An Environmental Excursus (Good of Affluence #5)

Schneider’s second chapter, on the book of Genesis, naturally contains some interesting discussion of environmental issues.  Of course, I say “naturally,” but I was in fact pleasantly surprised, so accustomed am I to conservative doctrines of creation that simply dismiss the notion that we need to be environmentally concerned (perhaps this perception is a bit unfair, but it does feel that way at times).  Schneider’s discussion will not satisfy anyone who is convinced that our current lifestyle is simply unsustainable and is destroying creation, but he does at least face up to the issue.  Although he defends a robust theology of “dominion,” instead of pretending that the word doesn’t mean that, he is clear that our dominion is to image God’s dominion, and he has these fine words about how God rules his creation: “the God of power in Genesis is also a servant of his creatures. He rules. But he also serves with great passion and compassion. His rule empowers and magnifies his subjects. It does not oppress or diminish them. The spirit that moved Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet did not originate there and then. It goes all the way back to the first moments of creation.”  So we must rule creation for its good: “Whatever human dominion is in Genesis, then, it ennobles us for the purpose of ennobling everything else.”

The modern West, he acknowledges, does have a nasty track record of exploiting and raping the land, in ways that traditional, non-Christian cultures clearly do not–but he doesn’t think this can be blamed on Christianity, which rightly understood is against such things.  It must be rooted, he says, “in the metaphysics of some other, utilitarian sort of worldview.”  One would wish for a more thorough explanation and genealogy of our environment dysfunctionality, but understandably, Schneider considers this beyond his present scope.  He does acknowledge that the affirmation of capitalism might seem inherently in conflict with environmental concern.  So how is this to be resolved? he asks.  


He spends a couple pages on the Christian green solution that envisions “the existence of a kind of capitalism that is entirely different from what we have now.”  Unfortunately, throughout the brief discussion, he barely disguises his contempt for what he considers their “utopian fantasy.”  They contest, he says, “the modern economic dogma that societies must consume at high rates in order for economies to sustain growth and create wealth. One might have thought that this was among the safest assumptions anyone could make about the economic essentials of successful capitalism–for (as noted in the first chapter) it is the emergence of the consumer economy that has unleashed the wealth-creating powers of capitalism since the 1950s. There has never been a non-consumer form of capitalism that has managed to work.”  This is a rather hasty pronouncement, given that I’m not sure that a non-consumer form of capitalism has been tried before, so one can hardly accuse it of failure, and that Schneider has never really defined what he means by capitalism or consumer capitalism.  Of course, there is a question of fundamental presuppositions here.  If one supposes on theological and ethical grounds that a consumerist lifestyle is dangerous and ungodly (as I am tempted to think), then it will follow that there must be a workable way to live and prosper without consumerism, since God would not require of us a lifestyle doomed to failure.  

Schneider goes on to summarize what two representative Christian green thinkers, Walden and Cougar, call for: “a world in which energy sources are renewable, farming is all organic, recycling is the norm, manufacturers produce mainly durable products, the economy is decentralized to scale, and society adopts non-material definitions of success” (to which Schneider snarkily adds “this may be a good thing, because I think in this set-up there won’t be much of any”).  “In addition they pile on high tax rates for ‘resource depletion’ and tax reforms ‘to aid the restructuring process.’  We will also have to have ‘shorter work hours’ for ‘community purposes,’ a scientific understanding that society ‘cannot continue on its present course,’ and a social ethic that finds fulfillment in ‘living together’ rather than in separate units.”

Now, all of this, when you break it down, is not that ridiculous.  As a platform to try to vote into office tomorrow, it may be ridiculous, but as a long-term vision for where society needs to get, almost every one of these sounds prudent and desirable, and therefore, since I’m a postmillenialist, ultimately realistic.  Schneider simply dismisses it out of hand, however.  “Redesigning entire societies is fairly difficult under the best of circumstances. The likelihood of completely redesigning our own (as well as implementing the “new order” elsewhere in the world) is practically zero. Why would anyone seriously believe that anything like this could happen in the real world? I do not know. I only know I find this sort of thinking unrealistic, and, in its Christian form, messianic.”  

 

And I find this sort of thinking ironic, given that Schneider has presented to us in the first chapter just such a messianic vision of society being redesigned entirely–the birth of capitalism.  Remember that Schneider considers capitalism to be a very recent development, and one that took a conscious effort to implement, not as something that was simply inherent in the structure of human society that grew very slowly to fruition.  This being so, why should we consider an equally revolutionary shift away from current forms of capitalism inconceivable.  In this, as in so much else in his book, Schneider shows himself to be almost entirely void of imagination, unable to conceive of any way of enjoying and successfully using the world except by virtue of the latest technological toys and tools.  

