Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Rise and Fall of George W. Bush

I remember during the 2000 election campaign before George W. Bush came to power, asking myself, “How important is it to have a good leader rather than a mediocre or bad leader?” Some people said that we get too hung up on good leadership. The president is just a figure-head like the British Monarchy. He's there to make Americans feel good about themselves and to set the tone while the true levers of power are manipulated behind the scenes as is always the case. Boy, did subsequent events prove this argument wrong.

True power is earned by guidance and inspiration. The more a leader uses manipulation and deception to get his way, the weaker he and his country becomes. Deceit serves to divide and polarize the people and a deceitful leader must excercise increasing amounts of force and deception in order to stifle growing dissent. Take for example, parenting. A father can use lies and physical force to keep his children in line but it will eventually weaken and destroy familial bonds as the children grow up and either rebel or lapse into crippling dysfunction. The next generation becomes even more of a mess as the lies of the father are played out there too.

When the tragedy of 9-11 occurred Bush could have inspired and united the entire world. Instead he used that event to promote fear and ended up dividing his own country against itself. The story of George W. Bush is a Shakespearian tragedy played out in real time. A man born of privilege who achieved the American Presidency through the assistance of clever but unscrupulous advisors like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and a spineless and servile mass media that allowed itself to be manipulated into supporting an unnecessary and unjust war.

A once proud country that embodied the ideals of justice and fairness for all, reduced to every man for himself, while naked greed was aided and abetted by deliberate government policy. The marginalization of the middle class and disenfranchisment of the poor. Previous progress protecting the environment clawed back by cronyism and a deliberate policy to let corporations despoil the land and sea with impunity. The legitimization of torture; imprisonment without trial or right of appeal; the systematic undermining of the constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers; the use of the legal system to help ensure the election of republican candidates; the suppression and distortion of scientific knowledge about global climate change in order to increase the profits of the largest corporations in the world. The list of heinous crimes goes on.

The story continues and the stakes are getting higher. Will justice prevail? Or will America continue its descent into a facist theocracy? If we survive this nightmare we will be cleaning up the mess and destruction that the Bush administration has left behind for the next half century.

I recently saw a Bill Moyers Journal: “Buying The War” on PBS. It was an excellent expose of how the media in the U.S. was manipulated into becoming a propaganda machine for the Bush Administration. One of the examples showed how Vice President Dick Cheney fed fake news about weapons of mass destruction to the New York Times and then went on t.v. and cited the same Times article as evidence for his contention that Sadaam must be stopped.

Events like hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated Bush's incompetency to the rest of the world, the current public inquiry into the politically motivated firing of Prosecutors, and exposes like “Buying the War” are drawing an ever tightening noose around Bush and his cronies. Like “Richard the III” , “Macbeth”, or “King Lear” , a scene of a steady but inexorable fall to destruction is being played out before our eyes.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Guns Don't Make the Man

I admit I enjoy watching old Clint Eastwood movies. The fantasy of the solitary man taking on all the bad guys at once with his guns blazing is imprinted in almost every red blooded male in North America. Our culture is saturated with this stuff from movies and tv shows, to video games. Guns and gun violence are powerful symbols of manliness and male power. The problem is that this fantasy is very attractive to the disaffected and the loners, men who feel weak and unattractive. Men who resent their low status in society often buy into the fantasy that having and using a gun will make them more of a man and make others respect them.

The recent tragedy at Virginia Tech is a case in point. Last week a weirdo, a loner, a mentally disturbed man gunned down thirty-three people. Predictably, some people called for tighter gun controls. (Virginia's law's are particularly lax, even by U. S. standards) And predictably the gun lobby argued just the opposite. Prominent republicans, including the former House leader Tom Delay, actually claimed that fewer people would have died if more of the students had been carrying guns. Of course, in order to facilitate this possibility the school would have had to relax its rules to allow students and faculty to pack guns on campus. Or maybe not students, just the faculty. That way we'd get the added benefit of improving class discipline.

It's a waste of time to argue about gun control in the United States because it only creates a greater counter reaction from the gun lobby who are better organized and far more powerful. The heart of the issue is not whether we have a right to own guns, it's about why its so important to own guns in the first place. I can understand why criminals want to own guns. Presumably it makes them more effective at what they do. But what about the rest of us?

I don't buy the theory that you need a gun for self defense. I guess I haven't watched enough cop shows and action films or else I'd know that you can't leave home without one. Yes there are people out there who could harm me but isn't it better to come up with non-violent solutions to crime? Avoid dangerous places if at all possible. Learn self-defense. Travel in groups. Don't go out alone after dark. If you get yourself in a bad situation, talk your way out of it. Or yell for help. Run. Wear a bullet-proof vest. Hand over your money and don't resist. Make sure your home is secure, etc., etc.

I remember kayaking in Alaska and time and time again having Alaskans become incredulous when we told them we weren't carrying a gun. We did run into a few bears but they were more scared of us than we were of them. Yes people do get killed by bears but why is it that the first thing people think of is that you ought to have a gun? The problem goes far deeper than the availability of guns. Guns are great for hunting or for target practice but they are a lousy way to solve your problems. It's almost always better to use your wits to survive in the wild or in the city. Lots more people are killed by guns by accident than by bears or by career criminals.

We need to consider the fact that our elevation of guns into a symbol of male potency is very unhealthy for our society. We need balance between assertiveness and compassion. As my partner said to me, men don't get any points for being caring and compassionate. It's too bad, because our culture's over exposure to the fantasy that violence and guns are ways to “prove” one's masculinity helps make needless death and destruction much more likely.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Profiles in Climate Change Denial

For years global warming was something discussed and debated between experts, but little known by your average Joe. Now it's common knowledge that there is universal agreement among climatologists that humans are causing climate change.

But there is still a significant minority of the public who vehemently disagree with the scientific consensus. Some of that disagreement you can chalk up to a misinformation campaign by the oil companies, but that doesn't explain the vehemence, the sound and fury of many of the climate change deniers.

The question is, why is it so important for some to deny that global warming is happening or that it's caused by humans? Just who are these people anyways? The important thing is to look at what global warming means. That will give us clues as to what would motivate people to react so strongly against the idea.

First of all its a global problem, which means that the various nation states must cooperate with each other to solve the problem. And it actually gives an important role for international institutions like the United Nations. That's one reason why global warming is not popular with the “New American Century” crowd, i.e., the Bush administration and their camp followers who believe that America can “go it alone”.

We know that the problem of climate change cannot be solved by the free market alone. Barring a major economic depression, unrestricted markets always lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions over time. Only government intervention in the form of regulations, tax policy and long term planning will lead to energy conservation and significant shifts in energy use from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. This flies in the face of everything that libertarians and other free market conservatives stand for. To accept the truth of human caused global warming would mean that they would have to accept the idea that government regulation of the free market is necessary.

It ain't gonna happen. People in the U.S. Republican party who've spent their lives, arguing for “free enterprise” and “laissez faire” are never going to admit they were wrong. Hence they and their minions will haunt Fox news, shock jock radio, and internet blogs with rabid climate change denial until their dying days.

Finally, global warming implies that humans have fooled with nature's thermostat and, as a result, nature is turning up the heat in a big way. This means that we humans, in trying to dominate and subdue the Earth are about to be dominated and subdued by the Earth instead. And this reversal of hierarchies is unacceptable to Christian Fundamentalists because that would mean that God's commandment to subdue the Earth was wrong, and that the Bible is a misleading guide for contemporary living. Note that global warming is not one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The Bible doesn't mention global warming because it was written thousands of years ago.

Hence leading Fundamentalists like Falwell, Dobson, and Colson are doing everything they can to excommunicate Christians who dare to see global warming as more of a priority than preventing homosexuals from marrying each other. Heaven forbid.

So the next time you hear somebody doggedly insisting that global warming is a “hoax” or insisting that humans aren't the cause - “It's the sun”, chances are they are either Republican, libertarian, a Christian Fundamentalist or they're shills for an oil company.

Science and Religion

Science and Religion are two different things. But a long time ago they were one thing. The Greek Pythagoras lived at about the same time as the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. He is said to have discovered irrational numbers and the Pythagorem theorem in geometry. Pythagoras was head of a mystical brotherhood of mathematicians. He is said to have believed in the transmigration of human souls, which he may have picked up from Hinduism. Pythagoras believed that numbers formed the ultimate reality and that knowing the numbers and their relationships revealed the divine nature behind the origin and perfection of the universe. This divine nature was called the “Logos”. An idea that influences the Apostle John in the New Testament, more than five hundred years later.

Pythagoras is situated at the birth of science when science and religion were not seen as seperate and they cross- fertilized each other. When they cross-fertilize they lead to heightened creativity, to bold new theologies and scientific theories. The idea that numbers are the ultimate reality eventually leads to modern science, especially in the figure of Copernicus. At the beginning of the Renaissance, European scholars began to rediscover the writings of the Classical Greeks. But Copernicus, was not happy with the astronomical predictions of Ptolomy, the greatest of the Greek astronomers. Ptolomy's calculations for the movements of the planets were inaccurate and imprecise. Copernicus went back and looked at the writings of the other Greek astronomers, H e came to realize that it was Ptolomy's theory about the relationship of the planets with the Earth and the Sun that was at fault.

Instead of everything revolving around the Earth, Copernicus said that the Earth was a planet and it and the other planets moved around the Sun. The Earth moves. But, of course, common sense tells us that the Earth does not move. We see the sun cross the sky every day and the moon and the stars every night. Besides, if the Earth moved, things would fly off of it.

