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Friday, June 26, 2015

The sanctity of marriage and the American worldview

AP photo.
Well, America, there you have it. This morning the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, and that same-sex couples in all 50 states should be allowed to marry. Supporters of "traditional marriage" (a term with dangerous connotations) have lost the "culture war". Depending on who you're listening to, this is either a huge advance in justice, equality, and the American Way, or a decisive lurch toward moral dissipation and religious persecution of all who do not embrace the new regime of "marriage equality".

I try not to listen too closely to either of these opinions.

I still stand by most of what I said in my surprisingly popular post on same-sex marriage. I still believe God designed marriage as a gift for mankind to be enjoyed by a man and his wife; I still fail to see how this inexorably leads to fighting against the right of same-sex couples to legally wed, let alone to denouncing them as sinners who need to repent of their idolatry. I still think people who adopt these stances are very often being selective in how they stand for their Christian convictions in a way that does their living witness few favors. I still think Christ set an example as radical in his day as it is today in how we, his followers, are to humbly love all people. (Because public opinion is decisively in their favor, I no longer think gay couples can be described as "the tax collectors of our day", but the Lord's example still stands)

As the relative sparseness of my recent posts shows, I am reluctant to assume that my thoughts on a given topic are particularly wise or worth listening to. But considering the magnitude of the Supreme Court's decision, I think this is a good time to restate with more clarity some things which I am reasonably sure about. Since my previous posts on same-sex marriage went up before I started my journey to Orthodoxy, this will also be an interesting look (mainly for me) at how my approach to social issue like this has shifted.

The "sanctity of marriage"

If you are one of the conservative Christians wringing their hands over the decision and the collapse of the "sanctity of marriage" that it heralds, I would like to point a few things out. We live in a nation where 50% of marriages end in divorce (relatively easy, legalized divorce, at that), where many people elect not to marry at all and simply cohabit or have hookups to get the pleasurable part of marriage with none of the commitment, where marriages are marred by desertion, adultery, even spousal abuse. All this to say that if you are hoping to save the "sanctity of marriage" in American culture, you are far, far too late. (And I do think it is culture, not legislation or court decisions, that is the fundamental issue; no one ever passed a law to make the hookup culture possible, and the real problem is not that same-sex marriage is now legally a constitutional right, but that so many people already considered it to be one) Out of all of these problems, some of which are much more clearly condemned in Scripture, why have you made same-sex marriage your hill to die upon? (I could also ask: why do you not equally protest legalized same-sex marriage in other countries, if gay couples getting married anywhere apparently threatens the sanctity of marriage?)

As a recently-married man(!), I am happy to report that the sanctity of my own marriage has not been affected in the slightest by the legal state of affairs in the United States, or in any other country. The real threat to the "sanctity" of my marriage is not the efforts of third parties to redefine it in the eyes of the state, but my and my wife's own sin, our selfishness, our weakness, all the ways that we fail to truly represent the love between Christ and the Church. The Lord taught us to remove the log from our own eye before trying to take out the speck from our neighbor's eye (Mat 7:3-5), a point well made now as ever. Since taking interest in the Orthodox Church over a year ago, I have found it consistently does a better job of teaching and applying this kind of humility, to an almost radical degree, than most western churches. What right have we to condemn the damage we perceive others to be doing to marriage if our own marriage is full of sin?

As I said in my previous post, I think it's misleading to talk about the present conflict as being over the "definition of marriage". Why must the Church and the state have identical definitions of marriage, when their definitions of so many other things (not least who is a "Christian" and what is a "church") are allowed to differ radically? Talk of marriage as an "institution" adds to this confusion of terms. In classical Christianity, marriage is much more consistently considered a sacrament—a way in which God imparts grace to his people. If it is to be an institution, it is certainly no legal institution; Christians have been supporting a different ethic of marriage since before Constantine, when people of different social classes would be united in marriages that could not be recognized by the government. (An ironic reversal of the modern situation) America's historic profession of "traditional marriage" is an artifact of the Judeo-Christian ethic of its founders, not an article of the faith. This ruling is a radical redefinition of the legal institution of marriage, but it does nothing to alter the Christian sacrament of marriage. (This author puts it better than I can)

Keeping faith out of politics?

I'd like to turn now to one of the arguments I hear in support of the ruling: that Christians shouldn't oppose it because that would be bringing their faith into politics, which would be a violation of the "separation of church and state". (It goes something like that) As you have no doubt heard, this phrase, so often cited as a summary of the First Amendment (or at least the part of it pertaining to religious freedom), does not actually appear in it. The actual text reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Obviously, this amendment pertains only to Congress; it says nothing about whether or how individual Christians, or members of any other faith, are to carry their faith into political engagement. (Does this also mean the president or Supreme Court can issue executive orders/rulings "respecting an establishment of religion"?) If there is a general rule stating that Christians should keep their faith out of politics, it will have to be found elsewhere.

But what if the problem is not the mixing of religion and politics, but the unwise mixing of religion and politics?

I said earlier that I stand by most of what I wrote in my earlier post. I say this because I no longer agree that "Jesus' concern [in ministry] was not political in nature, changing the conditions of the kingdoms of this world, it was incarnating a completely different kingdom that is not of this world at all, with any ensuing political change merely a side effect of the coming of the Kingdom of God." I now consider it much more accurate to say that Jesus' ministry was political, strongly so at times—just not in the ways people expected.

The truth is that the modern dichotomy between religion and politics (and, arguably, the ability to imagine "religion" as a discrete part of life separable from everything else) is a new invention, dating back to the Enlightenment and no earlier. It will do us no good to try to apply it to Jesus. In the first century, what we would call "religion" and "politics" were virtually inseparable, especially for the Jewish people, for whom there was little difference between "religious" and "political" parties. The Jews' definition of "salvation" entailed the forgiveness and vindication of Israel, the defeat of the Gentile nations that oppressed her, and the exaltation of the Lord as the actual ruler over the whole world. This would, of course, have earth-shattering political consequences.

In the opposite corner, the Roman empire had a worldview of its own which, if possible, combined "religion" and "politics" to an even greater degree: the emperor was divine, the son of god, savior of the world, the bringer of "peace and safety", and worthy of reverence, if not a god worthy of worship in his own right. To live as a loyal subject of the emperor was to pay him the proper respects; even the Jews merely managed to work out a deal where they would pray to their god for the emperor, rather than to him as everyone else increasingly did.

It is often assumed that Christ came bearing an unexpectedly apolitical answer to the hopes and prayers of Israel: instead of salvation from the Romans, salvation from sin and death; rather than the rulership of Jesus over an earthly kingdom, his spiritual headship over the Church. As the Lord said, "my kingship is not of this world." (Jhn 18:36) This is only partially true. Once you understand the worldview implicit in the Roman empire and the rising tide of emperor-worship, you begin to see all the ways that the New Testament writers (especially Paul) proclaim the Christian gospel in such a way as to contrast with the imperial "gospel". "Jesus is Lord"; by implication, Caesar is not. Jesus is the savior of the world, not Augustus. He is the ruler over all, whose coming we are to faithfully await; he is truly the Son of God; he is the one who will set the world to rights. He is the "real deal", the true Lord of which the emperor with all his pompous claims and titles is only an imitation. In the Christian gospel, all the promises of the empire were revealed to be false and Christ the one who could truly fulfill them.

In other words, the gospel, as the early Church understood it, was political in that it made "political" claims in competition with those of the empire. Yet this did not mean confronting Rome head on, with its own tactics, as if Jesus had tried to set himself up as a rival emperor in the east hundreds of years before the division of the Roman empire into east and west. Jesus triumphed over the powers and authorities of this world not by political or military victories (as the Jews expected), but primarily by dying and rising from the dead (cf. Col 2:15), demonstrating his lordship over death and all creation. Against the Roman "gospel" and the imperial worldview surrounding it, the early Christians fielded a different gospel, the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, with a different way of living, different answers to the questions to which the emperor claimed to be the solution, and a different narrative in which to locate themselves.

