Friday, December 25, 2009


Four hundred years ago, Johannes Kepler worked out the motions of the planets around the sun, and discovered a mathematical basis for determining the location of any planet at any time in history. In doing so, he plotted the positions of the planets back to 7 BCE, and discovered that in that year, the planet Saturn had passed behind Jupiter. Because of the motion of the Earth relative to the other planets, an Earth-bound observer would have seen Saturn appear to merge with Jupiter, then reverse its motion and pass Jupiter again, then move in regular orbital motion once more. Astronomers and astrologers call this a triple conjunction; they occur at irregular intervals. The last one took place in 1981, and the next one will take place in 2238.

In the Middle Eastern astrology of the time, the planet Jupiter had an association with kingship, and Saturn had an association with Judea.To the astrologers of the first century Mediterranean basin, and probably to the Zoroastrian astrologer-priests known as the Magi, a triple conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter would have meant the birth of a new king for Judea, then ruled by a puppet king and a Roman imperial governor.

The basic unit of astronomic distance, the light year, indicates distances and speeds that we find difficult to grasp. A single light year contains over nine trillion kilometres; if every man, woman, and child on Earth traveled the distance between Toronto and Winnipeg, we would cumulatively have traveled about one light year. Yet we can see the Andromeda Galaxy, two and a half million light years away, with our own eyes; and telescopes can detect the light of objects even farther away. Darkness does not overcome light.

These things we know from observation and from calculation; what Ursula LeGuin called "number the indispoutable". Other things we experience; the sense that the birth of a child brings a chance for redemption and renewal, and experience of birth as a spiritual, rather than just a biological, event. And sacred writings handed down to us over the centuries tell us still more:
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Will someone save these people from themselves?

Last week I rented and watched The Queen, a superb performance by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II struggling to come to terms with the changes in British and world culture that intruded into her life after the death of Princess Diana. In it, Tony Blair lets out a cry for someone to "save these people from themselves", after some particularly tone-deaf behaviour from Buckingham Palace.

That phrase sums up my response to the behaviour of the global environmental movement before and during Copenhagen. The conference itself, with its focus on long-range goals and dire threats a decade hence showed how not to address a problem in an international forum. It didn't help that a batch of emails that showed the environment movement and climate science in the worst possible light had surfaced right before Copenhagen.

George Monbiot took care to criticize the tone-deaf scientists who wrote up the climate emails. But if he wants to know why so many people eagerly bought the idea that these emails convicted climate scientists, and the whole climate movement, of fraud, he and fellow environmental campaigners should take a look in the mirror. Romantics who fantasize about "redefining humanity", or "changing our culture from the ground up" and forcing everyone into a life where less is more do more to convince millions of average people that their happiness and prosperity depends on cheap energy, and carbon emissions, than all the propagandists big oil and big coal can possibly buy.

Just to make things worse, Mr. Monbiot embraced the prospect of an alliance with NIMBY groups, not grasping (or not caring) that most NIMBY positions, as well as deeply inconsistent, also reflect the interests, economic and otherwise, of relatively privileged communities. The poor worry about literacy, schools for their kids, and jobs. The rich have the leisure and political influence to try to dump the airport on the neighbours.

If anyone really believed that introducing themselves as the people who will save us from ourselves would help the environment movement make progress, the fate of the Copenhagen Conference should give us all a clue that it won't. As someone who participated in one of the early green transportation experiments at the end of the seventies, I have three suggestions:
  1. Get the engineers together and have them start talking about what we can accomplish. technically, right now. Not ten years in the future, now. We have the technology to build windjammers and use them for slow freight, right now. We have planes in the air, today, that produce about 30% of the global warming effect of high altitude jets. Solve the problems; make lifestyle change the absolute last resort.
  2. Quit treating the issue as the supposed moral and philosophical failings of European culture. If you think life has a higher purpose than working for the weekend so you can head to Walmart and shop 'til you drop, make that case. Don't saddle the environment with all the hopes for personal, political, social and economic redemption you can't sell without the prospect of environmental apocalypse. The majority of the world doesn't live near a Walmart; their life savings would not buy a pair of fashionable running shoes, and they cannot afford to wait while we save the souls of over privileged Westerners.
  3. Let us see this as a problem we can solve, a challenge, even, dare I say it, as exciting, even fun. If Kennedy had tried to sell the prospect of landing on the moon by telling Americans to make do with less, go dumpster diving, and lament their profligate ways, the moon landing would have gone the way of the Copenhagen conference. We could afford not to send a man to the moon. If the scientists have thier climate predictions right, we cannot afford to fail on global warming.