Hot Oceans

As the world population grows, and as (hopefully) larger numbers of people move from deep poverty into better living situations, we have to deal with the build-up of toxins in the biosphere. (For a discussion of carrying capacity see the previous post). The old adage the solution to pollution is dilution has limits based on the size of the container and the amount of toxins. As we saw two posts ago, a simple calculus used by environmental engineering is

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output.

We have to keep this in mind because, for all intents and purposes, (the bleed-off from the troposphere being so slight), we need to treat Earth as a closed system, in which we need to avoid piling up toxins too fast for the natural ecosystems to mitigate in their regular, natural rates. If we surpass this natural rate of breakdown to useful components, then we have to find ways to mitigate/ break down the toxins ourselves. For Christians with a biblical theology, this should be a conversation they deem important.

One of those things we are building up at a faster mass rate of input than the biosphere is handling, is heat. The amount of carbon being piled up in the upper atmosphere, acting with a greenhouse effect, is increasing the temperature in our world. Although Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have convinced huge numbers of Americans that this isn’t really happening, every government in the world is scrambling trying to draw up plans to deal with this climate change. They are scared to death at what it means for crop failure, and nations with large coastal populations in low elevations see the writing on the wall. (Some South Pacific islands no longer have human populations, they’ve had to leave as their island is no longer above sea level – this is what happens when glaciers melt at the rate they are.) You can read about how the various gasses interact and feedback on NASA’s website here

The oceans are a telltale for the mass rate of input, in terms of heat, changing things about our planet. Ocean temperatures right now are breaking all historical records. Summer of 2014 was the highest ever recorded (Axel Timmermann, professor of Oceanography, U. of Hawaii). The Atlantic’s surface temps are now 3 degrees hotter than 30 years ago. NOAA reports that fish species are moving north and south away from the tropics, pushed by the change in temps. Inuit tribes north of Alaska do not have a word in their language for salmon, as they’ve never seen one. Until now. Half of the 36 species of fish we eat for food have shifted northward and further offshore in the last four decades, some no longer found in U.S. waters. When one species moves (due to temps) and their whole ecological food chain doesn’t move with them, disasterous population crashes can occur. Fishery managers are seeing alarming results of this kind of thing, and fearing it is going to get far worse. Widespread failures in cod reproduction have already occurred. A 20% crash in worldwide tuna harvest in the visible future. If anyone wants to argue heat isn’t building up faster than the planet deals with it, simply speak with an oceanographer or saltwater fisheries scientist. We need to be serious in considering this heat build-up if we want thriving oceans with stable, healthy ecosystems we can fish. Christians, who believe the Creator instructed humanity to steward, rule over, and care for this planet, have a moral obligation inherent in our faith to care about this subject, and go beyond taking the word of talented radio entertainers.

Sources: NOAA, Scripps Institute, Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research (Germany), James Cook University (Australia), National Marine Fisheries Service, Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology, University of British Columbia, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Jason Schratwieser/ Sportfishing July/August 2016

Earth’s Carrying Capacity. That’s a myth

Theology at the end of this blog. First, some environmental talk. I have an occupational background in environmental biology (not to mention a Master’s degree in International Development), so I understand the idea of carrying capacity. And I don’t believe in the idea that Earth has a “carrying capacity” of humans. Drawn over from environmental studies of animals in an ecosystem, the reason this is a non-starter for me in regards to human population, is that history has shown, time and time again, that people are capable of creatively adapting and developing ways to live in an ecosystem far beyond what its “previous” carrying capacity was thought to be prior to the innovation.

Estimates of the carrying capacity of the Earth (for human population) since van Leeuwenhoek in 1679, have been laughably incorrect over and over again, not to mention ranging from 1 billion to 1000 billion! The low end estimates were based on the agricultural technology of the day (tillable acres and output divided by human consumption per capita) and those estimates of carrying capacity have been repeatedly increased due to the increase in agricultural output per acre enabled by new advances in farming practices. I’m typing this on Point Loma, a very densely populated part of San Diego. The carrying capacity of this area is a million fold what it would have been for the Diegan Indios 500 years ago, but then we aren’t hunter-gatherers. I’ve lived on one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world: Java, Indonesia. Rice terracing and fish farming have increased the food-producing capabilities of that land far beyond its natural contours. As a 2012 UN study put it, “technological advances in efficiency can be a divisor of per capita impact.” 1 When the interdependent variables in dynamic systems modeling today are applied to carrying capacity, there are so many estimates regarding future variables, the range of estimates becomes so huge as to be meaningless. A 1995 article in Science called for “extreme skepticism” regarding carrying capacity estimates for the reasons I’ve just cited. 2

