Keep it in the ground

(October 12, 2017)

The sudden announcement by TransCanada Pipelines to scuttle its Energy East project landed with a clang amid the environmental activist community.

Good news, to be sure, but after a year of struggles, temporary victories and then imperious Trump-issued executive orders that paved the way for completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it was unexpected.

It’s like pushing hard to keep the door from opening, only to have it slam shut when the person on the other side gives up and lets go.

It would be nice to think that the cancellation was a sign of corporate social responsibility, that TransCanada realized the harms (real and anticipated) of the Energy East pipeline were not worth the risk to future generations. One can always hope for such enlightenment, but no doubt this played a minor role compared to the fact that someone, finally, did the math.

Investing in pipelines these days is like investing in new whaling vessels in the late 19th century. People did not stop using whale oil lamps because we ran out of sperm whales, but because there was a smarter (and eventually cheaper) alternative.

In the same way, I recall Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani’s famous 1973 line about how the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. The age of oil will not end when people run out of oil, but when people realize there are smarter, eventually cheaper, and more ecologically sustainable alternatives.

Pipelines need both a source of oil and customers to buy the finished product. One without the other is pointless. The current systems (leaks and all) are managing current levels of supply and demand. New pipelines are a huge investment in a future in which oil prices will be high enough to justify collecting and refining the tar sands crude — something that implies an increasing demand.

Apart from inconvenient truths — such as that there is enough carbon buried in the tar sands to guarantee extinction by global warming of much of the life on Earth, including our own — the idea of an oil-needy future is seriously delusionary.

Simply put, it is bad business. I would love some forensic accounting of who is invested in these operations right now, because I suspect the money of those in charge of the fossil-fuel industry is invested elsewhere. Mutual funds, pension plans and other things that are supposed to guarantee our personal economic future, are likely the shills still paying for obsolete fossil-fuel technological infrastructure.

Pull the direct and indirect government subsidies out of the fossil fuel industry and that investment becomes even more dubious. In a warming world in which increasing greenhouse gas emissions are the harbinger of disasters, from droughts to forest fires and to hurricanes, even General Motors is making a major shift to electric vehicles. Proposing expanded investment in the fossil-fuel industry would be as popular with shareholders these days as trying to corner the market on whale oil.

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Technology, Religion and Human Security in the 21st Century

Time to publish a lecture I gave ten years ago as part of the 40th Anniversary Lecture Series at the University of Winnipeg:

(November 22, 2007)

I want to thank the Alumni Association for the invitation to be part of the 40th Anniversary Lecture series. Since I began my studies here thirty-one years ago, I have accumulated a number of debts to this institution and its faculty, staff and students.

As a student, I experienced the best of a challenging and rewarding liberal arts education. Over the intervening years, as I wandered through the academy, I always found a welcome back at the University of Winnipeg as my professors became both mentors and friends.

Ten years ago, when I returned to Winnipeg to teach and my professors became colleagues, the courses I taught in the departments of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies and in the Faculty of Theology enabled me to work in a multi-disciplinary way that I had always felt important.

Other responsibilities made it impossible for me to attend Bob Young’s wonderful first lecture in this series, but he was entirely correct in identifying the significance of interested students in the creation of good teachers.

Under the hot lights of the television studio, broadcasting live in prime time to the whole city in a way that brought the university into the community in a truly remarkable fashion, I thrived on the ideas and passion of hundreds of intelligent, articulate and concerned students, while the staff of the Centre for Distributed/Distance Learning filed away some of my rougher edges and diplomatically challenged any inconsistencies that the students might have missed.

So, when I considered what to present to you this afternoon, I was reminded of an intriguing course I inherited and taught in Religious Studies, called “Images of Power: The Religious and Technological Imaginations.” If I were teaching it now, this lecture would have been part of our conversation.

I want to start by offering a conclusion about technology, religion and human security in the 21st century, and then will spend the rest of the lecture unpacking what it means, and why I would reach such a conclusion.

Human security is clearly one of the most compelling and troubling issues of our time. However human security is construed or constructed, the tendency of globalized western scientific culture is to use technological means to maintain security, or at least to minimize insecurity. In a post 9/11 environment, moreover, religion – all religion and not just Islam – seems to be regarded as a negative or destabilizing force.

I argue, however, that the reverse is actually more accurate – we will never achieve any significant measure of human security in the 21st century by technological means alone. Further, the uncritical reliance on technology – and the marginalizing of religion – is more likely to decrease such security.

Only a better understanding of our own technology, and a willingness to acknowledge and incorporate existing religious beliefs in the context of human security on a global scale, will make it possible for the 21st century to be less bloody at its end than it has been to this point.

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Universities should focus on people

(May 18, 2017)

We are entering the season of graduations and commencements, where speakers will applaud the graduates and exhort them to work hard to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.

No one will mention that these students are graduating into a future made difficult, if not impossible, by the lifestyle choices of their parents and grandparents. Nor will they be told they are unlikely to enjoy either the environmental or economic benefits of their elders, whose enterprises have cut down or polluted what they didn’t use up or destroy.

Those would be facts, not the usual flannel that characterizes the commencement address people expect to hear.

Avoiding the subject does not change the situation, however.

Ninety years ago, Raymond Fosdick compiled a book of commencement addresses he had been asked to give: The Old Savage in the New Civilization. His point was simple: humanity’s technological abilities had developed far faster than its moral capacity. We are using dangerous new tools the same way our ancestors used clubs, thousands of years ago, and risk self-destruction.

The key to moral development, he said, was education. New moral and ethical abilities are needed throughout society to manage the amazing possibilities reflected in the new civilization we have created. We must deliberately educate citizens to think in new ways, with a kind of wisdom and maturity that was lacking in the society that self-destructed during the Great War of 1914-1918 and which was threatening to do so again.

In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have sounded like an old, unwelcome crow. Two years later, however, as the stock market crash of 1929 led into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism that preceded the Second World War, his audience likely changed their minds about him and his speech.

At the risk of sounding like an old crow myself, our post-secondary institutions here in Manitoba have failed their graduates and the society in which we live. They have not focused on educating citizens to make better choices than their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they have focused on churning out replacement parts for the machine civilization, whose further development threatens the existence of global society and much of life on Earth.

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