The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else

Perspectives

An amazing true story of intrigue that is both instructive, and cautionary

            It really is true.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction – maybe even dramatically stranger.  For evidence of this, one need only look at Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice, a book by William Browder, that I recently completed.

            I try to read a lot of books, and this was definitely one of the best I've encountered in recent memory.   The book's subtitle certainly is tempting.  After all, lots of us love good murder mysteries, and we quite often like to read heroic tales of people fighting for justice.  This book has both, and even throws in some high finance intrigue, without delving into "eye glazing" detail that would bore most people to tears.

            But the book really does more than simply weave all of these enticing elements together. 

            One thing that makes it such an interesting true story is three highly unexpected things the reader learns about the author, Bill Browder.  The first is that Browder is the grandson of Earl Browder, once the head of the American Communist Party.  Browder the author comes from a long and distinguished line of left-wingers.

            With such a pedigree, what's the most unexpected thing he might be or do?  Go to Stanford Business School, then launch a career as a very successful hedge fund manager.  The offspring of a bunch of leftwingers/communists becomes an uber-capitalist!

            How Browder became an uber-capitalist is the second truly unexpected thing.  As he points out, the logical career path for graduates of Stanford and other top level graduate schools of business is consulting, investment banking, or working for well known Fortune 500 firms such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric.  Browder, himself, begins with one such firm, but quickly heads off to do something else.

            His "something else" is to begin investing in Eastern Europe and Russia at the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain.  He was truly on the "frontier", and largely dismissed by his co-workers and superiors at the time.  Through perseverance, plus some timely good fortune, Browder created a very successful hedge fund in Russia.  He literally became the "go to" guy when everyone else discovered that Browder was on to something big.  Very big!  The unexpected outcome of all this was that Browder's Hermitage Capital turned into a billion dollar hedge fund at the turn of the 21st century, and Browder was well on his way to financial mogul-dom.

            Until he ran into trouble with the leadership of Russia.  I won't go into detail about this, other than to say that Browder was denied entry to Russia, and has been battling the Russian government since 2005, in the past few years fearing for his life.

            That battle has set the stage for the third highly unexpected thing about Browder.  He has gone from being the uber-capitalist head of a major hedge fund to being a major human rights advocate.  Besides his own problems with the Russian government, Browder's "conversion" to humans rights advocate is because of a Russian tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky.

            You might have heard of something called the Magnitsky Act.  The Magnitsky Act, passed by the US Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, places sanctions and travel restrictions on certain Russians deemed to violate a range of laws.  The Russian government, beginning with Vladimir Putin, absolutely hates it! 

            The driving force behind the Magnitsky Act was Bill Browder.   

            So what turned Browder from uber-capitalist into uber-human rights advocate?  The torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of the Russian government.  Magnitsky's death so impacted Browder that his entire life has been transformed.  As such, he's joined the ranks of other ordinary people who have had life-altering, transformative experiences:

            Moses, who after an encounter with God (in the form of a burning bush), led the Israelites from captivity;

            Rosa Parks, who became a civil rights leader after failing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955;

            Candy Lightener, the woman who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver;

            Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who became a human rights advocate after an unsuccessful attempt on her life.

            Yes, Browder's life has totally been transformed by Magnitsky's death.  The Russian government is now going after Browder, himself.  Russia has asked Interpol, the international police agency, to issue what's called a Red Notice.  Browder, if he crosses an international border, runs the risk of being arrested and deported to Russia to stand trial.  But he also should be fearful, even if he doesn't cross an international border, when one considers what happened to Sergei Skripal and his daughter.  The two were poisoned by Russian agents in Salisbury, England.  The evidence suggests that the Russian government will stop at virtually nothing to eliminate its perceived enemies – and Browder is clearly in that elite circle.

            But, if anything, the danger merely makes Browder even more determined.  His book is his latest effort in his ongoing battle with the Russian government.

            Which leads to the final reason Red Notice ought to be of great interest.  That's because it touches upon the great question, what causes some people to embrace an idea, or a mission, in such a completely captivating way?  Leaders of businesses and other organizations often ponder the question, how do I motivate my people?  The conventional answers are more money and perks, and better working conditions.  These things are somewhat helpful, but no one develops the motivation of a Bill Browder because of money, perks, and working conditions! 

            Consider all of the people besides Browder I mentioned earlier – Moses, Rosa Parks, Candy Lightener, Malala Yousafzai.  What's motivated each of these people is a cause far greater than themselves.  Browder's cause – avenging Magnitsky, as well as exposing human rights abuses – is what animates him.