A meme I saw said “God makes a world for humans – 70 % saltwater ocean.” It was witty on the surface, but it really doesn’t make the point it attempts. Humans figure out how to live in ecosystems as we go. Our ancestors walking out of Africa could not have survived near the Arctic Circle with the savannah lifestyle they knew – but the Inuit and Eskimo have learned how to thrive there for thousands of years – with only Neolithic technology! 70% of our world is indeed oceanic – but we have only scratched the surface on learning how to live there. We can learn to live in oceanic environments just as surely as we did in Arctic ones. Aquatic farming is just in its earliest stages. Not only is there plenty more for us to learn about farming Earth’s various biomes, but we haven’t even hardly started with urban farming and stackable skyscraper farms. Figures for carrying capacity are always and utterly tied to current technology and practices. Any talk of carrying capacity should start by saying “If we never, ever do a single thing different than we do today…” And that’s just silly.

But there’s a strong theological reason to question the idea of carrying capacity. For those Christians who believe we are past the carrying capacity of the Earth, we need to ask “Which of the people currently alive would the Creator God prefer had never been born?” It is theologically repugnant, from a Christian point of view, to imagine there are any. We don’t need less people created in the imago dei. We simply need what every group of people have needed (and worked out) since the digging stick was invented and there were more babies born in the tribe: new ways to find, (or in our case) increase, harvestable output.

And by the way, there is no shortage of food in the world per capita. There are local scarcities we haven’t transported to effectively. It’s not a quantity issue, it’s a transportation issue and a governance issue. Next time let’s talk about carrying capacity and pollutants in a closed system.


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Environmental Systems Calculus*

When we talk about the human habitation of Earth today, we want quantitative understandings of the planet’s carrying capacity. Materials and energy balances are key tools in achieving a quantitative understanding of the behavior of environmental systems.  They serve as a method of accounting for the flow of energy and materials into and out of a system.  Mass balances provide us with a tool for modeling the production, transport, and fate of things like pollutants or resources in an environment… examples of mass balances include prediction of rainwater runoff, oxygen balance in a stream, the temperature change in a river from the discharge of cooling water from a power plant, or the temperature rise due to global warming.

In its simplest form a materials or mass balance may be viewed as an accounting balance. For an environmental process the equation would be

Accumulation = input – output.

There are both known and unknown inputs, outputs, and accumulations in system modeling, but the mass balance should account for and solve the amount of unknown inputs and outputs.

Time is also a factor: For many environmental problems time is an important factor in establishing the degree of severity of the problem or in designing a solution. Another simple equation from environmental engineering:

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output

In plug-flow systems, a calculus equation can tell you how many km of pipe is needed to decontaminate a certain amount of polluted water as it flows through the pipe with a catalyst inserted. This kind of rate-of-flow-and-conversion is another calculation we need in order to understand our carrying capacity as a planet.

So, our situation is this. As human civilization has grown and continues to, we are increasing the inputs of some things in the system at a rate that outpaces the output. At the same time, we have a hard time calculating the availability and sustainability of some of the key resources – estimates have been wrong time and again. Likewise, we don’t know the tipping point of some processes, since we’ve never been to this spot before. More on what this means for our future as humans on this planet, and how theology affects our calculations, next time.

* Intro to Environmental Engineering Fourth edition (Davis & Cornwell). My family includes an environmental engineer.

