Climate, Energy & Christian World Views

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One of the many perks that go along with where I write is a window looking out on beautiful mountain scenery. Today the oak and aspen are glorious in their display of color. But that burst of brilliant color carries a somber message. Like a final rush of glory before death, the reds and golds herald the coming still ghostliness of ice and snow. Winter is coming. Winter means cold and snow, something that I have always dreaded. I don’t like the cold, or being cold. The color in the trees lets me know that the cold is imminent. I can feel the chill in my bones already. But I take comfort in the fact that my grandchildren need never feel that chill because the world is on the verge of losing winter. When my granddaughters are my age, winter will be just a distant memory. Just another thing their aging parents talk about as they slip into the irrelevance of old age.

We are warned that the world is heating up. Our climate is changing, and the media repeatedly warn us, that coming change will be disastrous for us. Glaciers are melting away and polar bears will soon not exist outside of zoos. Forest fires in the western United States and hurricanes in New York are pointed out as proof positive the world is in the process of becoming the Sahara Desert. We know this to be true because Science tells us so, at least all the “cool kid” scientists do.

Scientists tell us of this impending disaster, but our common sense agrees. That sense of impending doom fits our worldview. We have been told so many times that all of the energy that we use comes from burning fossil fuels, which we already know to be bad. In times past, they were bad because our wasteful use of them was causing us to run out. Our children were going to be reduced back to peasantry because of our failure as proper stewards of the resources we had been entrusted with. But then those much-reviled laws of economics worked their foul magic and we found out that fossil fuels weren’t about to run out. It seems we can continue to use them almost indefinitely. But that apparent miracle makes it even worse. Now we have too many fossil fuels and their continued use is going to make all the ice melt and ruin our world.

Major bummer about the ice melting and the ocean rising, especially if you live in New York or LA. That ocean view is going to get up close and personal. Malibu underwater seems a little surreal, but we can believe it. Our culture knows that Man is a scourge upon the earth. Human beings have ruined everything we have ever touched and it was only a matter of time before we screwed the world up beyond repair. We have been conditioned since childhood by Walt Disney, every zoo and museum we have ever visited, as well as any basic science course we took in school to believe that everything we do is harmful to Nature. We have been conditioned so well that Dr. Pavlov would smile in the knowledge of both it subtlety and its completeness. When we are told that our energy use is ruining our world because we are burning fossil fuels, we believe it. As we drive home from work to our air-conditioned homes in the suburbs in our giant SUV’s, we get it. We are bad people and if we don’t change our ways, our children will live in a world that resembles “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”.

We all have a mother and so we are all programmed to respond to guilt. Most of us have an invisible backpack with neatly packaged boxes of guilt. There are some packages labeled “Things I Did” and others labeled “Things I Said”. I have a pretty big one labeled “Things I Meant to Do”. But I am convinced that almost every one has a package labeled “Things I Did to Hurt Mother Earth”.

Every time I drive to work in my gas-guzzler and pass a virtuous person commuting on his bicycle, I add a little weight to that package. I add some more to that package when I take a shortcut to work and pass by both a smelly oil refinery and an ugly power plant. It seems that both of them have huge clouds of white smoke coming off of strange square buildings. Sometimes that white smoke drifts across the freeway and my windshield gets wet, possibly a precursor to the coming drowning of our coastlines? My children know that I am an engineer, which means I have been mistakenly called upon for help when they do their Science homework. As I read their textbooks, I am convicted again and again of my guilt.

Guilt is a part of us. It drives us. It convicts us. It depresses us. We don’t need any outside explanation to recognize it. It is as natural to us as our interest in the opposite sex. Without a rigorous theological justification to defend what I say, I believe guilt to be evidence for the truth of Scripture. We are a race of sinners and in our hearts we know that we are. As a result, we feel guilt. As we sit in our comfortable 21st century homes in the western world watching TV, we see violence, poverty and misery in much of the rest of the world. We feel guilty. How come we have it so easy? In our hearts we know we don’t deserve this bounty. So we feel guilty.

It is a given that when we feel guilt, we also feel the need to do penance for that guilt. Knowing in our hearts that we are undeserved of our comfortable lifestyle, we know that we must have done something truly bad to be here in an air-conditioned office during the heat of a summer afternoon. There is almost a relief in knowing the source of our guilt. We feel guilt because we have abused Mother Nature and stolen from our fellow man. We have not only raped the Earth, but we have cheated all those poor people rioting on TV of the energy that was rightfully theirs. We look at our kids watching silly pranks on YouTube and we know that we have cheated them as well. Their children will be doomed to being bit players in a future Thunderdome.