            Which points to an answer to the question, how do you truly motivate people?  The answer is, find a truly compelling idea, then enlist yourself and your people in its achievement. 

            Things like increasing your sales or profits by 20% won't inspire your people.  Great motivational talks aren't likely to do it either.  Instead, it's finding something truly inspiring, and far greater than any individual, that will provide the seeds for true inspiration, and truly compelling results.

            As with Moses, Rosa Parks, Candy Lightener, and Malala Yousafzai, Bill Browder's the truth of Bill Browder's compelling tale, Red Notice, is clearly stranger than fiction.          

 

 

 

 

 

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A major electric has made an environmental pledge that could well be a brilliant business decision

            It seems almost every day we wake up to Earth-shattering headlines.  The funny thing is that lots of really significant news gets lost amidst all the "Big Headlines".  A great example of this was the recent report that Xcel Energy, a major electric utility based in Minneapolis, MN, plans to become 100% carbon neutral by 2050, a mere three decades from now.

            This is big news because Xcel is the first major electric utility to pledge to become 100% carbon neutral, and, moreover, to provide a specific date.  Now 2050 is still three decades away, and a lot of greenhouse damage will occur in that time.  The other significant thing Xcel said is that within 15 years, it will reduce 80% of the carbon emissions it had in 2005.  As such, most of the reductions should come in the next 15 years.

            Another reason this is important is because Xcel is the kind of company most environmentalists love to hate.  It's a big company – actually a big company with three major operating divisions: Northern States Power, Public Service of Colorado, and Southwestern Public Service in Amarillo.  Altogether, it has about 3.3 million electric customers and 1.8 million natural gas customers.

            Let's focus on the greenhouse gas emissions of the company.  On the positive side, it operates 27 hydro plants and two nuclear plants.  Of course, many environmentalists will object to the environmental impact of hydro and nuclear, but at least in terms of greenhouse gases, these 29 plants don't spew anything into the air. 

            In the greenhouse gas department, however, Xcel presently operates 13 coal fired electric plants that generate a combined 7,697 megawatts of power.  More than enough greenhouse gases!

            Which brings me back to the "real news".  Xcel's management isn't going to eliminate all these coal fired plants because they want to be nice guys, even though they probably are.  They're going to do it because it will make good business sense.  Oh, I'm sure, management is presently being criticized by environmentalists, and much of that criticism is quite justified, as the utility industry has a very long history of ignoring environmentalists.

            Are they doing this because of stiffer regulations?  Pretty unlikely, especially given the Trump Administration's efforts to make life easier for the coal industry.

            Instead, it's because it's a smart business decision.  So let's look specifically at why getting rid of all these coal plants is a very smart business decision. 

            It get's back to the number one job of the management of a company: make money for the shareholders.  In the case of a publicly-owned company such as Xcel, that means figuring ways to maximize the stock price.  With that in mind, let's consider how the decision to get rid of coal could help Xcel's managements drive up the company's share price.

            Stock prices are influenced by three things: company fundamentals, technical factors, and market sentiment.  Let's consider each.  The important thing to realize is that of these three factors, the management of a company can only influence one of them: company fundamentals.

            Market sentiment is really an overall collective assessment the investing world makes.  It depends upon things such as expectations of what the Federal Reserve will do with interest rates; what overall government policy is doing; and things such as the balance of trade and what's happening in foreign markets.

            The important thing to realize is that the management of a company can't do anything about market sentiment.

            The same is true for technical factors.  These include things such as the level of inflation, substitute products, and demographics.  For example, imagine that someone creates a great way for everyone to generate their own power, so it isn't necessary to depend upon the electric utility?  Pretty much outside the control of the utility company.

Which leaves just one thing that management can do to affect stock prices – company fundamentals – something very much within the control of management.  The key things here are the present value of future earnings for the company, as well as what's referred to as "free cash flow". 

            The best way for management to increase the stock price is to focus on things that will increase the company's earnings and free cash flow.  Generally speaking, that comes down to doing the following three things: 1) generate more revenue; 2) reduce costs; and/or 3) increase productivity.

            Unlike other businesses, utilities cannot do a great deal about increasing the amount of "product" or "service" it sells.  Instead, the typical utility must simply be prepared to produce the kilowatt hours and cubic feet of natural gas that customers demand.   The only thing the utility can try to do is to increase the rates charged to customers.  That, however, is subject to government regulation. 

