Saturday, 30 April 2011

What I Did On My Holidays

Spent five days in Sydney - three days running focus groups with public housing tenants and two attending the National Affordable Housing Exchange, where they spelt my name wrong on the program.  This wasn't really a holiday but when work's this interesting it can be hard to tell the difference.

Visited Eden, sleepy NSW coastal town and long term base for whaling and fishing.  Eden was the site for an amazing and maybe unique collaboration between human whalers and orcas in the capture of humpback and right whales, documented in Tom Mead's Killers of EdenNow people come to watch whales, and to visit the museum which celebrates their killing.

Spent three days on Phillip Island, walking and enjoying beautiful scenery, failing to see any short-tailed shearwaters (except one that looked seriously ill) and joining thousands of tourists who miraculously appeared from nowhere to watch penguins walk up the beach at sunset.

Drove to Adelaide via Lake Colac, the Coorong and Lake Albert.  On our last visit three years ago each of these bodies was half empty and stank of rotting waterweed and salt.  They are now beautifully full and healthy-smelling.  There has to be some good come out of all this rain.

Spent a few days visiting the ageing but healthy in-laws in their new compact Adelaide home.  Nice, but strange after 30 years of visiting them in the rambling house that used to be home to six growing children.  Also visited various members of the younger generation some with tiny children of their own.
Took lots of photos, some of which are quite pretty.

Came home to a long weekend of lazing around, ready to dive back into normal life on May 3.  Bring it on!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Apologies to my Readers

I'm off travelling.  One of my favourite clients is paying me to spend a week in Sydney, then we're off for a nice little holiday in Southern NSW, Victoria and South Australia including a visit to the ageing but still healthy in-laws in Adelaide.

Internet access will be limited and so you may not see another post here until the end of April.  In the meantime talk among yourselves and don't get up to any mischief while I'm away.

Untangling the Carbon Tax Debate

Reading my Weekend Australian this week has really highlighted for me the complexity and confusion generated by the current debate around the Carbon Tax.  Of course being the home of climate change denial and front page for big business interests, The Australian has no incentive to simplify and clarify the debate.  The more confused and anxious people feel, the more likely they are to either disengage or vote no.  So, although my audience is a lot smaller than theirs, let me try to close the gap.  Of course I don't know all that much about it, but perhaps that will help.

There are basically three parts to the debate about the Carbon Tax.  In The Australian these are thrown together in a blender so that they  come out as a kind of thick soup.  Let me try to seperate them out.

Part 1 - The Evidence for Climate Change
The debate is still going on, fuelled by the likes of The Australian, about whether the climate is actually warming and if it is, whether this is caused by human activity or is just a result of natural fluctuations.

The problem with this debate for someone like me, with very limited scientific knowledge, is that my decision will never be based on an examination of the evidence.  The evidence is incredibly complex, and drawn from a number of highly specialised branches of science.  It is, in fact, as complex as the earth itself.  For me, and those like me, it comes down to a question of faith.  Who do I believe? 

My reasoning is as follows.
  1. It is quite clear that the majority of those working on the science believe that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity.  This is clearly evidenced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  2. Of course it is posible that the majority is wrong.  It's happened before.  However, to those who talk about vested interests and even a conspiracy I say - most of the money in the world is tied up in the economy as it now is.  The wealthy and powerful of the world have not much to gain from climate change being a reality, and a whole heap to lose.  The conclusion of the majority of scientists is contrary to their interests.  The conspiracy, and the vested interests, are more likely to be on the side of the deniers.
Hence, while holding doubt in my mind, my step of faith is clearly in the direction of acepting human-caused climate change as a reality.

Part 2 - The Desirability of Limiting Climate Change
If we accept the idea that humans are causing climate change, the second debate is essentialy that between those who want to prevent climate change, and those who want to focus on mitigating its effects.  These are often presented as alternatives but in fact it's possible to do both.

This is not a technical debate so much as an economic one.  There is no doubt it is technically possible to limit climate change - we just need to reduce our carbon emissions below a certain level.  The question is, at what cost?  And is this cost worth the effort, as opposed to measures which help us to mitigate the effects of change - for instance, by moving people from areas which become unlivable, shifting agricultural practices to match changed rainfall patterns, etc?  Or, to put it another way, what is the appropriate and most cost-effective balance between prevention and mitigation?

Once again, this is an incredibly complex question.  The kind of cost-benefit analysis required to answer these questions is so complex, involves so many factors, and relies on so many detailed predictions of uncertain costs and events, as to be almost meaningless.  It's like the accountants answer to the question, "what's two and two?" - "what do you want to make it?"  Or the economists answer to the problem of opening a tin of soup on a desert island - "let's assume we have a can opener..."