A cloud of unfocused guilt over undeserved good luck in our life style and accusations of greedy rapacity make natural partners. All of the comfort in our lives drives us to feel guilt over the big vehicles we drive and all the electricity we use to make our desert houses cool. Given basic human nature, we don’t actually give up our comforts, but instead try to self-sooth. As tent revival preachers have known for a long time, guilt drives people to seek both penance and redemption. We seek redemption both for us and for our children.

Thus we accept a storm of environmental theology in our daily lives. Whether it is in accepting increased garbage collection fees to pay for the privilege of recycling or higher electrical bills to subsidize green energy, we bear it gladly because we feel it atonement for our sinful behavior. We send our children to the local museums and zoos for indoctrination, much as earlier generations sent their children to Sunday School. Maybe what our children hear at the museum and on Saturday morning cartoons will cause them to grow up to be better people than we turned out to be.

Even if I have misread the mood of our culture, I think that I can say that our culture is greatly concerned about the energy that our civilization is built upon. We are concerned about the amount of the energy that we use and we are concerned about how that energy is generated. We feel that anything reducing our energy use is a good thing. We also feel that energy created by burning fossil fuels is bad. Energy created by “renewable” sources is good. We feel that creating energy from nuclear reactions is an act driven by either greed or willful recklessness, not to mention being unconscionable evil.

Energy has become a political question today. Energy had been peripheral to politics in earlier days, of concern only when gas prices rose or oil dependence caused national security issues. But now the question of energy has changed into a different type of political issue. In fact like most every other political question of our day, it is a subject of emotion and clashing world-views. The fact that the discussion of energy today is driven by emotion and world-view seems strange. Perhaps no other area of modern life is so dominated by engineering and economics as is energy. Who would think that simple thermodynamics combined with supply/demand curves could generate so much heat? It comes as a surprise to us that engineers and economists are deeply involved in such a “touchy-feely” business as energy.

Perhaps the emotion is a side effect of our doubts. Our culture is no longer confident in either itself or its future. We are rightly fearful of a future without the material bounty to which we are accustomed. But we also know that to continue in our expectation of a bigger and better future, we will require an ever-growing consumption of energy. The billions that we see on TV striving to achieve our prosperity will require almost unthinkable amounts of more energy as well. To realistically imagine a future without the presence of cheap and abundant energy is something that we instinctively shrink from. The memory of Thunderdome hovers in our minds, just below the surface.

And yet our culture is remarkably naïve and ignorant of something so profoundly basic and fundamental to the life style and prosperity that we enjoy today, as well as any future to which we care to aspire. Virtually everything that we take for granted in our life today is directly or indirectly dependent upon ubiquitous and cheap energy. Given the child mortality statistics of earlier generations, many of us would not even be alive without that abundant energy. But it sometimes seems that we persist in dogged blindness to the truth of our situation.

I think that Jules Verne was prescient to a remarkable degree nearly 120 years ago. His novel, The Time Machine, captured the modern day dichotomy of our society in a very real and powerful way. He saw future society splitting the human race into two almost separate species. The first species, the Eloi lived above ground in the warm sunshine and lived a life of happiness and leisure. Celebrating the arts and music, they frolicked in what appeared to be a Garden of Eden.

The second species, named the Morlocks, lived beneath the earth, where they toiled to build and maintain the garden that the Eloi lived in. Where the Eloi were blond and fair, willowy and graceful, the Morlocks were dark and dirty, squat and ugly. Looked at as commentary on the energy debate today, the Eloi and Morlocks provide a mirror for looking at our society. Leaving aside the unfortunate complication of the Morlocks’ diet, the Morlocks labor in the dark disapproval of polite society to create and maintain the energy supply allowing the Eloi to enjoy their enlightened and peaceful existence.

Confession time. By both inclination and fate, I have spent my working career as a Morlock laboring in that dark disapproval. Some would say that I even strongly resemble various artistic depictions of a Morlock, being somewhat height challenged and limited in hair coverage, but I take some little comfort in the adage of beauty being only skin-deep. But to continue the metaphor, I do feel very Morlockian when I listen to or participate in the public discourse on energy.