Confronting the powers

What I am suggesting is that American Christians today need to do the same with our country. Just as Rome offered its people a ready-made worldview by which to order their lives, I suspect that there is such a thing as an "American worldview". What is the narrative in which our American culture encourages us to find ourselves? What answers does the American way of life offer to the human condition? I am probably not the person to answer this question in full, but a few quotes from documents that have shaped our nation should be demonstrative. From the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The preamble of the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped pave the way for today's:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. 
These help to sharpen the suspicions I already had: the American "worldview", though hard to define precisely, places a high priority on individual rights such as life, equality, personal liberty, and the "pursuit of happiness" (whatever that entails), and sees it as the purpose of government to secure these rights. In a more postmodern twist, this liberty entails the right to self-determination, the ability wherever possible to define the course and meaning of one's existence without hindrance. In light of these values, consider a few quotes from Justice Kennedy's ruling today:
From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. 
The fundamental liberties protected by [the 14th Amendment] include most of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 147–149 (1968). In addition these liberties extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs. 
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
Kennedy easily applies the rights to personal liberty and self-determination to marriage: if the right to marriage is so important, so essential to a meaningful, fulfilled, "dignified" life, then of course it is unconstitutional to deprive anyone of it without due process of law. However much conservatives may decry same-sex marriage, it's hard to argue that it runs against the spirit of the Constitution.

Maybe what we, as Christians, need to be critiquing is not individual hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, but the hypertolerant, individualistic, libertarian-self-determination worldview on which this nation is founded, which gave rise to this ruling and others that Christians have rightly decried. True justice, true freedom, and true meaning are found in Jesus Christ, not the American way. The early Christians refused to bow before effigies of the emperor; do we today refuse to bow before America's functional "savior", the ateleological sanctity of individual rights and self-determination? Do we glimpse even a fraction of the ways in which our citizenship in the kingdom of God pushes up against our American citizenship, or worse, do we consider the two somehow complementary, as if patriotism is really next to godliness? Obviously the way to oppose such intangible ideals is not by antagonistic protesting or pushing for such-and-such legislation. Rather, it is to live differently, as the body of Christ, the embodiment of a worldview centered around the death and resurrection of the Messiah—much as the early Church did.

Rather than a defeat, this ruling can be an opportunity for Christians to reevaluate and seek to embody to the world a more balanced vision of "God's plan for marriage"—to be known not primarily for what we are against (let alone for being sticks-in-the-mud on a few particular issues). The Christian model of marriage is not simply bigotry, but something far greater and more beautiful, of which the insistence on "traditional marriage" is only a corollary. Through marriage we are called to live out the self-sacrificial, transformative love between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:22-33), which even today has the potential to be a tremendously compelling witness for the faith. In the absence of a deeper closing statement, I think St. Paul's words are apt concluding instructions: "Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom 12:17,18,21)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Our Common Home

If you haven't been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard that Pope Francis has finally released his encyclical on the environment, entitled Laudato Si' after its first two words. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read it, or if its considerable length is too daunting, one of the stories summarizing it. It is a truly remarkable treatise on the modern human condition  worthy of being read and noted by everyone. I will only comment on it here briefly, since I have very little to add to Francis' challenge.

The beginning of the encyclical (paragraphs 1-2) quote the pope's namesake in the course of laying out his vision:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
He further uses Saint Francis' love for, openness to, and communion with God's creation as model for all Christians, recognizing that is both the gift of a benevolent Creator and a "book" by which we can know something of him. (10-12) He states his call thus:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. ... I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. (13-14)
He then wastes little time in the problems he is calling to attention. It is somewhat regrettable that Laudato Si' is so often referred to as the "climate encyclical". As promised and hoped, Francis does address the matter of climate change head-on, coming down solidly on the side of the scientific consensus (23-26):
The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity.... If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
Is evident in this section, Francis is surprisingly literate in discussing the mechanics of this and other problems he highlights; it must be remembered (especially by politicians who seem to have forgotten) that the pope is himself a scientist, with a degree in chemistry. Just as strongly, he addresses the undeniable human consequences of climate change.
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.
Yet the climate is just one of the many issues Francis calls us to respond to. He also discusses pollution (20), industrial waste (21), the western throwaway culture (22), water scarcity (28) and quality (29), and the loss of biodiversity (32-42). And after all this, he moves on to issues that are more sociological than ecological, echoing his conviction that humans are indivisibly connected with the rest of the creation (240): urbanization (44), societal breakdown (46), harmful effects of technology and media (47), and socioeconomic inequality (48-52). The scope of Francis' vision for human (or creational) flourishing, the depth of his compassion for humanity and nature, is breathtaking, as expressed in one of his concluding sentences:
it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. (224)
In the face of all these problems, so often I turn away from most of them and focus on a few pet issues like climate change or recycling, if that. Francis' conviction shows me that this is due to the smallness of my heart; I simply can't bear to think in such length about the modern human condition, though I wish I could. Simply stopping manmade climate change is not nearly enough; this document reads like a blueprint for a truly Christian, truly human(e) way of being in the world. No one is fully equal to the task which he describes. This encyclical is not, I think, meant to be read by us as individuals, but as citizens, employees, members and supporters of movements and organizations that can tackle the big challenges, and, for some, as members of the body of Christ who are the real recipients of God's command to be stewards of his creation. To this end, in chapter two of the encyclical Francis compellingly lays out the Christian foundation for creation care, doing so much better than I did in my previous post on the climate.

Part of me is quite happy that Laudato Si' is getting as much publicity as it is, even if it arrives with much more fanfare than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's letter published years ago (in paragraphs 7-8 Francis favorably recognizes the prior contributions of Bartholomew, whose response to the present encyclical is also well worth reading, as is his joint response with the Archbishop of Canterbury). I hope that it will help to direct both public opinion and public policy towards courses of action that will bring about the kind of flourishing and harmony with the creation that he envisions. Yet it is hard not to finish reading it without feeling sobered at all the ways we harm ourselves and exploit the world around us, and what will be involved in shifting our present course.

Returning to the subject of the climate (maybe for the above reasons?), I appreciate how Francis is using his considerable moral authority to increase the pressure on climate change deniers. I could already tell you that it is immoral to reject humility, the basic facts, and public opinion in claiming without foundation that you know better about the climate than the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. But Francis also highlights our moral responsibility to live in harmony with (rather than selfishly exploit) the rest of the created world, and the human consequences of climate change, which will disproportionately fall on the poor and vulnerable who had a relatively small role in causing the rising sea levels, scorching droughts, or food chain collapses that made them into refugees. In other words, environmentalism is not just about self-preservation; it is about social justice and living as created beings worshipping our Creator. Climate change denial is not only blind (does anyone else appreciate the irony that religious leaders now seem to be more scientifically literate than a good deal of civil leaders?); it is callous for refusing to see and take responsibility for the consequences of our contributions to the problem at hand. As this excellent response from BioLogos says, Laudato Si' "makes a moral call for action based on the fundamental premises of the Christian faith – premises so fundamental that we can all, and must all, agree."

In summary: read Pope Francis' encyclical, or at least an executive summary of it. Recommend it to your friends and loved ones. The vision if offers, of a way through the ecological, technological, and sociological problems besetting modern-day humanity, is motivated by a compassionate heart that compels attention, if not partnership, not just from all Christians, but from all people. His seamless connection of this heart with the Christian faith and gospel is one of the best examples of evangelism I have seen in this day and age. For all the differences between my faith tradition and the pope's, I stand in complete agreement with him on the subject matter of this encyclical, and I hope that it finds traction in the hearts, minds, and lives of many.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Climate change: How we know it is real and what we can do about it

As the 2016 presidential election becomes harder to ignore, I realized to my surprise that so far I have been silent on an issue that is incredibly important to me and much more controversial than it should be. The time has come for me to firmly plant my flag concerning the reality of climate change.

The fact of the matter is that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate, most of this warming is due to human activity, it is already having an increasingly negative effect on biodiversity and our ability to thrive, and it will have catastrophic consequences if we do not take action soon to reduce our production of greenhouse gases.

The science

The scientific basis for global warming is well-understood, based on physical principles that are beyond questioning, and supported by observation. The greenhouse effect, the process by which atmospheric gases (primarily water vapor and carbon dioxide, but also methane and others) absorb and trap heat radiated by the earth, is entirely uncontroversial, supported by basic science and observation of the Earth as well as other worlds (especially Venus, where it is responsible for the lead-melting temperatures). Thus, as the concentrations of "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere increases, we should expect them to retain more heat, producing a net atmospheric warming effect.