This is what people believed and Copernicus was careful to have his theories published posthumously. Around the same time Martin Luther was busy challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. Luther took scriptural authority as ultimate, overriding the authority of the Church hierarchy. Luther's move to make scripture the ultimate authority, has had unfortunate consequences for the relationship between science and religion because it created a conflict between holy scripture and modern science. Copernicus says the Earth moves, but the Bible says that the sun moves around the Earth. Luther's Reformation creates a counter move in the Catholic Church - the Counter-Reformation. The Curch ends up condemning Copernican theory.

Science is cumulative. Unlike theology scientific theories can be falsified and overthrown. Science doesn't work by scriptural authority. To be a scientist, you don't need to follow the work of Pythagoras, Plato or Aristotle. Science evolves, it deepens our understanding over time. It leads to ever more specialized knowledge. A scientist like Einstein can create a theory that contradicts the earlier work of Newton, at the same that it deepens our understanding of gravity.

But the conflict between science and religion reaches a crisis four hundred years after Copernicus, when Charles Darwin publishes his theory of evolution. Darwin's theory contradicts the Bible on a number of crucial issues. It disagrees with the Biblical account of how the Universe began, and how humans were created and on the age of the Universe. As a result of Darwin's theory, the split between liberals and the Biblical literalists becomes permanent. Those who hold to scriptural authority, who we now call Fundamentalists, reject the theory of evolution because it contradicts scripture. Those Christians we call “liberals” accept the authority of scientific discovery when it concerns factual matters about the physical world.

The same divide between liberal and Fundamentalist Christians also exists around the issue of Global Warming. Most Fundamentalists reject the science about global warming. Why? It is not so much that it contradicts the Bible as that it draws attention away from it. Global warming is a more convincing story than the Biblical Apocalypses in the Book of Daniel and Revelations.

What is an apocalypse? It is a story about how the table is turned by a series of catastrophies, so that the wicked, who were formerly in power are cast down and the righteous are lifted up and exhalted. A modern example is the”Left Behind” series. Apocalyptic stories are elaborate revenge fantasies.

Global warming is more convincing than the Bible's apocalyptic stories because we can see the evidence for ourselves in the changing weather in the skies. What's more, the evidence fits the scientific predictions very closely. More frequent and more powerful storms, flooding, forest fires, and drought.

Of course the weather is not being selective about who it harms but it is quickly becoming a vehicle for people's fantasies. For instance, Bill Shanker of the New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans says this about the significance of Hurricane Katrina:

"New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion – it's free of all those things now. God simply, I believe, purged all of that stuff out of there – and now we're going to start all over again."

Liberal Christians have accepted global warming as true, and it's beginning to influence the way they practice religion. Climate scientists have talked about the “moral imperative” of lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Al Gore calls it a moral and a spiritual challenge. Here we have the vital cross-fertilization of science and religion. People accept the predictive authority of science but religion inspires and motivates the science of global warming because people are concerned about the future,

The rivalry between fundamentalism and science has played a part in the Bush Administration's suppression of the science of global warming and could, if not checked, lead to a theocracy. Creativity, scientific knowledge, and basic human rights and freedoms would all be the causalties. The path of Pythagoras and religious liberalism has led to the fruitful cross-fertilization of science and religion. Science and religion need each other.

Down to Earth

I recently picked up a book called The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas. It was written about fifteen years ago. It's about how modern thought developed from its ancient Greek and Christian origins. I'm only half way through it but already I'm struck by his emphasis on the role of astronomy in the development of Western science.

Nowadays most people live in cities so we don't get to appreciate the majesty of a starlit night sky, with the milky way arching high overhead and millions of stars glittering like diamonds. Nowadays you can only see that kind of sky if you're out in the wilderness. Thousands of years ago there wasn't as much competition from artificial lights so everybody could see it.

Down here on Earth, things change very quickly. Things die and decay, there's dirt and mud, and the weather is never the same from one day to the next. But they don't call the starry sky, ”the heavens” for nothing. To the ancients, the stars appeared changeless and eternal. Each star, night after night, never changing it's place in relation to the other stars. Except, there were this handful of stars, that over the course of weeks and months moved against the backdrop of fixed stars. These wandering stars, ie., “planets”, seemed to come and go at regular intervals. Because the planets messed up the perfect order and symmetry that otherwise appeared to exist in the heavens, the ancient Greeks from Pythagoras to Plato to Ptolemy made it a priority to understand how and why the planets moved.

Modern science was born from renaissance Europe's attempt to further the Greek understanding of how the planets moved, starting with Copernicus and continuing on with Galileo,Kepler, Newton, and Einstein.

By the late nineteen-sixties the United States had sent men to the moon and back. In 1972, on the seventeenth Apollo mission the first and only picture of the Earth as a full hemisphere (the Earth equivalent of a full moon) was taken from the window of the spacecraft. This picture, which shows all of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and a great swirl of clouds in the South Atlantic, could well be the most popular photograph in history. The orange and greens of the continents and the deep blue of the oceans, the great weather systems that change the face of the Earth from day to day, all captured on a single photograph. You can google it, people have posters of it. It's featured on book covers and in magazines. All the years that we've been looking up to the heavens and longing for their perfection are eclipsed, when we finally get to see what the planet we're standing on really looks like. How like a living thing the Earth is.

Now in 2007, almost forty years later, with the threat of global warming our scientific understanding must be focussed on Earth if we are to survive. How has the Earth kept it's temperature so close to constant up until now? How has the atmosphere contained just the right amount of oxygen for us to breathe? How can we lower carbon dioxide emissions and live on Earth in a way that does not compromise our ability to survive? These are some of the questions that science needs to answer.

The scientific enterprise has largely soved the problem of planetary motion that so vexed the Greeks, but in doing so it has led us back down to Earth rather than upwards towards the heavens.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Capitalism 3.0

Karl Marx thought he was a social scientist. Critics say Marxism was more of a religion than anything else. Marx argued that capitalism had internal contradictions that would inevitably lead to its own demise. The idea was that as the workers got poorer, which was inevitable by the nature of capitalism, the working class was more likely to unite against the owners of capital and their sheer numbers would overwhelm the ruling class and force a revolution. We now know that it doesn't at all work that way.

The Russian Revolution was about a small dedicated group of Bolsheviks who took dictitorial power when the old regime faltered and weakened. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin claimed workers' unity but the fact that so many working class people were sent to Siberia demonstrates that workers' unity was a myth.

The Chinese and the Russian communist systems were explicitly developed to wipe out capitalism but within less than a century they were both forced to embrace it. Capitalism is nothing if not resiliant. You could almost say that Marx was only half right. By consistantly outproducing its rivals, capitalism is bound to dominate and stay on top.

Indeed from the nineteen fifties to the present the material progress produced by capitalism has been astonishing. But alongside that progress has come tremendous costs to the environment and human health which has culminated in the global warming crisis. What the problem of global warming makes obvious is that capitalism without constraints leads to self-destruction. The problem is that we can't get rid of capitalism, so what do we do?

We can try and regulate capitalism but we have another problem which global warming has demonstrated: when faced with the facts about global warming the most powerful government in the world was influenced by corporations to suppress the science and minimize the extent of the problem to the public. This set back the cause of prevention at least ten years – at an incalculable cost to humanity and the Earth's ecosystems. In short, global warming demonstrates not only market failure but also “government failure”.

It's not as if we haven't had forwarning of this. History is full of examples of empires like the Romans and the Babylonians, that grew because they were able to extract resources efficiently but destroyed themselves because the were not able to extract resources sustainably. And in almost every case no-one saw it coming.

This time it's different because we can see it coming and we can prevent it. We know that we need to be able to reform capitalism if we are to survive, but how to go about it? Both our economies and our ecosystems need to stay healthy. We know trying to destroy capitalism doesn't work. We know tinkering with reforming capitalism doesn't work because we've spent the last century doing that and things have only gotten worse.