And so his solution to environmental problems, given in a single sentence, “lies in the advance of both wealth creation and high technology.”  Now, it’s not clear exactly what he envisions, but the gist of it is that we can continue our current lifestyle of mass consumption, but control the harmful effects by means of smart technology–you know, cleaner energy, safer chemicals, etc.  This is essentially the American approach to health–it doesn’t matter how many harmful things you put in your body, since we’re getting better and better at the technology to keep you alive anyway.  While of course better technology may help us ameliorate environmental harm, it’s hard for me to see that we will succeed in the long-run if we refuse to address the underlying trajectory.  If part of our problem up till now has been the effects of technological addiction, then is recommending more technology as the solution really likely to fix our problem in the long-run, or will it simply perpetuate our arrogant posture to the natural world, too confident in the cleverness of our inventions to pay genuine respect to creation?  


26 thoughts on “An Environmental Excursus (Good of Affluence #5)

  1. It is very difficult to get away from the unpopular thesis that there are limits to growth, that is, physical (or better, ecological) limits to the ability of the material economy to use (that is, use up) more resources at an ever increasing rate. From here, one can (a) deny those limits and live in a fantasy, which is our current path and which is rapidly becoming a nightmare; (b) claim that the limits of material economy need not be limits on the total economy (though how you could have a growing non-material economy with a steady-state material economy is a very interesting question); (c) actively embrace de-growth (and the various "messianic" options listed above, which actually wasn't a bad summary of where we need to go, in my opinion).The fact that consumerism is ripe for Christian critique from all kinds of other angles just makes the required shift away from consumerism all the more compelling. Less is actually more.

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  2. Bradley

    "The modern West, he acknowledges, does have a nasty track record of exploiting and raping the land, in ways that traditional, non-Christian cultures clearly do not."That's not an assumption I'm willing to grant. It depends on what you mean by that. Yes, today's Western culture exploits the land horribly. But so did primitive cultures. I touched on this in the agricultural article I wrote recently. Our demeanour towards the land is *generally* about the same as the primitive pagan attitude…maybe even slightly better. Traditional cultures exploited their environment as well, and they had devastating effects on their landscapes. The only difference was they weren't as populous, and their technology wasn't as advanced. Generally speaking, our culture shares the same philosophy of exploitation (unfortunately).

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  3. Bradley

    Byron, I'm no fan of the consumerist lifestyle. Depending on the person involved, a consumerist lifestyle seems to involve various combinations of gluttony, envy, irresponsibility, greed, oppression, individualism, waste, and idolatry. Naturally, I join you in condemning those sins. But I don't understand the equivocation between consumerism and the growth of society. Consumerism (perhaps we should define that word?) needs to stop because it is evil. But what's wrong per se with culture growing and expanding? A society can grow in a bad way, hatefully, with greater poverty and inequality; or a society can grow in a good way, lovingly, with greater community and equality. Strangely, you seem to be attacking the notion of growth regardless, questioning its physical and/or ecological sustainability.How can you be so sure that there are foreseeable limits to growth? I'm not arguing one way or the other; I just find it surprising that you seem so sure about this. Based upon mankind's spectacular track record over the last 100 years, how can you be so sure which technologies are impossible? What if our attempts at artificial photosynthesis (of both ethanol and electricity) prove highly efficient? Free and abundant sunlight could become our energy source. What if we figure out cold fusion? What if we harness zero-point energy? What about living at the bottom of the sea and using geothermal heat? I've even read about plans to harnesses temperature gradients at different ocean depths to give a safe, non-invasive, and practically limitless source of energy! Granted, maybe none of these inventions will work out. But maybe one of them will. Or maybe all of them. Either way, how can you be so sure that we'll "use up" all the energy?Even if we're talking solely about ecological limits, I have difficulty imagining us hitting those limits anywhere near the foreseeable future. We're certainly not going to run out of food; we've barely tapped our agricultural potential. And while we're on the subject, we don't need to destroy the wilderness in order to grow and expand; in fact, I would say quite the opposite. Agriculture and wild species (i.e., the wilderness) properly understood shouldn't be opposed to each other, but should support one another. We should integrate the wilderness and wild species into our farming, blurring the lines between conservation and agriculture. But that's still a picture of a growing and expanding society, albeit one that's growing quite differently from today. And that's all assuming that humans never leave planet earth. How can you be so sure that we won't travel and colonize other planets?Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point. Please correct me if I'm wrong. You seem to be saying that we will soon "use up" God's bounty and we should therefore be “actively embracing de-growth.” I hate to throw out a buzz-word here, but that sounds a bit…ascetic. I agree there's nothing wrong with enjoying the simple things in life, and the best things in life are free, etc. But material blessings—properly and lovingly enjoyed by society—are a big part of God's postmillennial promises to us. Otherwise, are you saying that God intends for humanity to live a bare-minimum lifestyle on an overcrowded planet?

