Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Root Cause of the Climate Change

I will not get into the controversy over whether there is actually a global change in climate going on caused by human activity. I think it is likely to be true, but if it's not, there are certainly plenty of other things we are doing to adversely affect our environment, and these also spring from the same root. I will begin by saying I believe the root cause of these environmental problems is greed. I think that greed for more comfort, convenience, and profit works against attempts towards moderation of energy consumption and pollution.

Since greed has been a human problem throughout history, this raises the question of why are we having environmental problems now rather than earlier. There are two reasons which are related to each other. The first is that our technology has enabled a larger population, and greater ability to consume energy and produce pollution. However, the other reason has to do with my previous post about RenĂ© Descartes.

One of the characteristics of a modern mindset, which is found in Descartes' Discourse on Method is the desire to be "masters and possessors of nature." We want to master nature so that we can have comfortable, trouble-free lives, with good health for many years. This has become so much a part of our thinking that for most people that they don't even think about it. So, if you couple this modern philosophy that we should be masters and possessors of nature for the sake of our own comfort and health with the enduring problem of human greed, it is no wonder that nature suffers as a result.


Scott said...

On a related note, I find the rejection of man-made climate change within certain evangelical Christian circles to be both curious and concerning. The objections seems to be founded on one or more of the following premises: (i) because God has promised not to destroy all land-based creatures again by flood (Genesis 9), that it follows that we can't destroy the ice pack on our own, (ii) because we are promised that the Church will survive until the return of Jesus, that we must not be able to destroy our environment, or (iii) because the idea that we could ruin our environment clashes with the idea that God ultimately is the one in control of history. Thus, in many circles, acceptance of the possibility of man-made climate change is tantamount to dismissal of God's Providence.

The problem is, none of these conclusions follow from their own premises. The great counter-example against the idea that God will not allow humans to ruin their surroundings is found in Genesis 3: "And unto Adam he said, Because thou . . . hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life." The recognition that we are members of a ruined race, banished from Paradise, and only by the grace of God redeemed from our accursed state, is fundamental to Christian doctrine. But if the fault of one man can ruin the very nature of Man, is it really a stretch to believe that billions of men can do little more than cause a change in CO2 levels, and raise the average temperature of the world by a mere handful of degrees? And yet although God provided a Redeemer to save us, He first allowed Man to fall, of Man's own free will. I do not doubt that He will allow us, short of extinction of the race, to turn our whole planet into the Prodigal Son's proverbial pig-pen, if only so that we can recognize the error of our ways.

Moreover, believing that we can continue to be bad stewards of the earth, but that God will protect us from ourselves, is tantamount to loading all of mankind onto a ship, sailing it into the middle of the Pacific ocean, and then drilling millions of holes in its hull, saying "God will not allow us to sink." What God would do in such eventuality (or even if he wouldn't be forced to intervene beforehand in a Tower of Babel-like moment) I couldn't say. But what I can say is that such a view contains the presumption with which Satan tempted Jesus in the desert. Satan invites Jesus to cast himself off the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he is the Son of God. Unlike those who say we simply _can't_ destroy our environment, however, Jesus responds "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."

Greg Graham said...

Honestly, I have not heard a theological justification for climate change denial like you state, although I don’t doubt they are out there. What I have seen has been more political than theological. The people who are most concerned about climate change are liberals, who often want to solve the problem through regulation, taxation, and government spending on things like high-speed rail or wind turbines. It appears to me that conservatives don’t like the solutions, so they are tempted to deny the existence of the problem, which in my opinion hurts their credibility.

While I’m reluctant to deny the existence of human-caused climate change, I am also skeptical when it comes to the certainty that accompanies some of the predictions coming out of various models. Our global weather system is so complex that I don’t see how we can predict anything with much certainty. In summary, I’m sure that significantly elevating carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is bound to have a warming effect, but I doubt any of us really know how it will play out.

Robert Eaglestone said...

"this raises the question of why are we having environmental problems now rather than earlier."

As you suggest, it's due to our very recent (appx. since Napoleon?) and unique position as having globally-spanned civilization. The problems happened before, but regionally -- the reason we don't know about them is because those civilizations fell and no one was around to see it. The Classic Mayans are one example.

On the other hand, there are large pre-historic cultures whose passing actually benefitted the earth; for example, the anthropogenic Terra Preta found along the Amazon Basin, which has greatly improved the otherwise low-nutrient soil for 2,000 years, and continues to regenerate even today.

But generally, without technology to overcome increasingly urban challenges (food production and disease prevention), previous civilizations tended to collapse under their own weight.