Suppose we use the analogy of a computer operating system. Capitalism needs an upgrade. Just as Microsoft upgrades from Windows 95 to Windows XP, we need to upgrade the “economic software” to keep the system from crashing. That's what Peter Barnes discusses in his intriguing book, Capitalism 3.0, published, 2006 and also available on the internet. Basically the solution is to change the rules so that the “commons sector” becomes an economic power to balance the power of corporations and governments.
A lot of people seem to dismiss critiques of capitalism, in spite of the signs that we are headed for disaster, because of what they see as the only alternative. Either there is private ownership or collective ownership and the latter is communism, which is far worse. Witness the history of the Soviet Union and Red China.
According to John Locke, the seventeenth century philosopher, who more than anyone else, influenced our ideas about the concept of “property”, private property is a good thing because it encourages people to work hard to improve it and gain a stream of income from it. But he did offer the proviso that the right to property ought to be limited to “...where there is enough and as good left in common.” Even Locke, the father of property rights theory realized that we can't survive if there is nothing left in common.
What is the commons? It is basically what is given to us by nature and culture. We don't do anything to earn it, we only have to exist in order to benefit from it. I'm talking about the things that we all share: air, water, natural eco-systems, language, legal systems, and scientific knowledge, etc.
The commons sector, which, as you can imagine, is much harder to quantify than private wealth, is estimated to be far more valuable than all the combined private and public assets in the world. Just imagine for a moment what we would do without it - without human culture and without air and water and trees.
Property rights are what define the operating system of our economy. In early capitalism natural resources were abundant but capital was scarce, so capital was elevated above everything else. We now live in a world “awash with capital” but scarce in natural resources. But the rules haven't changed. As Peter Barnes puts it in Capitalism 3.0, “The right of corporations to profits dominates all other rights. The rights of workers, communities, nature, and future generations are all trumped by capital's right to maximize profit.”
The nineteenth century conservative thinker Edmund Burke once said that society is a contract between past, present, and future generations. We have an obligation towards future generations. The trouble is that neither our present economic system nor our political system recognizes this obligation. Corporations are machines programmed to maximize profits. They have little incentive to preserve natural resources because they treat the cost of nature as zero and because preservation benefits future generations more than it does present stockholders. Future generations have no money and they don't vote, so they are not represented by democratic governments who are influenced mainly by voting blocks and corporate donations. The basic problem is that future generations don't have property rights.
The solution as Peter Barnes sees it is to create property rights for future generations by creating “trusts”. He calls this “propertization” rather than “privitization” which creates ownership by excluding others. It would involve the power of common property trusts to charge polluters rent for polluting the commons and to pay a portion of this rent to every citizen in the form of yearly dividends and an equal portion to support public goods such as education and eco-system restoration.
If this sounds pie-in -the -sky, think again. There are existing trusts that already perform many of these functions. There are nature conservation trusts that preserve woodlands and wetlands. The Alaska Permanent Fund reinvests royalties from oil and gas extraction and pays a yearly dividend to every citizen of Alaska. Old Age Security collects money from all income earners and redistributes it to all Canadians over 65. Medicare pays for medical coverage for every citizen.
In contrast, privitization, such as with private medical insurance, excludes those in greatest need, i.e., the poor and the chronically ill. Marx was correct, that capitalism leads to increasing inequality. In spite of tremendous economic growth since the 1950's inequality has increased. In the United States 5% of the population owns 95% of the wealth. Changing the economic operating system by giving future generations property rights through a system of trusts could both protect the environment by raising the price of pollution, and reduce inequality by redistributing money from polluters to non-polluters. The trusts would, like contemporary trusts, run themselves, and be publically accountable, unlike corporations and governments. They would form another sector of the economy and help to level the playing field for the rest of us.

The Denial Industry

When I was a kid both my parents smoked. I used to get a buzz from the second-hand smoke from my dad's Export-A's but I never took up smoking myself. In the sixties we started hearing about the damage that smoking caused: lung cancer, asthma, emphysema...
At some point my parents quit. Then we started hearing about the dangers of second-hand smoke - how one person smoking could cause innocent bystanders like one's children or one's co-workers to also get cancer and asthma, and COPD.
It's only been in the last ten to fifteen years that governments have gotten serious about banning smoking from workplaces and public places. But why is that? Were governments insensitive to the needs of the people? Was the information just not available? No, the fact is that tobacco companies hired public relations people and those people advised the tobacco companies to create a new product. This new product was called, "doubt". Companies like Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds created this new product by hiring academics and writers who would work full time attacking the science implicating tobacco, calling it "junk science" in order to create a controversy and sew doubt in the minds of the public.
Wouldn't this deception be obvious to everyone? Not if the people and organizations being funded by the tobacco companies had the appearance of operating independently. So, the "citizens group", The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition, or TASSC was created and funded by Philip Morris. A whole series of "grassroots" organizations were created and smoking bans were delayed and tobacco continued to be hugely profitable.
But smoking is banned in most indoor public places, so didn't we win? Many of the same people and organizations decided to broaden their horizons back in the late nineties. This time they landed grants and funding from Exxon and other big oil companies. The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition got money from Exxon and dove into the global warming denial industry. It created a website called www.junkscience.com, which,of course, called global warming "junk science." These organizations are still around, still duping people, even though the corporations that sponsored them now claim that they've seen the light and agree that we are causing climate change.
Exxon, the most profitable company in the world funds 124 different organizations with names like: The Heritage Foundation, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Free Enterprise Action Institute, The Cato Institute, The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change -- none of which sound like they have anything to do with the oil industry -- but they all have one thing in common. Their publications all deny global warming. The tens of millions that the oil companies invested in global warming denial has paid them many times over in profits.
But now, in 2007 didn't the environmentalists win? Everybody agrees that we're causing global warming, the corporations and politicians have come on side. But all those institutes with "free enterprise" in the title haven't gone away. Their still being supported by the oil and coal industry. And they're still sewing doubt and deception wherever they go. The next time you see an argument about the benefits of carbon-dioxide, or the catastrophic economic effects of reducing carbon dioxide emissions you can bet that it will have originated from big oil.

The colour "green"

Kermit the frog's old song, “It's not easy being green” just ain't true anymore. First it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, then BC Premier Gordon Campbell. They've all gone green in the space of six months. I sense opportunities blossoming here.

There are opportunities opening up here people and I'm not just talking about financial opportunities. Think of all the obsessives in the world. Forget about germs, and washing your hands one hundred times a day. Make your obsession green. Insist on only using recycled paper. Eat only locally grown or organic food, Use only renewable energy. Why waste your obsession on soap and water when you could be helping lower greenhouse gas emissions every time you get anxious.

If you're faith oriented, orient your faith in a green direction. Insist that your church building be made energy efficient. On the next church heating upgrade go for a ground based heat pump. Suitable Catholics can aspire to become a “green saint” by selling their cars, refusing to go anywhere except on foot or by bicycle, recycling everything, and giving all their possessions to charity.

There's lots of money to be made through “green guilt”. I just heard yesterday that there is a Beverly Hills green limo service. Apparently there is a steady clientèle of movie stars that want to show that they care about the environment by riding in hybrid limousines. What about rickshaws? Now there's a eco-friendly mode of transportation. Rickshaw drivers should make a point of advertising their green credentials.

Buses could go fuel cell or biofuel. And what about trains and ships? Exxon could promote itself as “green” by running it's oil tankers on used fish and chips oil and powering their oil drills and gas pumps with solar power. Taxi companies could go green by converting their fleets to hybrids.

There's eco-tourism, where whale-watching has become more lucrative than whaling. Green Documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth” are starting to take in money. Are green action films not far behind?

There's a whole industry to do with greening our homes. People who will measure your home's energy efficiency, green architects, green engineers.

There's green consultants for corporations. Even the corporations need to appear green in order to fit in now. Farmer's can become green by growing organic or growing crops for ethanol. There's green economists like Nicholas Stern. There's green journalism, which is, unfortunately, not a well-paid profession.

I laugh when I hear the doom sayers who say that the economy is going to collapse if we lower greenhouse gas emissions. They don't know people. When opportunities arise, someone somewhere will take advantage of them. Governments churn out rules and regulations and businessmen make money. Nature abhors a vacuum and the same is true of human nature. There is no end to human ingenuity, and if it's pressed into the service of greening our economies all the better for everyone.

Shakespeare in Afghanistan

Last week I saw a CBC Documentary on the National called “Shakespeare in Afghanistan.” It was about Canadian actress Corinne Jabor directing an all Afghani cast in Shakespeare's “Love's Labours Lost”. Apparently the play caused quite a sensation. What with twenty years of civil war and then the Taliban a lot of Afghanis didn't know what to think of a comedy about love. “Love's Labours Lost” is one of Shakespeare's minor comedies. The story is about a king and his three companions who together make a pact to swear off wine, women and song for three years. Everything falls apart when they meet up with a princess and her three ladies and the King and his companions promptly fall in love with them. They spend the rest of the play trying to woo the ladies with singing and dancing but in the end the ladies persuade the men to prove their love by keeping their vows of abstinence for another year.

The documentary showed that the reception for the play was quite different depending on whether the play was shown in Afghani cities or the countryside. In the country it was a lot harder to obtain permission from the warlords to put on the play. Only men were in the audience. When a few women turned up they were quickly hustled away. In the city the audiences were mixed.

Two of the Afghani actors were women. One of them was kicked out of her family for being an actress. An actress is considered the equivalent to a prostitute in Afghani society.

At first I thought it was a misguided effort on the part of the Canadian director to put on this play in Afghanistan. To the people in a conservative Islamic society Shakespeare's ideas about love and equality between the sexes are pretty revolutionary in spite of the fact that he wrote those plays about four hundred years ago. Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged. Wasn't the director acting like a missionary trying to push western ideas of the equality of the sexes on the poor Afghanis?

But I keep thinking of the time when Shakespeare wrote his plays, four hundred years ago. At that time Elizabeth I was the Queen of England. She was such an able leader that she is considered England's greatest monarch. At the same time as Elizabeth was Queen there was religious ferment all over England and Europe. In England, Catholics, Anglicans, and various protestant sects were all competing with each other. Some of it was quite violent. People were getting their heads chopped off and getting burned at the stake for what they believed. There were revolutionary ideas in the air and at the same time, there was a lot of fear and anxiety.

Two protestant sects that became well known at this time were the Quakers and the Mennonites. Both practiced pacifism. Both were persecuted by the state. The Quakers, unlike any other religous group at the time, believed that men and women had equal authority to speak in meetings.

Today is a time of religious ferment like the sixteenth century but the big difference is that the religious ideas in the air are reactionary not revolutionary. Christian Fundamentalists want to turn back the clock on woman's rights by banning abortion and suppressing contraception. In Afghanistan the Taliban whipped women for having their heads uncovered in public. And they executed women for working outside of the home. Conservative Islamic societies treat women as the property of men. In the Bible one of the Ten Commandments, the one that says “Thou shalt not covet...”, lists “thy neighbor's wife” as part of a list of his property. It's no coincidence that those who want to make the Ten Commandments the law of the land also focus on abortion and homosexuality. Their big priority is procreation but the thing is, there are five billion people on Earth. We've already fulfilled God's first commandment to be fruitful and multiply so why are the fundamentalists still stuck on it? Maybe the thing that scares them the most is the idea that women could be free to choose whether or not to procreate.