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  4. Bradley

    Bradford, I agree with you that it would be good to see "an equally revolutionary shift away from current forms of capitalism" and away from consumerism. But I pose to you much the same question as to Byron: why aren't you distinguishing between consumerism and consumption? One is an ungodly philosophy and lifestyle, the other is an inevitable part of God's creation. All of God's creatures consume things. Period. We should consume in a godly manner. Jesus wasn't a consumerist, but he was a consumer.Perhaps we're talking about two different things here. Part of the problem is that I'm not exactly sure what the definition of "consumer capitalism" is. In any case, what rubs me wrong here is the insinuation that high rates of consumption are inherently bad, or that high rates of consumption are unsustainable. It depends on what you're consuming, and on how you're consuming it.The following ideas were mentioned above: "a world in which energy sources are renewable, farming is all organic, recycling is the norm, manufacturers produce mainly durable products." (1.) Why must all energy sources be renewable? What's wrong about traditional Scottish Highlanders using peat as fuel and fertilizer? What's wrong with mining radioactive uranium out of the earth and "burning" it for fuel? We might talk about harmful consequences and radioactive waste, but that's a different conversation altogether. The point is, I don't see how sustainability itself is a virtue. If a unique opportunity presents itself, what's wrong with that? Requiring everything to be sustainable is like a strange version of Kant's Categorical Imperative, and it makes just as little sense. (2.) Why must all farming be organic? In my opinion the goal should be for agriculture to enhance natural processes, but that doesn't necessarily mean 'organic' all the time. I'm fine with using certain chemicals, even chemicals that wouldn't pass muster with organic standards. (3.) Recycling non-hazardous waste doesn't make sense either, unless it's economical to do so. Obviously hazardous waste should be cleaned up, or preferably not produced at all. But what's wrong if somebody wants to bury glass and metal and plastic in a sealed hole in the ground? One might say it's wasteful, but if that were true then it would be economical to recycle it. Anyways, we can always dig it up later and recycle it if we want to, right? I expect in the future landfills will become valuable mining sites for various metals. (4.) Why would durable products be inherently better? If it takes more time and resources to manufacture a durable version, even when considering its longer life, then what's so great about that? Some durable objects are more wasteful than disposable objects!For what it's worth, in the future I foresee our technology and our consuming relying less on metal and more on organic compounds, if for no other reason than supply and demand (here I mean literal organic compounds, containing carbon). There's not so much metal in the world, but there's tons of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. Perhaps a carbon-based and plant-based society, instead of a metal-based one. So yes, I think we should change the way we consume, and what we consume. But what's wrong with high rates of consumption?

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  5. Bradley

    Oh, here's another illustration of points 1-2 that I made above: Chilean nitrate. This is a substance mined in South America and used in agriculture and in food preservation. It's one of the very few naturally occurring deposits of nitrogen in the earth's crusts, and a great source of iodine as well. I think it's a great fertilizing amendment. It's not allowed by organic standards (if I recall correctly), and it's also not sustainable in the slightest. But hey, why not use it while it's cheap and available?

