Death of the seas

The WaPo ran a good review this Sunday of two books on the slow-motion environmental catastrophe taking place in the earth’s oceans.

Against threat inflation

Stephen Walt and Matthew Yglesias both have smart posts on looking at climate change through a national security lens. Possibly one of the worst outcomes of our failure to address climate change (and other attendant issues like peak oil) would be to lock ourselves into a zero-sum, conflict-based position with the rest of the world. This is truly a kind of dystopian scenario, with rich and powerful nations crushing poor ones under their collective boot in order to maintain a stranglehold on scarce resources, treating refugees as threats rather than as human beings in need, and insulating ourselves in our own relative prosperity against the misery of the rest of the world.

I mean, more than we already do.

Global warming, food shortages, and … civilizational collapse?

I got to hear a talk the other day by Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute. He talked, among other things, about the relationship between global warming, food scarcity, and the geo-political instability that could result. Scary stuff. This article provides a summary of his ideas.

“Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts”

Joseph Romm on our global economic Ponzi scheme. Sobering stuff.

Pre-Christmas odds and ends

The ATR household is off to visit family for the better part of the next week, so blogging will be light–well, even lighter than usual.

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been reading ’round the Web lately:

Christopher has several posts on l’affaire Rick Warren that are, as usual, very much worth your time. (See here, here, and here.)

Congrats to John Schwenkler, whose blog Upturned Earth has been absorbed into the ever-expanding conservative media empire that is Culture 11.

Lynn reflects on the movie Milk and how different the atmosphere for gay rights in California has changed since the 70’s (n.b.: a couple of f-bombs).

I thought this article on St. Joseph at Slate was neat.

Jennifer reminds us that it’s T-minus one month till the Lost season premiere! (And don’t forget Battlestar Galactica on January 18th!)

Alan Jacobs and Noah Millman discuss intereligious dialogue at the American Scene. This is something I haven’t given as much thought to as I’d like. (See here, here, and here.)

Tom Engelhardt writes on publishing and reading during a downturn. Also see this: “The Tyranny of the ‘To-Read’ Pile”

George Monbiot on peak oil.

This is interesting: Meat Consumption and CO2 Emissions

Not surprisingly, beef has the highest CO2 emissions per pound, but surprisingly high also are cheese and shrimp. I wonder if transportation was included in the figuring.

This talk
from the E.F. Schumahcer Institute was delivered in May, but it still seems entirely relevant to our current predicament.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring you Christmas wishes from Ronnie James Dio (along with the rest of the Dio-era Black Sabbath line-up).

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

 Conrad von Soest, Nativity (1404)
Conrad von Soest, Nativity (1404)

The oil crash: a very inconvenient truth

I just finished watching this extremely well-done documentary (if you subscribe to Netflix you can stream it from their site as I did). If anything, it was more terrifying than An Inconvenient Truth. I think that’s because the consequences–drastic economic dislocation, a series of resource wars, etc.–are more immediate and viscerally disturbing. (Obviously the two problems are closely related.)

The usual response to this–that the magic market-god will provide–seems to completely ignore the fact that no source of energy that could actually fill the role currently played by oil and other fossil fuels is even on the horizon of large-scale viability. Demand won’t simply produce a new source of energy out of thin air, and there’s every reason to think that our fossil fuel binge is a one time affair.

Not exactly an uplifting film, but recommended.

Less Friedman, more Schumacher

Patrick Deneen calls for an economic re-thinking on the Right.

It remains to be seen, I think, whether the Right or the Left will be the first to seriously re-examine the assumptions underlying an unlimited growth/unlimited consumption economy.

The Left has a long history of attending to social justice issues and questions of equality, but, at least in the US, this has usually gone hand-in-hand with a commitment to an ever-expanding economy (partly to underwrite its social welfare programs, partly to expand the benefits of economic growth to those left out).

Personally, I think we’re going to need the Right’s sense of limits and trade-offs and the Left’s passion for social justice and equality in order to craft a social and economic order that is capable of weathering the end of the cheap energy era.