It gets me that people could be so worried about homosexuals getting married and at the same time they ignore the scientific evidence about global warming. Somehow stopping homosexuals from getting married and women from having abortions is a moral priority but doing something to prevent global warming is not as important.  In the end, which one of these priorities is really going to make the difference?  Hint: it won't be abortion or homosexuality.

It should be easier to recycle

I have a problem with the idea that we can extract more and more resources from the environment and produce more and more waste at the same time. Both these things are putting stress on the environment which ultimately puts stress on our ability to survive. It makes sense to "reduce, reuse, and recycle" so that we solve the problem of how to survive without becoming a parasite that destroys its own host.
Recycling is not sexy. If I've got boxes of paper, cardboard, flattened tin cans, boxes of junk mail, empty frozen orange juice containers full of dead batteries, and boxes and shelves full of empty glass bottles it might look more like a case of premature "old-timer's disease" than an exercise in virtue. It is not going to make chicks dig me. Recycling is developing a "relationship" with garbage. And it's a lot more pleasant relating to others or even to our automobiles than to our garbage.
I don't have a car (by choice), so about every two weeks I take a couple of boxes on the back of my bike. Frederick St. is a long steep hill - it's a killer, but it helps keep me in shape. Five years ago I didn't care much about recycling. Too much trouble. Too time consuming. Messy and frustrating. So, what changed?

Perhaps it was turning fifty and developing a sudden interest in gardening. I started to build a compost pile. The idea of taking some of what we get from the earth and returning it to the earth, is very appealing. And I love the earthworms. They are attracted like a magnet to a compost pile. And when the compost is ready, after about a year, it's like black gold for the garden. Your plants actually show their appreciation for the effort. That's my inspiration for all the other kinds of recycling.

They make it a lot more convenient to recycle in the big cities like Vancouver and Seattle. They have a "blue box" system. Once a week people put their cardboard and tin cans into a blue box and put it at their curbside. Then a big recycling truck comes and takes it away.
We don't have a blue box system here in Prince Rupert for two reasons: First, city hall doesn't want to be bothered with the organizational hassle. And secondly this type of box does not have a lid, and this is incompatible with our local wind and rain.
I

A "blue bag" system would be more convenient - put your recyclables into blue bags and park them at the curb on certain days. Let the recycling guys pick it up and sort them all at the depot. Why this hasn't been tried is because it would cost more money because more workers would need to be hired to do the sorting and the conveyor belt would need to be expanded.
I've talked to people who want to recycle, but find sorting recyclables and driving them up to the depot too time consuming. A blue bag system would work better for some of these people. But we need extra money and more coordination between the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District (SQRD), who run the recycling depot, and the city of Prince Rupert.
When they moved the landfill about ten years ago, people talked about the new landfill lasting fifty years. Now that looks increasingly unlikely. As the volume of our garbage increases so will the expense of finding another landfill site. The city would save money if more people recycled because it would take longer for the landfill to fill up.
Recycling is a "public good" - it benefits society as a whole rather than each individual on his own. There is little incentive to do it for profit because few people are willing to pay for it. The city ought to provide for public goods because it benefits the city as a whole. The big problem is perception. City hall perceives Prince Rupert as too small and inconsequential for either sewage treatment or a serious recycling program. City council ought to have enough vision to see that making it easier to recycle will benefit everyone.

Why live like the Japanese?

Those dumb Japanese. They use a lot less energy than we do here in North America. Ten years ago their government decided to tax energy use and that tax effectively doubled the price of energy in Japan. Now why did they go and do a fool thing like that? That means they slowed their economy down in order to conserve energy. Now ten years later the Japanese use much less energy. They have sophisticated appliances that are energy efficient. They don't use central heating, they live in smaller houses and in the winter they only heat a few rooms. They have smaller cars and they use public transit more.
I don't get it. Why would the Japanese purposefully live less comfortably than they did before just to conserve energy? Here in Canada we have plenty of cheap energy and we don't have any good reasons to live less comfortably. We know we'll never run out of oil, we've got the Alberta tar sands. And if the global price of oil goes up too high we know that the Albertans, being a generous people, will gladly give us a break on the price so we can continue driving cars that are big, safe, and comfortable indefinitely.
Those Japanese are so puritan, they actually save money. They don't spend it all on big cars and big homes. Where are their priorities? We're spending more money than we have, but so what - the banks can always create more money as we go. Why not live a comfortable life instead of worrying about things we don't really know much about - like climate change.

Here in North America we are so much more lucky than the Japanese. Because we live in a perpetual motion economy. The more energy we consume the more it stimulates economic growth. As long as we keep consuming we can't lose. What a great deal. And it's always going to be like that.
How could we possibly run out of cheap oil? The Arabs have more than they need and they are very reasonable people. They would never conspire to hold back production. Plus they are very honest and would be sure to let us know if they were about to run out of oil, even if it would put them at a disadvantage if they did. But, of course the idea of running out of oil is ridiculous. There's an infinite supply

With cheap energy we can even destroy the environment without any worries. If we lose our forests we can plant grain and raise beef cattle. If we overfish the oceans we can farm fish in net pens. As long as energy is cheap anything is possible. And of course it will always be cheap. After all, it has been cheap for the last two hundred years, so why would it change now?

Don't bother conserving energy. Enjoy the luxuries of big cars and lavish lifestyles. By living comfortably you're helping the economy grow. Only suckers would consume less. How much are they really helping the environment by driving small cars or riding bicycles or recycling? It can't be a benefit to them to live less comfortably so they must be doing it out of some misguided principles. Why do things in order to benefit an abstraction, like the "environment" when you can so clearly help yourself by consuming more? Hey, if the Japanese want to live by depriving themselves of cheap energy, more power to them.

Internet means the revolution came 'virtually'

My eldest son Michael would be shocked if he knew I was writing this week's column about the internet since he knows how little I know about the subject. I'm the kind of person that Microsoft makes its money from: I have no patience with computers, do not want to learn how to use them or take courses on them, I just want to get to a website and download stuff. No participation, no understanding how it works, just do it.

Being as how Michael was installing my software for me, he kind of tilted me in favour of using “Open Source” software. I didn't know what it was. I would have been happy with Microsoft, but adolescent minds work in diabolical ways.

Microsoft is a giant corporation that sells “proprietary software.” They hire computer programmers who work together to produce code that is kept secret from everybody else. They do this in order to make lots of money selling their software like “Windows” and “Vista”.

Open Source software is the opposite of microsoft. Open source code is published on the internet and made available to everyone. Anyone can copy, modify, and redistribute the source code without paying royalties or fees. Open Source software like the “ Wiki” webpages invites participation, active involvement, the sharing of knowledge and knowhow and editing skills, all for no monetary gain.

Why would rational people do all this for no money? I say it's communism. All those nerdy “hackers” sharing programming information, it's a lot like this fellow Karl Marx once said, “ From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.”
My son installed a version of Linux on my computer. Linux, A giant collective of minds sharing their knowledge in order to build an operating system that rivals Microsoft's “Windows” but, unlike “Windows”, they offer it for free. I didn't know any better. I certainly wasn't going to be a part of all that collaborating and sharing stuff. And then he showed me Wikipedia.org.

“Wikipedia”, the world's first open source encyclopedia. An encyclopedia that's created by anybody who wants to write about anything. It was launched on the world wide web in 1999. As of Febuary 2007, it has more than one and a half million entries in English, and that's not counting all the other languages. the word “Wiki” , is Hawaiian for “quick”. A “Wiki” is a web site that allows multiple users to create and edit pages. Wikipedia, is an encyclopedia that allows people to read it's entries and edit them and even to create their own entries, which are then subject to the editing process.

I started looking up things, the usual: “ecology”, “permaculture”, “gaia hypothesis”. but then a funny thing happened. I started editing, the odd sentence here and there. I edited a sentence on the topic of “file sharing”. And two weeks later it's still there. It's a bit ridiculous, because I still don't understand file sharing, but I understood a better way to say one of those sentences. You can take a n entry, you can look at the editing history and see how changes have been made over time.

I tell you it's addictive. You'd think that it would be really substandard as an encyclopedia but is not. The articles are excellent and informative. And they're also literally up to date. It's ironic that the originator of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is a follower of Ayn Rand. If she only knew Jimmy, you'd be in hot trouble. Potentially the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering ever and all done on a collectivist basis. Ayn Rand should be spinning in her grave. Author of such works as The Virtue of Selfishness, and Atlas Shrugged, she espoused an extreme philosophy of egoistic individualism, of a sort popular with the Libertarian wing of the Republican party. The idea of sharing knowledge with the rest of the world for free does not appeal to these folks. And yet, in a way we all fell for it. For isn't the internet just another kind of electronic commons which people contribute to and utilize in a collective manner. It's a spontaneous order that originates and evolves without central direction. I remember studying the Austrian economists like Frederich Von Hayek who argued that the market created a spontaneous order that was superior to that of an economy run by central planning. Open source is just the means to allow such spontaneous order. but how it has turned the Austrians on their heads for it is done with sharing and collaborating not buying and selling. It's the proprietary software like Microsoft's products that leads to a creative bottleneck in the end.

From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. The Marxist ideal. And yet big Fortune 500 Corporations like IBM, Oracle, and Intel, have embraced open source. I tell you it's already too late. The commies have taken over without a shot fired, And it's all because of that dag blasted internet.

