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Fossil fuels, the Church, and modern values

When values and morals are hotly and bitterly disputed at every level of society and on every medium and platform imaginable, it is frequently the case that we leave the origins of our values entirely unexamined. Where did these values that we hold so dearly come from and how did we, now so enlightened, come to hold them? This is perhaps easier to answer for Christians and people from established traditions, but even still there is a lot murkiness within our traditions about the evolution and development of our beliefs and moral values.

British historian Ian Morris, in his book Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (2015), provides a ruthlessly materialistic account of the evolution of human values that varying societies hold as given at any particular time in history. His answer to this question is probably not the kind of thing most people are looking for these days, as Morris essentially argues that human values depend upon our methods of energy capture and storage. This is a somewhat unexpected argument that is entirely unsentimental and unidealistic, but one that nevertheless poses some interesting questions for our culture.

In essence, Morris argues that foraging societies were composed of small groups of people who survived by roaming around eating wild plants and hunting. Foragers were egalitarian and did not tolerate political and economic hierarchies because they were not helpful for survival. However, they were tolerant of “mild forms” of gender hierarchy and they accepted interpersonal violence as a necessary and reasonable part of life (p. 45).

Farming societies, on the other hand, came about during the recession of the ice age, when the climate yielded greater possibilities for energy capture in the form of agriculture. Morris writes: “Capturing energy from domesticated sources imposed different constraints and created different opportunities than capturing energy from wild resources. Farmers could survive only in a hierarchical, somewhat pacified world, and they therefore came to value hierarchy and peace” (p. 92). Sharp divisions between men and woman were natural, he argues: high infant mortality required many children, and the physical demands of farming and the enormous domestic responsibilities required that women and men play distinct roles.

Fossil fuel societies, however, have largely erased these divisions as they have diminished the need for upper body strength (p. 103). Indeed, fossil fuels have brought about a world in which people are healthier, they live longer, and suddenly have time to engage in more specialized work that is no longer gender specific. The collapse of gender distinctions, he argues, has been accompanied by a shift in the use of violence in modern societies:

Just as the complex division of labor and long-distance trade that made Agraria possible could not have functioned if farmers had been as violent as foragers, so too Industria’s open space of interchangeable citizens could not function if people still settled their disputes as violently as they did in the farming age. Fossil fuel society depends on extreme pacification, enforced by Leviathans vastly stronger than anything Hobbes could have imagined. (p. 131)

This change, at least in part, is why today we can hardly fathom the attitudes toward violence in our recent past and much less in contemporary societies that still exist on agrarian models. But as Morris points out, we have hardly diminished the importance of violence. On the contrary, we have exponentially increased our violent capability.

There is much more to Morris’s argument, and he admits there are biologically evolved values that seem to endure over time. Though not entirely novel, it is a stunning argument in a way, and it highlights an unpleasant irony within progressive culture: many of our current moral values may in fact be indebted to the very fuels that are now being vilified and blamed for our potential destruction. Morris has no need of an idealistic metaphysics to explain our current state of enlightenment. Rather the evolution of modern values has been driven by the discovery of an unprecedented and powerful fuel source that has been reorganizing our societies ever since. As Margaret Atwood comments in one of the responses in Morris’s book, “we make our tools but our tools also make us” (p. 206).

Of course, this thesis will not be entirely acceptable to most people, Christians especially. Not only do we believe that all history belongs to the providential ordering of God, but we also understand such modern realities as gender and racial equality to stem from deeply scriptural and theological convictions. It would be convenient and perhaps even satisfying to point out that many of the progressive values that conservative Christians are now struggling against owe their origin to nothing loftier than fossil fuels. But the same argument could be made and has been made against Christians as well: why exactly did it take so long for the Church to take a united stand against slavery or forced labor, or to affirm woman’s ordination? Morris could perhaps point out that all these causes only gained widespread support within the Churches during the industrial era.

Materialistic though it may be, there is some theological relevance to Morris’s argument. Even Scripture speaks of kingdoms in relation to their elements: “then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken in pieces” (Dan. 2:35). Traditional interpreters like John Calvin had no trouble drawing moral valuations from the character of these metals that somehow corresponded to the industrial and military striving of a culture: Babylon was gold, because history only got worse from there; the Greeks were “brazen” and the Romans were as cruel as iron (Calvin, Lecture 9: Daniel 2:31-35). This is not exactly what Morris is arguing, but in both cases there is clearly a correspondence between the fundamental elements and energy that upholds, supports and even molds the ambitions and values of any particular society.

The most frightening aspect of Morris’s book is the assertion that the greater the fuel source that undergirds a society, the greater the potential for spectacular and irreversible collapse. In this sense, Morris has already been anticipated by popular TV shows like The Walking Dead, in which the forces of catastrophe suddenly reduce a modern society to small foraging bands that discover that an altered but not entirely dissimilar set of values is required for survival. From a more ecclesial perspective, Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz offers a mesmerizing and breathtaking depiction of a single monastic community as it survives and endures the terrors and upheavals of rising and collapsing empires. Here too, the Church’s values are tested in radically different historic settings.

Miller’s book brilliantly and indirectly frames the question of the Church’s identity in the midst of these enormous upheavals and transitions in history. It is fairly clear that the church is confused about our current place in history, in Morris’s era of the fossil fuels. The recent ecclesial interest in fossil fuel consumption engages only the harmful effects of emissions, but rarely do we dig much deeper into the character of energy and how it has not only transformed our society but transformed the Church as well, for better and for worse. Wendell Berry has done this to some degree, and his essay “The Use of Energy” provides an interesting contrast to Morris’s overall claims. Berry’s argument that fossil fuels and mechanization represent an attempt to overcome our natural limitations in a way that does some damage to created life is important and reflects a growing theological perspective represented by the recent flourishing of eco theology.

But all forms of desire for a more simple, communal, rural, agricultural, organic way of life have to contend with Morris’s argument that modern values of equality would not exist without Industria, as he calls it, and the fossil fuels that made it possible. The Church’s common life is held together by the Holy Spirit, not by the values of fossil fuels and all their flowering technological offspring, though it is possible we are not always aware of the difference. It is becoming increasingly easy, however, to imagine circumstances in which the differences would become painfully clear.

None of us knows how long the fossil era will extend, and as Morris is at pains to point out, none of us knows what will succeed it. “The Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals” (Dan. 4:17), but this has never meant that any kingdom but that of God’s Son would rule forever. And scripturally speaking, there is certainly no guarantee that the next kingdom will be any kinder to the Church than the current one. We might wonder if contemporary values will survive in a vastly reordered or decaying world of energy capture, whatever that may be, but for Christians it may be more pertinent to question if our values are surviving in the current world. Preparedness has always been a vocation of the Church, a difficult vocation because we do not entirely know what we are preparing for.

What seems to be certain is that following Christ was never meant to be easy, now or in the future. Those of us drifting around on the seemingly easy but precarious surface of a fossil-fuel world may indeed be shocked to discover all that this amazing fuel has managed to conceal from our view. It is almost impossible for Christians to prepare for the rupture of that surface, but what we can do is dwell more deeply upon the human limitations and mortality that our super-powered technological world so effortlessly and deceptively conceals. Doing this will draw us more deeply into the mystery of God’s presence with us and, God willing, save us from harmful illusions. Some “take pride in chariots, and some in horses” (Ps. 20:7), though “His delight is not in the strength of the horse” — much less the power of engines or wind turbines — “but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him” (Ps. 47). Some things, thank God, never change.


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