Unfortunately, the Right is currently in a state of disarray with most of its hardcore supporters looking to double down on the true Reaganite faith, with an extra dose of culture war vehemence (Palin 2012!).

Meanwhile, there are signs that the Obama administration is going to end up being staffed by many of the old Clintonite, “third way,” neo-liberal hands who, to put it mildly, don’t seem like the best candidates for re-evaluating the fundamental basis of our economy.

The trouble with food

Speaking of hippies, here’s a review of some recent books critiquing our industrial food system, including Paul Roberts’ disturbingly titled “The End of Food” (he also authored the equally cheery “The End of Oil”) and Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” (which I heartily recommend).

John Gray contra humanism

Over the weekend I started reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Gray, a British political philosopher, has gone from being a free-market Thatcherite to a critic of global capitalism to a proponent of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. If there is a connecting thread here it’s Gray’s resolute opposition to utopianism of every kind, whether it’s communism and socialism, “global democratic capitalism,” or humanisitic progressivism. (In his latest book, Black Mass, he takes on neoconservatism.)

Straw Dogs is somewhat loosely organized around the theme of human uniqueness. While Gray dismisses Christianity without devoting much argument to it, he reserves the majority of his scorn for post-Christian humanism. It’s cardinal error, he says, is that it wants to maintain an ideology of human uniqueness and progress which is completely undercut by the naturalistic and Darwinian foundations of secular thought. Humanists think that scientific progress will translate into progress in the moral and social spheres, but Gray demurs: “For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” (p. 4).

The problem as Gray sees it is that humanists aren’t naturalistic enough. They still maintain a view of human nature that is essentially Platonic and Christian: that we are defined by our possession of reason and free will and that these qualities allow us to take charge of our destiny as a species.

Some of the more extreme versions of this hope envision us “transcending” our humanity, either by means of bio-engineering or artificial intelligence. However, Gray points out, whatever post-human forms of life we may engineer will inherit the “crooked timber” of their creators, since technology is deployed by frail humans. C. S. Lewis made the same point in The Abolition of Man when he said that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means … the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

On naturalistic, post-Darwinian premises, Gray contends, the idea of “the species” transcending its own limitations is abusrd. Moreover, technology is not deployed by disinterested philosopher-kings, but by a confused melange of human interests, some sordid and some noble. It’s just as likely to be used for destructive ends as for beneficial ones.

Humanism, in other words, is still trying to live off the moral and metaphysical capital of Christendom. A thorough-going integration of the teachings of biology with our world view would lead us to see ourselves not as standing over nature, but as part of it. And an increasingly destructive part of it at that. Gray thinks it just as likely that humanity will face a major die-off as Gaia reasserts herself as that humanity will somehow “master” its environment:

Darwin’s theory shows the truth of naturalism: we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same. Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth. (p. 31)

The teachings of modern science – from Darwinian evolution to neuroscience – tend to show that human beings are actually far less free and less rational than we – influenced by our Christian heritage – would like to think. The only “salvation” possible, Gray thinks, is to recognize our status as one animal among many, as part of the natural world. Though Gray thinks that perhaps some of the illusions we have about ourselves are ineradicable.

Though humanism is Gray’s main target, I think it’s worth thinking about what a proper Christian response would be to a view like his. He seems to think that Christian belief is necessarily fading for “modern” people, but I obviously think he dismisses it far too easily. Still, I think that Christian theology, even where it accepts the general outlines of the Darwinian picture, hasn’t yet fully absorbed it. For instance, can theology continue to maintain the sharp distinction between humanity and other creatures? What does theology do with the virtual certainty of the human race’s eventual extinction? How does it address the picture of human beings suggested by some science as far more conditioned by both biology and environment than many traditional theological anthropologies would have it?

We’re doomed, the continuing series

Two items from yesterday’s WaPo:

Are we witnessing a massive slow-motion extinction of species? And what does that mean for our future and our children’s future?

Cheap accessible cars for the people of India: commendable free-market egalitarianism or death sentence for the planet?