Greg Graham said...

Rob, I don't know much about the Mayan civilization; did they fall due to abuse of the environmental?

I agree that civilizations do tend to fall under their own weight in one way or another, but my point is that modernism especially allows greed to cause abuse of the environment because we see the natural world as just a bunch of "resources" we may exploit to meet our needs. I think pre-modern cultures (both non-Christian and Christian) had more respect for the natural world, although it is certainly possible that due to ignorance they still did things to harm the environment to their own destruction.

One advantage of science is that we can have a better understanding of how our environment works, so we can understand when we're harming it. We may be able to use technology to reverse the harm we do, or to do more with less impact to the environment. Unfortunately, thinking of the natural world as simply a stock of resources makes it difficult to give safeguarding the environment the priority it may need.

David Lewis said...

Nietzsche remarked that even in the absence of a Judeo-Christian belief system, the emotional content of egalitarianism, meekness, mercy, remains. Religious belief served, he said, our need to feel guilty, our need to feel smug, and our need to feel outrage, and any alternative system that gave outlet to those emotions would gain traction in a post-Christian world.
Environmentalism certainly gives the outlet. Admit in a dinner party that you don't recycle, and you'll get a tongue-lashing, but mention car-pooling in a Prius, or (even better) recount the time you had to lecture some slob for environmental crimes, and feel the warm bath of smug approval from the orthodox.
Notice that thus far I haven't addressed any evidence -- when the emotive content is there, and you put a framework around it, the facts fall into place (or off the table, as you choose.) But the template is how we make sense of the facts, not vice versa.
Yes, the Earth is warming up, but so is Mars, and Mars only has those two solar-powered vehicles. Jupiter is measurably warmer, too. So is the Sun, which might be at the center of all this, but it doesn't conveniently fit the template. Insolation is taken into account, but treated as a constant rather than a variable.
Yes, CO2 levels have been rising since the late 19th Century, up by 5.4%, if I recall the numbers, and that's a statistically significant increase, so long as water vapor is taken off the table as a greenhouse contributor -- leave water vapor in the calculations, and the anthropogenic contribution is .28%, less than Krakatoa did in one eruption.
In my allegedly humble opinion, this is more about funding and power than hard science. Al Gore has his slide show, and he'll jet all over the planet to show it, but don't try this at home. All the scientists who signed the "Coming Ice Age" letter in 1978 now say, "well, that was just to stop the nuclear power plants, but we had the data that pointed otherwise." This is an admission that the political issue of the moment trumps the real science -- who's to say that they're really, really, this they mean it, sticking to the facts?
As a Christian, I can't bring myself to view Earth as my Mother, nor indeed do I want the baggage that goes along with that relationship. Sister, I can handle -- I want to protect her, want to visit a little wrath on whoever messes with her. But when someone comes along and says "Your Mom is sick and needs an operation, it's gonna cost $40 trillion, and if it doesn't work, it will still be your fault for not coughing it up quick enough," I can't help but notice that he's the same guy who sold me on gypsy moths and kudzu.

Greg Graham said...

I am trying to critique the following ideas from modernism: 1) The universe is just a machine, full of stuff for us to exploit. 2) Our ultimate goal is to live long, comfortable lives. Contrast this to these medieval ideas: 1) The universe is God's creation, full of things we should treat as our brothers and sisters. 2) Our ultimate goal is union with God, and by the way, the path to such union might include suffering or an early death, but that's ok because the eternal reward far outweighs any loss we might experience in this life. Even if the climate-change is not an issue, wouldn't you agree that there have been cases in modern times where the medieval ideas would have served us better?

Interestingly, you bring up the idea of "Earth as my Mother," which is not a modern idea, but a post-modern neo-pagan reaction to what I believe are genuine problems in modern thought. However, I obviously think this is the wrong direction to go. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian thinking today has been infected with modern ideas which I hope to show are of a non-Christian origin, and so Christianity is seen by most post-moderns as part of the problem, and is rejected out of hand as any source for a solution. What I hope to do in this blog is look to various pre-modern Christian ideas as better solutions to post-modern problems. I don't have concrete answers at this point, but mostly just an intuition of where to look. My hope is that some answers will emerge from the discussion. Thank you for your participation.

Greg Graham said...

