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 http://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.

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

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.

Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

If Climate Change is Natural, Does that Change Anything?

It never ceases to amaze me that two radio entertainers have convinced a majority of Americans that Global Warming is a hoax, although it happens to be a hoax that nearly every government on planet Earth believes is true, and is working to address. The immense confidence my fellow citizens have in these two entertainers is astounding. For sure, they are talented.

However, there is now another tagline alongside the hoax argument, and that is that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and so our use of fossil fuels (57% of the carbon dioxide released currently) shouldn’t matter. (What we do and don’t know about climate change is summarized pretty handily in this BBC article: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24021772 ).

So let’s consider the “it’s only natural” argument for a moment. First, certainly that is in part true. We know, from analyzing a variety of materials, that Earth’s climate has been both hotter and colder in the past. The polar caps on Mars were melting/shrinking/subliming the last few years, and of course my Chevy Silverado’s engine didn’t cause that.

However, it is also certain that we are releasing unprecedented amounts of CO2 in the last hundred years, and it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. No one wanting to be serious should argue that increased greenhouse gas doesn’t contribute to the rise in temperature.

But if the temperature is climbing anyway (increased sun output, etc), should we bother trimming back on our contribution? Let’s think about that.

When it gets colder outside, I put additional wood on the fire. I mulch the flower beds deeper, wear an additional layer, and maybe add a layer of insulation to the attic. When there’s a drought in the summer I don’t water the lawn, and pay extra attention to when I water the garden. When the average frost line dips south, farmers look to more cold-resistant strains of grain. (At the moment, world governments are looking at heat resistant strains, and planting further north). In short, we make adjustments to our life due to climate all the time. Even when the changes are natural.

So, if climate changes are largely natural, should we do anything with our lifestyles? Several questions arise for North Americans, even if you leave out moral questions about how our decisions affect Fiji, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. First, do you like Florida? Because if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes off the landmass and into the water, Florida will no longer be above water. Goodbye. And one of our problems is that we simply don’t know when the tipping point in that slide is reached, so it’s hard to know if we are very close to danger in that area, or not. How about East Coast cities? Have you watched the news on this? The numbers of East Coast cities dealing with tidal flooding and writing up emergency plans for such is growing monthly. These are cities that never dealt with tidal floods in the past. Or consider the wheat belt in Kansas, et al. There is extreme concern of catastrophic crop failure due to a spike in temperatures. Your croissants are going to get very expensive. So expensive, that Bill Gates has already funded the 30 kilometer high balloon-lifted hose that would spray silicates into the high atmosphere to shield us from sunlight. It’s the most popular of the ‘geo-engineering’ projects being debated by world governments as we speak. Sound like science fiction? The money has already been spent. Governments have been discussing it in deadly earnest for some time now. Do you like coral reefs and seafood? Because industrial acidification is killing off the coral reefs, and we know this for a fact.

As a Christian who believes in the stewardship God placed us in over His world, I believe we should be a serious and thoughtful voice at the table these days as we try to figure out an appropriate response to climate change. My brother-in-law in Kentucky, a very wise follower of Jesus, said to me not long ago when I asked his opinion on all this, “I’ve always believed you should clean up any mess you’ve made, and avoid making a mess when you do something, if you don’t need to make one.” Good common sense.

So, in a word, here’s what I suggest is worth talking about: even if climate change is purely natural, it is very worth our time thinking together about how to adjust our contribution to it, because our contribution is exacerbating a situation that is already going to make life here more difficult. If I knew fire-danger was at an all-time high one summer, everything dry as a bone, and we had 25 mile an hour winds, I’m not going to burn a brush pile that day.

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?