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  6. Bradley – Yes, we are agreed that consumerism is a spiritual hazard for all kinds of reasons. As a rough definition of consumerism, I'd suggest that it relates to finding our identity in what we consume. And so I agree that it is entirely possible to be a consumer without being consumerist. However, the link between the two is not so easily broken, even once we have distinguished them.A (close) parallel: the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, though money itself is not evil. So being wealthy is not necessarily itself sinful (of course, as noted in this series, there may be all kinds of questions about the origin of that wealth and whether it involved injustice), yet there are plenty of scriptural warnings of the hazards of possessing much. The love of money is neither universal amongst the wealthy, nor confined to us who are wealthy, but it is more common and a greater danger. The author of the Proverbs 30 asks for "neither poverty nor riches", not because either are in themselves sin, but because each situation is more exposed to sin.I submit that it is similar with consumption and consumerism. The more consumption, the more likely that consumerism gets established.Moving on to the limits of growth (which I admit is a somewhat distinct issue). It is indeed possible that a breakthrough technology may transform global society in ways currently undreamed of. It is possible that multiple such breakthroughs may happen. I don't doubt the sheer inventiveness of human ingenuity and creativity, nor am I ignorant of the massive changes that the last decades have brought to human society, making today's world unimaginable to even our grandparents.We're certainly not going to run out of food; we've barely tapped our agricultural potential. What is your basis for saying this? Is it the expansion of the green revolution to Africa, the huge amounts of waste in the current system, the fact that free trade remains largely untried in a global food system awash with subsidies? I agree that all these mean that we can still achieve a substantial increase in total food production (or in the case of waste, useful food production).But the problems are immense: the green revolution in the developed world seems to have reached a plateau, soil degradation (salination, desertification, erosion) is all happening faster than ever before and involves vast tracks of land (by 1991 a third of global arable land was significantly degraded); fresh water is under great pressure, with very significant projected shortfalls within decades and critical aquifers being depleted much faster than they are replenished in a number of areas; we face peak phosphorus, a key ingredient in fertilisers; the limits on fossil fuels also present serious issues for nitrogen-based fertiliser production (each calorie of food in the developed world consumes ten calories of fossil energy to produce); invasive species cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year annually and are getting worse; critical biodiversity decline threatens the stability and productivity of a wide variety of ecosystems; fisheries are increasingly hitting their limits and there are very serious concerns that more may well collapse within decades; coral reefs (which are the rainforests of the oceans) are unlikely to last the century due to ocean acidification and bleaching; and I haven't even mentioned the largest threat to agricultural productivity: climate change, which could see suppression of key crop yields by more than 25% and the shifting of region of ideal climate for various crops into areas of worse soil quality (as well as acting as a multiplier on many of the other problems already mentioned).(I'm happy to provide references for all these claims, but for the sake of my own sanity and time, won't do so unless you ask.)And then there are the challenges within the geopolitical system of equitable food distribution. We may be growing more food than ever before, and enough to feed everyone, but prices during 2011 have been at their highest since reliable global records began to be kept, leading to food riots, helping to spark the Arab Spring and pushing tens of millions back into poverty. At the same time, we have unprecedented land grabs by China, ME oil states and European nations in Africa, locking local citizens out from water rights, we have rapidly growing biofuel production in direct competition with human consumption (based on perverse policies) and we have a growing fraction of the world eating an increasingly meat and dairy intensive diet (which significantly increases demand, since meat/dairy require more resources to produce).Very serious observers, policy makers and commentators are very seriously worried about the ability of the global food system to meet the projected doubling of demand by 2050.Yes, we might get astounding breakthroughs, but there is always a lag between discovery and widespread implementation, which in many fields is measured in decades. We might not have decades before food security increasingly becomes a critical issue of political stability in more and more states, especially those already threatened by other factors. The potential for (escalating) conflict over water is very high in many places, not just in Africa (where it is already happening: see Sudan and tribal conflict in the horn of Africa) and the Middle East (where is is already happening: see tensions over the Nile, the Jordan, the Euphrates and Tigris) but also increasingly in Asia: India and Pakistan (where the Kashmir conflict is already about water) and even India and China (all the great rivers of India begin in the Himilayas, whose glaciers are declining, and the Chinese have plans for more major hydro projects).The twentieth century was not simply a story of astounding progress in human population and affluence (which it was), but it was unique in the pace and scale of ecological degradation. Deforestation, soil degradation, wetland loss, sea-floor disruption through bottom trawling, hydrological disruption (through dams and diversions), biodiversity loss, invasive alien species, ocean acidification, fisheries decline, phytoplankton decline (40% since 1950), persistent toxic polliution, alteration of the nitrogen cycle (leading to eutrophification), stratospheric ozone depletion (which is the only one of these issues to have been successfully addressed, though will still take another five decades or more to recover from substances that didn't exist prior to the 1930s), antibiotic resistant microbes, climate change: all these are off the chart for scale and rate of change in the twentieth century and most are accelerating. It is possible that breakthrough technologies may address one or two in miraculous ways. We need a whole string of miracles, and quickly, since most of these issues, if not already causing significant detrimental social effects, will reach critical junctures by 2050 at the latest.I haven't even got on to resource depletion or energy security, let alone the systemic problems in the global financial system that render it susceptible to further shocks.In a world facing a very bumpy outlook, what does godly consumption look like? The joyful embracing of simplicity is not only an antidote to rampart consumerism, but is also a straightforward expression of love of neighbour.

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  7. Let me sum it up with a single quote, on a single issue. If the nations of the world all honour their commitments to reducing carbon emissions by the amounts they have committed to under the Copenhagen accord, then we are on track to a world that by 2100 is likely to be four degrees warmer than pre-industrial times. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chair of the German Scientific Advisory Council, advisor to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in March 2009, said that on a four degree world the planet’s “carrying capacity estimates [are] below one billion people.”If there is even a decent change (say even 10%) that he is right (or even a 10% that he is four times as pessimistic as he needs to be and the carrying capacity turns out to be more like four billion), then what does godly Christian consumption in a world that is heading towards ten billion people look like?