Preventative medecine

It used to be that every time it really rained – I mean – just poured for days on end, my basement would start to flood, which was OK,I thought, because I could suck it out with a shop vac once the rain  tapered down.

But that was bad design. I was wasting energy running a vacuum; and the more I sucked up the water the more it drew water from outside.  After I remarried, and my wife moved in she insisted on hiring a landscaping company to put in  proper drainage around the house.  Since then there has been no flooding, even though there has been no shortage of rain.

But it is not just me.  Together we are collectively wasting huge amounts of energy. It's because all the economic incentives are going in the wrong direction. They are encouraging more and bigger cars to be built with more gas consuming capacity. They are encouraging bigger and more energy hogging houses. They are encouraging oil exploration and wars to secure influence in oil producing countries. The existing economic incentives encourage us to use up carbon rich fuels as fast as we can and to expand demand indefinitely.

Good design can mean the difference between having a future and not having one. The existing economic incentives discourage public participation and public planning. But everyone needs to get involved in on the planning and the doing: individuals, organizations, and governments. Good design would lead to economic incentives that encouraged energy conservation and encouraged the development of clean energies.

We know what bad planning is. We've seen the results in the first World War and the Iraq War. We know what incompetence looks like, we've seen it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

We know what deception is. We've seen it in the arguments of the climate change skeptics. The deliberate attempt by the fossil fuel corporations to fuel doubt in the minds of the public and buy the industry a few more years of record profits.

The trouble with deception is that it leads to lethal design flaws, Deception led to the War in Iraq and deception led to stalling action on climate change. You don't stall when your health is at risk. It's as if your doctor gave you a clean bill of health when you actually have a curable cancer. A good leader is like a good doctor. He has a moral interest in his patient's good health.

Some problems are just too big for individuals or even organizations to solve. This is true with global warming. Global warming threatens all of us. We all face this same enemy so we need to cooperate amongst ourselves. Help each other out. Compete, but only to derive better solutions that we share together. This requires planning and design. Designing houses that are energy efficient, that utilize the energy of the sun and the earth. Designing cities that conserve energy rather than wasting it. Designing economic policies that favour renewable energy and that discourage the use of carbon rich fuel.

Yes Alberta, energy policies are necessary. It's not about you it's about saving the Earth. We need to minimize waste and the use of energy.

With the Iraq War, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Global Warming we have examples of the destructive power of poor leadership. A bad leader makes a bad situation worse and endangers his country. A bad leader sees a challenge and sidesteps it rather than facing it. Global warming is such a challenge. By pretending it wasn't there George W. Bush and Stephen Harper abdicated their leadership. They are like doctors who would deceive you about your cancer rather than helping you find a cure.

global warming is a classic example of “market failure”. A situation where leaving the market to sort things out leads to a catastrophic worsening of the problem. The “free market' encourages the prolifigate waste of energy and resources. It is poor way to deal with global warming because it doesn't treat the root of the problem. The root of our problem is our accelerating emissions of carbon dioxide. Like cutting out a cancer we need to cut our consumption of energy and resources drastically. This will take time, but above all it will take planning.

The real enemy

Several years ago a tsunami inundated parts of South East Asia, killing more than a hundred thousand and destroying the homes and businesses of many others. Afterwards, people just up and forgot their religious and ethnic differences and pitched in together to help with aid and reconstruction. In the Indonesian province of Banda Aceh the two sides in a civil war demobilized and many people ascribe this to the tsunami. But in Sri Lanka the effect of the tsunami was only temporary as the two sides in their civil war are at it again.

Isn't it easy to blame others for our problems? It's easy and more satisfying to focus our fear and hatred on one group, especially if we already dislike that group for whatever reason. But are we aware of what the results of inciting hatred are? All too often it has led to mountains of corpses and the moral breakdown of societies. It's never worth it to go down that road.

It's easy to pick the wrong enemy. President George W. Bush did it when he picked Sadaam Hussein and forgot about Osama Bin Laden. By invading Iraq, Bush divided the rest of the world against America and divided America against itself. When you choose the wrong enemy you weaken and divide your own forces.

Who is the real enemy? Other nations can threaten us but nations and people are not our greatest threat. Granted, the middle East looks as if it is about to go up in flames. And terrorism has become a world-wide problem. But we have even bigger problems on the horizon. Each year bigger and more powerful hurricanes are battering the U.S. coasts. Each day the number of poor people grows faster than the number of well-off people. Each day more automobiles use more gasoline, putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We know that as the global economy grows it will use up more and more of the Earth's resources, and create more toxic waste and so put more and more pressure on Earth's life support systems. At some point ecological decline will accelerate and cause the collapse of ecosystems. When this happens our ability to breathe fresh air and to get enough to eat and drink, and to protect ourselves from disease will all be compromised. Because of the accelerating rate of global consumption and the steady rise in global temperature caused by our industrial activities, it is likely that this decline will be well on its way in twenty-five years.

Nothing else, not other nations, certainly not other people, threatens our very existence as does ecological decline. The Earth maintains us, but if we overload its systems and cause sufficient ecological damage we could find ourselves one of the casualties of the decline in biodiversity. If we do not defeat ecological decline it will defeat us - we will go extinct.

When the people of Banda Aceh recognized that their real enemy was nature's destruction, in the form of the tsunami - they forgot about their differences and worked together to save their country. If enough people recognized that ecological decline is our real enemy we could do the same for the entire world.

As far as I can see Roy Woodbridge, in his book, The Next World War, is the first person to understand that framing our relationship to ecological decline as the next World War can unify humanity. It turns the potential for catastrophe into an opportunity.

One hundred years ago the American philosopher William James spoke of, "the moral equivalent of war." At the time, he was hoping that humanity could replace wars amongst its own members with a war against nature. We now know that we can only lose if we frame the issue in this way. Roy Woodbridge suggests instead that we mobilize society as if we are preparing for war, not against nature, not against other nations, but against ecological decline.

In the Second World War, Canadian society mobilized to defeat the Germans and the Japanese. We mobilized the economy, we mobilized technology, and we mobilized human creativity to defeat the enemy. And the majority of Canadians were willing participants because they realized that if they wanted to survive and prosper they had to defeat the enemy.

When we all have the same enemy in common we have the potential for sharing the same goal - to defeat the enemy and survive. Having an enemy in common binds and unites us. It gives us strength.

Like the people of Banda Aceh, we have the potential to avoid fighting each other when we can learn that people are not our real enemy. How many people are there who don't care whether their children have a future? Surely it's a very small minority.

Of course we have the option of ignoring this knowledge and letting everything slide into anarchy and war as ecological decline wreaks its havoc and more countries fight over a rapidly diminishing amount of resources.

But let's think of the possibilities here. We can unite the entire human race to fight against a common enemy. We don't have to forsake any group of people, or abandon technology, or even abandon economic growth. If we see this as a war against ecological decline we can turn the awesome power of human creativity and focus it on defeating this single enemy.

Big government, big corporations, international organizations are not the enemy -- they are all tools that could be used to defeat the enemy. Criticizing people is not the way to get them to change. People will change their lifestyles and habits of living if it becomes a positive experience to do so. And experience becomes more consistently positive when it is based on unity rather than division.

War has an overwhelmingly negative image for a good reason. The destruction of human life can be devastating. Whole societies can break apart and disappear. Paradoxically, if we mobilize for a war against an enemy common to all humanity we can create an overwhelmingly positive experience. Instead of divisiveness we can all join together for a common purpose. Instead of destroying institutions we can reinforce them and they can support and sustain us in our fight against ecological decline. Instead of spreading hate and nihilism we can find meaning and purpose in saving the human race from extinction. The more we mobilize, the more people are involved and working together the more positive the experience for everyone.


If we declared war on ecological decline we could stop producing weapons and focus on producing ecologically sound human habitats. We could convert to recycling everything. We could find ways to provision society without degrading the environment.

If we all declare war on ecological decline we can harness the entire might of human creativity to defeat it. We can focus all of our knowledge and wisdom on this great cause.

Or, we can keep fighting each other over diminishing resources, over oil, fresh water, and arable land - until there is nothing left to fight over...................... The choice is up to us.

Gaia and Global Warming



Life originated in an atmosphere of ninety-five per cent carbon dioxide. We know carbon dioxide as the gas that we breathe out and that forms the bulk of a car's exhaust. Four billion years ago or four eons ago it was volcanoes, not cars that were belching it out. The air would have been poisonous to humans and any other animal life. You wouldn't think that such an atmosphere would be conducive to life and yet it was. The sun was younger four eons ago and it was a lot cooler – twenty-five per cent cooler than it is today. If it wasn't for the atmosphere of carbon dioxide the Earth would have been a ball of ice, just like the outer planets. But the carbon dioxide magnified the heat from the sun because it is a greenhouse gas. It is transparent to the sun's light rays, letting them pass directly through to the Earth but reflecting back the infrared heat rays that emanate from the Earth.

Carbon dioxide is what kept Earth at just the right temperature given the weakness of the sun relative to today. And the conditions of the sea were just right for life to develop at .9 % salinity. Today the sea is 3.5 % salt. The conditions were just right. What is it about life? Life is bound by certain constraints and living cells perish when conditions are not right.

So how did life survive in the face of changing conditions if it needed the conditions to stay the same? Just as the environment changed life, life began to change the environment, affecting the salinity of the oceans, changing the content of the atmosphere, and altering the climate. And it wasn't by conscious purpose, it was more a consequence of certain properties of life.

