Monday, 29 September 2008

life after carbon reduction

I have commented before on the difficulty of moving towards more sustainable energy use. The first barriers to overcome are understanding the facts, informing public opinion and overcoming misinformation. But we definitely need solutions to problems like car dependence and alternatives to coal-fired power stations.

So it is pleasing to read in the press two alternatives that seem to have promise.

  • A recent report to "clean-power developer", Carnegie Corporation, estimates that wave energy created around Australia's long coastline is four times the current generation capacity of the nation. An estimated 10% of this, or one third of the current power usage, could be harvested. This energy source, coupled with solar, wind and geothermal, makes it look likely that Australia could meet all its power needs in the future with renewable and carbon-neutral energy.
  • Not long ago, the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA), released a report from its "Jamison Group", which has been researching the development of alternative motor vehicle fuels, in order to reduce oil dependence. The plan aims at reducing oil-based fuel usage by 50% in 40 years, via compulsory reduction in fuel consumption, changes to incentives and subsidies and development of alternative fuels such as biofuels. But ultimately, the requirement will be further development of electric cars (which hasn't always been enthusiastically supported by existing motor interests) and of the renewable energy resources to power them.

One wonders whether we can depend on 40 years of petrol usage, but electric cars are already viable, and even very competitive.

The seriously interesting Tesla electric roadster (photo from the Tesla website)

It now requires people and governments to support these measures, even though they will cost us in the short term - if any generation can afford to, and should, take a cut in wealth to buy a better future, it is us.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

another "ism" bites the dust?

I grew up in the time of the cold war. Communism was the big enemy, and ranged against it were the forces of freedom, principally the US. Then down came the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, and most of the Communist countries embraced democracy and Capitalism. The world was suddenly a better, freer and safer place.

Many western governments shifted a little to the right - George W Bush in the US, John Howard in Australia. Leftist governments and parties, such as Labor in the UK, seemed to shift to the safe middle ground - instead of reform there was fiscal responsibility.

Market forces were even considered the most effective means to solve many environmental issues. Capitalism was undisputed king, and the market was considered to be effectively self-regulating.

But the unfolding financial mess in the US, and gradually enveloping the world, has begun to change that perception. Suddenly people are saying that the market may self-regulate in the long term, but in the short term many people will get burned, and some corporate leaders will make a killing even as they retire in disgrace.

Suddenly even some world leaders are saying that the unbridled capitalism of the US has been the culprit, and more regulation and transparency is required in the future. They say the world will not be the same again, and the US will lose its pre-eminent position in the world economy.

Perhaps, merely two decades after the demise of Communism, we are witnessing the effective demise of unbridled free market Capitalism, in favour of some more moderate and more moderated "ism"?

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

those old time songs

I visited a retirement village recently, and joined many of the residents in an old fashioned sing-a-long. Not my choice of a past-time, but it was interesting to compare the songs, dating I guess from the 1930s and 1940s, with today's songs. Many of the songs reflected the uncertainties of the war years and the great depression, they were almost all fairly simple in the thoughts and emotions expressed, and they tended to be very positive, looking on the brighter side of life, promising to be faithful to a loved one far away, looking forward to better times. I wondered whether, when times were materially tough, people looked for comfort in their entertainment, but now times are materially good, we have more time for angst.

Monday, 8 September 2008

close to understanding jesus?

Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand She said she'd like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis She walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land Just like she's walking on a wire in a circus She parks her car outside of my house Takes her clothes off Says she's close to understanding Jesus. - Counting Crows: "Round Here"

It's a great song, and a great aim - understanding Jesus. And if you understand the following two Bible verses, you're probably close to understanding Jesus, even if you don't believe in him:

"After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Mark 1:14-15.

The time has come

The Jewish nation was small, at the crossroads of the world, sandwiched between Egypt to the southwest and Assyria and Babylon to the northeast. Only for a short period in its long history had it been really free - 900 years earlier under kings David & Solomon. But the prophets promised a time would come when God would restore the kingdom and forever rescue his people from oppression, via his anointed king, the Messiah. And so faithful Jews waited, and waited, and waited for the promised Messiah to free them, from Assyria, from Babylon, from Greece and from Rome. And they were still waiting.

Then comes Jesus's dramatic, momentous announcement that brought hope to tired hearts - "it's time!"