And this is exactly what we observe. Recent measurements show that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is steadily increasing. (The red line is the raw measurements, the black line is after correction for seasonal variation)
Over a somewhat longer timescale, we see that it might actually be exponentially increasing.
Lately, the growth rate of CO2 concentration has been about 2 ppm (parts per million) per year, or about 15 billion tons per year.
There is abundant evidence that this change in atmospheric carbon is anthropogenic (manmade). Human emissions of CO2 per year (see page 45 of that publication) are about 30 billion tons per year. This means that rather than producing a net emission of CO2, nature is in fact absorbing about half of the CO2 we emit. Additionally, atmospheric oxygen levels are steadily decreasing, which is just what we'd expect if the excess CO2 is being produced by burning carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) rather than by being released from a natural reservoir.
Over a longer timescale, this plot shows the correlation between the current rise in atmospheric carbon and human industrialization, beginning in the 19th century. By far the most obvious conclusion is that atmospheric carbon levels are increasing because we're putting it there by the burning of carbon-based energy sources.
One more plot shows the range of natural variation of atmospheric CO2 levels over a much longer timescale, and the relative magnitude and suddenness of the recent increase. Yes, carbon levels have changed in the past, but the present increase is virtually unprecedented in both its size and rapidness—150 years is the blink of an eye in geologic terms, and in that time we have already matched the increase in carbon over the past 11,000 years since the last ice age. Recently, atmospheric carbon reached 400 ppm—its highest level in the last three million years.
If the greenhouse effect works, this increase in atmospheric carbon should produce an increase in global temperatures. And it does. This plot shows five independent data sets of global surface or lower atmosphere temperature over the past 35 years. The second, smoother graph shows the data after removing the effects of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, solar variability, and volcanic emissions (several of the common natural explanations given for global warming). After filtering out these natural variables, a clear trend toward warmer temperatures remains.
This change in observed global temperatures can be correlated with a number of other variables, some of the most obvious of which are depicted below: receding glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels and temperatures, changes in the migration and habitation of plant and animal species, and increasing humidity. Independently measuring and correlating all of these indicators considerably strengthens the case for a warming planet. And besides scientific measurements, the effects of global warming are already being felt around the world: increased flooding in coastal cities, record-breakingly hot months/summers/years/decades, and (in the past few years) the devastating drought in California. The effects of climate change are felt perhaps nowhere as strongly as in Pacific island nations like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels.
Again, this warming trend can be traced back to the previously mentioned manmade increase in atmospheric carbon levels by a variety of means. The independence with which these indicators can be measured and correlated with each other makes the case for anthropogenic climate change much stronger than it would be if it were based on only one variable.

The danger

You may be asking, "so what?" Carbon levels and global temperatures have fluctuated widely in the past (as previously mentioned, our current level of atmospheric carbon was last reached 3 million years ago), so how do we know that the era of global warming will actually be worse rather than just different? Well, as also previously mentioned, the difference between manmade climate change and natural climate change is one of both scale and rate. An optimistic estimate of 2° C of warming will push global surface temperatures to a level not seen since the last time we had this much carbon in the atmosphere, the Pliocene era three million years ago. And if we keep producing carbon at anything like our current rate, this number will likely be higher. Most species alive today didn't even exist tens of millions of years ago when things were last this hot, so we can't expect them to be able to adapt.

Even more significant is the fact that while climate changes naturally over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of years (during which greenhouse gas emission and absorption remain roughly balanced at all times), manmade climate change is operative over just a few hundred years—orders of magnitude faster than the natural rate. Past instances in which atmospheric carbon levels and global temperatures changed suddenly and in an imbalanced way (as they are doing today), due to large igneous provinces or other causes, almost always resulted in mass extinction events—and it is very likely that our actions are sending the Earth into another one, as they are producing the same symptoms by the same means. The stress we have placed on species and ecosystems through other means like pollution, habitat loss, overhunting/fishing, and the introduction of invasive species makes it even harder for them to adapt to manmade climate change as they have to natural climate shifts in the past. This article explains these difficulties in more depth.

While warming temperatures may bring some positive effects, like improved agriculture and vegetation activity at higher latitudes and an ice-free Northwest Passage, the negative effects are expected to be far greater. These include unhappy things like decreased water supply and desertification (as in California), increased danger of heat stress, the growth of oxygen-poor zones in the ocean, extinction of numerous vulnerable species and the loss of biodiversity, and the displacement of hundreds of millions due to sea level rise. All of these things will carry catastrophic economic consequences for developing and developed nations alike. Still more troubling are effects like decline in global phytoplankton and the leakage of methane from formerly frozen areas that will create positive feedback, further intensifying the warming of our planet. In theory, if the planet warms enough to push the water vapor concentration in the atmosphere to a sufficient level, the feedback could become into a self-sustaining loop that would turn the Earth into a second Venus (though we would likely already be doomed well before it got to this point).

The consensus

The scientific consensus on climate change is clear and unequivocal. A survey of peer-reviewed climate science papers found that 97% of the papers expressing a position explicitly affirm that anthropogenic climate change is real. If this figure seems surprisingly low, keep in mind that the 3% includes implicit (rather than explicit) endorsements, implicit rejections, and no opinions. Another, similar survey which only counted explicit rejections of anthropogenic climate change found that 24 out of 13,950 articles reject global warming—just 0.17%. This consensus is even stronger (at least 98% explicitly affirming) in more recent papers.

In light of all this, it saddens me to see so many of our nation's leaders (and the people who voted for them) willfully ignore the scientific consensus in favor of their own fantasies about climate change: that it is not happening, that is it is not a problem, that it is not caused by us, that there is no consensus, or that there is no need for them to take action because "I'm not a scientist" (and, apparently, not willing to trust them either). Certainly the media, in its well-intentioned dedication to balance, is partly responsible for enabling this ignorance: it creates the illusion that climate change is a two-sided issue under discussion rather than a matter of scientific fact. But really there is no "debate" or "conversation" regarding the reality of climate change; there is only an overwhelming consensus and those who (all too often for political or ideological reasons) refuse to accept it.

As an analogy, consider the fact that due to tidal acceleration, the Moon is moving away from the Earth at a rate of about 3.8 cm/year. This trend is not immediately or intuitively obvious to an observer, but it is well explained by basic physical principles and verifiable by multiple methods: studying ancient observations of eclipses to establish the Moon's position in the past, gravitational data from satellite laser ranging, and simply bouncing light pulses off the retroreflectors left by the Apollo astronauts and measuring the return delay. Scientists are just as certain that anthropogenic climate change is happening as they are that the Moon is drifting away from the Earth. I have never heard anyone express doubt about the latter. Why is the former any different—because of its implications for how we live? Our own desires, interests, and preferences cannot change the truth of what we are doing to the climate.

The theology

My knowledge of the fragility and beauty of the Earth and our dependence on it, as well as my own experiences in nature, would be sufficient to instill in me a deep and abiding concern for environmental issues, especially anthropogenic global warming, dangerous as it is. But as a Christian, I have another, even stronger foundation for environmental concern and action.

In Genesis 1 God creates the heavens and the Earth (v. 1) and all the life on the Earth, declaring everything that he had made "very good" (v. 31). He also creates mankind in his image, to fill the Earth and subdue it and have dominion over nature. (v. 28) Does this mandate give us license to do as we please with the environment? No, for it must be considered along with the innate goodness of created nature and our role as God-appointed regents over it. If the creation is really good, and not "fallen"/evil or simply morally neutral raw material for our own designs, then by harming it we are harming God's handiwork. The image of God in man is not the only reason for human worth and dignity; simply being created at all conveys great worth and value. The mandate uses militaristic language ("subdue", "have dominion over") because of the present, frustrated state of the creation (cf. Rom 8:19-23), but this dominion always has as its intent wise, beneficent rule and redemption as God himself works, never exploitation or destruction.