To my way of thinking the answer to this dilemma is that we should start moving in the direction we want to go.  If we wait for certainty, for the data to become clearer, we will be too late.  We need to start building low emission technology.  We need to start shifting to a low carbon economy.  We need to start developing our systems for drought and flood mitigation.  One of the things that pushes us in this direction is that there are other reasons to do this than climate change.  Fossil fuels are finite.  Hunger and thirst are present realities.  People are already being displaced by droughts and floods.  We need to take our heads out of the sand and start to respond, even though there is a risk we will get some of it wrong.  The best way to learn is to start trying.

Part 3 - Is the Carbon Tax the best option?
We can get to this final question only if we have worked our way clearly through the first and second.  Part of the strategy of obfuscation practiced by many of The Australian's comentators is that they mingle all three together - "global warming isn't happening, and in any case the European emissions trading scheme isn't working and India and China won't pull their weight because they need economic development".  All this leaves us confused and disempowered. 

So, if you have worked your way through the first two questions and come to similar cnclusions to me, you then need to move on to the third which is, what policy measures will work?  This is a technical question about public policy and how to use state mechanisms to influence private and corporate behaviour.  The Carbon Tax, as the central plank of the response from both Labor and the Greens, is based on the idea that the best way to reduce carbon pollution is to make people pay for it.  Companies and individuals will then have an incentive to find ways to reduce this cost.  This policy will work if the cost of pollution is greater than the cost of mitigation.  The complexities of global markets, and the uncertainty around if and when other countries will implement similar systems, makes the answer unknowable at this point.  So my point in relation to Question 2 applies - lets get started, and keep working on it as we go.

Of course, this is not the sole response proposed by any political party in Australia.  All parties agree on measures (many of them more costly) like rebates on installation of solar systems, mandated renewable energy targets, grants for research and development, and tougher pollution regulations. 

It's legitimate for us to argue about the right mix of policies.  We should argue in order to reach the best solution.  What is not legitimate is to pollute this argument with the smokescreen of the two prior questions.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Woman at the Well

So I was sitting in Church last Sunday, as you do, and we read the passage from John's Gospel, Chapter 4, where Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well outside the town of Sychar.  The sermon has completely gone from my head, as most aural communication tends to, but I was struck by part of the story.

Jesus starts by asking the woman for a drink, and she is amazed that a Jewish man will ask a Samaritan woman for water - crossing racial and gender barriers was a bit of a shock back then.  Then they have a complex conversation about living water which seems to be a metaphor for eternal life, and the woman asks Jesus to give her this life.  Having got to that point, they address two issues - her sexual morality, and the difference in doctrine between Jews and Samaritans. 

Here's the first part.

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

I think Jesus is simultaneously acknowledging and dismissing her promiscuity as an issue.  Perhaps he says it with a wry smile.  He has already crossed the gender barrier, and the barrier of historic enmity between Jews and Samaritans.  Now he makes her aware that her conduct is not an issue for him and he's known about it all along.

Then, with bewildering rapidity, she shifts topic.

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

When I read these passages now, my mind buzzes with the voices of the Lives of Jesus.  Of course the participants in the Jesus Seminar will tell us this passage, like most of John's Gospel, has little to do with Jesus.  Marcus Borg though, along with Albert Nolan, would be very interested in his peacemaking and re-working of gender relations, with the implication of liberation for this double outcast.  Yancey would probably tell us a story about a prostitute who came into his church, and the way she was treated.

The voices which spoke loudest, though, were those of Albert Schweitzer and his latter day admirer, NT Wright.  For them, Jesus was a prophet of the end times, and the understanding of this conversation would begin here:

...a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

This is not an abstract idea or a vague prophecy of some distant future.  It is a concrete statement of what is about to happen.  In 66 CE the Jews revolted against Roman rule, the country was laid waste and Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed in 70 CE.  The Samaritans also took part in this revolt and 11,600 of them were killed on Mt Gerazim in the same year.  Both communities and systems of worship were destroyed, at least for a time.  Jesus saw it coming.

This sort of trauma has a way of making our petty distinctions and our fine points of doctrine seem suddenly irrelevant.  What becomes of the centuries of enmity between Jew and Samaritan when both their homes, both their places of worship, are destroyed?  What faith, and what communal life, can be rebuilt from such a disaster?

In fact the seeds of the answer were already present in the Old Testament, because the Temple had been destroyed once before.  A little while ago I wrote about David's plans to build the first Temple, as told in 1 Chronicles 17.  God made it clear to David that while he didn't mind having a temple built, he didn't need it, and David shouldn't invest too much faith in it.  God is greater than any temple, or any mountain. 

...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

Such worshipers can be Jewish men or Samaritan women.  They can be fine upstanding citizens or they can be social outcasts.  They can worship on the mountian, or in the temple, or in their place of exile.  In the good times they can process joyfully to their place of worship, singing songs of victory.  In the bad times they can weep by the river bank, hanging their lyres from the tree branches because they have no more use for joyous songs.  Either way, God will be there, because he is greater than all these things and can hear his people wherever they are, whatever they are saying.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Scenes of Clerical Life

In betweeen reading all these Lives of Jesus I managed to find time to read George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life.   I remember my first year literature tutor telling us Eliot's Middlemarch was the greatest novel ever written in English.  That's a big call but once I read it, particularly after the first 100 pages, I had to agree that she had a point.