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  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Ah, excellent! *rubs hands together excitedly* I look forward to a real conversation between my ecologically-minded but super-optimistic friend Bradley and my ecologically-minded but super-pessimistic (even if he is right that he is optimistic compared to most in his field) friend Byron. I will warn you, Byron, that Bradley may be a little slow in getting back to you since he welcomed his firstborn into the world this week (thereby adding, unfortunately, greater human population pressure on the world).Let me just reply, then, to Bradley's questions that were aimed at me. First, regarding consumerism and consumption, I would basically echo Byron's answer. Consuming is fine, and for many humans, more consuming is good. I would tend to say that, even aside from environmental and equality concerns, *more* consumption for most modern Western citizens is not really a good thing. I think that many of us have passed the point where increasing consumption leads to increased quality of life and what Schneider calls "delight." We buy not merely more things than we need, but in many cases more things than we can even find tie to meaningfully use. We are forced to throw away unwanted or obsolete stuff at a ridiculous rate, as changing fashions and technologies tempt us to buy a new version of a product on an annual basis. Obviously, this is problematic from an environmental standpoint, but even if earth's resources and landfills were infinite, this sort of behaviour seems to foster an attitude of contempt for God's gifts, rather than real delight in them. (Just as the person who breezes through half a dozen books of pulp fiction a month has less real respect for the gift of literature than the person who slowly savours a Jane Austen novel and reads it again and again, or the guy who indulges in a string of one-night stands is less, not more acquainted with the gift of sex than a faithful husband is.) This would be part of the reason for my favouring of durable goods over rapidly discarded ones, which you also asked about. But in any case, I think that past the superfluity point, consumption is very easily tied up with consumerism–an unhealthy obsession with material goods and finding our identity in them. It is Schneider's inability to see that very close connection between these two–the ease with which we slide over from "delight" to idolatry, that concerns me. He waves his hand vaguely at such concerns saying, "Of course, we need to make sure we have a godly attitude toward our material things" but never really gives such concerns much weight, or asks whether our modern American lifestyle equals such a godly attitude.As far as the things that the Christian greens were recommending and Schneider was pooh-poohing–of course I don't mean to endorse their posture wholeheartedly; I agree it's oversimplistic. My point was simply that I am broadly sympathetic to it and it should be engaged rather than merely dismissed.So (1) Of course not every particular energy resource needs to be renewable, but our energy sources on the whole need to be. For instance, if 60% of our energy came from renewable sources, then we might be able to get by indefinitely on a string of non-renewable sources (assuming that they are not wholly non-renewable; oil reserves do slowly regenerate). No doubt Byron knows the specific statistics here better than I, but you get the point. 2) Again, I would agree with you. "Organic" is a somewhat arbitrary and unwieldy standard, and I would rather go with something more like what you offered in your article–working with the grain of nature, not against it, but being somewhat flexible. But I think that that would mean "organic" methods in the majority of cases.3) Obviously, if it consumers more raw materials in order to recycle a raw material, recycling would be counter-productive. But if it's simply uneconomical in the sense that it's too labor-intensive, then we may still need to bite the bullet and accept higher costs. Landfills are increasing at an alarming rate in many Western societies, and the dystopia of the movie WALL-E, while obviously exaggerated, is something that we would do well to keep in mind and work to avert. 4) Again, if it in the end uses more physical resources to create a product that lasts ten years than it would take to create ten products that last one year, then that wouldn't make much sense. But that's not why companies make transient products. It's because generally they can make a lot more money by selling a cheap product ten times than a more expensive, well-made product once. Even in cases where a durable quality good cannot be justified in strictly economic terms, there are good social and aesthetic reasons why such goods might be a good idea. If you want a really profound discussion of the vicious nature of the modern conversion of everything into consumables, read Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition.

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  9. Bradley – Praise God for the wonderful gift of new life! May it be accompanied as much as possible by the delightful gift of sleep. No pressure at all to respond.I second Brad's recommendation of Arendt (which I've recently had cause to look at again), agree with his "even if" argument and also pretty much agree with his points 1-4. As he suspects, I'd want to see a higher percentage of power coming from renewable sources (putting nuclear in a special case bracket for further discussion). Oil may be technically renewable, but the timeframe we're talking for natural processes is millions of years. Oil is also incredibly useful for a huge array of items. Someone has said that it is crazy to burn the stuff when it can do so many other wonderful things. We do seem to have enough coal for a very long time if it were to reduce to a small percentage of our total use.Yet the critical thing is economic growth. If current rates (i.e. the growth rates of the post WWII era) are treated as normal, then even 90% renewables won't be enough to avoid dangerous levels of fossil fuel use for long as the total energy use will keep doubling and doubling. If we assume (or aim for) the global GDP growth rate between 2000-2050 to be roughly equal to that between 1950-2000, and assume that current rates of decoupling (decline in energy intensity per GDP) are maintained, then even achieving 60% renewables (with present levels of nuclear) by 2050 would still mean a growth in total fossil fuel use (I've done back of envelope calculations here and might have missed something, but think I'm in the right ballpark).Brad – I think that demographic considerations are a question for policy-makers and for couples prior to conception. Afterwards, there is simply thanks for a good gift of God (and urgent cries for wisdom, in my experience).

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  10. BTW, my gut impression (based on a variety of factors) is that continued steady GDP growth will simply not be possible beyond some point in the not-too-distant future. I don't expect 2000-2050 to match 1950-2000 and nor do I think we should aim for it to. While I am all for the poorest getting out of their poverty, I submit that there is no Christian reason for the rich (i.e. us) to desire to see our wealth continue doubling (nor has there been for some time).

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  11. Bradley

    Responding to Bradford first, since that's simpler:

    *more* consumption for most modern Western citizens is not really a good thing. I think that many of us have passed the point where increasing consumption leads to increased quality of life and what Schneider calls "delight."