The Psalms contain abundant examples of the value of creation as it reveals the glory of God. In Psalm 19 "the heavens are telling the glory of God" to the ends of the earth and the sun "like a strong man runs its course with joy". Psalm 33 praises God (through the Psalmist's ancient understanding of the cosmos) as the creator and ruler of the heavens, the earth, and the sea. Psalm 104 goes into considerably more detail, poetically describing the act of creation as well as God's ongoing governance of the created order, providing food for man and the animals; even the cycle of life and death is the occasion for praise. Psalms like these express what I have heard described as a sacramental view of nature which Fr. Stephen Freeman describes as the opposite of modern secularism, the reckoning of all the workings of the cosmos as a ceaseless act and a voiceless hymn of worship to their maker.

As an Orthodox Christian-to-be, I am happy to be part of a church which faithfully preserves and teaches this understanding of the cosmos. It is truly the basis for robust, authentic Christian environmentalism. As proof of this, one need look no further than the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew. Like Pope Francis, he is deeply concerned about the human impact on the environment; unlike Pope Francis, he has already published a strongly-worded and very wise encyclical which expresses a theological basis for caring for the creation much better than I can (and takes a strong stance on climate change, much like the one the Vatican is expected to take). Even if you haven't been reading all the links I've been posting thus far, take just a few minutes and read it

One other way Christian teaching can contribute to the conversation on climate change is in its abiding concern for the poor. It is an unhappy fact of global warming that the nations most affected by it tend to be poor and developing (as well as very low in carbon emissions), while the nations least affected are predominately the wealthy nations responsible for causing it in the first place. It is a textbook negative externality on a global scale, a terrible injustice. Prominent among the Christian's reasons for environmental concern should be the awareness of the possible unjust effects of his/her actions on the poor who stand to lose the most to climate change—their crops, their livelihoods, even their homes and their lives.

In light of all this, arguments fielded by Christians in opposition to environmentalism are revealed for the falsehoods they are. Since they seem to exist solely among laypeople and not among scientists or theologians, I will not attempt to state them in a clearer, better-supported form as I usually do. These are not carefully-considered theological responses with any kind of historical pedigree or arrived at after careful reflection; they are from-the-hip answers that use Christian-esque ideas to justify a false position arrived at due to other factors.

First, I have heard it argued that God, as creator, is sovereign over nature, and that man doesn't have the power to change it or thwart his plans. My first response is that this is simply factually false. Man evidently does have the power to cause global-scale environmental changes because we are doing so and have already done so. This is simply undeniable, supported by reliable, repeatable observations; for instance, as shown above, we have demonstrably increased the carbon concentration of the atmosphere by about a third. Theological arguments can't falsify a scientific theory; only a scientific argument can. As Mark Noll explains in relation to young-Earth creationism in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, authentic Christian thinking requires listening to both "books" of God's revelation: Scripture and creation, not using your interpretation of one to contradict what we can know through the other. To do so is, ironically, to deny God as creator in order to confess him as sustainer of the creation.

Further, we know that God created us in his image as free, responsible beings with real moral agency and the ability to make real moral choices. This is implicit in all of the Bible's ethical commands, which wouldn't make sense otherwise, and has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Sidestepping discussions of the exact nature or extent of this freedom, God's sovereignty obviously doesn't mean that he defends the integrity of his image in man by intervening to stop us from wronging or killing each other. Why then should we expect him to prevent us from sinning against the environment? There is no biblical support for such an idea, and plenty for the kind of Christian environmental ethic I sought to lay out above.

Additionally, this argument sidesteps the question of whether and how Christians are to care for the environment; it simply claims (without serious justification) that God will somehow restrain or prevent the negative consequences of our failing to do so, so there is no need to try. But if we really are appointed as stewards and even priests of the rest of the creation, then this argument is saying in effect that we should simply ignore this vocation because there was really no reason for God to give it to us in the first place. This is horribly irresponsible and dualistic, not to mention hubristic. "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Rom 9:20) By contrast, it is not hubristic at all to believe, on the basis of multiple independently measurable indicators, the sobering truth that human activity is having a major effect on the Earth's climate, which we have a mandate to care for. Rather, it is the beginning of humility and repentance.

The other argument I sometimes hear is similar to the first, but even worse. It is the sentiment that because Jesus is coming back to bring the old creation to an end and inaugurate the new, we don't have to be especially concerned about the environment. Similar to the previous argument, it basically states that we don't need to care about the effects of human activity on the environment because God will intervene to prevent them, in this case by returning to bring about the end of the world. In other words, it presumes that Jesus will return before climate change can begin to have catastrophic effects on future generations. But, in Jesus' own words, "watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (Mat 25:13) Jesus was clear about few things relating to his return, but he was crystal clear about the fact that we can't know when it will be. (See also Mat 24:36,44,50; Mar 13:32; Luk 12:40,46; Acts 1:7) Like the first argument, it sidesteps any kind of teleological discussion of our appointed role as stewards of the creation, focusing only on why we will supposedly be spared from the consequences of scorning our calling.

Why not justify other corporate sins in this way? Why not support slavery, since Jesus will come back to break every chain? Why not selfishly exacerbate the suffering and poverty of people in developing countries (which, incidentally, is one of the effects of global warming), since Jesus will return to wipe every tear from their eyes? "And why not do evil that good may come?" (Rom 3:8) The return of Jesus and the last judgment, far from a cosmic reset button undoing our sins, will be a day of reckoning in which we will be called to account for all that we have done (Mat 25:31-46, Rom 2:6-8, 14:12, 2 Tim 4:1, 1 Pe 4:5, Rev 20:12). It is hard to imagine a greater folly than expecting the day in which everyone will be judged for what he has done to be the occasion for our escape from accountability for sins against the environment.

Edit: The sovereignty of God, invoked in the first counterargument, is relevant to discussions of the climate in another way. The Christian faith involves an unstoppable hope, based on the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord, that is sufficient to overcome even the grim certainty of death. Paul, describing this hope, says powerfully, "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom 8:38-39) So one implication of the sovereignty of God is that we are to remain hopeful and not despair no matter how bad things seem, since for many Christians they have seemed much worse. But not to fear is not to do nothing. Like any other issue incumbent on the Church, climate change demands a response, but that response should be out of hope, not fear or gloom.

What can we do?


In the face of these terrifying visions, and the continued politicized denial of climate change, especially by Republican leaders, it is very tempting (certainly for me) to simply despair of hope that anything can be done. At times like this it's very beneficial to rest and remind myself of some of the reasons for hope that we can actually address the climate crisis. But if you grasp the magnitude of the problem and the need for broad and deep action to address it, then remaining a bystander stops looking like a suitable option. I will try to present ways I have found to take personal action against climate change. Most of them are not that hard!

First, you can reduce your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is the sum of the carbon emissions caused by your actions and lifestyle, both directly (i.e. by driving or burning other fuels) and indirectly (e.g. by buying or using products that require carbon to produce or transport). Some ways to do this include:
  • Use less heating and air conditioning in your home. If you are a homeowner, this might mean insulting your home better to avoid having to heat it as much or installing a "smart" thermostat that only regulates your home's temperature when people need it. If, like me, you rent an apartment, you can still leave your thermostat at a lower temperature in winter and rely more on fans and opening/shading windows than air conditioning in the summer.
  • Minimize your energy usage. Ways to do this include using compact fluorescent bulbs for lighting (or, better yet, long-lasting and super-efficient LED bulbs), turning off lights when you leave a room, turning your computer off when not using it, and plugging devices that use power even when turned off (e.g. lots of electronics) into a power strip so you can fully de-power them when not using them. As previously mentioned, minimizing your use of heating and air conditioning also helps with this. If you are a homeowner, you can also try to install energy-efficient (e.g. Energy Star) appliances.
  • Use less hot water; heating water takes a lot of energy. If possible, you can do this by installing more efficient shower heads/faucets/toilets. Homeowners can also turn their hot water temperature down and/or ensure that their water heater is well-insulated.
  • The classic trifecta: reduce, reuse, recycle. This boils down to consuming and throwing away as little as possible. If you're unsure about what you can recycle, your city's web site should tell you. (Here is the one for Minneapolis as an example)
  • Drive less or not at all. When possible, use alternate forms of transportation like walking, cycling, carpooling, or public transportation. This may not be easy, but besides the environmental benefits it will also save you money, especially if you are able to completely replace owning a car with other ways of getting around. I am almost through my third post-college year without a car and loving it. I spend $85 a month on my bus pass and a total of about $200 a year on parts and maintenance for my bike. Not only do I save a lot of money, I love not having to spend lots of time driving or (as is all too often the case) sitting in traffic. Once we are married, my fiancee Marissa and I plan to own one car between us, which should be more than sufficient for our needs. This option may require some bigger lifestyle modifications, but can be quite worth it and have a major impact on your carbon footprint.
  • Eat less meat, especially red meat. Producing a given amount of calories of meat uses a lot more resources than producing the same amount of calories of plants. Even if you don't go fully vegetarian, reducing the amount of meat in your diet can make a sizable difference. Apparently minimizing your consumption of rice is also beneficial, since most rice is grown in methane-emitting paddies. Eating locally-grown food is also an obvious step (reducing fuel costs of transporting it), as is avoiding wasting food.
Second, you can offset your carbon footprint. This means supporting environmental projects that remove an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equal to the amount you put in. The cost of this is apparently just $15 per metric ton. The average carbon footprint of an American is 27 tons per year, which translates to an offset of $405, or just $33.75 per month. This is a surprisingly low price to pay to become "carbon neutral", and of course you can decrease it by lowering your footprint. This handy site lets you estimate your carbon footprint and donate to offset it.

