Board of Silly Walks, Part 6


One nearly universal aspect of bureaucracies is that they tend to exist only to perpetuate themselves. It is very rare indeed to find one that actively argues for its own dissolution. That is not to say, by any means, that some don’t naturally phase themselves out of existence; after all, the human capacity for incompetence is the Occam’s Razor of any organizational foibles.

It is often difficult to tell which paradigm is in play with the General Board of Church and Society, for while it managed to maintain much of its funding during the budgetary tightening of the belts at General Conference 2012, it nevertheless continues to demonstrate its own irrelevance, but this time by taking it a step further and arguing that the organization it ostensibly supports should not only NOT seek out new areas of growth, but should refrain from pursuing them when they pop up.

The Board of Church and Society, of course, is one I affectionately refer to as the Board of Silly Walks, for like the eponymous Monty Python sketch, it seems to exist only for the sake of perpetuating a great deal of silliness, without, unfortunately, the value-add of actually producing something useful like a silly walk.

The ever-unintentionally-amusing Jim Winkler treats us to another lesson in how to argue for one’s own irrelevance, which is perhaps fitting since he will soon be leaving a quickly-becoming-irrelevant agency in a quickly-becoming-irrelevant church for the already-irrelevant National Council of Churches.

Who said there is no justice in the world?

(Original in quotes)

This week, I heard a brilliant presentation regarding the consequences of all the fracking, tar sands and oil-field development going on in the United States. The latest iterations of fossil-fuels extraction are causes of great concern.

‘All’ the fracking going on in the United States? Really, ‘all’ of it? Given that there are tens of thousands of wells which employ hydraulic fracturing of some kind, and that some form of fracking has been going on since the 1940’s, to say that this ‘brilliant’ presentation was in regards to the consequences of ‘all’ fracking efforts seems a bit overwrought. That would imply either that there is a monolith of consequences to which all fracking efforts conform, or that this presentation was as interminable as it was brilliant.

Of course, it could also be a wild exaggeration intended to beg the question of the article from the start. I bet you can guess where my money is…

Fracking or hydraulic fracturing, for example, entails injecting toxic fluid into the ground at extremely high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas. During fracking, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out and contaminate nearby groundwater.

Ah yes, gas and chemicals just ‘leach out’ as a matter of course in fracking, even though fracking generally occurs 5000+ feet down, while groundwater (if any is nearby) typically is found a few hundred feet down. No technology is perfect, of course, and no doubt some fracking has resulted in the contamination of some ground water- one would expect such a scenario in the course of humans fracking for 70+ years (or even 10+ in the case of horizontal fracking Mr. Winkler probably has in mind); however, that would seem to force one to mitigate the statement so as to read ‘may leach out’ and ‘may contaminate.’

More than 1,000 cases have been documented of water contamination next to areas undergoing fracking.

Unfortunately, merely stating that there have been 1,000 cases tells us very little since there are tens of thousands of well which utilize hydraulic fracturing. Further, water contamination can occur for a number of reasons and on a fairly wide ranging scale. As such, a number like this doesn’t really mean anything without further information, which no doubt the brilliant presentation provided…

Tar sands oil, on the other hand, is among the dirtiest and, consequently, most costly to refine. To extract this resource, oil companies are digging up thousands of acres of pristine forest in Alberta, Canada, leaving behind a toxic wasteland. This tar sands oil is what will be transferred from Canada across the United States through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

I’d be curious what Mr. Winkler’s notion of a toxic wasteland is…

I am among the vast majority of people in the world who believe climate change is occurring.

Given that climate change is the nature of climate, it’s nice to see that Mr. Winkler can acknowledge the self-evident.

We have reached a point where those who previously denied climate change are less likely to debate whether or not change is occurring, but rather ascribe natural, historic variations in the earth’s temperature as the cause.

Ah, equivocation. It should be noted that the latter portion of this statement is what has generally entailed the ‘denial’ of climate change; not that any one actually didn’t think that climate was changing, but rather that one denied either that 1. we have any accurate way of knowing the extent of climate change and /or 2. humankind is driving what others claim to be catastrophic climate change.

But I guess it makes it sounds so much better to accuse one’s opponents of denying the self-evident and then equivocate about it.

I am convinced, however, that human activity is playing an adverse role in climate change as well.