James Lovelock, a British scientist, tells us how these environmental constraints work:

.... They depend upon the tolerances of the organisms themselves. All life forms have a lower, an upper, and an optimum temperature for growth and the same is true for acidity, salinity, and the abundance of oxygen in the air and water. Consequently organisms have to live within the bounds of these properties of the environment.

Notice Lovelock talks about the optimum amount of oxygen – and yet I've been telling you that there was no oxygen in the atmosphere when life was born. Now there is 21% oxygen in the air. If there wasn't we'd be having trouble breathing because all animals and insects need at least 15% oxygen in order to make their muscles move. At the same time if the air had 25% oxygen, even wet vegetation would burn and all the forests on Earth would go up in flames in a matter of months. At the time that life came into being there was only trace amounts of oxygen in the air. Oxygen is a very reactive element. It's what gives many red things their colour, like red rocks, the surface of Mars, and blood. Oxygen in the atmosphere is also what gives the sky its blue colour.

The very first life was a cell. A bacterial cell we call “Archaebacteria” . Its closest relatives are still living today – but they survive only in places where there is very little oxygen. In muds and in the guts of herbivores like cows. All living cells are related to Archaebacteria because it was the first cell.

Life is four billion years old. That's old. And during those four billion years – that's one quarter the age of the universe – the Earth's environment has always supported life, even though the heat of the Sun has increased by 25% during that time. Eventually the Sun will grow too hot for life to exist on Earth and life will perish. We've only got about one billion years left. Better make your wills now. But it could be a lot sooner if we manage to raise the proportion of greenhouse gases high enough.

Remember James Lovelock's saying that life needs to live within environmental constraints. I call this the “goldilocks property of life” because life prefers to live in just the right conditions like baby bear's porridge - “not too hot and not too cold”; not too salty, not too watery, etc. Lovelock lists three other significant properties of life.

The second property is that if the right environmental conditions open up a living organism will grow vigorously until it has occupied its entire niche. I call this the “kudzu property” after the aggressive green leafy vine that inundates vacant lots and fields in the American South.

When life first existed, the conditions must have been just right – ocean salinity was in the right range because of the ocean's relative youth, and the temperature of the Earth was in the right range. So archaebacteria was able to thrive and fill its entire niche – which happened to be the entire global ocean four eons ago.

But archaebacteria didn't just fill its entire niche. It started changing, generation after generation. And some of those changes survived and new types of bacteria developed. This brings us to Lovelock's third property: All life undergoes Darwinian natural selection – organisms with the most progeny survive. We often understand Darwin's theory of evolution to mean: When the environment changes, organisms that can adapt to those changes survive and those that don't become extinct. The problem is if the environmental changes become too extreme then no life can survive.

Three and a half eons ago a bacteria called cyanobacteria came into existence. The big difference between cyanobacteria and archaebacteria is that cyanobacteria can photosynthesize. It can take carbon-dioxide out of the air and by using energy derived from the sun, split the molecule into carbon and oxygen, keep the carbon atom for its own use while liberating two atoms of oxygen into the air. And that's what cyanobacteria did two billion years until the amount of Oxygen had built up to its present concentration of 21%. At the same time it was producing all this oxygen it was sequestering carbon and so the amount of carbon dioxide diminished.

That leads us to Lovelock's fourth significant property of life: All organisms change their physical and chemical environment. The easiest way to understand this is to think about breathing: we change the air every time we breathe by taking in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. If we are in an enclosed space and there is no air circulation then the air would quickly become too high in carbon dioxide and too low in oxygen and if we weren't removed from that environment we would die. If there were no photosynthesizers on Earth, the same thing would happen to our atmosphere, but it would take thousands of years. But it is not just the air that gets changed according to Lovelock.

Evidence... shows the Earth's crust, oceans, and air to be either directly the product of living things or else massively modified by their presence. Consider how the oxygen and nitrogen from the air come directly from plants and microorganisms and how the chalk and limestone rocks are the shells of living things once floating in the sea.

To summarize so far: James Lovelock has listed four significant properties of life which I call:

  1. The Goldilocks property
  2. The Kudzu property
  3. Darwinian natural selection
  4. Life's ability to change its environment

These four properties are the main ingredients of a recipe for “Gaia” according to Lovelock. What exactly is Gaia? And who is James Lovelock?

“Gaia” is the Greek name for the mythical Mother- Earth goddess. Lovelock used that name to call the Earth, seen as a single physiological system, an entity, ... that is alive, at least to the extent like other organisms, its chemistry and temperature are self-regulated at a state favourable for its inhabitants.

Gaia is an evolving system, a system made up from all living things and their surface environment, the oceans, atmosphere, and crustal rocks, the two parts tightly coupled and indivisible. It is an 'emergent domain' – a system that has emerged from the reciprocal evolution of organisms and their environment over aeons of life on Earth. In this system the self-regulation of climate and chemical composition are entirely automatic. Self- regulation emerges as the system evolves. No foresight, planning, or teleology are involved.

James Lovelock is a British scientist who invented several devices that measured the presence and amount of trace gases in the atmosphere. In the 1960's he got a job working for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena California. At the time, one of NASA's goals was to discover whether or not there is life on Mars. Lovelock, after thinking about the problem, realized that the easiest way to tell whether there was life on Mars was by examining its atmosphere – which could be done without actually sending a rocket into space. Needless to say, this was not a popular point of view at NASA because their main purpose is to send rockets into space.

I argued that if there was life on Mars it would have to use the atmosphere as a source of raw materials and as somewhere to deposit its wastes; this would change the atmosphere's composition and make it recognizably different from a dead planet.

Since the atmosphere of Mars is ninety per cent carbon dioxide, there is no methane, and only trace amounts of oxygen, Mars is chemically inert and very stable. On Earth there is oxygen and methane in the atmosphere, which means that Earth's atmosphere is chemically unstable. Over time free oxygen will combine with the surface rocks and with hydrogen in a process called oxidization. Only the continued existence of life could keep that proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere stable over time. On Mars there is no life. You may recall that I said that when life first began on Earth the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide with almost no oxygen, which, it turns out, is the same atmosphere as Mars has now. There is very little water on Mars, but there is evidence that there used to be water on Mars. Lovelock argues that it is the presence of life on Earth that is the reason Earth has water and it is the absence of life that has led to Venus and Mars losing theirs. It is the presence of life that changed Earth's atmosphere to what it is today, hence it is the absence of life that left the atmosphere of Venus and Mars unchanged.

One of the most popular photographs, perhaps the most popular photograph ever, is a snapshot taken by an astronaut of the Earth – from the window of an Apollo spacecraft as it journeyed from the Earth to the Moon. You can see Antarctica, almost all of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans and a massive weather system in the Southern Ocean. This picture has had a profound effect on many people. We all live here on Earth but it's difficult to see the bigger picture because we are in the midst of it. But this particular photograph changed many peoples' perspective. In James Lovelock's view,

.....to see the Earth from space forces questions about the composition of the air we breathe not previously asked.
Italic
For instance:

......Why is everything on our planet so comfortable and well suited for life? .......The air is a mixture that almost always keeps constant in composition. My flash of enlightenment that afternoon was the thought that to keep constant something must be regulating it and that somehow the life on the surface was involved.


A living cell regulates its internal environment – keeping its salt content at .9% and all the other essential elements at various optimal concentrations. This it does in spite of changes in the external environment..... up to a point. If the environmental changes are too severe - if the salt content of the water bathing the cell reaches 6% the cell dies. And the same thing happens if the salt content of the water bathing the cell becomes too low. Life is bound by constraints. And if those constraints are breached life perishes.

A cell cannot regulate its internal temperature because it is too small. But multi-cellular organisms can. Cold-blooded animals do not regulate their body temperature internally but they can do it by changing their behaviour – by seeking the sunlight to raise their temperature and seeking shade in order to lower their temperature. Warm-blooded animals can also regulate their temperature through behaviour. Birds in the northern hemisphere fly south for the winter. People make clothes and build houses.

Our bodies regulate our temperatures by a complex interconnecting system of internal organs. When we are cold our autonomic nervous system causes our muscles to twitch uncontrollably – this is called shivering. The blood vessels near the skin surface constrict, keeping the majority of blood in the body's well-insulated core. When we are hot the blood vessels in the extremities open up, passing the body's heat into the surrounding air. Glands in our skin secrete sweat and this cools our bodies through the evaporation of water. You get the picture. Although no solitary cell is able to regulate its internal temperature, over vast spans of time, life has evolved the ability to do this because it enhances an organism's survival.

Now we are a life form, a part of Gaia, and like Kudzu we have thrived and our population has expanded until we have filled our biological niche. But there is a big difference between us and other form s of life. Because we use automobiles and many other kinds of machines, we are magnifying our environmental effects on Gaia manyfold. We are producing so much carbon dioxide that it's affecting the global climate. By now most everybody except a President and a couple of Prime Ministers believe this to be the case. But suppose Lovelock is right and Gaia is a self-regulating entity. Then we have just fooled with Gaia's thermostat. By continuing with business as usual we will be undermining Gaia's ability to repair herself and ultimately to support us. The consequences are likely to be very unpleasant and we have very little time to correct what we have done.

Scientists predict a rise in global mean temperature of as much as five degrees centigrade in this coming century. However, they may have underestimated the projected rise in temperature because many of the climate change models leave out positive feedback effects.

There are several positive feedback mechanisms that could come into play in a hotter world. One is the “albedo” or reflective capacity of the Earth's surface. Ice has a high albedo – it reflects the Sun's rays and helps keep the Earth cool. Open water has a low albedo – it absorbs heat from the Sun. As sea ice melts away and as the Earth's glaciers shrink in size, the Earth's albedo will decrease causing an acceleration of warming.