    Ah, ok. I think your comment helps give me a better understanding of what we're talking about when we say “consumerism.” In retrospect, I believe my confusion was due to it being mostly a foreign concept for me. Personally, I couldn't care less about buying things. I don't wear trendy clothes, I don't buy trendy electronics, I only use open-source software, and I don't eat any processed food. For most of my childhood I didn't have access to video or computer games. I suppose one day I ought to get a driver's license and buy a car, but I staunchly refuse to carry a cell phone! And for what it's worth, I've never understood why people are so concerned about “keeping up appearances”. Nevertheless, I believe I could definitely find some godly delight in more affluence, and for that reason I appreciate that you allow for exceptions when you say “most” Western citizens, and “many” of us. My idea of affluence is pretty simple: a community pool or pond, a greenhouse with fresh fruit in winter, a Russian Masonry fireplace burning at 90% heat efficiency….I think a community 'trampoline room' would also be loads of fun, especially during winter, and I think it would probably only cost a few thousand dollars to build. Above all, I enjoy good food in good company. I don't crave or envy any of these things, but I wouldn't say no if somebody gave them to me. Based upon your descriptions, I guess these simple delights aren't really in the category of “consumerism”…not necessarily anyway. 🙂

    this sort of behaviour seems to foster an attitude of contempt for God's gifts, rather than real delight in them. […] This would be part of the reason for my favouring of durable goods over rapidly discarded ones, which you also asked about.

    I definitely agree. That's the main reason I think it's so important/desirable for my kids to grow up working on a farm. Being closer to nature is, in a sense, being closer to God. That sounds corny, but I do believe it's true.

    I agree it's oversimplistic. My point was simply that I am broadly sympathetic to it and it should be engaged rather than merely dismissed.

    Yeah. I was nit-picking anyway when I criticized those 4 points. And since I started, I might as well continue along in that vein :-P1. Agreed, generally. So long as renewability isn't made into a virtue itself, but is pursued rationally, I think it's a great idea.2. Agreed.3. Recycling is a complicated subject. It depends on the material recycled, the distance transported, the industrial ease with which a material is converted (e.g., if I recall correctly plastic bottles are not recycled into other plastic bottles, but instead are usually converted into dead-end plastics like polyester), and other factors. The claim that “landfills are increasing at an alarming rate” is a rather vague claim, and I'm not sure if it's true, or I guess it would depend on one's definition of 'alarming.' In any case, I think a Wall-E scenario would be pretty much impossible: hypothetically if our trash became that widespread, then recycling would become so easy and cost-efficient that everybody would do it, and recycling and landfill-mining would become the world's most profitable enterprise! If nobody else did it, then *I* would start a massive recycling empire! But ultimately the world is mostly water and green, and it's going to stay that way. Desertification is a far bigger threat than landfills, in my opinion. (To add a strange twist to the argument, landfills in the USA contain ~45% paper waste, and lots of plastic waste as well, effectively making them carbon sinks…though I don't think that matters much, personally). But I digress. When you use the phrase “labour-intensive”, I'm not exactly sure what you mean. If you mean human-labour, well then, that's barely a relevant factor as far as I know. It's not as if people can recycle with their bare hands. If by labour-intensive you mean transportation-and-machine-and-fuel intensive, well then, that uses up energy (and to a lesser degree raw materials), and isn't that part of what we were wanting to conserve anyway? Just depends on how much energy it uses, and on some of the other factors I mentioned earlier. And while we're at it, not all “raw materials” are created equal. Hypothetically if landfills weren't an issue at all (in reality they are a mild one), and if our reason for recycling was so that we avoided using up a given resource, then what about materials like glass? It's made of sand, and it's difficult to imagine ever running out of that. All of that to say, recycling is complicated, and it certainly isn't a virtue in and of itself. Far from it: recycling can distract people from far more important issues, allowing them to salve their consciences by saying, “Hey, we recycle!” 4. Agreed. Generally 🙂

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  12. Brad Littlejohn

    In response to 3, I will simply say, "Fair enough." I do not really know the statistics, so I don't know how fast landfills are increasing, how dangerous they are to their surrounding environments, etc. I seem to recall hearing some depressing statistics once upon a time, but I'm sure if anyone knows them, it's Byron, so hopefully he'll chime in. In any case, you can be sure that this is far less an issue in the US than in Europe, given the vast amount of space we have to work with. But sure, recycling does easily become a conscience-salve that distracts people from more pressing issues.

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  13. Brad Littlejohn

    And yes, Brad, you are right that you are simply out of touch when it comes to understanding consumerism. You are a very odd specimen. Although I too have always been cynical toward and uninterested in many of the trappings of modern consumer society, and can always console myself that I don't buy the latest trendy electronic device until it's ceased to be trendy, such things definitely can be a temptation for me–especially if they have a little apple logo on them. But even with things like good food and travel (which I do like to spend money on), I wonder where we reach the point where we're spending too much on ourselves, even when it's not on the typical idols of consumerism….

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  14. Bradley

    Bradford, regarding recycling: don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, and I'm not saying I'm a fan of landfills. Sure, landfills don't take up that much space—at current rates, all the garbage in the USA for the next 1000 years could fit into a landfill 100 yards deep and 35 miles by 35 miles. Even if we're talking solely from a perspective of efficiency, I have to recognize that what's more relevant is the location of the landfills. We're not running out of space, not by a long shot, but I would guess we are running out of space near big cities. Transporting garbage is a hassle. The more expensive landfills become, the more sense recycling makes. I expect in the near future recycling will become far more prevalent, especially when oil prices stick above ~$120/bbl (as a random guess). And that's just the perspective of efficiency, ignoring entirely the presence of hazardous waste in landfills, which oughtn't be put there anyway, or rather, which really oughtn't be produced in the first place.Which is just to say, yeah, fair enough. 🙂 Recycling is good, but let's not make it out to be more than it is.