Most people who ‘deny’ human-induced climate change do not actually quibble with humanity’s impact on climate (since, as we are a part of this world, our activities affect it as would any other system on the planet) but rather with the question-begging characterization of it as ‘adverse.’ Climate change is something that happens naturally (and yes, human impact is as a consequence a natural part of that since we live on this planet) and has no quality in and of itself since it simply is. Climate as something ‘adverse’ or even as ‘beneficial’ is a quality that only humans can ascribe to it, since we are the only beings on the planet with the rationality to perceive the system as a whole (as limited as that perception may be) and, by our ability to perceive universals, to ascribe a quality to it in fitting with the end of ourselves, the planet, other creatures, etc.

And since we are limited in our understanding of climate, our effect on it, its effect on us, and the like, it is actually somewhat presumptuous to assign such a quality to climate change.

Despite the naysayers, we ought to pay attention to scientific facts before it’s too late.

Ah yes, we should presumptuously ascribe a quality to something we imperfectly understand because, you know, Science.

As you might expect, there are those, especially in corporations profiting from fossil fuel, who oppose efforts to move toward greater use of solar and wind energy.

A rather amusing feature of Mr. Winkler’s writing is how utterly predictable and thus banal it really is. It is also quite sad, since perceived injustices gets perpetually laid at the altar of an abstracted bogeyman, much like the pagans of old sacrificing to the very gods they wished to appease and thus avoid. Fate, Oil Companies… the difference is little more than aesthetic, except the pagans actually managed to come up with far more interesting demons.

They have had considerable success in convincing many people of the notion that climate change is a hoax.

‘Considerable success,’ you say? Why, it must have thus been an editorial error only a few sentences back wherein we were assured that the ‘vast majority of people in the world’ believe in climate change. Interesting how convincing a supposedly vast minority is somehow determinate of ‘considerable’ success.

This reminds me of a memorable moment during the meeting of a Church & Society legislative subcommittee at the 2008 General Conference, our denomination’s highest policy-setting body. When delegates were debating a petition, one clergyperson who opposed the measure declared, “Facts don’t sway me none.”

But question-begging should?

In recent months several United Methodist annual conference newspapers and online publications from the Dakotas and Texas have reported a sense of great excitement about the growth of churches in local communities where oil drilling, fracking, and/or the building of the Keystone XL pipeline is underway.

One article noted, “God’s abundance is all around us for welcoming new people into Christian community.”

What, one might be forgiven for asking, might this have to do with everything that has come before? Well, strap yourself in- it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Praise God for that. I do hope and pray mission work in these areas does result in more people coming to know Christ.

Wait for it…

Is it ever legitimate to also ask: At what cost? Should we be excited about growing new churches when the oil drilling and hydraulic fracking in those communities may well hasten environmental catastrophe?

I normally don’t resort to profanity, but given that 1. Battlestar Galactica (the new series) was awesome and in some way apropos (if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean in a second…) and 2. sometimes something so stupid is asserted that only proper response is to respond in kind:

What the frack?

It is difficult to even know where to begin with something so boneheadedly stupid.

First off, there is a logic problem. The excitement over growing a church (which, within the historic Christian tradition, entails that people are brought into union with God) in an area of economic and demographic growth need not have any relation whatsoever to the defining characteristic of that community. Christian communities have formed in all places and situations, even when (perhaps especially when) the area in question has conditions that ran counter to its ethical norms. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were to people in a community renowned and infamous for its immorality, luxury, hedonism and what not. St. Peter wrote from a city which was both the crown jewel of human art and the container for the worst of its sins.

Secondly, I thought that one of the things the Board of Silly Walks was about was to be a prophetic voice for social justice. Apparently that voice is meant to be from a distance with a megaphone, rather than down in the thick of the life of a community and the actual people who live and work there. Let’s grant for a moment that fracking is going to usher in ecological disaster. If the church is meant to be a prophetic witness for truth, justice, etc., would it not therefore be all the more of an imperative to operate and grow one’s influence and presence within that community so as to not only be a prophetic voice but to also work for change within it? Or is a potential environmental issue the sine qua non of the Christian life that we must now form the equivalent of ecological ghettos?

Are we so profoundly panicked over long-term membership loss that we are gleeful to be, in effect, complicit in this pollution, melting of the polar ice cap, rising sea levels, and higher temperatures around the world?