There is frozen methane at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and locked away in the Arctic permafrost. If it were to melt, we would have significant increases in the amount of methane which is an even stronger greenhouse gas causing more global warming.

There is the problem of forest fires. As temperatures increase more moisture evaporates from the soil leaving forests dryer and more prone to catch fire. As more forests burn more carbon dioxide is released into the air causing yet more global warming.

There is the ocean plankton. Plankton consists of microscopic algae and animal life that forms the basis of the oceans food chains. It gets its sunlight because it is always in the surface waters. It gets nutrients from the deep waters that form upwellings along the continental shelves. As the temperature of the surface waters increases, the top layer of warm water expands, thus growing lighter. This locks away the heavier colder nutrient-rich waters deep underneath, decreasing the upwelling and starving the plankton of nutrients. Result: less carbon dioxide will be absorbed and sea life in general will decline.

Finally there is the solubility of carbon dioxide in water. The warmer the water the less soluble is carbon dioxide. As the temperature of the oceans increases they will release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere increasing the amount of global warming. Note, that when the oceans are cooler they have the opposite effect, they act as a negative feedback on global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide.

About these positive feedbacks to global warming there is nothing we can do.... On the other hand, there is one way of reversing global warming that we do have control over. We can decrease our use of fossil fuels. By doing this we may be able to limit global warming before it becomes a runaway process.

The solutions are all around us – small-scale hydro, solar and wind power, tidal power, wave power, nuclear power, increasing household energy efficiency, local community supported agriculture, investing in mass transit, bicycles, recycling, walking.

Global warming is not just a problem for some people. It is a risk to the entire human race. It therefore has the potential to unify human society because no-one can escape it. Like the Boxing Day, 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh that led to the end of a civil war, when enough people realize that Global Warming threatens everyone we will unite in order to save our future.

One of our key problems is inertia. It is natural to overestimate the cost of change and underestimate the cost of doing nothing. It's not just President Bush who did this. We all do it. Think of the decision to get out of bed on a cold morning. The idea of throwing off the covers and braving the cold can seem daunting . Yet, when we finally do it it's no big deal. What paralyzes us is the perception of being cold, not the reality.

James Lovelock concludes his latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, by
saying,


.....Our task as individuals is to think of Gaia first. In no way does this make us inhuman or uncaring; our survival as a species is wholly dependent on Gaia and on our acceptance of her discipline.

The human race now faces the greatest challenge in history. We've already seen how denial and ignorance can bring out the worst. If people unite to face this challenge it can bring out the best in us. I want to conclude with the words of Al Gore from his book “An Inconvenient Truth”:

The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing – a generational mission; the exhilaration of compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause. The thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence, the opportunity to rise...

It is about who we are as human beings. It is about our capacity to transcend our own limitations, to rise to the new occasion, to see with our hearts, as well as our heads, the response that is now called for. This is a moral, ethical, and spiritual challenge.We should fear this challenge. We should welcome it. We must not wait. In the words of Dr. King, “tomorrow is today.”

c. 2006 by Charles Justice


Books Quoted:

James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth
Oxford University Press, 1979.

James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of the Living Earth
WW Norton, New York, 1988.

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia
Penguin Books, 2006.

Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth
Rodale Press, 2006.



Jesus For Unitarians

...Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. Mark 13: 33-37 NRSV

Don't you find people who talk this way irritating? “Beware, keep alert...” For what? It's bad enough that we get stressed out by things in everyday life: our jobs, traffic, the news, our kids, our neighbours, our health without piling some bigger but hypothetical concern on top of everything else. That must be the way a lot of people feel about environmentalists: “look I realize that we need to do something about pollution. But there's nothing I can do about it right now so quit bothering me!” That sense of urgency. It can really get under your skin because after all we've gotta get on with our lives, no matter how urgent worldwide problems are. And it's hard to know if what we do can ever make a real difference.

.....It is like the mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground; is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. Mark 4: 30-32



But what if you heard some guy saying stuff like that and you dropped everything you were doing and followed him. Your family and friends would be saying: “Get real. Are you crazy? You've got a job, you've got responsibilities. Get over it.” But no. All of a sudden you've got a sense of purpose. You want to help save the world and nothing else matters. Are you crazy? Maybe, but there's something about this guy. You've never met anyone like him before. He cares about people, forgotten people, the ones that have been left behind and he doesn't defer to any big shots or the rich.


Not very likely that we would drop everything and follow such a person is it? And two thousand years ago when Jesus told these two parables it wasn't very likely either. Let's face it, his group of followers was small. The New Testament exaggerates his influence when he was alive because, well, that was the writers' job. During his lifetime Jesus was essentially an unknown. His teacher, John the Baptizer was much more well known than him and had a bigger following. How do we know? Because we have reports about John from an independent source: Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews. Be that as it may, what was Jesus' message?


The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed onto the ground and would sleep and rise night and day. And the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. For the earth brings forth fruit of herself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come. Mark 4: 26-29 NRSV


According to Mark, Jesus starts his ministry by proclaiming: The time is fulfilled , and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and hear the good news. Like the man in the parable, Jesus doesn't bother with explaining why the time is fulfilled, it just is. The Gospel of Mark is the only one of the four New Testament Gospels that shows that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Apocalypse was a kind of perspective among certain groups of Jews in the first and previous century – particularly the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the followers of John the Baptizer. This perspective is oriented towards the near future when God will destroy this world along with all the evil people in it and create a new world populated with the few righteous people left. It's basically wish fulfillment for seriously oppressed people. Jesus preached that the apocalypse was immanent, eg., “The kingdom of God is at hand....”, which might explain his spontaneity and sometimes rash judgment.


Apocalyptic thinking has had a pernicious influence, right up to this very day. And that sense of urgency to speed things along – the “Let's have an apocalypse now.” mentality is alive and well in the Christian Right's neglect of the environment and encouragement of war.



Jesus taught that very soon the coming of God's kingdom would result in a radical reversal of fortunes. The Gospel of Mark in the New Testament quotes him as saying “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” And he practiced what he preached. He befriends notorious sinners and outcasts. His disciples are poor and illiterate. He tells a rich young man who wanted to join him to come back after he gives all his wealth to the poor. Of course the rich young man does no such thing. So Jesus loses a potential convert. But he doesn't care. He tells his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” People walk away amazed by what Jesus says or they are outraged.


He acts spontaneously. He picks his disciples on the spot and they decide to follow him – a bunch of fishermen: Andrew, James, Peter and John; a tax collector, Matthew; a zealot named Judas. (Zealots were the first century equivalent of terrorists) Perhaps being spontaneous he sometimes makes errors of judgment.


According to Mark, Jesus taught in parables. These are short stories that are often kind of earthy, often about farming or some aspect of nature: planting seeds, running a vineyard, feeding the pigs.... all of them ostensibly simple but all with a paradoxical twist at the end.


This tells us something about Jesus. He's not a philosopher or a theologian. He doesn't lay down his beliefs deductively. Parables are open-ended – they create ambiguity in the listener's mind because the conclusion is left open, so it invites active participation from the audience. It gets people to think about things in a different way.


The apostle Paul's letters are the first surviving Christian documents. But the Gospel of Mark is the first written narrative about Jesus. It was probably written about thirty years after his death. My Mennonite friend believes that it is a first person account of Jesus – as if to say that Mark was one of the disciples who hung around with Jesus, writing down everything he said or did with a quill, a bottle of ink and a papyrus notebook.


But if you read Mark with an open mind you will find, like reading any other book, it has a point of view. And that point of view rejects the authority of Jesus' disciples. So it's not likely that Mark was one of them.


Mark never tires of pointing out how the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was really talking about. It doesn't matter how clearly and simply Jesus explains what he's about, they just don't get it. They're a bunch of dimwits. According to Mark, even Jesus' family think he's a nut-case and want to get him committed. Jesus most important disciple, Peter, who Mark acknowledges is the first person to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah – still doesn't understand what his being the Messiah actually means.


(Jesus asked:) “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Then he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him; and he began to teach them that the son of man had to undergo great sufferings, and to be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and doctors of the law; to be put to death, and rise again three days afterwards. At this Peter took him by the arm and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turned around, and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter. “Away with you Satan,” he said, “you think as men think, not as God thinks.”


Mark 8 29- 33


This passage is the key to Mark's Gospel. According to Mark, what Jesus' closest followers didn't get is that Jesus was supposed to be crucified. Being a Unitarian my theory about this is that Jesus didn't get it either. He had no idea that he was going to be crucified. Why then was he crucified? I think Mark gives us a pretty good indication, although for his own reasons he doesn't treat it that way.


Passover, is the Holy day when the Jews celebrate their covenant with God through the retelling of the story of Moses and their deliverance from slavery. On the day before Passover Jews from all over the Roman Empire have gathered in Jerusalem to make sacrifices in honour of Passover, and all such sacrifices take place in the Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Within the precincts of the temple there are stalls of money changers, sacrificial pigeon sellers, etc. But Jesus has a thing about money. He is quoted as saying: “You cannot serve two masters... You cannot serve God and money.”