The Shimkus remarks are troubling, Scott. I am often amazed at things said in Congress. Your Financial Times quote definitely illustrates something is happening, but I think the difficulty is in tying it back to car exhaust, etc. Since automobiles and large-scale factories appear in the 20th century, it is easy to think they are the cause. The greenhouse effect shows us how this could be, so it all sounds very credible to me. However, without having studied all of the scientific evidence in detail, how can I argue against statements such a what David Lewis says in another comment? I repeatedly see these same kinds of arguments going back and forth, and it looks to me that neither side can bring conclusive evidence to bear that can prove their case to the laymen making policy decisions. Therefore, people tend to pick one side and yell at the other side to no avail.

As I write this, I'm wondering if this is another limitation to science. Sure, I could spend my whole life studying climatology and then understand the situation well enough that I know what is wrong, but since I've spent my life as a scholar, I am in no position to do anything to solve the problem. I try to tell the people in power, but they can't really understand it unless they spend a long time studying it. This reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas' two reasons why we need divine revelation. The first is to tell us things that are beyond our ability to know by reason. The second is to tell us things that we could come to know by reason, but most people do not have the ability or the time to reason it out. The whole climate problem is so complex that it sounds to me like something falling into the second category. Of course, just because there is a question we can't answer doesn't mean that the answer will be provided by divine revelation. Sometimes we just never know.

Scott said...

Re: Greg @ 4:56 am -- Well said.

David Lewis said...

I concur.

Anna said...

I know you wrote this months ago, and it may be bad net-iquette to post a thought at this late hour, but I feel so bold as to do so anyway, and hopefully you won't be bothered.

You wrote in your @4:56am comment above:
"Of course, just because there is a question we can’t answer doesn’t mean that the answer will be provided by divine revelation. Sometimes we just never know."

While there are, in fact, some things we just never really know, it seems to me that God shows a definite tendency throughout history to offer warnings in the form of prophets, before sending imminent doom. (Especially when His people are involved.) So the question is... what are the prophets saying on this topic? (And do we even know who they are?)

Greg Graham said...

I'm not aware of any Christian prophets warning specifically about climate change. There are Christian pastors, including Pope Benedict XVI, who in the light of the warnings from the scientific community are reminding Christians of our stewardship responsibility over God's creation. The Christian prophetic warnings that I know of are more concerned with secularism, moral relativism, sexual immorality, and lack of faith. I think this difference between the secular and Christian prophets points to the fundamental difference between the two world views.

The secular view concentrates on manipulating the outcome, and ignores any behavior not clearly related to the outcome. Therefore, they want you to drive a Prius, but don't care if you kill children in the womb. The outcome they want is to avoid catastrophic climate change, and they believe driving a Prius will help to that end, but stopping abortion won't. The Christian knows of moral standards through divine revelation, and by faith tries to hold to those standards, even when we can't that they will achieve the results we desire. By faith, we believe God knows better than we do because he sees the big picture that we can't see. Also, we believe our ultimate end is not this life, but the next, and God promises to deliver his faithful people to glory. Moral relativism is a much greater danger to the Christian goal than is climate change.

My own belief is that the biggest danger to Western Civilization is its population decline due to abortion and birth control, and the lack of stable families due to divorce. Couple this with the economic crisis socialism is causing along with the looming clash with Islam, and I think people will soon quit worrying about climate change.

Anna said...

I am curious who you are referring to when you speak of Christian prophets warning of the dangers of secularism.

Although climate change and other physical dangers do not offer the same level of threat to our souls as sin does, I think there is more relationship there than it may first seem. When Adam & Eve ate the apple, the earth itself was cursed for their sin; when Cain killed Abel, the ground cried out for justice. I would say we have evidence that the earth right now is likewise suffering for our sins.

There may be no sin common in America which is as horrific as abortion; but neither is abortion even close to being a daily occurrence in the lives of most Americans. Whereas, the greed inherent in an overuse of water, the pride inherent in looking down on others for disagreeing with you, the envy of the neighbor's faster and cooler computer, anger at the grocery store clerk who did something annoying, lust for the hot celebrities in films, good old-fashioned gluttony, and the sloth of, say, not cleaning up after yourself ... these kinds of things ARE daily occurrences in the lives of a majority of people. We preach against them, but because they are not part of our disagreement with secular culture - in short, because they are not identity issues - they simply don't get the same kind of attention as abortion, homosexuality, contraception, or even divorce. Yet I would guess that they account for a far greater proportion of the sin that actually happens than the more fought-about ones.

Accordingly, I think it is probably these everyday sins of ours that is, as it were, dooming the earth. Some of them can even be tied directly to care of the earth (such as the sloth of littering, or the greed of unmindful consumerism).