I suppose that’s one way to frame it if one is going to appropriate a sort of watered down Gnosticism. Another way might be like this:

In light of long-term membership loss, and with the knowledge that we are charged with the proclamation of the life-changing message of the gospel despite our flaws and failures, are we willing and eager to share that message with people in burgeoning communities, even if we might not agree with everything that they do? Are we willing to boldly proclaim the gospel which we believe ‘is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes?’

Meh. Quasi-Gnosticism is way more fun. Hopefully some day we can get back to the full-throated variety, which is far more interesting.

I confess to feeling perplexed and chagrined at the level of enthusiasm developing over church growth in communities relying on unsustainable, harmful fossil-fuel extraction.

He’s not the only one who is feeling perplexed. I confess to being perplexed that someone whose job is ostensibly to support the work of the UMC is actually arguing that it should attempt to limit its outreach to certain kinds of communities.

I must also confess that there is nothing more gripping than watching ideologies devour themselves.

What would we say on Judgment Day? “Well, yes, Lord, human, animal and plant life became unsustainable because of these industries, but at least The United Methodist Church grew in membership.”

And here I thought I had the corner on cynicism…

Evidently membership in the UMC is now just about names on a roll and propping up an entrenched structure rather than evidence of lives which have been touched and transformed by an encounter with Christ. Granted, membership can obviously be indicative of many things, some more desirable than others, but surely one must at least imagine the potential for some measure of a charitable interpretation of the enthusiasm for the growth of the UMC in these areas. Or is the imagination here so stilted by preconceptions that one must assume the worst of those with whom one disagrees?

Oh wait, I forgot about the environmental shibboleths.

Silly me.

Carry on.

A movement is growing around the world for divestment from the fossil-fuel industry. Albeit in early stages, the General Board of Church & Society has been in conversations for over a year with other United Methodist entities about whether we should continue to profit from the exploitation and desecration of God’s Good Creation.

And here we finally see the rub of the matter. Evidently a growth in membership- which, as already demonstrated, is not necessarily logically dependent on agreement with or complicity in the community in which one ministers- is understood as ‘profit.’ I find it fascinating that the GBCS perceives the relation of the church to a community here primarily within an economic metaphor.

Even more fascinating is how loaded terms are used here to beg the question. Only if it is assumed that utilizing earth’s resources is fundamentally a bad thing could one characterize that utilization as ‘desecration.’ But since the discussion is actually over the utilization of resources, which is a proper end of man in relation to the world, a term such as ‘desecration’ needs to have far more evidence adduced, since what is really at issue is a matter of prudence; that is, what is the best way to utilize the earth’s resources and to do so in a way that is conducive to good stewardship of those resources. Fracking may be a good use, it may be a bad use or somewhere in between, but language such as this really seems to belie a fundamental misunderstanding of man’s relation to the world, in which man’s utilization of resources must be cast as desecration by virtue of him employing those resources.

Granted, most would probably argue that certain types of utilization are not ‘desecration,’ but unless we are going to actually utilize prudence then these types of conversations tend to devolve into shibboleths, in which certain positions are taken for granted and used as ideological cudgels, wielded by those who question-beg their way through an argument.

Hmmm… perhaps Gnosticism really is back on the table!

The conversations have not reached critical mass yet. I suspect this is because our boards and agencies, annual conference foundations, local churches, schools, colleges and universities, and others have many millions of dollars invested in oil and gas companies.

Ah yes. Rather than allowing that his opponents might actually have principled reasons for their rejection of this particular cosmology, Mr. Winkler offers up another propitiation to the demon. Maybe if we name this phantom menace we will gain power over it!

Valentinus would be blushing. At least he could pen an interesting hymn.

If we are keen to create new faith communities in areas where fossil-fuel extractive industries are booming, can we not at the very least commit ourselves to the statement of our General Conference on energy policy: “A transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources will combat global warming, protect human health, create new jobs, and ensure a secure, affordable energy future.”

Natural gas (which comes from fracking) is a fairly efficient energy source, has created new jobs and holds out the potential (in the US at least) to ensure a secure, affordable energy future. And since fracking does not in and of itself preclude other energy sources from being utilized, it seems that those who are ‘keen’ to create these new faith communities are already pretty much on board. One does not even have to think fracking is a feasible or desirable energy source (or even have an opinion one way or another) to understand this.

So perhaps some common ground can be struck.