And third, you can take action beyond your individual/household's carbon footprint. You can support organizations that are helping to fight climate change and promote the welfare of the environment like The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the World Resources Institute. (The very useful website Charity Navigator can help you find another organization to support if you like) Or you can join the public conversation addressing climate change by signing petitions, writing to your elected officials about your concerns, or simply by telling others about it to raise awareness, perhaps by sharing concise, persuasive resources on the web (hint hint). The strategy and tactics of dealing with global warming are much more complex subjects than the basic scientific facts. Once we are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real, there is plenty of room for diversity of opinion on what to do about it, how to balance short-term needs and economic realities with the long-term need not to cook the planet to death. My goal in shutting down climate change denial is not to end constructive conversation, but to make it possible and invite more people into it by showing the obscurantist, anti-science rhetoric of denial for what it is and calling us to rise above it. If we are to resolve the climate crisis, we need all the voices—and hands—we can get.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

What If?


When I got my copy of Randall Munroe's (of the amazing webcomic xkcd) new book What If?I had been holding out hope that in it he would finally answer some of the (multiple) questions I've asked him. Unfortunately, he didn't (although he did answer a very similar one from someone else). So I guess the only thing left for me to do is to take a crack at answering them myself. Obviously, I am not a webcomic artist or an astrophysicist who used to work at NASA, so my answers won't be nearly as funny, well-illustrated, or (possibly) correct as Randall's would be. But hopefully they'll still be worth it. Let's go back through my old Emails...

If people packed shoulder-to-shoulder on every floor of a tall building and jumped, would they have any chance of bringing the building down?

Great question, me! As our example skyscraper, I'll use the shiny new One World Trade Center; since it was built to survive being hit by a hijacked airplane or a truck bomb, it should have at least as much of a chance as any other skyscraper.

According to Wikipedia, the "Freedom Tower" has 86 usable floors. The base is a 200-foot square footprint whose edges get chamfered as they rise up the building's side, ending in a smaller square rotated 45 degrees that fits in the first. The bottom floor (above the base) has an area of 40,000 ft² and the top has an area of half that, 20,000 ft². Let's assume that the average usable floor is 30,000 ft² ≈ 2,755 m². Let's further assume that 95% of that area can be stood on (i.e. is not a wall, elevator shaft, etc.), or 2617 m². If we assume three people can fit in a square meter, that's 7851 people per floor, or 675206 people total (nevermind the hellish logistics of getting them all in there, which would be almost as bad as Randall explains in his similar answer here).

If I then assume that an average adult weighs 75 kg and can jump 0.3 meters in the air (per this article), they would be traveling at v = √(2gh) = √(2 * 9.8 * 0.3) = 2.42 m/s when they came down. The force exerted by an impact is the change in momentum divided by time. How much time does it take for you to stop moving after you hit the ground while jumping? It's hard to find good figures, but from this solid-looking question from a physics textbook and some testing that would no doubt confuse my roommate if he saw it, I'm going to be conservative and say about 0.1 seconds if you're smart and bend your knees.

So, the force exerted by a 75kg person when landing from a jump is about 2.42 * 75 / 0.1 = 1,815 N, decelerating the person at about 2.5 g. The force from all 675,206 people would then be about 1.225 GN (giganewtons), the equivalent of about 125,000 metric tons. All of this force will be transmitted to the Freedom Tower's base. Will it survive? Well, considering how each of the old towers weighed about 500,000 tons (I can't find data on the new one), it's safe to say that this additional load should be well within the structure's margin of safety. That [architect of One World Trade Center] David Childs really thought of everything.

I hope it isn't in bad taste that I originally answered this question on September 11th.

What would happen if you somehow brought a cubic meter of neutron star matter to earth? (Both the actual case where it would probably explosively decompress, and the hypothetical case where it stayed together in a solid unit)

Randall almost answered this one in his new book. The actual question was, "If a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth's surface, would the Earth be destroyed?"

My guess of what would actually happen was right. It would indeed explosively decompress into superhot normal matter, apparently releasing more energy than a nuclear bomb. So Randall assumes it somehow stays in its superdense state; the bullet would weigh as much as the Empire State Building.

It wouldn't matter much if the bullet were fired or dropped. It would immediately burrow its weight to the center of the earth, forming an underground shooting star, and would then sit there pretty uneventfully. He then explores what would happen if you could somehow keep it on the earth's surface. (Answer: if you tried to touch it, it would try to rip your arm off with gravity; surrounding it with water would allow buoyancy to cancel out the gravity and maybe, just maybe, allow you to touch it) It was a pretty cool question. But my question was about considerably more neutron star material. Let's see what happens...

According to Wikipedia, neutron stars have an average density of 3.7–5.9 × 1017 kg/m3. So our cubic meter of neutron star matter would weight about three to six hundred million billion kilograms. The Empire State Building weighs 365,000 imperial tons, or about 332,000 metric tons. So (if we take a middling estimate of the neutron star matter's density, 4.5 × 1017 kg/m3), our sample would have the mass of about 1.2 billion Empire State Buildings. Incidentally, it appears that Randall was (gasp!) wrong in his answer about the mass of the bullet. Assuming its volume is a teaspoon, it would weigh about as much as 7,410 Empire State Buildings, not just one. Sadly, this means you probably wouldn't be able to get within about twenty meters of it.

Anyway, our sphere (I'll assume it forms a sphere as expected rather than a cube) of neutron star matter is much bigger and much more massive. This means that its gravity becomes much more appreciable. The results are hard for me to imagine. The surface of the sphere will have a gravitation acceleration of nearly eight million g—four times that of the best ultracentrifuges. At ten meters, the sphere's gravitational force would still be equal to about thirty thousand g. This decreases to (only) 306 at 100 meters and 3 g at a kilometer. An easier measure might be that due to its smaller mass and radius, our neutron sphere has an escape velocity of 9.8 km/s, nearly equal to that of the earth. This also means that at six kilometers out, the gravity of the sphere would make you feel like you were on a slope with a grade of about 1:11.75—steep enough to constitute a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you somehow kept this sphere together, it would, of course, fall to the center of the earth, probably causing a good deal more damage on the surface as it did so. If you managed to keep it on the surface as well, things would get pretty weird. If we assume the ground around the sphere is made of reasonably firm dirt with an angle of repose of 45°, all the dirt within about 1.7 kilometers of the sphere (along with anything on top of it) would avalanche towards it. As it turns out, because of the inverse-square law, an object just five meters from the sphere (the equivalent of dropping something to earth from beyond geostationary orbit) will, ignoring air resistance, have picked up 95% of its escape velocity when it impacts. It's hard for me to specify exactly what would happen, but the energy created by the hypersonic impact would probably be contained by the continuing avalanche of dirt, eventually resulting in a large, hot hill developing around the sphere. It puts me in mind of a certain song by Megadeth: "High Speed Dirt".