Greg Graham said...

There are two senses to the word "prophet." One is general, referring to anyone who preaches the Word of God, and the second is specific, referring to someone who claims to speak from some special revelation from God, which the Catholic Church calls "private revelation." I assumed by the context of your question that you meant the specific sense. I am by no means an expert on private revelation, but I do hear things and read the occasional article, so I can only speak from that. What I had in mind when I spoke about secularism was the 1917 Marian apparition at Fatima as well as a lesser known 1973 apparition in Akita Japan with a similar warning. These prophecies may or may not use the word "secularism", but they are definitely concerned about a loss of faith, and that really is the force behind secularism. People would not be so keen on eliminating references to God in the public square if they really believed he existed. The situation today makes me think of Jesus question, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)

I agree with you about the common sins you mention, and as I said in my original article, some of them are contributing to problems in the environment. The Church has taught the deadliness of these kinds of sins for centuries, but if people don't really believe in God, then they also don't care about sin, unless as I said in my previous comment, they can tie it to an undesirable outcome. So, a non-believer may agree with you regarding the sin of littering because they don't like trash in our parks, but may think you are out of touch to be concerned about lust because they see no harm in sexual freedom. Even many people who have a kind of belief in God, their concept of God doesn't include an absolute concept of sin. Such a person may not see the problem with homosexual acts if the two people really love each other, or why a married couple who are no longer in love can't get a divorce. Such people don't really believe in the God as depicted in the Christian tradition, but have rather a god more compatible with secular thought.

So, I think all of these sins, the common ones you bring up, as well as the high profile ones like abortion, are all symptoms of a root problem of unbelief. Therefore, you won't find me blogging a lot about the evils of abortion or climate change, although I may occasionally bring up a case which illustrates my deeper concern. Rather, I focus my writings on belief in God and the Gospel of Jesus in the context of our post-enlightenment, scientific, post-modern age.

Anna said...

Yes, I meant private revelation. Your examples are interesting; I tend to think of prophecy as being something that is specific to a particular culture (a particular time and place); hence the church in Sardis needed to be told to repent (Rev 3:3), whereas the church in Philadelphia needed to be reassured of their faithfulness (Rev 3:10). So I wouldn't assume that a (true) prophecy in Japan or from almost a hundred years ago applied to our culture here and now - although it may.

Lack of faith is certainly a major issue in our culture today. (I am personally reminded of Romans 1: "although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks ... Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions.")

Does your evaluation of unbelief as the root problem take into account the fact that some three-quarters of Americans still identify themselves as Christian? How much of a minority do you think true believers are, compared to those who merely claim the title?

Greg Graham said...

The Akita prophecy was less than 40 years ago, and although it was a different time and place, the issues addressed are similar to what we have here, and are getting worse.

I can't judge how many are "true believers," but when someone self-identifies as a Christian, and then says that same-sex marriage is ok, there is some kind of problem either with their understanding of their faith, or they don't take their faith tradition seriously. They have essentially invented their own religion that suits their opinions.

Another example of this shallow faith are those who say that the Catholic Church needs to change their moral teaching to be better aligned with the times. Any divine origin of the Church or her teachings is completely absent from such an idea.

I guess it boils down to there are lots of people who believe in some kind of God, but they don't believe this God really made his will known in any authoritative way. I've got ideas why that is, but that will take a whole blog post.

Anna said...

Lack of faith is only a problem with those who lack faith (numerous as they admittedly are). The "common" sins are a problem with believers and unbelievers alike. So I guess my question to you is... why do you rate unbelief as a greater or more fundamental overall threat than these other sins?

Greg Graham said...

"Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). Union with God is the purpose of human existence, and that union requires faith. Also, as we grow in union with God, our behavior changes as we are conformed to his image. Therefore, faith is the solution for dealing with the "common" sins as well as the path to eternal life that will transcend any natural calamity.

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

However, if the "common" sins are corrected but there is no faith, we might solve the climate change problem, but we will have missed our destiny. Our survival would only be temporary (we all will experience physical death anyway) and would be in vain.

Anna said...

And do you think, in our postmodern world (which barely believes in sin), that speaking of unbelief or warning about its dangers a more effective path to belief than speaking of or warning about the dangers of common sin?

Greg Graham said...

I don't know which is more effective, but I think both paths, as well as many others, are necessary. I believe my calling is to explain the Christian faith in such a way that post-modern people can begin to believe the Gospel, or grow in their faith in Christ. Each of us has our own particular calling from God, and we are responsible to be faithful to it.