Monday, March 05, 2007

Peak Oil and Slavery

I was away overnight (hence no TBTM today) at Christ's College, Cambridge, where I had been invited to preach on the theme of 'Peak Oil and Slavery' - part of a sequence that the college had on the theme of slavery, given the Wilbeforce anniversaries etc.

The 'raw' text (ie, very unpolished!) of my address is below the fold - it was delivered a little differently, as I let the Spirit move me.
Peak Oil and Slavery sermon
Texts: Hosea 4.1-9, Philippians 4.4-9

Hosea passage – one of my favourites – two key elements to bring out –

#1– one of the repeated themes in Scripture, in the Old Testament especially, is that the land, the environment, will reflect the state of society, especially with regard to the levels of social justice – where there is immorality, where issues of social justice are ignored: therefore the land mourns – that is one of the tools that Christians can use to assess our present environmental crisis – it cannot be separated out from issues of international justice, and to the extent that we fail at those issues, so too to that extent will we fail to heal the ecology of our planet – and of course, the claim of social justice is one of the two paramount emphases of scripture, running just behind that of worshipping God alone – there are literally thousands of references to the need to look after the poor, and a society which systematically ignores those commands has no claim whatsoever to be described as Christian

#2 – with you is my contention o priest – it’s all the fault of the religious community for not teaching properly – privatised faith, a faith with no discernible impact upon the operation of the public world – christian faith in British society has largely been reduced to functioning as the oil for the machinery of capitalism, designed to reduce the screeches of pain from those who are crushed in the cogs – [just by way of a sidenote, this is what is wrong with new age spirituality, and the half digested buddhism that so often lies behind it – what is the point of quietening your mind and gaining inner peace when there is tremendous suffering and injustice all around? That is the precise opposite of what Xn faith is about – we are to shout from the rooftops against injustice] - but the problem is that the religious leadership has acquiesced in this privatisation of the faith, they have accepted a role as domestic pet, allowed to mewl for its own milk, but only tolerated for as long as it stays within the home, and eradicates any rodents that come in – any sense that their might be more kinship between the rodents and the pets is to be stamped on as soon as possible

current anglican shenanigans - if religion is private then it is inevitable that religious leaders get obsessed with what we do with our privates - this is not what Christian faith should be focused on!

so: 2 things, the claim of social justice, and the necessity for the religious leaders to speak out on such topics – in other words, the political impact of Xn faith – I understand you have been discussing slavery – wilberforce – outstanding example of the political impact which a Christian faith is called to produce –

hosea – my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge - I want to share knowledge about a concept called Peak Oil, and what it means for the way we need to arrange our lives – so a quick tour of what Peak Oil is, and what the implications are
1. lives built on oil – in western europe we have the equivalent of 100 slaves working for us – that is the amount of work carried out by oil on our behalf, and providing us with the lifestyle we presently enjoy – or endure – oil stands beneath vast tracts of contemporary life, not simply in terms of what powers the transport system, which is the most obvious area of oil dependency, but through the various industries which manufacture petroleum products, from fertilisers to chemicals to plastics to clothing –
2. peak oil refers to the geological process whereby the quantity of oil from a well initially comes out slowly, builds up to a level of peak production, and then falls away over time – analogy of hot water tank – open the tap, water comes out, open tap fully, strong flow, as tank empties, flow slows down to a trickle – same thing happens with oil fields – so US peaked in 1970, britain peaked in 1999, we’re now declining at around 8% a year – around 54 of the 65 oil producing nations in the world have now peaked – and the question is when the world as a whole passes the moment of peak production – I’m fairly persuaded that it was two years ago, but that conclusion is by no means certain – we might have a few years yet to go
3. the impact of peak oil, however, has hardly been thought about, and it will be painful and chaotic – I think of it as a great dislocation as our society will be thrust harshly into a different mode of life – has been described in various ways, as the long emergency for example, for all the assumptions on which our modern way of life has been built will be removed – industrial revolution powered by access to fossil fuels, built up a transport system dependent on liquid fuel – and when that liquid fuel is removed from the system, the system will come to a juddering halt – some of you may remember the fuel tax protests of september 2000, and how rapidly the supermarkets were emptied of food – that was a brief window into our vulnerability
4. the trouble is that there are several levels of positive feedback built into the system, and in addition, there are several what could be called ‘non-linear’ or random factors to consider – for example, consider mexico, whose main oil field, cantarell, is now declining extremely rapidly – mexico’s own consumption is increasing, and in the next two or three years the mexican government will have to decide whether to continue exporting oil to the united states or reserve that same oil for its own people to use – and how long will a precariously elected government last that doesn’t look after its own people? Or consider iran, and whether the bush administration decides on the option of double or quits by attacking iran – that too will have an immediate impact upon the flow of oil, and the price of oil, within the world economy – there are just too many things that can go wrong, and
5. this is the context for my opposition to tesco – an extremely well run british company, which is paying a little bit more than lip service to environmental goals, but which is wholly dependent upon a modern system of just-in-time distribution, powered by liquid fuel – and when that liquid fuel first becomes phenomenally expensive, and then becomes impossible to find – the system will buckle and break – and then where will we find our daily bread? The economy that most of you students will live in for the majority of your working lives will look very different to the one that the rest of us have grown up with – one practical bit of advice, meant in all seriousness – learn to grow your own vegetables

