Friday, 26 February 2010

Climate Change Skeptics Gain Ground

Today's Australian featured an article titled "Belief in Climate Change Dives". At first I was supicious, given that this is a Murdoch paper which devotes more column inches to the views of climate change skeptics than to the crimes of drunken footballers. However, their source for the article is that most impeccable of left-wing papers, the UK Guardian, whose report actually identifies the source of the data!

This is essentially a poll of 1000 people between the ages of 16 and 64, and reveals that compared to a similar poll conducted a year ago, the proportion of people who believe that climate change is "definitely" a reality has fallen from 44% to 31%, while the proportion believing the problem is exaggerated increased from 15% to 30%. It also references a recent BBC poll with similar results. There are two candidates mentioned as the reason for this change although neither is conclusive

  • Climate science has had some bad PR lately, with leaking of snarky e-mails from the University of East Anglia's leading climate change researchers and the discovery of inaccuracies on Himalayan glacial melt in the IPCC report
  • Europe and the US have had an unusually cold winter this year.

Niether of these reasons holds water logically. The first simply proves (as if we didn't know already) that scientists are human, but hardly changes the overwhelming thrust of the evidence. The second is wholly consistent with climate change - temperatures continue to fluctuate from year to year and season to season and there are more extreme weather events, but the overall trend is up. So perhaps this poll just shows that people don't think very carefully when they form their opinions. Or maybe it shows that the relentless publicisation of the views of a tiny band of skeptics is working.

It does, however, add another nail to the coffin of the Copenhagen debacle. In the wake of the failure of the UN climate change conference, the consensus on climate change action is fracturing. In Australia we have seen almost all the nation's business organsiations switch from supporting the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to opposing it over the past few months, in the wake of the Opposition fracturing over the issue and re-uniting behind a leader who firmly opposes the scheme. Other countries are facing the same issues and the likelihood of an effective global response to climate change is receding rapidly.

It leaves me stunned. How can we be so irresponsible? At the same time, the (very strong) cynical side of me says this it's no more than we can expect. It's what the promotion of climate change skepticism is all about. There will always be a few scientists who disagree with the majority, and occasionally they will be right. However, large media corporations with a vested interest in keeping all the fetters off free commerce give these views space and respectability way beyond their scientific merits. They aim to sow doubt, to blunt the popular passion for action, leaving the way clear for their own lobbying and for inertia to do its ugly work. Meanwhile the poor but very musical people of low-lying Tuvalu can literally "plough me an acre of land/between the salt water and the sea strand" while over 20 million Bangladeshis have their livelihoods threatened by increased flooding. We think this might be a problem, but we're not sure...

Thursday, 18 February 2010


I've been playing guitar long enough to know I'll never be much good at at. I always enjoy listening to a really good guitarist, and some of my all time favourite artists are people who can play guitar parts I can hardly dream of playing. Lately I've been enjoying Jeff Lang's new CD, "Chimeradour", as I always enjoy pretty much everything he does.

First and foremost Lang is a guitarists' guitarist. He has a devoted following which I suspect includes way more than the average proportion of wannabe guitar players like me. He's essentially a blues player, but if that label conjures up stereotype pictures of guys playing 12-bar and singing about their dead dog, think again. Lang skips easily between lap steel, acoustic, electric and resophonic guitars, with intricate parts played in all variety of weird tunings.

But I'm not here to write about the technicalities of guitar playing - as if I could! Instead, I want tell you about the stories he tells.

Unusually for a solo artist, Lang has played with pretty much the same core group of musicians for the past decade or more. This suggests that he's probably fairly easy to get along with, unlike the characters in his songs. Therein you will meet a quite disturbing collection of drunks, murderers, wife-beaters and all manner of dysfunctional relationships.

Yet he has a knack for engaging your sympathy, telling the story from a perspective of someone you may not admire, but at least can empathise with. Like the child narrator of I Don't Like Him Being In Here who describes with deep unease a visit from a male friend which ends with his father in a drunken stupor while his mother and guest take a a long walk in the garden. Or the woman in Another One of Those Days who describes not only her husband's barely hinted at crimes, but her own guilt and self-loathing as she pretends not to see. Or, at a less dramatic level, the cycle of drunkenness and co-dependency of Slow Rooms and Fast Blurred Faces, or the hopeless gamblers of The Janitor. Not to mention his cover of Richard Thompson's The End of the Rainbow, where the child is warned that his happiness will end quickly once he leaves the cradle!

It's not all this bleak - there are tenderer moments, like the wry sexuality of South, and the elation of Things are Coming Back My Way. Yet even here there's worm in the apple. The lover of South happily accepts his offer to die for her, and one beer follows another like magic in Things.... You can be happy in Lang's world, but you shouldn't get too used to it.

No blues album would be complete without a little gospel of some sort. Brownie and Sonny did When the Saints Go Marching In, Rev Gary Davis did 12 Gates to the City, Son House mixed ribaldry with gospel preaching, and Eric Clapton had Give Me Strength. Lang has his own approach. In an earlier live recording there is a moving cover of Don Walker's Damaged People - you'd better be there, God, because there's a lot of damaged people who don't have anything else to rely on. In "Chimeradour" he pens his own version, the full on, upbeat gospel of I Want to Believe.

