PERSPECTIVES ON THE 2012 CONFERENCE
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
This year's conference was at Silver Bay, NY. The theme for this year's conference was among the less cheerful ones we have had in recent years. It was about the challenges to human civilization that are becoming clearer and stronger by the day, and threats to our very survival as a species.
With the advent of the Industrial Age, many concerns were raised in the nineteenth century by many thoughtful and concerned citizens like the Luddites, John Ruskin, Mahatma Gandhi and others about the potential dangers of technological civilization. Their fears ranged from losing jobs in textile mills to uprooting traditional values and cultures. Some of them were ecologists, but no one imagined or could have imagined the kinds of dangers we are facing now. Their concerns and many more have begun to materialize. The fears expressed in the twentieth century from scientifically informed people like Alexis Carrel and Rachel Carson are proving to be presciently valid.
No matter what practical aspect of life we consider: the water and food we take, the means of transportation we adopt, the air we breathe and the lakes and oceans we swim in, the religions we proclaim and practice, and the natural resources we direly need: in short, in every aspect of life we see there are growing constraints, unavailability, and unhealthy impacts.
All this in addition to a difficult-to-slow-down growth in population which is inching or rather racing towards the eleven billion mark. Then there is the very real global warming a taste of one of whose ravaging we experienced in the Midwest this year. We are dreading what the future holds.
As if all this is not enough, there are what strike many of us as avoidable, but no less dangerous and destructive distresses: religious strife, racial hatred, sectarian divides, sharp and apparently unbridgeable ideological splits, petty chauvinism and paltry jingoism, terrorist threats and outbursts, let alone murder and mayhem in the name of God and true-belief.
Are these matters worthy of probing into? No, if all we do is to listen to and talk about the gory details of pollution and poverty, politics and population and such, and do nothing about them. Yes, in that through these discussions we become better informed and analytically alert about the gravity of the problems confronting our species. Combining all the knowledge and insights that our speakers brought with our own moral strengths and enlightened values we may be able to contribute in some small measure to the alleviation, if not the elimination of the problems that are so starkly staring at us.
The following are two reviews of the conference, and four abstracts of the symposium on the theme that was during the week, presented by IRASians.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
Motivating Scientific Logos with Religious Mythos
Paul H. Carr
The 130 attendees of this Institute of Religion in an Age of Science Conference (www.iras.org) came from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, India, and Pakistan. It was held at the Silver Bay Conference Center, Lake George, NY, July 28 - Aug 4, 2012. Physicists Robert Bercaw and V. V. Raman were the co-chairs. The chapel speaker was Dr. Richard S. Gilbert, Minister Emeritus, First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Jacqueline Schwab, well known for her music on Ken Burn's TV, was the pianist.
Futurist Ruben Nelson of Foresight Canada enjoins us to co-create a new form of civilization by yoking scientific and technological logos with religious motivation and meaning, mythos. This is in response to the three-fold challenges:
Global warming by 2030-2039 could shift agricultural production from the South to the presently too-cold climates of the North. When Ruben Nelson was asked "Should US citizens move to Canada?" his response was, "Get in line! We already have people who find the southwestern US too hot summering in Canada. In addition, we have a universal health care system." The Canadian banking system was the most stable in the Western World, after US and European banks crashed on 2008 due overinvestment in toxic mortgages.
Janet Ranganathan, vice president for science and research at the World Resources Institute, confronted the challenge of feeding two billion more people in her talk entitled, The Great Balancing Act: How to Feed Nine Billion People while Sustaining Ecosystems in a Changing Climate. She stated, "Since the global wild fish catch has leveled off, fish farming must increase." Strategies for responding to these challenges include restoring degraded lands, reducing food waste, and reducing competition for food crops from fuels.
Jorgen Randers in his book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (ref 1) predicts that the world population will peak at eight billion in 2040. The population explosion in underdeveloped counties is being moderated by the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation's investment of four billion dollars in birth control technology. The population of developed countries has stabilized. Randers forecasts that food production could crash after 2052. There will nevertheless be enough food for those who can pay.
Physicist Robert Bercaw's talk was A Brief History of Growth and the Challenge of the Fourth Era and V. V. Raman's Energy: Some Perspectives from Physics. Paul H. Carr's workshop, Can Technologies Save us in Time? (ref.2) described advances in non-carbon-emitting technology.