The kingdom of God is near

The promise was that God would rule as king, via his Messiah. The coming of the kingdom threatened to turn the world upside down. The Roman Empire proclaimed Caesar as Lord, so the coming of Jesus, the true Lord, was a challenge to the might of Rome. It was also a challenge to the Jewish religious leaders, who had developed a complex web of laws to define what it meant to be holy, and Jesus overturned all that. But it came as blessed relief for normal people who groaned under occupation, heavy taxation and the weight of the religious laws, for Jesus as Lord offered a lighter burden and hope for the future.

But Jesus had in mind a radical departure from popular expectations of a militant Messiah, and many were offended. Many people still don't get it. In the end, power and force are not God's way for us, and Jesus did not announce a kingdom that would by force drive out the Romans. Rather he brought a kingdom where the Messiah would suffer with, and for, his people, to give them new freedom, within and despite their circumstances. And this kingdom would last forever, on into the age to come.

Once, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and he read a passage from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Everyone knew this passge referred to the promised Messiah, so "all eyes were on him". You could have heard a pin drop. And Jesus said "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21)

And it wasn't just talk. When his cousin John sent messengers questioning his credentials, Jesus replied: "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Luke 7:22-23) He was doing what Isaiah had promised.

And, to emphasise his way was one of service, not dominance, and to show how we could enter into this new kingdom, Jesus also said: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

So Jesus, the servant king, confounded many expectations, offered great hope and threatened entrenched interests. (It is still the same.) And as we examine this short passage and unpack its meaning, we see that even Jesus's death (the servant king dies as a ransom for many) and resurrection (but the king and his kingdom will never end) are in view.

Repent and believe the good news!

Repent literally means to change one's mind - as the Apple Computer ads used to say: "Think Different!" If God is beginning to rule in a new way, each of us has to make some hard choices. Are we willing to change our minds and accept God's offer of a place among his people, or do we want to keep on going it alone? This announcement is good news to those who are willing to think again, because it brings a totally new life, but we have to believe the news and embrace it by living it out.

Jesus went on to welcome many unlikely (in his contemporaries' eyes) people into this new community of the kingdom - he forgave and restored women who had fallen foul of one-sided moral laws in a male dominated society, he included the despised tax collectors in his kingdom leading to major changes to their lives, he healed lepers and restored them to society, he even welcomed his religious foes and the occupying Romans.

And all the time he challenged his listeners to have discerning eyes, to understand what was happening, and to respond by joining him in making things new, starting with themselves. Theologian AM Hunter: "all through that ministry there rings a note of terrible urgency, as though a crisis uniquely fraught with blessing or with judgment for 'this generation' in Israel were upon them .... [we] get the impression of 'tremendous power', as of 'a great wind sweeping through Palestine' ... [challenging people] to decide on whose side of the battle they will be". And so the movement he began against all odds, grew until it had spread over all the world. True, many of his followers, and some self-serving people who came along for the ride, often misunderstood his commitment to freedom and service and perpetrated some ghastly, anti-kingdom atrocities, but the bulk of his followers have changed the world in many positive ways, and are still doing so.

He still challenges people, the irreligious and the religious, to give up on second rate goals and join him. Anyone close to understanding Jesus can join in.

Further reference:

Saturday, 6 September 2008

a girl's best friend?

The teen years are a time of uncertainty, a time when most people need every bit of encouragement they can get. So it is sad to read author Nikki Goldstein reporting in the Sydney Morning Herald on "the broad and insidious rise of "mean girl culture"".

Goldstein has a forum on her website where girls across Australia discuss and receive advice, and "the most pressing topic, every week, has been how to handle the bullying, bitchiness and isolation girls experience at school."

She refers to teen TV shows that seem to promote nastiness and put-downs among teen girls, and says: "Our culture has spawned a new version of womanhood that promotes a kind of sharp-tongued nastiness ...."

The SMH article offers few clues as to the reasons for this behaviour trend, but an earlier book about girls in the US, Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, suggests that it is “a mean and merciless competition for relationships”, as girls seek popularity and membership in a popular clique, even if they have to destroy previous friendships to do it.

It seems to be one more evidence of a society that too often cares more for popularity and image than for friendship and lasting values.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

free will?