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  15. Bradley

    Byron, thanks for your thoughts regarding consumerism. I can only agree with you. And thank you for your well-wishes regarding my child, Charles. I love him.I apologize it's taken me so long to respond here. Partly that's due being unusually busy this last week (ahem), but partly also because I've been realizing there's so much to respond to. We disagree on many points Byron, to put it mildly. In an attempt to respond to your comments here I've literally written thousands of words so far, all collected in an OpenOffice document on my desktop. And I don't normally write thousands of words. I'm beginning to see, there's just too much. We have radically different opinions here. You seem to believe the world's population should be reduced; I would be pleased to see it increase. You make certain (very conventional) assumptions about farming; I challenge those assumptions on nearly every level. You seem to think that fossil fuels are best left untouched; I think there is great benefit in touching them (though some miners do so greedily, to the detriment of the surrounding landscape). Etc.I believe much of this discussion relates to global warming. You seem to fear it. I do not. Most overarchingly, Bradford has mentioned to me that you are an Evolutionist. Is this true? Please correct me if I'm wrong; I don't want to call you any names. Of course, if you are an Evolutionist then I guess you wouldn't consider it to be a “name” 😛 Before we can discuss any other sort of climatic theory, or implications of climatic theory, I believe it's vital that we begin on the same page regarding creation…most particularly Noah's flood. If we can't even agree on the biggest climatic event in history—if we can't even agree on where the climate *comes from*—then how can we possibly begin to discuss today's climate?Given the importance of the subject and how integral it is to everything above, I would love to debate Creation vs. Evolution with you, Byron. I would relish either a formal or informal debate, though I think I'd prefer a formal written debate with rules (word limits, etc.). What do you think? I'm making this up as I go along…so please bear with me…Perhaps we could do it on Bradford's blog? Or perhaps just in the comments here? In my opinion, it would be good to debate both the Biblical side of it and the Scientific side of it. The structure I would suggest would be to separate the Biblical evidence and the Scientific evidence into two halves of the debate, so that we can concentrate our full attention on one at a time without getting distracted. What so you? Forgive me I'm assuming too much here. Just let me know what you think.

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  16. Brad Littlejohn

    *chanting* Fight! Fight!! Fight!!! Just kidding. Fights are bad. But this debate I would absolutely love to host. I would definitely love to do it here, as a "neutral court" so to speak. Not in the comments thread, though. Either on the Main Blog, or on a special debate page I set up for the purpose. But we await Byron's answer…I don't know if he has time for such an undertaking.

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  17. Bradley

    Byron, if you're busy or pressed for time, then I don't mind taking it slowly. We can easily separate out the debate into pieces and do it over whatever length of time is most convenient for both of us (Part 1: Is it really six days?, Part 2: What about the genealogies? Etc.)

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  18. Bradley – Thanks for your replies.Part of the reason for my delay was that I found myself somewhat at loss to know where to begin. I raised food security and you jump to young earth creationism!If this link is obvious and straightforward to you, then – given that I assume you are a bright and thought-out kind of guy (and so this kind of move does not represent a more-or-less non-functional appendix in your thinking) – I suspect that we have significantly deeper disagreements than the age of the earth and would need to go back and talk about epistemology, philosophy and history of science, doctrine of creation (not the event, but what it means theologically to speak of a Creator and creation), doctrine of revelation, scriptural hermeneutics, probably soteriology and almost certainly theological ethics (amongst other things) – all that before we get onto what you want to talk about (YECS), which you've proposed before getting onto the topic of this post and my comment (contemporary ecological degradation). Frankly, I have neither time nor appetite for a conversation of that scope at this stage.Instead, I will ask a single and fairly straightforward question, which can, if you wish, be the end of the conversation: what are your sources of information about climate change?

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  19. Bradley

    Hey Byron,On the one hand, I want to say, "Fair enough." I was slightly concerned myself that we might not be able to hold a decent conversation on this subject. Personally, a large part of what I believe (scientifically) has been determined by my personal experiences. When it comes to scientific theories, arguments based on 'Appeals to Authority' don't carry much weight with me. Instead, I'm much more interested in whether or not a theory can hold water on its own merits. Time and time again, I've seen "the authorities" proven wrong.Here are a few illustrations of what I'm talking about: Ophthalmologists say that nearsightedness is hereditary and permanent. However, I personally have been able to improve my vision tremendously using special relaxation exercises, confounding the local optometrist (if you want something more objective, I've helped a friend completely heal her case of keratoconus using similar methods). "Experts" say it takes 1000 years to make 1 inch of topsoil. But I've seen farmers create 18 inches in only 3 years. In fact, anybody can do it with proper ploughing and grazing management! Yet another case: Most medical doctors claim that autism is permanent and uncurable….but I know a remarkably skilled and intelligent doctor here in Cambridge who specializes in treating and curing it! She holds two different doctorates, neurology and a nutrition, and works full-time curing scores of autistic children (beginning with her own son several years ago). Etc., etc.You'll understand, then, why I'm so willing to reject conventional theories if the evidence doesn't fit them. I've been forced to do it many times. But that's the way I like it: I prefer to investigate myself and and learn as much as possible personally. Unfortunately, this sort of perspective is difficult to convey credibly on paper, especially to somebody I've never met, which is why I was a bit reluctant to suggest the debate in the first place.