Jesus goes up to Jerusalem on the day before Passover and walks into the Jewish Temple. He sees the money changers stalls, the pigeon sellers. He is insulted that people are openly making money in the precincts of the Holy Temple. Jesus is not a violent person. At a previous time and place he tells people that if someone strikes you you should turn the other cheek instead of striking back. He tells people that the meek will inherit the earth. But this time something in him snaps. Impulsively, he kicks at their stalls, and overturns them. Money is spilling all over the floor. The stall owners are yelling at Jesus. People are running over to see what's happening and sacrificial pigeons are flying off in all directions. There's general pandemonium, and in the confusion Jesus somehow slips away. That afternoon a woman comes to visit Jesus and she pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume over his head. His followers are incensed at the waste of money, especially Judas. But Jesus defends her. It's the last straw for Judas. That night he goes to the Jewish authorities who are gunning for Jesus for his causing a riot and tells them where they can find him. The next morning they apprehend Jesus and turn him over to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate who has him crucified the same day. All of Jesus' disciples are completely dispirited and flee the city.


This is not a very flattering portrait of Jesus: on the last few days of his life his own followers are bickering with him, while one of his hand-picked disciples betrays him to his enemies, When he's apprehended his followers scatter to the four winds. It's all the more reason to believe that this actually happened, because why would people who worship Jesus as the Messiah make these things up about him? But it's also a strong reason for Mark to incorporate damage control into his story. It all happened this way because it was supposed to happen. And Jesus followers were not united behind him because they just didn't get it. But Mark and his readership do know better and that's why he's telling the story. So that we can get it, so that we can achieve closer access to Jesus than his own disciples did. It's pretty exciting stuff, even today, two thousand years after this story was first told.


Being a Unitarian I'm interested in the story of Jesus, I'm fascinated by hearing what he did and said, but I'm skeptical about Jesus' divinity. If Jesus was just a person why would he know that he was supposed to die? No-one can know such a thing. Still I don't deny that there is something very significant about who Jesus was. And there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that that's the case, especially in the accounts of his resurrection.


But being a good and skeptical Unitarian how can I possibly use the accounts of his resurrection as evidence? What was the resurrection all about? According to all four gospel accounts in the New Testament no-one saw Jesus actually rise from the dead. The most ancient accounts of the gospel of Mark do not include any accounts of his resurrection, but the entire gospel implies that he did rise from the dead. In later versions of Mark , and in the other three gospels and the book of Acts there are numerous accounts of Jesus' followers experiencing Jesus as alive after he was crucified – people see him , talk to him, eat with him, and even touch him.


There is no doubt in my mind that people experienced Jesus as alive after he died for two reasons. First, in being crucified, Jesus died a shocking and horrific death. But, if that's all that happened why was a religious movement born out of it? There must have been some collective experience that was powerful enough to bring a scattered and demoralized group of his followers back together to form the first Christian church. Secondly One of the authors featured in the New Testament claims that he himself experienced the resurrected Christ and his account is independently corroborated by a different author. This is an account written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians and first letter to the Corinthians describing his experience and also in several places in the New Testament book of Acts which was written by somebody calling himself Luke. In these famous accounts Saul, who never met Jesus during his lifetime, is riding to Damascus in order to persecute Christians there, when he is suddenly blinded, falls off his horse and hears Jesus voice speaking in Aramaic: “Saul, why do you persecute me.” Instead of persecuting the Damascus Christians as he had intended, he meets with them, converts to Christianity, changes his name to Paul, hangs out in the desert for a while to think things through, and a couple of years later goes back to Jerusalem to meet with the apostle Peter and James the brother of Jesus.


What is behind the resurrection experiences? For those who knew Jesus there must have been something about him as a person that was very special – perhaps his spontaneity, or his selfless generosity, or his unconditional love for people who were normally despised and rejected. In any event it must have been profoundly personal for his followers to have experienced his resurrection.


But for someone like Paul who never knew Jesus personally, the reasons for his resurrection experience must have been more in a theological vein. After all, he started out by persecuting Christians, so he must have had a reason for that. Paul tells us that he studied under a famous Pharisaic teacher named Gamaliel, and Pharisees figure prominently in the New Testament as intellectual opponents of Jesus. There are discussions about what ought to be allowed or disallowed on the Sabbath, where Jesus' authority comes from, whether it's right to pay taxes to the Emperor, and so on. They are the kind of discussions that could have gone on between friendly rivals. But there was obviously some sticking point, some area of intense disagreement, or Pharisees like Saul would not have been persecuting the early Christians.


Jesus' saying, “The Last shall be first and the first shall be last.” comes to mind. For it could be seen to imply that non-Jews or Gentiles could be more easily saved than Jews who follow the Jewish Law. And that could have been hard to take for someone like Paul who spent the first part of his life learning to be a pious Jew. The fact that Paul later appoints himself as the apostle to the Gentiles, points to this kind of reversal in his philosophy. There are universal elements in Judaism, elements that imply that God's Justice ought to reach all peoples equally and this comes out in Jesus' teachings and may have spoken directly to Paul, first enraging him and later converting him.


The interesting thing is, what was Paul thinking about during those two years he spent in the desert? Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, suggests that the process of Paul's thought goes something like this: If Jesus is resurrected from the dead then he must be the Messiah,(the Messiah being a Jewish Apocalyptic figure who was thought to be the person who God chose to rule the world and vanquish all evil.) But Jesus was crucified by the Romans. But God wouldn't have allowed his Messiah to be crucified unless he meant it to be that way. But why would He have meant it to happen that way? Paul reasons that it couldn't have been for anything Jesus did so therefore he was meant to be crucified because of what everybody else has done. God was making the ultimate sacrifice in order to save all of humankind, both Jews and Gentiles together if they accepted Jesus as Lord.


I believe that it is significant that Paul states in his first letter to the Corinthians that he received the idea of the ceremony of the Eucharist from the resurrected Jesus himself. The Eucharist which is the symbolic sharing of Jesus' body and blood is a reenactment of Christ's sacrifice of his life. It would make sense that if Paul was the person who created the idea of Jesus dying for our sins he would also have created the ceremony which physically reenacts that sacrifice.

Most Christians believe that the Eucharist was passed from Jesus to his disciples at his last supper, the night before he died. That's because it's part of the passion narratives of all three synoptic gospels. I admit it makes for a great story but being a Unitarian I'm skeptical, (we're such killjoys).... First Jesus was Jewish and Jews do not believe in human sacrifice. Of course Paul was Jewish too. But he is known to have stretched the rules by not requiring gentile Christians to eat kosher or gentile males to be circumcised. And what's more interesting is that Paul tells us in his letters that he did this in opposition to the Jerusalem church. Indeed, Paul argues logically that because Jesus saves us through his death on the cross, Jewish laws such as keeping kosher and circumcision are no longer necessary.


He's got a valid argument if you accept the premises. So why did the Jerusalem church not see things the same way? After all they were the ones who sat in on the last supper. Boy are they ever stupid! Jesus tells them all this stuff about his having to die for us and they still don't get it. Or, maybe they didn't get it because they knew Jesus and he never said those things because he had no idea he was about to be crucified.


The only place in the Bible where someone says Jesus told me This is my body....” is in Paul's letters. Everywhere else it's in the third person, it's “Jesus told them...” Could it be because all the narratives about Jesus were written under Paul's direct or indirect influence? The vast majority of Biblical scholars agree that Paul's letters predate all of the Gospels. And the last half of the book of Acts, which is written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke, is basically a narrative about Paul spreading the Christian gospel to the far corners of the Roman Empire. The one gospel with the least influence from Paul is the gospel of John and , oddly enough, it's scene of the last supper has no mention of the Eucharist.


You don't need to go outside the Bible to some esoteric interpretation of Jesus sayings to learn that things are not as they seem. When you think about it the New Testament is simply an astounding treasure trove of documents. You've got Paul's letters. You've got four different narrative versions of Jesus' life to compare and contrast. You've got a biography of Paul. The only thing you don't have is anything written by Jesus but that's because he never wrote anything.

I admit it's a bit of a dilemma trying to figure out what Jesus really said and did. It makes things a lot more complicated than if you just believed everything that's written in the Bible is true. But it's the doctrine of the atonement that is crucial here because it's how one treats this doctrine that ultimately determines how you look at everything else. And I mean “everything else”. Fundamentalists believe that all that's really important about Jesus is that he was the son of God who was born a human male and died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. Liberals and Unitarians believe that what Jesus actually said and did during his life is important enough to know that it is worth the risk of eroding some of the basic tenets of Christian faith to find out. It was liberal Christians who, in setting out to uncover the authentic Jesus, became the first religious group in history to critically analyze their own sacred texts. And Christian fundamentalism evolved out of a widespread reaction to the liberals' critical text analysis. Unfortunately, by holding the atonement above everything else, fundamentalists have backed themselves into a corner that they can't get out of. That's why they insist on the literal truth of everything that's written in the Bible and that's why they reject the theory of evolution and a lot of other scientific knowledge.


Fundamentalists were more motivated by the fear of change than by the pursuit of truth and so they closed their minds to the truth. But now they have grown in power. They have taken over all three branches of the U.S. government. Their leader is George W. Bush. Unlike Jesus, his message is: “Stay the course.” Let's continue to wage war, let's continue to create social inequality, let's continue to pollute and degrade the environment, and let's continue to consume more and more of the earth's resources. “Stay the course.” “Stay the course....” And if we do, in less than one hundred years our global civilization will collapse. Much faster than what happened to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire lasted four hundred years after Jesus died so his timing in claiming that the apocalypse was to happen within the lifetimes of his audience was a bit off. But in some important respects Jesus had it right. If we want to have a future for the human race we must reject inequality, war, and overconsumption and embrace simplicity.


Someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus Answered, “The first is, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandments greater than these.” ( Mark 12: 29-31, note also Deuteronomy 7: 4-6)


There are no other commandments greater than these. We can follow him or we can persist in misunderstanding him. And we don't have much time to choose.