Think back to that figure of 100 slaves working for each and every one of us. What peak oil means is that within the next twenty years or so that figure will be reduced to around 20, if we’re lucky, and if we have enlightened and responsible political leadership. Ahem. If we continue as we are, it may be much less

Now, strange as it may seem – there is in fact something joyful hidden here, something to be embraced and affirmed, and this is really what I want to leave you with – I think it was Mandela who said, in the context of apartheid in south africa, that no man is free until every man is free – that, in other words, slavery is something that destroys the humanity of the slave owner as much as the slave, it is something that destroys the humanity of the oppressor as much as the oppressed – you could say that there is a form of human life which allows us to flourish, to have life in all its abundance, which does not involve a dependency upon slaves

I believe that this applies even when the slaves are fossil fuels, the remnants of plants that died millions of years ago – in other words, that our dependency on oil to do all our work for us is not something that enhances our human life

As an example, let me tell you a story about my four year old son – living in a parish, often receive presents at christmas – got given a bow and arrow – one of those cheap plastic things made in the far east, which, inevitably, got broken after about ten minutes of use – but he liked having a bow and arrow – so off we went to a local wood, with a piece of old elastic, to make our own bow and arrows – much more fun, much more quality time with daddy, much more human – in other words, the use of oil to make such junk is not something which enhances human life

St Paul writes about things which are excellent in the letter to the philippians – whatever is worthy, whatever is honourable, noble, excellent – think on these things – all the things which are most essential for our common humanity are supplied to us; we don’t need this system of idolatrous growth to provide for our real needs – especially in our present context when our culture’s worship of the economy is proving that growth has negative marginal utility – in other words, that in our present context economic growth is a cancer, it is growth in one part of the organism without any regard for the wider body, and which is destroying that wider body

We have forgotten what it is to be human – and the culture instead embraces the manufacture of desires, in order to buy the widgets which pay for the widget makers to buy more widgets and keep this fantastic system of widget making up and running

the real political challenge that is going to be faced by this generation alive today is to withstand the temptation to use coal - if we use the crisis of peak oil to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels and embrace powerdown and renewables then global warming will be essentially solved - but if we try and give our present economic system one more generation of life by turning to coal then the planet will be cooked, it's as simple and as serious as that. coal is the enemy of the human race

This system is going to come to an end, and very soon. It is built upon injustice, and it is structured around the denial of our common humanity. God will not allow it to continue. A passage from jeremiah ch 4: “‘my people are fools, they do not know me. They are senseless children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, they know not how to do good.’ I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty… I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

We have a choice – and the call to christians is clear – we are to embrace the ways of human abundance, not material abundance, we are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our god – if we turn to him then God will have mercy – and, frankly, in the context of what is looming above us, mercy is what we will need. But at the last, I take comfort from paul’s writings – the call to rejoice in the faith, that the lord is near, and that we are not to be anxious about these things, in order that the peace of god, which passes understanding, may guard our hearts, and our minds, in jesus christ. May God bless you all, and may your vegetables grow well. Amen.

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