One cannot work in the dark for over forty years without acquiring an unmistakable outlook. That outlook, identifying me as it does to be a Morlock, appears to also disqualify anything I might say about the subject of energy. Even my own family, by some mysterious working of chance composed entirely of Eloi, brushes off my thoughts on the matter as too biased to weigh in the formation of their own opinions. It pains me to say, but Oprah and her fellow travelers’ views on energy are much more valued by my family than are my own. But then who epitomizes the Eloi and their world more so than the esteemed Oprah?

We cannot hide the fact that the business of energy has a harshness and sharp edge to it that does not sit well with modern sensibilities. The business of energy conflicts with our societies sensibilities on so many levels. The Eloi prefer to see Nature as a mother, nurturing and peaceful. We who are Morlocks know Nature to be a mean vindictive bitch, unforgiving and endlessly resourceful in her attempts to get us. In passing, I think it an interesting point that both sides see Nature as female in gender.

The energy industries are aware that the public perceives them to be what in fact that they are. Who can mistake the stark architecture and faint odors of a power plant for the soft earthiness of a carefully tended truck garden? The culture of the energy business is as different as its appearance. Energy companies risk unimaginable sums of money on risky ventures that can be complete failures, resulting in the loss of everything involved. Even when successful, those ventures earn monetary returns of a sort that would cause Apple to regretfully pull that product from the market and try something else. The energy business deals with dangerous and hazardous materials in enormous quantities transported over world spanning distances. It has numerous employees, both capable and not-so-capable, working unsupervised over great areas of populated and unpopulated territory with tools and materials that can cause violent and wide spread destruction when chance or carelessness harmfully intervene.

Being aware that the public views them with suspicion and not a small element of fear, the energy industries hire their own Eloi, whoops I mean public relations firms, to furnish a mask more pleasing to that public. After all, even a Morlock wants to be loved. In their ads on TV, we see that the energy industries hire women and people of color, as well as put them in positions of responsibility. We see that they invest in renewable energy and love animals. Their employees walk to raise money for breast cancer and children’s hospitals. But almost everyone has driven by an oil refinery at night. That fire dancing in the night sky, the vague smell of something foul and the architecture reminiscent of the movie Alien give silent confirmation of the fact that the energy industry is different.

There is something vaguely Promethean about the energy industry. For those who were unfortunate enough to attend school before education became inclusive, Prometheus was not the name of a greatly disappointing movie from Ridley Scott. Before Ridley Scott, Prometheus was a figure from Greek myth. He brought fire and civilization from the heavens to mankind, but for this act of rebellion against the rule of the gods, he was sentenced to a life of pain and eternal frustration. We who have toiled in the dark belly of the energy beast can sympathize with Prometheus when we attend a cocktail party in the better neighborhoods.

The level of civilization and prosperity that we enjoy is irretrievable bound up with energy. Our culture is justifiably proud of our achievements in prolonging the human lifespan, bettering conditions for people at every point in that longer lifespan and recognizing the equal rights of women, as well as people of color. But it may be no accident that all of those achievements were gained during a time of falling energy prices accompanied by a rapid growth in the availability and reliability of that energy. It is easier to be open minded and generous when we are prosperous with the time to sit on our patio drinking a craft beer. If we were forced to split firewood for a supper of thin gruel and haul water in buckets from fetid streams, we might be a bit less altruistic about the Brotherhood of Men and Animals.

It makes us feel good to be altruistic. We feel good when we do something to help other people, even if it hurts us a bit. That twinge of pain enhances the good feeling. Signing on to a worldview that is about depriving ourselves by using less energy to help others, as well as the Earth, makes us feel good as well as self-soothing that ever present guilt in our soul. This is where Christianity makes an entrance. Christians are supposed to be about loving their fellow man, about loving others as they love themselves. That fits right in with the gestalt of our age. The peaceful strains of Kumbaya waft through my mind.

But as Christians, we are called to serve a sometimes inconvenient God, as well as love our fellow man. Since God, through His Word to us in the Bible, is notably silent on energy and fossil fuels, this is one issue where we can see a clear road without theological thorns on our way to agreement with our neighbors about a green future. The unpleasantness to the conscientious Christian of resistance to the world’s seductive vision of a pastoral future is avoided. But I cannot help but be suspicious. All those years of toiling in the dark have left their mark on me. If the world finds an idea to be seductive, it worries me.