Brian Czech, president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, advocated this economy to prevent environmental degradation of our water, soil, plants, and endangered species. A steady state economy is preferable to periodic depressions.
Developed counties are trending toward such an economy according to Jorgen Randers (ref 1). The current dominant global economies, particularly the United States, Europe, and Japan with a population of one billion will stagnate. China and BRISE (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and ten leading emerging economies) with a population of four billion will progress. Their demand for limited fossil fuels and limited metal resources will increase, as they strive to make their per capita Gross National Product comparable to that of the developed countries. Fortunately new knowledge-based information technology does not stress natural resources as much as material manufacturing. Better software propelled Google's spectacular growth.
Bron Taylor, Professor of religion and environmental ethics at the University of Florida, gave a hopeful talkGreen Religion: On the Possibility that "Reverence for Life"Ethics Might Help Secure a Flourishing Future. He advocated significant religion-resembling cultural innovations that consider nature sacred and intrinsically beautiful. Similarly Brian Czech recommended that the Happiness- Satisfaction index should be considered with the materialistic Gross National Product. The best things in life are not things.
The workshop Stealing the Fire of the Gods and Healing the World by psychiatrist Albert Levy and his son Maxwell showed how moral principles were communicated in ancient Greek myths. These and the biblical stories that strive for creative conflict resolution can lead us to a new moral science.
Rachel Carlsonís Silent Spring (1962) helped launch the environmental movement that awakened the world to the ecological threat of DDT, resulting in its world-wide ban. Compelling stories such as this could create the new religious mythos needed to save our planet.
(1) Jorgen Randers, 2012. 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Randers was 3rd author of Limits to Growth, 1972
(2) Paul H. Carr, 2012. Can Technologies Save Us in Time?
What is the challenge of Climate Change and Global Warming?
What changes in social, cultural and economic institutions are needed to effectively address the challenge?
How will the nations of the world cope with the expected changes?
What can be done to respond to the crisis?
What is the role of the faith community?
These are the questions that were elucidated and discussed at this year's IRAS conference "Saving the Future", held this summer at the Silver Bay YMCA camp on Lake George, NewYork.
First the bad news: Evidence for global warming caused by human activities has confirmed the warnings in Al Gore's 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth". The Earth's surface has been warming at an rate and we have already experienced a rise in sea level of twenty centimeters (almost two feet) during the twentieth century, produced by increased melting of polar ice and the shrinking of the world's glaciers. The Vostok ice core has provided an accurate record of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past 400,000 years. It shows that in our industrial age CO-2 concentration has risen to 380 parts per million, whereas it fluctuated between 180 and 290 parts per million for many thousands of years before. The scientific evidence leaves little room for doubt that human activities are responsible for the climate change we are seeing.
Given no reduction in the rate of adding CO-2 and other "greenhouse gasses" to our ocean of air around Earth, the best scientific knowledge and analysis indicates that global warming will produce further melting of arctic ice leading to a sea level rise of two meters by 2100 that will inundate coastal areas with a current population of 200 million people. Speaking of population, the earth's increasing population will put further stress on the environment and exacerbate the climate change prospect.
We were told that by reclaiming unproductive land, reducing waste, and sharing agricultural knowledge, sufficient food production can be achieved to feed an anticipated world peak population of nine† billion people. But one wonders: Where will they live, and what will be their standard of living? Some authors are asking: "How much population can the world support?"
One of the readings listed by Robert Bercaw for this year's conference is an article on carrying capacity: how much land is needed to support a population with food, clothing, shelter, and energy. for their standard of living?
In their 1996 book "Our Ecological Footprint," Prof. William Rees of the University of British Columbia and his student, Mathis Wackernagel, analyze the "carrying capacity" of our planet Earth. They calculate the "ecological footprint" of a† population as the amount of productive land required to provide the food, clothing, shelter and energy consumed by the population. They find that People living in developed† countries require three to four hectares of land (one hectare is 10,000 square meters or about 2.47 acres) whereas the poorest people get along with around one hectare. But even at one hectare per person, the land needed for a population of nine billion is a little† more than half the total land area of our Earth, and only about half of that area is† productive!. Moreover, this calculation provides no allowance for further growth of population or any shift in poorer cultures to a higher standard of living, not to mention land to support other species of life. Thus an essential part of any plan for moving forward is a reduction in population to a point consistent with sustained availability of resources.