Eliot (real name Marian Evans) was a minister's daughter but as a young adult she abandoned the established church, "converting" to the ideas of German theological scholar David Freidrich Strauss, whose rationalist Life of Jesus she translated in 1846.  By the mid 1850s when she started writing fiction she was living openly with a married man and one of the reasons she used a pseudonym was to avoid her writings being rejected because of her rather notorious personal life.

Scenes of Clerical Life contains her first published works of fiction - three novellas which appeared seperately in one of John Blackwood's publications through 1857 and then were published together in book form in 1858.  The male pseudonym didn't fool Dickens, who immediately identified the author as a woman.  This couldn't have been difficult - these stories have both femininity and feminism written all over them.

This is not the Eliot of Middlemarch.  You can see that she's still learning her craft and gaining confidence.  She pontificates a lot more than the stories warrant, there are moments of absurd melodrama and she frequently apologises to her readers for the plainess of the tales.  The first of them, The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton, does in fact require an apology, but the other two, Mr Gilfil's Love Story and Janet's Repentance, need nothing of the sort.  Two things mark them as the works of a genius in the making - their subject matter, and the skill with which things are revealed to the reader beneath the surface of the words.

Janet's Repentance is ostensibly the darkest of the stories, revolving around Janet Dempster's marriage to the abusive, alcoholic lawyer Robert Dempster, against the backdrop of an evangelical revival sweeping the small town of Milby.  Even though Janet has developed her own alcohol addiction as a result of her husband's abuse, all the sympathy is with her as, in the final crisis of her marriage, she turns for help to the evangelical pastor, who brings about her repentance and helps her to rebuild her life. 

Yet what on the surface is a story of piety and religious awakening is, in fact, a submerged love story.  All the conversation between Janet and the Rev Edgar Tryan revolves around religious devotion, prayer and conversion.  Janet's troubles, and then Tryan's illness, prevent their romance from emerging from this disguise.  Yet Eliot's hints are plain enough that there can be no doubt what she intends.  She never tells you in so many words, and this only heightens your enjoyment in discovering it for yourself, the agony of knowing that the romance will never blossom, and the joy of seeing that nonetheless it was a transforming love.

This same hiding of the real story below a more conventional surface is much starker in Mr Gilfil's Love Story, and it means that while the surface story is more hopeful, the tale hidden within it is if anything darker and more sinister than Janet's tale of abuse.  Here cruelty masquerades as kindness. 

The surface story is a rather clumsy love triangle.  Caterina, the beautiful ward of Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, is caught between Sir Christopher's nephew and heir Captain Wybrow, a stock-standard flirt who steals her affections, and the earnest and genuine Rev Maynard Gilfil.  The story winds through its expected twists and turns before Caterina finally ends up where she belongs - in the loving arms of Mr Gilfil - but with her health ruined by the stress so she only survives for six months after their marriage.

So far so cliched.  What's so clever about this story is what lies imperfectly concealed beneath the surface.  Caterina is an Italian orphan, taken into the care of the Cheverels during a visit to Italy.  Eliot points out, in a seemingly neutral way, that she is not adopted as their daughter but merely taken into their household.  They seem to treat her with affection, and she seems part of the family, but as the story unfolds you see things differently.  Sir Christopher continually calls her his "clever monkey" and his "singing bird" and you come to see that what appear to be terms of affection reveal her actual status in the household.  She is an exotic pet, fussed over and made to do tricks in the same way as Sir Christopher's favourite hunting dogs.  He demands that she sing, and she dare not refuse.  On leaving the room she kneels at his feet, and he pats her cheek.

Captain Wybrow, of course, treats her the same way.  He flirts with her, and they have a love affair carried on in secret under the noses of the elders and noticed only by Gilfil, another household pet.  But of course while she is passionately in love he is just playing with her, and far from having any conscience about abandoning her expects her to welcome and befriend his wealthy fiance.  Sir Christopher, meanwhile, is quite oblivious and insists on her marriage to Gilfil as if her own opinion on the matter is of no consequence.

It's amazing, and a testament to Eliot's skill, that such a devastating critique of class divisions and the position of poor women could be published and circulated in the London establishment without censorship.  This, in the end, is the difference between Eliot and her equally celebrated contemporary Charles Dickens.  Dickens would have whacked you in the face with this injustice, exaggerated it to the point of parody, and cloaked it in sinister intent and dark secrets so that its orginals could safely laugh at it.  The real life Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, on the other hand, would have had to squirm and protest if they had recognised themselves in this portrait.  Its cloak of kindness and charity only serves to heighten the horror of what is really going on, as you see the singing bird flapping vainly against the bars of its cage, finally escaping but so wounded it can never fly free.