A Christmas thought

I think we in secular society are missing God. Too many people have an inflated estimation of human understanding, power and impact. They think that our economic activity can be understood and controlled to everyone's benefit by a few experts looking at statistics and pulling economic levers. They think that, of all the animals on the planet and all the forces in the universe, man is the dominant force on our climate, and that we can calculate accurately the causes of changes to our climate, predict those causes and impacts for a century into the future, and know how much of which measures to take over the course of that century to mitigate our impact. They think that they can know what is right for other people and other cultures that they barely know, and impose it on them.

I'm sorry. This is human action, nature and the future we are talking about. We don't even know that much about ourselves. We know less about our acquaintances, almost nothing about the vast majority who are strangers to us, less than that about the complex web of interacting factors that is nature, and the only thing we know about the future is that it will almost certainly turn out differently to how we expected.

That, incidentally, is why I am particularly sceptical about "solutions" to anthropogenic global warming like "carbon-capture and storage" and "geo-engineering". Geo-enginering - "engineering the world" - how arrogant is that? Are we to be real-life Slartibartfasts, putting finishing touches to Norwegian fjords? It is bad enough that we over-estimate our understanding and impact. But to compound that by over-estimating our powers to manage the climate and to anticipate the consequences of global-scale engineering projects with absolutely no benefit other than the theoretical impact on the climate, is to take our arrogance to extremes. Climate sceptics promoting geo-engineering are a particularly strange combination of humility and hubris. "We humans are too insignificant to impact the climate, but sufficiently powerful to engineer that climate", they seem to be saying.

Belief in an omnipotent, omniscient God makes believers acutely aware of their insignificance, ignorance and impotence. It may not be a coincidence that America retains a higher proportion of active worshippers than most other developed countries, and also retains greater scepticism about the power of the state and the accuracy of climate models (though their attitude to exporting democracy shows that their faith has not made them immune to delusions of omniscience). Nor that the growth of the managerialist mindset has been increasing for the century and a half that faith has been declining.

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to believe something simply because that belief has social benefits. Fortunately, there is an alternative that can make atheists and agnostics (like myself) feel as insignificant and impotent as any god can make a believer feel.

I am off skiing in a couple of days. As any experienced skier will tell you, you must not fight the mountain - the mountain will always win. If you have stood and looked, overawed, at a sea of peaks as far as the eye can see, you cannot have failed to realise your own insignificance. If you have skied in powder that could slip and bury you at any moment if you do not treat it with the utmost respect (and a good dose of luck), you will have been mortally aware of your own impotence.

It doesn't have to be skiing. Go to the coast during a storm for a graphic reminder of nature's power. Better still, get out on the sea. Windsurfing on a big wave, you are aware that there will be only one winner if you get it wrong. You can never anticipate perfectly how even that tiny section of sea that you are riding will behave. The inevitable sinus-full of salt water at the end of the day is a reminder that you will never conquer the sea, you can only do your best to work with it. And what a feeling it is for those brief moments when you are in harmony with the sea and the wind.

For others, it could be mountaineering, or kayaking, or mountain-biking, or sailing, or surfing, or paragliding. It doesn't matter what, so long as it exposes you to the force and infinite variety and unpredictability of nature.

The greatest understanding we can have is to know the limits of our understanding. So this Christmas, get yourself to a place of worship or to the great outdoors (whichever works for you), and experience a force so great and incognisable that it refreshes your humility and humanity.

Merry Christmas.

God's judgment

The claims that this summer's unseasonal weather are the result of global warming continue. Whether you believe that global warming is the result of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions, like the majority, or of permissive attitudes to gay relationships, like the Bishop of Carlisle, you are supposed to believe that the recent floods are nature or God's judgment on our wicked ways.

Contrary to earlier claims, the Met. Office have started to whisper that this weather is not, in fact, the result of global warming, but is more likely caused by the impacts of a La Niña weather system. If so, it also gives the lie to the claims that this weather was unpredictable. It wasn't, it was just unpredicted by the "experts" to whom the government and the media listen.

Let's be clear. No one who knew anything about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory should ever have been claiming that heavy summer rainfall was the result of AGW. Below is a graph produced by the Governments' UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) in cooperation with DEFRA, the Met. Office's Hadley Centre, and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, showing predicted changes in precipitation under two climate-change scenarios (Top row = Low emissions, Bottom row = High emissions). It is missing one vital piece of information, which is what each column portrays. The three columns for each block (Winter and Summer) are predictions for how the precipitation will have changed, respectively (left to right) by the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s. As you can see, even under low-emissions scenarios, by the 2020s, summer precipitation is expected to have fallen by upto 20% in most of England, including most of the flood-hit areas. Heavy rainfall that delivers in the space of a few days an amount of rain equal to the total rainfall in an average summer is ABSOLUTELY INCONSISTENT with this, however much pundits might like to claim airily that the models predict more extremes.

Is God Green?

All sorts of environmental issues are now presented not just as practical but as moral issues - if you don't recycle, you aren't just a wasteful person, you are a bad person. In Radio 4's Start the Week today, Andrew Marr's guests included Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar turned journalist, who has put together a programme for Channel 4 called God is Green, arguing that environmentalism is a religious issue. So now it's not just practical and moral, but religious.