Sex, God, and North American Christians

North American Christians are experiencing all kinds of rumblings and changes in the culture around us regarding sex. A Nazarene university president who has shown himself to be wise, thoughtful, compassionate and Christlike is Dan Boone, who recently wrote Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. (This must win the “Least Inspiring Title Award of the Year.”) On the back cover Boone says that amidst all the new experimentation regarding human sexuality, Christians most often are found angrily condemning or fearfully quiet. Instead of that, he contends we should be in the middle of this societal conversation: “We have something to say about the body, singleness, chastity, dating, marriage, and same sex attractions. Not all of us will agree with each other… but informed conversation will trump angry judgment and fearful silence every time. My prayer is that you will begin to explore a theology of human sexuality.”

This sounds just like Dan, who has always called for charitable discourse. Something to know about Dan, he is not a fundamentalist calling for gay people to be ejected from church. Neither is he simply swallowing the narrative currently in vogue in the West regarding human sexuality and freedom. By allowing the culture to set the parameters regarding our conversation about human sexuality, I once heard Dan say, we have forced ourselves to try to come up with answers that aren’t from within the Christian story.  A friend gave me the book, and the first place I opened to said this:

“Sex is good, but it is not the end goal of life.  ….If intimacy and sexual behavior are essentially one and the same, I suspect one of our favorite virgins, Jesus, must have lived a half-life. I would also suggest that another of our favorite virgins, Mother Teresa, missed the essence of life and lived as a lonely, loveless, half-person. The idea that human intimacy is fulfilled only in sexual intercourse is a leap of disastrous proportions. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and a lot of my single adult friends are among the most alive people I know. The human need is not sexual intercourse; it is intimacy – to be known, loved, touched, understood, and cared for.

Sex is good. Yes. ….Trinity is not ashamed of naked human bodies…. Christians shouldn’t walk around blushing when the topic of sex comes up. Sex is the gift of our Creator. But when we connect the need for human intimacy with sexual drive, and assume that these two are automatically and inextricably woven together, we are in the wrong story.”

This is classic, vintage Dan. Thanks for writing something for us, Dan. I look forward to the read.

Tomorrow’s Ethical Issues

Some Christians today are still arguing if women can be in leadership. That seems laughable to me, though I realize that sounds uncharitable. More Christians today are arguing or struggling over the subject of same-sex marriage/attraction or whatever. When I think of some of the ethical questions that will face Christianity in the future, I wonder if some of our questions today will seem silly or small?

For instance, when it comes to joining crocodile DNA to human DNA so that our hemoglobin can go on less oxygen, so that we can walk around Mars with a less oxygenated atmosphere… yet those and other DNA changes start separating humanity into separate species who cannot interbreed… is that ok or not from the perspective of the Christian faith?

When we get the carbon nanofibers to the point we can build a space elevator (google it) and make the other planets more accessible because we don’t need to get out of Earth’s gravity well for takeoff, will it be ethical from the Christian faith’s viewpoint to spend the world’s wealth on an elevator when children across the Global South still don’t have clean water?

When trillions start getting dumped into terraforming Mars into a liveable planet like Earth (it’s about as close as it can get already), will we consider it ethical to do so when those same children in the South still don’t have clean water? What does the Second Coming look like from Mars? Will Christians argue that God made only Earth for humans?

Will creating meteor-buster missiles (to protect Earth from a mass extinction from a large hit) be considered by Christianity prudent, or lacking faith in God?

These are only up close, short term questions almost upon us. What about questions of dumping all your memories onto a computer chip and then reviving you in a cloned human’s brain? Is that people taking resurrection into their own hands?

What about taking a human brain and placing it in a mechanical body so that settlers don’t need life-support systems, and can settle on the moons of the outer planets like Uranus or Neptune? They will never be able to biologically reproduce, and their only flesh-and-blood part would be their brain — everything else prosthetic. Is that ok by Christian theology?

Point being, we have some wild and tricky questions coming. Sometimes today’s seem tame.

Thinking in 50,000 year Intervals

Living on the road while we travel speaking about our transition to SE Asia as development workers/theological educators, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the blog. But here is something I wrote a while back and not yet posted.

Something became apparent to me the other day.  I realized that many of my Christian friends approach today’s issues as if Jesus will return in 50 or 100 years, max. So if we just hold the line on this or that issue, just hold on, we’ll be ok. Other issues can be ignored, because they will never happen. I suddenly realized one of the reasons I often come to different conclusions than them is that I tend to think in 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 year increments. What seems like a hold-the-line issue in the short-term, when thought about in vastly larger time frames, suddenly becomes very different.