There is no glory to be found in the destruction of God’s Creation.

Or maybe not…



Leave a Reply

  • “Secondly, I thought that one of the things the Board of Silly Walks was about was to be a prophetic voice for social justice. Apparently that voice is meant to be from a distance with a megaphone, rather than down in the thick of the life of a community and the actual people who live and work there.”

    That made me laugh out loud. Pretty hard.

    Your point on Gnosticism is an interesting one – or the lean towards Gnosticism with the misunderstanding of how we are to use creation’s resources. As I’ve delved into studies of alternative agriculture and homesteading stuff, I’ve noticed and encountered folks who see our role in nature in different ways. Some think nature would be best if humans were all absent. Others tend to see humanity as potentially playing a key role in developing and managing natural systems. The later hold that a farm or food forest will develop best under human management. And this is coming from folks who are beyond organic in their methods. I’m struck by some liberal environmentalists and their seemingly being out of touch with actual nature. I think they’ve spent a great deal of time in large concrete buildings and flying on jet planes as they fight for the earth.

  • Andy- thanks for the comment!

    I think your final point is instructive, and that a lot of times people tend to get idealized notions about certain things without ever having a lot of real experience with them or, perhaps more importantly, without having to be in a position where the impacts or consequences of their beliefs have a meaningful effect on their own lives.

    And as far as the earth developing best under human management- I would submit that one only needs to see what Kansas is like in its natural state to be disabused of the notion that nature has some sort of pristine default. Of course, very few predicate their arguments for maintaining nature in a pristine state on places they would never want to go. However, as a counter-example (maybe), there was (is?) this guy at my church who maintained a little section of the property near the loading dock so as to include only ‘native grasses.’ The rest of the grounds are landscaped, but this section, while landscaped in a sense, looks markedly different, essentially indistinct from the overgrown fields behind a Target or Wal-Mart. Most people assumed that the facilities department simply wasn’t doing its job, so they finally had to put up a sign that said ‘Native Grasses.’ Gotta love that pristine Kansas beauty!

  • The discussion about humanity having an “adverse” impact on the climate and environment is a good one. As you rightly note, it is breathtakingly impossible to accurately deduce, from the vantage point of the present, what the actual costs or benefits of climate change might be for the long-term survival of the human species or the planet.

    Why is it never assumed that the trends in climate change are not beneficial, that they might very well trigger evolutionary changes within the human species (and other species) that enable better long-term survival, not only on Earth but potentially in other worlds as well? And even if we take the LONG term consideration of biological evolutionary changes off the table, I think it is also reasonable to speculate that changes in climate (along with many other factors) may very well provide the catalyst for technological evolution. Whether this technological evolution allows the human species to remake the planet into a more hospitable place, or enables habitation of other worlds, such outcomes would very certainly change how one moralizes the current topic.

    • As you rightly note, it is breathtakingly impossible to accurately deduce, from the vantage point of the present, what the actual costs or benefits of climate change might be for the long-term survival of the human species or the planet.

      Given the ideological predilections and concomitant policies often held many who perceive any human impact as ‘adverse,’ it may be too much of an assumption that the long-term survival of humans is something which figures into the equation. Notwithstanding that, I think that one of the most common fallacies in the whole discussion (albeit not on your part in your response) is the reification of a statistical representation of weather over time (notwithstanding of the accuracy of that representation) into some kind of force. Hence, ‘climate change’ becomes as much of a force as ‘chance’ tends to, and the mistake is made of thinking that ‘climate change’ (or chance) actually drives processes and systems. And once it is reified into a catalyst, thinking of it in terms of ‘adverse’ can take on more import than is warranted. Sure, we can legitimately ask whether or not X data of weather was advantageous or not to certain systems or whether or not hypothetical Y data of weather may or may not be so (and which must itself be endlessly qualified for the system in question, locale, ideas about what constitutes adverse, etc.), but reifying observations (as seems to be the case for the original article) seems little different than constructing an altar to Fate.

      And I think that might be the answer to your question concerning why trends in climate change are rarely seen as beneficial. I think it has little to nothing to do with statistics or observations but is perhaps more fundamentally a problem of cosmology.

      And I will also helpfully distill your concluding point into a more marketable slogan:

      Frack a well, become a Time Lord.

      It’s timey-wimey. 🙂

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Jason Watson

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