Another of Marr's guests, Michael Portillo, was an honourable dissenter from this view, but Dowd's view was supported by the other guests - Wangari Maathai (Kenyan environmental and human rights campaigner) and Christine Riding (curator of Tate Britain). Majority support in the studio for a moralistic approach to environmental issues may well reflect the tendency in the country at large.

Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that it is a religious question to the extent that it is a moral question. Dowd tries to make the case that it is more than that - it is embedded in the religious texts. But his example - the fact that there are 261 references to the creation in the Quran - does not seem like strong evidence that environmental care is mandated by God's instructions. So let's stick to the question of morality.

Some projected consequences of global warming, if accurate and allowed to proceed unchecked, are clearly immoral. If global warming caused the destruction of home and habitat through flooding and drought, and my actions contributed knowingly to global warming, those actions would be immoral in so far as they were reasonably avoidable, where I had done nothing to mitigate their effect.

The latter provisos are important. To some extent, my very existence is contributing to global warming. I emit carbon dioxide when I breathe, methane when I fart, and rely on production and transport of goods to satisfy my wants. I might be able to minimise my dependence on produced goods, but it is unrealistic, in a world dependent on division of labour to maximise efficiency, to imagine that I will eliminate entirely my dependence on others' produce. Were we to set that as the moral "gold standard", we would have to acknowledge that a necessary corollary of complete self-sufficiency is the abandonment of mechanisation (which requires factories for production of the machines) and chemical fertilisation, both of which have substantially increased agricultural yields. In such a world, the population that could be supported without further encroachment into uncultivated land would be very much lower than it is today. Moralists would have to explain how this dramatic reduction of world population is to be achieved (and for those religions opposed to birth control, how the lower level is to be maintained).

Any realistic moral philosopher would have to recognise that some continuation of division of labour, mechanisation and transport is necessary to the welfare of mankind. Happily, the Earth has the ability to absorb a certain amount of carbon annually. Upto a point, carbon emissions can be not only necessary to human welfare, but also beneficial to our environment. The trouble comes (in theory) when we emit more than the Earth can absorb. But as every inhabitant of the Earth is contributing to carbon emissions to some extent, it can be difficult to identify which emissions are responsible for which effects. How are we to distinguish by ethical assessment which activities are moral or immoral?

One approach is simply to dictate that certain acts are "good" and other acts are "bad" - simplistic, rules-based morality. We are told that recycling is good. The trip to the bottlebank fills the recycler with a sense of wellbeing that they have done a good deed. But what if the contents of those bottlebanks cannot be sold for a price that justifies the transport to the factory, and are instead tipped in a landfill? That is not an uncommon result. Or what if the carbon released in the travel to the bottlebank, in the transport of the broken glass to a reprocessing factory, and in the conversion of the broken glass into useful product exceeds the carbon that would have been released if those products had been produced from raw materials? Was the act of recycling moral in those circumstances? A rules-based approach to environmental morality is insufficiently flexible to be realistic. Policy to deal with global warming requires consideration of real impacts in real and variable circumstances, not one-size-fits-all dirigisme.

Another approach is to apportion equally to every member of the human population rights to emit their share of a "sustainable" level of greenhouse gases, and condemn as immoral any activities that cause a person to exceed their allocated emissions rights. But why would equal allocation be fundamentally moral? Communist economies (in China or the Soviet Union), by ensuring all had very little, were not inherently more moral than capitalist economies, where even the poorest are better off than were the majority under communism, but where allocation is inherently unequal.

More cohesion or less coherence?

So peers have decided that head teachers will be required to promote "community cohesion" and that this will be assessed by inspectors (Guardian).

Schools work best where teachers are left to get on with the business of running schools, not respond to politically correct targets.  In well run schools, with motivated teachers and happy pupils, "community cohesion" happens automatically.

Popes and Caliphs

On BBC News 24 this morning, Peter Sissons asked Sir Iqbal Sacranie (leader of the Moslem Council of Britain) if the lack of a figurehead, equivalent to the Pope for Catholics, made it more difficult for leaders of the Moslem faith to state authoritatively that extremist views were heretical. Sir Iqbal replied that he was referring to a Caliph. Interestingly, one of Al-Qaeda's most fundamental ambitions is restoration of a Caliphate encompassing all Moslems and Moslem nations.

Whilst there can be no doubt that what Mr Sacranie means by a Caliph is different to what Osama bin-Laden means, this highlights the paucity of vocabulary within Islam to describe the relationship between the religion, its leaders, its followers and their governments. A Caliph is fundamentally different to a Pope, because a Caliph exercises absolute temporal as well as spiritual powers over followers of the faith. But there is no title available in the Moslem lexicon to descrbe a supreme spiritual leader distnct from the temporal leadership.

Religious Education

Islam is causing particular problems in the world at the moment. But other religions have also been the excuse for destruction and torment, for example in Europe at the time of the Inquisition, or more recently in Northern Ireland, North Uganda, Kashmir or Punjab. Religious leaders would argue that religion was not the cause of the suffering, only the excuse, and that their religion had been used and abused by rulers for ulterior motives. This may be so, but it is difficult to imagine that those leaders would have found it so easy to inspire savage acts in the name of humanism.