I probably have science fiction to thank for this. It deals in large increments of time. When I think of the changing face of certain ethical questions and I see how Christianity has changed it’s take in the last 2,000 years, I can’t imagine we are going to freeze frame for another 20,000 or 100,000! Or when I think about say, climate change, if Jesus is coming back in 20 years, no big. We don’t live on Fiji, so loss of shore-line isn’t of immediate alarm to most evangelicals I know in Pennsylvania. But when I think in terms of 100,000 year increments, the question isn’t simply How do humans utilize advanced technology without heating the whole planet via emissions? Nor just, How do we steward the oceans so we don’t poison them utterly? (PS I like to fish). No, the questions include but go even beyond that, to How do we plan now for the settlement of the solar system, and beyond? How much do we invest now in a space elevator and terraforming Mars and the moon?  If the Ross Ice Shelf hits the water and sea levels raise 20 feet, how do we handle 2 billion displaced people? That, by the way, is a real and potentially immediate question, because we don’t know what the tipping point is to increase the rate of slide to the point the whole thing just goes.

Short term thinking can be incredibly disastrous. Proverbs highlights this in the Bible. But I rarely hear Christians in North America call upon their Christian faith to think long term. I find most of them assuming a very short length to human history, as if we are at the tail end. When we Christians limit our interests to the immediate future, can we blame other people for concluding we have nothing to offer for a long-term durable civilization?

Left Brain/Right Brain, Life, and Spiritual Knowledge

Towards the end of the last blog’s quote of N.T. Wright, Wright says “We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter…..  not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home.” It’s not hard to see why someone could say he is pulling a cheap end-run, trying to skirt the argument,  encapsulating science within a larger epistemology, like Hinduism encapsulating Christ within its pantheon, arguing for a both-and approach, when everyone with our Western Enlightenment mindset knows the question is really either-or.

However, I think Wright is actually expressing something thoroughly true to human existence. (Richard Rohr also does very good work in this area, among others, see his Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi). There are certainly more ways of “knowing” something than empirical science. I know that I love my wife, I know that I will be deeply content the next time I am surf-fishing, I know what musical transition will sound good, I know when I have done the right thing, I know my children, I know how much pressure to apply to jump the first step of our staircase, I know that that sunset will thrill my daughter. None of these types of knowing are based around empirical scientific evidence. Knowing that you love someone may be the most accessible example in everyday life. Humans know all kinds of things, all day, every day, which have nothing to do with empirical scientific proof. Western Enlightenment has acted like really only empirical evidence matters in the real world of grown-ups, but real life indicates conclusively that that is nonsense.

We have a left brain and a right brain, and I mean it literally, but more than literally as well, to say a person needs both sides of the brain to be alive. The left crunches numbers and facts, the right handles, music, art, beauty, intuition. The left handles science, the right handles spirituality. As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathon Sacks, has said, science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. And I would argue that human experience shows, that when we opt for simply one dimension, we lack a balanced, healthy, whole life.

Even within Christian spirituality this is evident. We can’t go on simply reading. We need to sing – it’s literally a different part of our brains. We need to get up and do something as an expression of the imago dei, because sitting and being only cerebral will distort, and sometimes literally kill, us. (Sitting too much is linked in numerous medical studies to early death). We need to interact relationally with other people. We need our imaginations fired, which is not the empirical part of our brains, to receive the benefit of exemplary causation, a much more powerful reality than “role model” and one medieval Christianity understood thoroughly in its attention to the role of the saints. One evidence of this is the number of evangelical protestant – oriented people who struggle so much with a male authority-figure image of God because of bad experiences with their fathers or other male leaders. Well, with our down-grading of Mary’s role in Christian spirituality, we’ve taken away from them a feminine aspect in Christian devotion that earlier generations had access to, and we’ve stuck people with only a get-over-it option, which other generations weren’t trapped in.

All of that to begin to say, though of course we can’t unwind it all in a blog post, that science, though it contributes wonderful things to our life and understanding, is not the only dimension of human knowledge which we need for a full, flourishing human life and civilization. Nor can science prove or dis-prove something like the resurrection of Jesus.