It was questioned whether the government, social and economic institutions of our "modern industrial society" are adequate to effectively respond to the present challenge. It seems that the democratic process is incapable of making the needed decisions because the mass of people are concerned or preoccupied with surviving in the existing economic environment and are unable to mount concern for the long term well-fare of their society. Capital markets originating in bartering of useful goods has evolved over centuries to trading in "futures", and now to trading in "derivatives" that have attained a market value ten times the GDP of the world economy. Thus the† business of investment banking has become distant from day-to-day transactions among the common people.
This raises the quandary: If our modern industrial society is determining the path followed by the dominant cultures of the world, then by what means can the needed change of direction be achieved? It was suggested that an effective governing mechanism for advancing the common interest of the world's people is needed, but the United Nations is not a very† good model. Perhaps the European Union is a better example for guidance.
The religions of the world are an avenue for hope; some within the world's predominant religions, "green churches", have sought to turn their traditions in more environmentally friendly directions, but have been† only modestly successful. A nascent but increasingly influential form of religion or significant religion-resembling social groups -- consider nature sacred and intrinsically valuable. However, these movements, examples of "dark green churches", are largely outside the predominant religious institutions of our society. Social organizations have a responsibility to lead the way. One organization that is promoting a future with population and consumption matched to the earth's resources is CASSE, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.
They note that the traditional measure of economic growth, the gross national product (GNP) is not a measure that will guide us toward a sustainable future, and advocate consideration of the cost of damage to the environment in future economic models.
The conference closed with the traditional IRAS banquet, talent show and good-bye party, and all participants were impressed with the quality of the speakers, and the smooth operation at a new venue under the able leadership of Robert Bercaw and V. V. Raman.
"No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it." - "A Sand County Almanac", Algo Leopold, conservationist, 1949.
"Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have." - Margaret Mead.
The Tragedy of the Commons: Balancing Liberty with Law
Paul H. Carr, BS, MS, MIT; PhD, Brandies U.
William Lloyd (1833), coined the term "tragedy of the commons", in which liberty for individual gain led to... This is evident today, as everyone is at liberty to burn fossil fuels that pollute our common atmosphere. The Clean Energy & Security Act (2009) attempted to regulate carbon emissions, but it was not approved by the US Senate. Those who opposed the bill had faith in libertarian or laissez faire economics. This is based on Adam Smith'sInvisible Hand (1776), which guides individual gain towards the public interest. Liberty must be balanced by law.
Stan Klein: Professor of neuroscience, bioengineering and optometry at the University of California, Berkeley
The past year brought an explosion of books on how human nature is ill-suited for Saving the Future. Kahneman and Mlodinow's books examine flaws in how we handle probabilities and in our rational thinking. Haidt's book examines aspects of our human nature that cause problems for a democratic society. An antidote to all the pessimism is an energizing optimism in our human nature discussed in Diamand's & Kotler's book Abundance.
Culture and Institutions
David Anderson: a graduate of Dartmouth College, Author of writings on a wide range of interests: theology, philosophy, geopolitics, and economics.
We live our lives entrapped within the many layers of our past culture. This entrapment began far back in time and has worked forward in the broadest sense to the present-day culture of our community and our nation. How has this affected our attitude toward the ecological problems confronting us? The popular surge of environmental concern that began with the Green Revolution has continued to gain momentum and is now spread around the globe. Professionals from a wide range of scientific disciplines have joined in and are spelling out with precision our ecological problems.
They are pointing to the dire consequences if no action is taken. Nevertheless, our institutional response on a national and global level has been largely ineffective. More often than not, governmental measures being taken are piece-meal and half-hearted. Given the seriousness of the scientific forecasts, we are left with the question, why?
This question needs to be answered with discussions of elements of our culture and institutions that are holding us back from implementation of actions that would enable us to meet the crisis head-on.
Political and Economic Competition
Ted Laurenson: Practitioner of corporate and securities law in New York City
Competition for resources and for the benefits of economic success and entitlements, both within and between countries, feeds and exacerbates human tendencies to act on the basis of short-term incentives and to ignore larger and longer-term problems that it are beyond the capabilities of any one individual, group, or country to solve. In the absence of effective world governmental mechanisms - the prospects for which are highly doubtful in the short to intermediate run - the most likely mechanism for achieving cooperation is the recognition of the universality of critical problems that can be dealt with only by the development of cooperative mechanisms.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science