What would the atmospheric pressure be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench if you took out all the water?

This is much easier than the last question. The relationship between atmospheric pressure and altitude is common knowledge. The side effects of draining the world's oceans (which Randall studies exhaustively in the book) would slightly change things since there would no longer be oceans to displace the atmosphere upward, but this won't significantly change our results (I think). Plugging in the depth of Mariana Trench gives us a pressure of 3.65 atmospheres at the bottom. Apparently, if you stayed in this pressure for several hours, you could develop pulmonary oxygen toxicity, whose main symptom is respiratory inflammation. We all know that humans need supplementary oxygen to survive at high altitudes, but apparently exceedingly low altitudes have problems of their own.

The more interesting part has to do with the atmospheric lapse rate, or how quickly it gets colder as you go higher. It is about 6.5 K per kilometer. As you might guess, it also works in reverse. With the Mariana Trench being 10.911 kilometers deep, the air at the bottom should be about 70(!) degrees Celsius hotter than at sea level—potentially hot enough to spontaneously boil water, if water didn't boil at 140° C due to the increased pressure. Also, due to the Mariana Trench being over five times the depth of the Grand Canyon, it's hard to predict what kind of climatic effects will moderate this temperature increase (I don't imagine the bottom of the trench would get much sunlight).

The Earth has come closer to this scenario than you might think. During the Messinian salinity crisis, which began about six million years ago, the Strait of Gibraltar closed off and the Mediterranean Sea dried up into a sort of super Dead Sea, a hypersaline lake surrounded by a desertified abyssal basin where temperatures may have reached 80° C. Rivers that fed into the basin, like the Nile, cut deep gorges as they ran down to several kilometers below their current mouths. African species like hippopotami migrated across the basin before it got too hot and dry, then were stranded on cooler highlands like Malta and underwent island dwarfism. The crisis finally ended with the Zanclean flood, in which the sea refilled through the Strait of Gibraltar at a rate of about a thousand times the discharge rate of today's Amazon River.

A common trope in anime, video games, or other media is to depict the moon as much larger in the sky than in real life, often seeming to fill half the sky. If the moon were actually this large (or, alternately, this close to the earth), how would it affect life on earth, gravity, the tides, etc.?
Okay, maybe I was exaggerating a bit. This GIF is a less extreme example of what I'm talking about. Technically, with the right use of a zoom lens, it is possible to make the Moon appear this big relative to foreground objects. But assuming that's not the case in this image, let's try to estimate the angular size of the Moon. Let's assume that Inuyasha's (or whosever that is) seated figure is about four feet tall. Due to the lack of perspective it's impossible to know for sure how far we are from him (her?). I'll guess about twelve feet. This gives him an angular size of about 18.9°. The moon's angular size, then, is something like 9.9°. By way of comparison, the real Moon has a maximum angular size of about 0.57°.

This can't end well.

If we increase the size of the moon to match this new angular size but keep its distance the same, we get a new lunar mean radius of about 33,300 km, as opposed to 1,700 km for the real Moon. Or 6,300 km for the Earth. This truly super-Moon would be by far the largest rocky body in the Solar System. It would not orbit around the Earth; the Earth would orbit around it in just under three days. If we naively scale up the real moon in its proportions, this truly super Moon would have the mass of 87 Earths, nearly as much as Saturn, and a surface gravity of over 3 g. This moon would also have a gravity differential over the earth more than seven thousand times that of the regular moon, which would probably cause mile-high tides or something. (In real life, the earth would be tidally locked to the super-Moon just as the regular moon is to the earth)

If, on the other hand, we move the moon closer to the Earth so it appears this large, we get a new semimajor axis of 20,000 km, about 5% of the old semimajor axis of 384,000 km. This is just over three Earth radii and perilously close to the Moon's Roche limit, the distance at which tidal forces from the Earth tear the Moon apart and turn it into a ring system. It will have a new orbital period of less than eight hours and produce even higher tides than the super-Moon. Its gravity would probably also destabilize the orbits of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (which it would orbit beneath) and make it impossible to keep them up for long.


Here is an extreme example. Considering the fisheye effect in use here, let's suppose this moon has an angular size of 30°. Now things get really ridiculous. Scaling the moon up to these proportions gives it a ludicrous radius of 103,000 km, over a quarter of the distance to the Earth, and about 150% of the radius and eight times the mass of Jupiter. Its gravitational pull would cause your weight to tangibly fluctuate with the tides, which would be tens or hundreds of thousands of their current proportions. Again, I don't know the science involved with packing this must dirt together with these kinds of forces, but this is probably astrophysically impossible.

Moving the moon this close to earth puts it at a distance of just 6,500 km, giving it a new orbital period of less than 90 minutes and off-the-scale tides, but that doesn't matter because before you can get the Moon this close it will collide with the Earth and kill us all.

This is actually NASA's conception of the impact that created the Moon, but the actual result would be similar.
This is one way that I'm glad real life isn't more like anime.

What would happen if you could somehow connect two planets (say, Earth and Jupiter) with an unbreakable, unstretchable tether? Or an unbreakable, rigid girder?

Bad, bad things.

I wasn't sure how to answer this from a purely physical standpoint, so I wrote a quick Python simulation to model the situation. The results are interesting. If you connect the two planets at their point of conjunction (so they are about 4.2 AU apart), Earth basically acts a a pendulum hanging towards the Sun from Jupiter. Meanwhile, Jupiter's distance from the sun varies surprisingly regularly from about 5.3 AU to 4.64 AU over a 16-year year period; I think the Earth's swinging motion off the tether (which gets faster or slower as it gets closer to or farther from the Sun) acts somewhat like pumping your legs on a swing to go higher or lower; the force of the Sun's gravity on Earth, transmitted to Jupiter through the tether, either pulls it higher or lower in its orbit.

What this means for Earth is that instead of a normal year, it has a pendulum-like swing cycle that lasts about 10 months at its/Jupiter's furthest point from the Sun (where its distance varies from about 1 AU to 1.7 AU, beyond the orbit of Mars) and 4 months at their nearest approach (where the distance varies from about 0.45 to 1 AU, within the orbit of Mercury) with about 8 years elapsing between the high and low points of Earth/Jupiter's orbit. For reference, the habitable zone of the Solar System is (very roughly) around 0.75 AU to 1.4 AU. Earth's "orbit" will take it close enough to the Sun to boil the oceans and far enough away to freeze them. Presumably the atmosphere would exert some kind of moderating effect on these wild temperature swings, but things look pretty grim. There is also the risk of planetary collision with Mercury, Venus, and Mars to worry about.

If the Earth and Jupiter start out in opposition, then the tether obviously does nothing. (Even assuming it is indestructible and can survive passing through the Sun) What about if Earth and Jupiter start out 90° apart in their orbits?

That's not good.
On second thought, let's not build an unbreakable, unstretchable, indestructible tether to Jupiter.

What (roughly) would Mars look like with all the water we drained from the Earth's oceans on it? How would the water affect its climate?

Randall actually answered this one! (As asked by someone else)

What if every human being on earth used all their mechanical power (say, on exercise bicycles) to heat and boil the oceans? Would this have any noticeable effect on water levels or the weather? What if we also turned the power we generate from other sources (turbines, generators, cars, etc.) to this purpose?

The average power output of someone working hard is about 500 W. Assuming the fit people are able to balance out the infirm/children, the human race should be able to produce about 7 × 109 × 500 = 3.5 TW. Impressively, this is about a fifth of the total power consumption of the world, so the answers of the two parts of the question are more similar than I expected. Assuming we are boiling water from the surface of the ocean, which has an average temperature of 17 °C, we could boil about 1,334 tons of seawater per second. This becomes about 8,000 tons/second if we include our other means of generating power, which works out to roughly 250 km3 of water per year—just 0.05% of the global evapotranspiration caused by the sun. So it looks like the Sun wins this one. If we were smart enough to actually capture all that distilled water instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere and return as rain, though, we could solve California's water woes 34 times over. This sounds nice, but put another way it means that distilling enough water to satisfy California would require about 615 gigawatts, 3.8% of the energy generated worldwide. With that much power, we could power over 500 time machines to just go back in time and tell California to use less water.
In homage to https://xkcd.com/656/.
What would happen if you changed the rotational period of the Earth to one hour? Two hours? Half an hour? One minute?