"Make me believe
Draw me up on high
Believe that I could meet you
in the middle of the air
Make me believe some low fool
could look you in the eye
Where are you now?
Where are you now?
Where are you now?...

Strike off the friction to lend me a spark
I'm waiting for a switch
to get thrown in the dark
We're all dying a slow death
With no time to grieve
Wipe the sweat through my hair
I know I want to believe
Are you listening out there?
I said I want to believe."

There's an excitement about all Lang's songs. It's intense, it's uncomfortable, its definitely not sugary, but it's alive. Even the most criminal, the most desperate, engage us in a way we don't expect. In this world faith is hardly a safe option either, but it too is there to be embraced with all its danger and uncertainty.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Book of Ruth

At church recently we've been reading the Book of Ruth, and it's got me thinking about a few things.

For those who don't know the story, here's a summary. An Israelite man called Elimelech goes off with his wife Naomi and two sons to live in Moab to escape a famine. While there, the two sons marry Moabite women, then all three men die.

Because men owned all the property in their society widows had few means of support,  Naomi decides to return to Israel, where her kinship networks are, and suggests to her daughters-in-law that they should likewise return to their families. One of them agrees, but the other, Ruth, vows to stick with her mother-in-law and go to Israel with her. "Your people shall be my people, your god shall be my god," she says. She claims the protection of the law and kinship networks of Israel.

This is a brave and perhaps foolish decision. The Moabites and Israelites were often at war, and various Israelite laws discriminated against foreigners. Naomi could possibly be her only friend, and as a poor widow herself she could hardly provide much support. Their only hope is that the laws of Israel will be sympathetic enough to enable them to survive.

They arrive during the harvest, and Naomi immediately sends Ruth out to glean in the fields - that is, to follow the harvesters and pick up scraps of grain they have dropped. This was what passed for welfare in the laws of Israel. Landowners were instructed to not be too careful when they harvested their fields, so there would be spare grain left lying around, which poor people could come along and pick up. Whether by accident or design, Ruth ends up in the field of a man called Boaz, who is some kind of relative of Elimelech (the relationship is not specified).

It is interesting what Boaz does. Legally, he is obliged to let even a foreigner scrounge in his field, because this law explicitly includes foreigners. He is not obliged to do anything else, but he does. He invites her to drink the water drawn for his workers, and to share their lunch. He instructs his staff to drop extra wheat in her path. At the end of the day he gives her an extra gift of grain to take home to Naomi. In other words, he treats her as a family member, not as a foreigner.

The problem with the law about gleaning is that it only feeds the poor during harvest time. Once the harvest is over, they can only hope they have gathered enough by this incredibly inefficent means to tide them over to the next harvest, or else they will need to beg. Boaz's generosity has impoved their chances, but Naomi sees another possibility. If Boaz is treating her and Ruth like family, perhaps it might be worth reminding him of other family obligations.

Another of the Israelite laws was that if a man died leaving a childless widow, his brother was to marry her and have children who would be considered the children of the dead brother. Such a law would be horrifying to women in our society, but when marriage was about property, not love, it was a way of ensuring the woman was fairly treated, and had means of support throughout her life. Apparently in the time the book of Ruth was written, this law was interpreted to apply to extended family as well, so a more distant relative like Boaz could also be obliged to marry. However, Ruth represented a legal grey area, because she was a Moabite and Israelis were not allowed to marry foreigners. Which law would triumph?

Naomi's tactics are hardly subtle - she sends Ruth to spend the night with Boaz. Whether she does indeed spend the night sleeping at his feet, as described, or whether this is a euphemistic description of a sexual liaison, the claim to the rights of a wife is unmistakeable and Boaz both recognises it as such, and is willing to marry her (indeed, seems quite eager). However, there is an instructive piece of family politics to negotiate first. There is a nearer relative who must be invited to take up his obligations, and there is also a block of land involved. Boaz finds this relative, and starts the negotiation by discussing the land - Naomi needs to sell this block of land, he says, and you as nearest relative have first right of purchase. The relative agrees to purchase the land. Then Boaz hits the punch-line - with the land goes Ruth, the Moabite widow. You can hear the sound of brakes screeching as the relative backs off, listing the reasons he can't marry her. So Boaz gets him to renounce his claim, makes a deal in front of the village elders, and marries Ruth, presumably getting Naomi's field into the bargain.

So, aside from a description of quaint ancient marriage customs, what does this story tell us? My thoughts...

  1. If you have a choice between a strict and a generous interpretation of the law, pick the generous one every time. Go one step further. You can never be punished for being kinder than the law requires. "If someone asks you to go one mile with them, go two."
  2. Treat foreigners like family. When migrants come to your shores asking for refuge and protection, give it to them and make them part of your community, don't keep them on the outside and force them to beg.
  3. God's kingdom is inclusive. It is not just for one nation, it is not just for a single in-group, it is open and inviting, even to those we think of as enemies.
Apart from being curious story, the book of Ruth is a piece of dynastic history. Boaz and Ruth are great grandparents of King David, the dynastic founder of the kings of Judah. The author is saying, "this is the origin of our greatest King - the descendent of a foreign woman and a man who interpreted the law openly and generously". The implication - all the kings of Judah should do the same. "Go and do likewise."