Most of us don't even think about it. We just go about our lives, making choices and accepting responsibility for them (and sometimes trying to avoid responsibility for them!). But do we really have free will, or are we just programmed?

what is free will?

Free will means the ability to choose between two or more alternatives, without being predetermined by our genes, our brain processes and cause and effect to make a particular choice - the ability to initiate an action, or be a cause of an action, that wouldn't have occurred otherwise, and which we were not compelled to cause.

The Oxford Handbook of Free Will says: "we believe we have free will when (a) it is "up to us" what we choose from an array of alternative possibilities, and (b) the origin or source of our choices and actions is in us and not in anyone or anything else over which we have no control."

Some have defined free will in "lesser" terms, as the absence of external compulsion. However, if we have no inner free will, then our entire selves are the result of external actions leading to our birth and genetics, over which we had no control. So this definition doesn't seem to be what most of us consider to be free will.

do we actually have free will?

No-one doubts we are in many things not free to choose (e.g. to fly unaided), nor that our genes determine much about us. The question is, do we have any choice?

We seem to have free will. We make choices, blame people for their choices, present arguments we expect to influence other people, and have legal systems that make people responsible for their actions as if they had true choice. But is all this an illusion?

Naturalists, who believe that the space-time universe is all there is, find it hard to avoid the conclusion that everything is determined by the laws of the universe and cause and effect. Our brains function on simple and deterministic laws of physics, and there is no "us" outside our brains to control our thoughts. For naturalists, our brain processes seem to be predetermined.

Biologist Francis Crick: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Professor William Provine, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University: "Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent."

"Compatibilists" believe that although our brains are determined, we still have free will, though I cannot see how that can be. "Incompatibilists" believe that because our brains are determined, we have no free will, which seems like a logical conclusion to me.

Some theists believe that God's sovereignty, especially in setting up the universe, means that we cannot have free will either, but most believe God gives us the dignity of free will, and thereby holds us responsible for our actions.

Most theists would also be dualists, that is, they believe God has made us as spiritual-physical beings, and our minds or selves have a dual nature, which allows us to escape from the determinism of naturalism.

what can we live with?

It is one thing to have a theoretical view. Most people seem to be natural dualists, believing we have genuine free will and moral responsibility. But this seems inconsistent for those who are naturalists and atheists. But although it may be inconsistent, it may be difficult to get away from.

One option for naturalists could be that we have evolved to think we have free will even though we don't, because it is advantageous to think so. For example, one study has shown that those who believe we lack free will are more likely to be dishonest (perhaps showing the link between free will and moral responsibility).

So if an atheist believes there can be no true free will, can they actually live as if this is true, or will their minds revolt at the thought?

And does our common perception indicate that there is more in the universe than some people say, perhaps even pointing to God?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

start of the universe, end of the world?

In trying to understand matter and energy, scientists have discovered four basic forces or interactions (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions). The "Standard Model" of particle physics describes how dozens of fundamental particles (e.g. different types of quarks, leptons and bosons) that make up the more well-known atomic particles like protons and neutrons, and the three interactions other than gravity, "work" together.

Gravity is the odd force out, and only one of the fundamental particles, the Higgs boson, has not yet been observed. It is believed that the Higgs boson holds the key to gravity, and why it is a much weaker force than the others.

Creating the conditions where a Higgs boson (and a few other hypothetical particles and miniature black holes) can be created requires accelerating protons (which are one type of hadron) to speeds approaching that of light, and then smashing them against each other to create, in a small space and for a short time, enormous temperatures and forces such as existed at the very beginning of the universe when the particles were first forming out of energy.

And so the European Nuclear Research Centre (CERN), supported by thousands of scientists and 20 countries, has spent billions of dollars building the "Large Hadron Collider" (LHC) underground in Switzerland - an enormous, 17 mile long particle accelerator that will produce the required high velocities. It is due to open soon.

And now, at the last minute, some scientists are challenging the operation of the LHC in the European Court of Human Rights. They claim the safety of the LHC is in doubt, because it may be able to produce miniature black holes which could then begin eating the earth from the inside due to their intense gravitational pull.

CERN has produced a safety report which concludes that there is "little theoretical chance of the collider producing mini black holes that would be capable of posing a danger to the earth". Doubtless they are correct and their critics wrong, but with the earth itself at stake, one would have thought "little chance" was still a little too much.

But we all trust scientists, don't we?