This question was inspired by this one, in which Randall describes the catastrophic consequences of speeding the Earth's rotation so that a day lasts one second. So I wondered, what about some more moderate day lengths? What is the shortest day the Earth could have and still have things remain "normal"? Jupiter has a ten-hour day; at this angular speed, the Earth's surface would be moving at around 1.1 km/s instead of the usual 0.46 km/s. The effects of the centrifugal force would not be enough to noticeably counteract Earth's gravity, so the most catastrophic effect would be having to adjust to a ten-hour day.

A two-hour day would cut the Earth's apparent gravity in half. This would likely be awesome and extremely fun. Swimming and sports would be more exciting, people would travel by bunny-hopping everywhere, and we might already have flying cars. The effects would probably be similar to those of increased gravity as described by Randall in this answer, only reversed. On the other hand, the Coriolis effect would be much stronger, potentially increasing the incidence of hurricanes, and the atmosphere would be less dense, which might make it harder to enjoy your newfound antigravity powers.

You can't go much further than a two-hour day. At about 84 minutes (just over the length of a day in Skyrim), the centrifugal force at the equator equals the force of gravity. Long before this, the Earth would deform into an oblate spheroid (more noticeably than it already has) and accordingly slow its rotation. With a one-hour day or less, the Earth's mass around the Equator would break off and fly out into space (moving at escape velocity), though without the awesome consequences of the one-second day.

What would be the effects on Earth if its axial tilt were 90°, like that of Uranus?

Increasing the Earth's axial tilt from 23.5° to 90° would have some pretty drastic effects on the climate. As commentors in this discussion say, this would basically mean that the Equator and the Arctic/Antarctic circles would become the same. Everywhere on earth would get experience the midnight sun and polar night for part of the year. I'll break down what the day-night-year cycle would look like at a few select latitudes:
  • The Equator: Exactly 12 hours of daylight every day of the year (just like the real Equator), except on the solstices. The Sun's maximum elevation during these days ranges from 90° at the equinoxes (the Sun would travel directly across the middle of the sky) to very low around the solstices; it would just barely peek about the horizon, albeit for longer than it does at the real-life poles (still 12 hours). At the solstices, the Sun would circle the entire horizon without actually rising above it, creating 24-hour twilight. This Equator would probably have more extreme seasons than the real one; it would likely get quite cold at the solstices, and would be hot around the equinoxes much like in real life.
  • 30°: Two months of midnight sun, from about May 21st to July 21st, polar night from about November 21st to February 21st. Lahaina Noon on about August 21st and April 21st. At the Summer solstice, the Sun would hang at 30° in the sky all day; consequently, Summers would be surprisingly cool. Spring and Fall would be very hot due to the high insolation and winter would be bitterly cold, but this might end up being one of the more habitable latitudes.
  • 45°: Three months of midnight sun from about May 6th to August 6th, polar night from about November 6th to March 6th. The days of maximum insolation would also be May 6th and August 6th; on these days the Sun rises from the horizon at midnight to directly overhead at midday; these days would be sweltering. At the Summer solstice the Sun would stay at 45° all day. Late Spring and Summer would be brutal, but at least you get to look forward to three months of icy darkness to make up for it!
  • 65°: Near the real-life Arctic/Antarctic circles. Four-plus months of midnight sun, from about April 16th to August 26th, and polar night from about October 16th to February 24th. At the Summer solstice the Sun is at a constant 65° of elevation, and during the entire month of June it is at over 45° 24 hours a day. On May 26th and about July 14th, the Sun rises from 45° to directly overhead. In case you haven't noticed, things are getting worse the closer we get to the poles.
  • The North Pole: The Sun's elevation is constant throughout the day, every day. Six months of midnight sun, six months of polar night. We have no Earthly analogue for what the Summer solstice would be like: the Sun would stay over nearly the same point on the Earth's surface for weeks, causing unimaginable amounts of heating and evaporation. Meanwhile the Winters would be even colder than those of our poles.
In a nutshell, the seasons would become much more extreme than those of the real Earth the further you go away from the Equator. Closer to the Equator, the equinoxes would be hot (as hot as the real-life Equator) and the solstices would be cold, but not uninhabitably so. Most people would probably live close to the Equator. I don't feel qualified to speculate about the plant and animal life that would inhabit this alternate Earth. I really think Randall should answer this one; it would be a good counterpart to his fascinating article Cassini.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

War and Peace

The following is the final(!) paper for my master's program, on the ethics of war and peace. (Not the book)

War is one of the oldest ethical questions that have faced Christians. Teaching on war has existed between two poles since the early days of the Church. The early Latin father Tertullian, speaking about the possibility of Christians serving in the military, unambiguously states that "there is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar."1 Conversely, two hundred years later Augustine wrote, "it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars."2 The traditions they represent, Christian pacifism and just war theory, have coexisted in the Church, sometimes uneasily, ever since.

Christian pacifism was a significant, though not dominant presence in the early church, as represented by fathers like Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Lactantius, and has remained so ever since.3 The pacifist tradition they helped originate was continued in the Middle Ages by the Waldensians and after the Reformation by Protestant denominations like the Mennonites, Swiss Brethren, and Quakers. In the modern era, reforming figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have powerfully demonstrated the redemptive power of nonviolence to effect social change and publicly model the love of Christ. Christian pacifism "is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do, it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment"4—even the commitment to seek justice.5

The biblical basis for Christian pacifism is centered on Jesus as "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15 RSV); he reveals the Father to us (Mat 11:27); he is God in the flesh, the final and greatest revelation of the divine (Heb 1:1-2). "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." (Heb 1:3) What is true of Jesus is true of God, and it is through the Incarnation that God has revealed to us both who he is and what it means to be truly human. And what kind of God does Jesus reveal to us? A God who responds to evil with mercy (Luk 15:11-32), who "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mat 5:45), who submitted to a horrific, unjust death on the cross, the ultimate demonstration of nonviolent love in the face of evil and an example for Christians to follow (1 Pet 2:21). The Incarnation is the "normative revelation of God" for Christians,6 and a major implication of it is that God is nonviolent.

Further support can be drawn from the teachings of Jesus. The first and most greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and inseparable from this is the command to love your neighbor as yourself. (Mat 22:34-40) But Jesus expands this command to include not just those we identify and get along with, but our enemies (Mat 5:43-45, Luk 6:35-36). We are to respond to evil, persecution, and violence not in kind, not with violent resistance (Mat 5:39) but with love and mercy. In doing so we are simply following the example of God, who loved us and showed us mercy (especially through Christ) when we were sinners and his enemies (5:8,10). These sharpened teachings are not simply unreachable ideals or general attitudes we are supposed to have; Jesus fully intended for us to obey them just as much as he intended for us to obey his command to love one another.

Commenting on and expanding Christ's teachings, Paul writes, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10) According to him, we are called to engage not in physical violence, but in spiritual warfare.7 (2 Cor 10:3-6) We must "Repay no one evil for evil...but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:17,21). Violence, Christian pacifists argue, is not redemptive; it only leads to more evil, more violence, and so it can never positively advance the causes of justice or mercy. "The only ultimately redemptive response to sin and how it profoundly distorts human social life is, as Paul asserted, to seek to overcome evil with good (Romans 12). The only way successfully to resist violence without simply adding to violence in the world is overtly non-violent resistance."8 (Emphasis the author's)

While I support nearly all of the points made by Christian pacifism and believe that its Christ-centered message of peace needs to be heard more widely, I cannot follow its case to the absolute conclusion that war and violence are never permissible. In this it confuses private duties, in which a Christian is responsible foremost for his own soul, with public duties, in which a Christian, especially a parent or civil authority, is responsible for the protection of those in his care.9 One need look no further than the present situation in Iraq and Syria for an example of a situation in which an exclusive prescription of nonviolence would be impossibly idealistic (i.e. placing moral ideals before people), and for that reason heartless towards the vulnerable facing the real danger of violent persecution or death. For the sake of peace as the most important commitment and to avoid dirtying one's own hands, Christian pacifism is willing to allow death, suffering, and injustice to befall innocents. For the sake of loving one’s enemies, it is willing to compromise on loving neighbors, innocents, and those one may be charged to protect. Christ's teachings of pacifism and nonresistance are a high and vital calling for his followers, but to refuse to fight in the defense of others is to impose those teachings on those who, by and large, are not able to obey them to the utmost. It is to force martyrdom on them. To deny that such difficult choices ever have to be made is simply to deny the pervasive reality of sin in our world.