Before the hubris of our present age, climate, weather and natural catastrophes were seen as in the hands of God. Indeed, our insurance industries and media personalities used the quaint phrase, “Act of God”. But as we have acquired godlike powers, incidentally acquired through our use of fossil fueled energy, we have come to see those same things as in the power of men. Where once a humbled population bowed before the awesome power of an inscrutable God unveiled, enterprising lawyers now seek an innovative theory of liability. Forgive me. Cynicism is unbecoming and I apologize for its appearance. I plead for you to remember those years of toil in the dark.

But what about a Christian viewpoint on climate change and the other questions surrounding energy and the use of fossil fuels? As we strive to serve God and love our fellow man, what is a coherent view of energy and climate change, founded on the truths of Scripture? I tread carefully here. Interpreting the Word of God is a serious matter, to be done humbly and prayerfully. As our pastor says, there are truths that are worth dying for and others that are simply our interpretation. Earnest and prayerful men will disagree on many things. This is certainly true of what I say here, but these thoughts, as I express them here, find resonance with me, a Morlock earnestly striving to serve the Eloi. J

Jesus often taught his disciples through the use of parables. One of the parables, of the servants and the talents, is often in my thoughts. In this parable, the servant, given resources by his departing master, risks those resources to increase their value. Upon his return, the master who provided those resources then praises that servant who has increased their value. Another servant took no risk and did nothing to increase their value. That servant was condemned his same master. The idea I take from that parable is that God expects us to use what we have been given in productive ways, whether talent, opportunity or resources. We are to leave things better than we found them. That idea has always been central to my thinking about what God expects of me in this world.

I think that idea is on display in the first chapter in Genesis, the first book in the Bible. That section of Scripture is of special interest to the question for it is here that we are told about the ordained relationship between Man and natural creation. It is here that God gives the only explicit instruction to Man about the relationship between himself and the created world in which God has placed him. After the finished act of creation, God blesses the human beings He has created and tells them:

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  Gen. 1:28b  NIV

God’s expectations for our relationship with creation seem straightforward at this point. There are three key verbs provided in the text; those verbs being fill, subdue and rule. Man is to increase such that he fills the earth with his descendents. In the process of filling the earth with his children, he is to subdue nature and to rule over nature. I realize that these words define a very politically incorrect worldview, especially among the Eloi. Even among the Morlocks, it is a little outré even though it is a pithy statement of what we, the Morlocks, in fact do. But we Morlocks absolve ourselves of that guilt by declaring that we do it in the service of the Eloi.

Fill, subdue and rule. These are the marching orders God has given us. I am child enough of my culture that my first image of such a vision is of ruthless subjugation, of giant pieces of yellow iron crushing the forest homes of Thumper and Bambi. Given the Disney movies I saw as a child, how can I not see that? But I am also student enough of the Bible to know this is not God’s vision either.

Stewardship of that which we have been given is one of the overarching themes of the Bible. It is clear to a careful student of Scripture that we own nothing in this world. Whether God blesses us with material blessings or withholds them from us, those material blessings are not our own. We are simply entrusted with them for a time. We are to use them responsibly and pass them on to those whom God assigns.

It is equally clear that God’s concern is for people, not for animals or the materials of his creation. The world was created to provide resources for the people whom God loves. His wish is for more people, not less people. Our stewardship of his creation should clearly reflect this priority.

There is a dominant theme in the public discourse of our day that insists that we are interlopers in this world, that we should leave much of nature alone to its own devices. Just as there are those who scheme to waste today and give no thought for future generations, there are those that worship at the altar of the natural world. Both attitudes are against the teaching of Scripture, as well as inflaming the passions of those seeking mischief.

We cannot escape our impact. Every time we vote for a political candidate promising to either open or close federal lands to drilling, we decide. Every time we sit our children in front of a nature show with its subtle theology, we decide. Every time we validate a company’s marketing decision by purchasing a “green” product at a premium price, we decide. We cannot escape. Because our world is interrelated and politicized, what we think will affect the stewardship and ownership of the world we have been entrusted with.

People will come to their own decisions and their own answers. As for me, I will try to make my decisions based on what grace God has given me to act in this world. I will strive to remember that I am only a temporary steward of that which God has given me to have or to influence. All that exists is His and I am a simple servant managing his master’s resources. I will strive to remember that God’s concern has always been for the increase and wellbeing of his children.

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    What I’m Reading

    The Twelfth Department
    By William Ryan

    What happens when we forget, or never bothered to learn, what we believe in and why we believe? What happens when the emotional whirls of Facebook and Twitter are the depths of our understanding? Evil, great evil, is regularly found lurking in the unexamined depths of good intentions. Mathew Arnold put our present political climate in memorable words years ago:

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