality of finite energy and material resources coupled with climate and ecological vulnerabilities. Acceptance of responsibility for our individual, but incrementally significant contributions to a biosphere out of balance can lead to positive changes in our personal behavior. The hopelessness seems to flow from an insular lack of trust that others will do the same and that such will be sufficient.

“Powerdown” and “Building Lifeboats”

Richard Heinberg in his book “Powerdown” listed four options for personal and societal responses to declining energy resources. “Last One Standing” and “Waiting for the Magic Elixer” are pretty much the responses that the world is likely to follow in the absence of a renaissance. “Powerdown” is the path of cooperation, conservation, and sharing, and “Building Lifeboats” is the path of community solidarity and preservation of knowledge and cultural values. A combination of “Powerdown” and “Building Lifeboats” at local, regional, national, and global levels is most desirable but requires extraordinary actions and commitments ten to twenty years in advance of resource declines or irreversible turning points in climate change. Many believe that we are already well within that needed time period for positive response and preparation and therefore we are already in a crisis mode. It seems that religious communities should be more helpful in supporting positive transitions in collective human behavior.

Mark 14: v22 relates: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” This symbolic act is repeated in communion services which remind us that we are all a part of the body of Christ; that is, part of the greater Church. All must participate and contribute harmoniously in order to give the body life and purpose. So this is about what we do together to worship; to promote truth and unity; to use our God-given spiritual and material gifts to care for creation; and to love one another like all our lives depend upon it.

Carbon atoms from the past

The Gospel of John (John 20, v19-22) relates that Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room in which he appeared after the crucifixion. He told them that he was sending them out as his father had sent him. Jesus inspired the disciples by breathing his own breath into them and thus set into motion one of the most powerful potential forces for good the human spirit has ever known. Remarkably, much of Christ’s breath is still in active circulation and it is probable that every breath of air we inhale today contains gas molecules that Jesus exhaled. Not only that, the food we eat contains carbon atoms from Christ, recently extracted as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by plants in our food chain. Let us not forget that carbon is the element of life. In this way, our daily bread does contain the body of Christ which ultimately allows us to live and exhale breaths of Christ. What a finite world we live in that we are interconnected so intimately with great voices of the past and can pass them on. Yet our huge fossil fuel based carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere take on new symbolic meaning in the course of diluting the breaths of Christ in the air we breathe and the body of Christ in all living things.

Personal steps to conserve resources and communicate concerns are very worthwhile actions; essential for growth of public awareness and building confidence that community based actions can succeed. Ultimately, collective societal acceptance and participation is required. We can choose to follow the body and breaths of Christ (and all other great faith teachers) to join one another in harmonizing and amplifying our personal efforts to reach this goal.

Let there be rejoicing and joy every time we take a step forward on this path down from the peak. May the Church not be just a place for personal coping, but rather, a light for all together to find the way to a new world of peace, justice, love, and ecological stability. O God, help us to find ways to be stronger together than we can be as individuals.

Body of Christ/breaths of Christ: the future of all life depends on what we collectively do, with all that we have been given, to care for creation.

This is the greatest challenge.


John 6:1-13
( New International Version)

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Feast was near.

5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

7 Philip answered him, "Eight months' wages[a] would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!"

8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up, 9 "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?"

10 Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted." 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

Editorial Notes: The author, Dr. Cook, is a senior research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (article). I especially liked Dr. Cook's mention of "Peak Wood" and deforestation in the Ancient World - the similarities between our times and the past. Dr. Cook mentions the story of Joseph, and the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Biologist David Ehrenfeld expanded on this theme in Orion: The Joseph Strategy. Dr. Cook writes:
As leader of the Work Group on Energy and Climate under the United Church of Christ Environment and Energy Task Force, I am concerned with the harmonious integration of science and religion to solve the great fossil fuel depletion and entropy problems before us all. I hope that more examples of positive contributions from religious groups will be coming.
(Added sub-heads to the text to improve online readability.) -BA

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