Christian pacifism also runs into some exegetical difficulties. It ignores Jesus' propensity to use hyperbole to accentuate his moral teachings; for example, I know of no one who has ever applied Matthew 5:29-30 literally and mutilated themselves to avoid sinning. Likewise his command to hate one's father and mother (Luk 14:26) is qualified by (among other things) his act of compassion on Mary from the cross in John 19:26-27, as well as Paul's command to provide for one's family (1 Tim 5:8). Its flat definition of Jesus as the "normative revelation of God" wanders dangerously close to Marcionism when it allows this reality to invalidate the depictions of God as blessing warfare in the Old Testament, reiterated in Heb 11:32-34. In context, its use of Romans 12 and 13 is also somewhat ambiguous: the justification for Christians not avenging themselves is not God's unwavering mercy but his self-declared monopoly on vengeance (Rom 12:19), and in Romans 13:1-7 Paul describes governing authorities as instituted by God, bearing the sword to execute his wrath (as a proxy) on the wrongdoer.

Thus even in the biblical support for Christian pacifism are found the seeds for just war theory, which holds that while war is evil, it may be permissible in certain circumstances. Augustine was the first to articulate the rationale that since the state is God's servant, appointed to bear the sword against wrongdoers (Rom 13:4), there are cases in which war (and capital punishment) can be just, in congruence with the examples of the Old Testament.10 Nonetheless war remains at best a lamentable necessity, an evil made permissible only by the presence of worse evils.11 The Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas built on the teachings of Augustine, going into more detail on the specific criteria that make a war “just” and reiterating that the aim of war is the restoration of peace and justice to the social order.12 The early reformers (except the aforementioned proponents of pacifism) continued to uphold the just-war tradition.

Just war theory distinguishes between at least two sets of criteria. Jus ad bellum criteria evaluate whether or not a given war is justifiable and include things like declaration by a competent authority, a just cause, proportionality of the means of war, exhaustion of peaceful means of resolution, and probability of success. Jus in bello criteria, including proportionality of force and discrimination of targets, are intended to minimize the evils of a war already in progress and avoid dehumanization of the enemy.13 Unlike Christian pacifism, just war theory does not hold that war always necessarily creates a worse evil than it overthrows, or that violence against a military opponent necessarily leads to hatred. It is possible to love one's enemies while using force to stop them from harming others, remaining ready (even eager) to lay down one's arms when peace is declared. God himself faces the same challenge of honoring and loving us (as his sacred image-bearers) even as we persist in destroying each other.

Just war theory enjoys plenty of biblical precedent, especially throughout the Old Testament, which presupposes that warfare can be legitimate. Abraham gets into a skirmish to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen 14:13-16), and is presented as an example of faith in the New Testament (Rom 4:11-12, Heb 11:8-30). The same can be said of Joshua (cf. Heb 11:30), the judges, and David (Heb 11:32-34), who are praised for their faith, including their willingness to fight in the name of God. In the New Testament, John the Baptist (Luk 3:14), Jesus (Luk 7:2-9), and Peter (Acts 10:1,24-48) have encounters with soldiers, in which we receive no hint that their profession is inherently sinful. As previously mentioned, in Romans 13:1-4 Paul states that governing authorities are servants instituted by God, appointed to bear the sword against wrongdoers. In John's apocalyptic vision Christ is depicted as one who "it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war." (Rev 19:11) "While the warfare in question is spiritual, nevertheless the suitability of the war metaphor implies that the activity itself is not a violation of the purposes of God. By way of contrast, God is never described as a 'harlot' or in terms of other occupations that are by their very nature immoral."14

Yet the logic of just war theory must not be taken too far. If overapplied, especially as a set of criteria for evaluating whether a given war is a "just" war, it risks becoming a moral "free pass" for war and killing, declaring them to be "good" when (as the destruction of God's image) they remain anything but. Just war theory can even end up sanctioning an implicit "end justifies the means" philosophy: if the end is considered to be "just", the horrors of war are declared "righteous". The Latin word iustus that is translated to "just" here should probably be taken to mean more "lawful", "legal", or "legitimate" in this case than positively "righteous", as is the connotation of the Greek dikaios. The point of Christian pacifism that violence is never redemptive is somewhat true; besides its destruction of the image of God, all war can do is prevent a greater evil or injustice by way of a (hopefully) lesser; this must not be confused with the actual creation of goodness or justice.

Both just war theory and Christian pacifism, when applied alone, have parallels with the kind of theodicy David Bentley Hart calls out for trying to make evil and suffering morally intelligible.15 The latter has echoes of a "greater good" theodicy: we are right to allow evil and injustice to occur in the short term for the sake of a longer-term good that cannot come about any other way. The suffering of innocents at the hands of the unjust is perversely necessary for the sake of the justice which, it is thought, can only come about through nonviolence. Conversely, just war theory can paint killing as "right" if it prevents a worse evil from occurring, which is dangerously relativistic. How can the Christian equally, consistently condemn and fight against all violence and injustice—both that within himself and that committed by others?

This tension is real, a consequence of the fallen world in which we live, and it is tempting to resolve it by simply adopting either a total pacifism that denounces all war as evil or a doctrine of "holy war" that makes (just) war into a positive norm. But the tension is an integral part of a truly biblical approach to war. Just (or perhaps "justifiable", or "permissible") war theory is good when it acknowledges that war is an evil and seeks to make it less so, and that any doctrine of war can only ever be a concession to human sinfulness. Yet war may be a necessary evil.16By pretending that we are already entirely free from war, we may unwittingly become culpable in even worse evils: Fr. David Alexander, an Orthodox chaplain in the U.S. Navy, says that "To fail to defend the innocent is paradoxically consenting to their elimination and extermination."17

Yet still more, the Christian pacifist tradition is needed as a voice of compassion and restraint even on our cautious dealings with war, a reminder of the potential of human sin and weakness to twist even the best intentions into dehumanizing atrocities. If just war theory is a concession to the reality of sin and human weakness, the voice of pacifism rings from a coming age without sin in which war will truly be obsolete—an age in which we within the Church already dwell, and into which we beckon all who will come in the name of the Lord (cf. Rev 22:17). Unlike just war theory, pacifism truly represents God's loving design for how we are ultimately made to live; any participation in war, even with the best intentions, falls short of this vision. In this evil age, sometimes it is necessary to fight; but as Christians, let us fight as those who have renounced violence (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-30), as ready and waiting to lay down our arms at the first chance of peace, as those looking forward to the final banquet where we will enjoy communion not only with our God and our neighbors, but with our enemies.

  1. Tertullian, On Idolatry, XIX, < http://newadvent.org/fathers/0302.htm> (11 April 2015).
  2. Augustine¸ The City of God, XIX.7, < http://newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm> (11 April 2015).
  3. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2004), 242.
  4. Ted Grimsrud and Christian Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief," Peace Theology, < http://peacetheology.net/pacifism/christian-pacifism-in-brief/> (14 April 2015).
  5. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 243.
  6. Grimsrud and Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief."
  7. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 243.
  8. Grimsrud and Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief."
  9. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 246.
  10. Augustine, The City of God, I.21.
  11. Augustine, The City of God, XIX.7.
  12. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 247.
  13. Kevin Allen, "Orthodoxy and War," Ancient Faith Radio, 11 August 2013, < http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/aftoday/orthodoxy_and_war> (7 April 2015) and Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 248.
  14. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 250.
  15. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 44,61.
  16. Fr. Stanley Harakas, “No Just War in the Fathers,” In Communion, 2 August 2005, < http://www.incommunion.org/2005/08/02/no-just-war-in-the-fathers/> (15 April 2015).
  17. Allen, "Orthodoxy and War."