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  20. Bradley

    On the other hand, a part of me wants to say, "Aww, come on…please, don't you want to debate?" I'm willing to venture that we agree in most of the areas you mentioned. We're both thoughtful Protestants, after all. I assume we have a similar epistemology (namely, coherentism). I can't imagine why we would differ on our doctrine of creation. When push comes to shove, I think we would agree on scriptural hermeneutics and doctrine of revelation. I bet we agree broadly speaking on matters of soteriology (or if we do disagree it might be only as a result of our creation/evolution differences, therefore giving us all the more reason to debate the subject….Evolution often radically changes one's doctrine of anthropology, I think, which impacts soteriology a lot). We might have some disagreements over philosophy of science—see my rant about Appeals to Authority above. Overall, I don't think we disagree *that* much. I think we can hold a good conversation on this. If we did, I honestly believe we would spend our time talking about the meaning of Genesis 1-9 (i.e., whether it's literal or not) and analyzing the scientific evidence for/against creation and evolution. I don't believe we would get bogged down in these other details that you mentioned. So, if you have an appetite for discussing those two things—Genesis and creation/evolution science—then I'm happy to discuss them with you.Blessings,Brad

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  21. Bradley

    To answer your question, "what are your sources of information about climate change?" Anything I can get my hands on. I spend a lot of time on this site in particular (which ironically supports the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming hypothesis): http://www.skepticalscience.com/

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  22. Bradley

    I should mention also that I used to be quite obsessed with the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming hypothesis (quite obsessed on the "I believe it" side of things). I worked on a carbon-sequestering farm for a little while under Abe Collins, who was originally a co-author of the book Priority One.

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  23. Brad Littlejohn

    Bradley, Based on Byron's comment, it seems like it might be helpful if you sketched briefly the links underlying your apparent change of subject. How does creationism/evolutionism relate to anthropogenic climate change and thus to the questions of resource management we started on? I have a general idea of how the argument would probably run, but it seems like Byron might benefit from clarification.

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  24. Bradley

    Oh, sorry, I think I must've misinterpreted Byron's sentence. The reason it's relevant is because Noah's flood offers a completely different explanation for climate in general. It has a different explanation for where fossil fuels come from, and has a different hypothesis regarding the source of limestone (carbonate rock) and most of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. A global catastrophic flood affects the ways we interpret geological ages and ice cores. It also offers the only satisfying explanation for the Ice Age that I know of, and for the masses of ice covering parts of the globe (various glaciers, Greenland, Antarctica, etc). It's very relevant to ask ourselves, "How long has that ice been there, and is it really 'supposed' to be there?" Rejecting biological evolution also causes us to understand the resilience of species and ecosystems differently. Did today's ecosystems take 200 years to evolve, or 200,000,000 years? That matters a lot when talking about change. In short, I don't see a global flood or young earth creation science as a peripheral issue at all….when discussing climate, it IS the issue. If I were an Evolutionist, then I think I would probably subscribe to the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming hypothesis (probably). But being a Creationist, I do not.And obviously, climate change is relevant for all the food security stuff, etc., although there are other issues involved there as well.

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  25. Bradley

    I should probably also mention, I think there are ways in which creation vs.evolution more directly affects resource management than just our scientific understanding of climate change. In my opinion, the notion of "stewardship" doesn't make sense under evolution. In fact, the word "natural" itself loses its meaning. The theory of Evolution is basically nominalism on steroids: everything is in flux, even mankind. There is no real identify or fixed order to appeal to in nature. Why is *this* moment in Evolution the one that we need to preserve? Why not preserve the version 1 million years ago? Why not tear down this version of nature and build/evolve something new entirely? You can see how those questions might be relevant to resource management, though they're admittedly a few steps removed: Evolution, being nominalist, removes the standard, and without a standard, stewardship is arbitrary and meaningless.Also for this reason, Evolution has very little to say about movements like transhumanism….other than "Hey, why not?" If you can't even clearly define what a man is, or where mankind came from—something Evolution fails to do—then why not seek to redefine our species? A cross between humans and cats sounds nice. I believe this lack of anthropological identity also lead to some soteriological problems, even without splicing cats and humans. But I digress. The point is, how relevant is creation vs. evolution to the issues of climate change and resource management? The answer: Very relevant in every way, both directly and indirectly, philosophically and pragmatically.

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