            The management of the typical utility works very hard to convince regulators to increase the rates charged to customers.  Of course, on the other side of the table are a whole bunch of interests trying to keep utility rates low.  It's a classic political process, and management can to some extent influence stock price by pushing hard to increase utility rates.

            That leaves two other ways for management to influence stock prices: reducing costs and increasing productivity.

            Here's where the real news is.  The cost of alternative energy has gone down so much that wind and solar are now amongst the lowest cost power sources.  New wind and solar installations can generate kilowatt hours at a lower marginal rate than can coal and natural gas.

            Which means that, other things being equal, the management of companies such as Xcel can make a higher profit/kilowatt hour generated by building wind and solar capacity than by coal and natural gas.

            As wind and solar technology continue to improve, that differential is probably only going to increase.  Not only that, it will increase to the extent that fossil fuel prices go up.

            All you have to do is have some supply disruption of oil and natural gas to have the prices of those fuels go up.  Same thing for coal.  In the case of coal, regulation could increase the cost of the input. 

            Utility plants typically have a 30 to 40 year lifespan, so when management contemplates building one, it has to consider not only current costs but the cost of operation over that lifespan.  Doubtless, at the present time, the management of Xcel projects that over the next 30 to 40 years, the cost of operating a coal plant can do nothing but increase.  Technology isn't likely to reduce the cost of generation.  Conversely, the cost of a wind or solar facility has a good chance of continuing to go down over the same time period.

            Which means that if the company wants to increase earnings and free cash flow, the better choice will be a zero carbon facility.  If it makes that choice, other things being equal, there's a better chance the stock price will go up.

            So if that's the case, why not just ditch all of the coal plants right now?  Two likely reasons.  One is that management believes it lacks the capital and the management time to make such a transition more quickly. 

            It would have to borrow too much money and couldn't afford the debt service.  That problem could be overcome, especially if government regulators provide some type of relief to the company.

            However, even if management could swap out all those plants, there is still the problem of spreading management too thin.  Building a whole bunch of new plants would tax any organization.

            There is a possible way around this problem.  That's to have the company purchase alternative energy from a third party and just ditch all of the coal plants.  If management could find alternative sources of power and purchase it, it could shut down all of those coal plants more quickly.  If it could purchase enough clean power at a low enough price, it would make sense to shut all of the coal plants down as quickly as possible.  There are, of course, some important caveats to doing this, but it could make good sense.

            Of course, shutting down all those plants might create other problems.  The most likely would be the economic impact in the towns where the coal plants are located. 

            This points the way to another great economic opportunity.  Third parties could build new wind and solar plants that would provide clean power at a lower cost than the old coal plants.  Xcel's management probably realizes this.

            So why not just get third parties to build all of this new zero emission capacity and get rid of all of the coal plants?  The short answer may be that government regulation has incentivized utilities to keep operating greenhouse gas polluting coal plants.  We'll consider that in the future.

            In the meantime, Xcel's management, in my mind, is making a brilliant business decision.  I expect other companies will reach the same conclusion, and start doing the same. Which reinforces the idea that if you really want to get rid of greenhouse gases, the best way is through economics and better technology, not politics and regulation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lots of people have been worrying about rolling back environmental regulations. We may have been worrying about the wrong things.

            The things that keep me awake and worrying at night usually don't come to pass.  In the end, it's more needless worrying.  Instead, things that I never thought about, much less ever thought of worrying about, become my real life nightmares. 

            I know I'm not alone.  Unquestionably, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

            While it has nothing to do with me, a great example of this principle has been making headlines.  When Donald Trump was elected US President, then promised to roll back environmental regulations in order to bring back coal as a preeminent power source, lots of people besides me became very scared. 

            Surprisingly, and thankfully, we now know that much of that was needless worrying.  That's because of reports that more coal-fired power plants were de-commissioned during the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency than during the entire first term of President Barack Obama, an unabashed supporter of both greenhouse gas reduction and a cleaner environment.

            How could that have possibly happened?  How could President Trump have successfully rolled back a bunch of regulations on coal, and yet more coal capacity went offline?

            The short answer: in the big picture, it's not regulations that matter, it's technology!  Let me explain.

            The biggest single reason coal power is dying is the fracking revolution.  Fracking is the process of injecting water and chemicals into the ground in order to enhance the recovery of oil and gas previously unrecovered.  It has totally transformed the oil and gas business, not only in the USA but worldwide.  On a positive note, it has turned the USA once again into one of the top hydrocarbon producers in the world.  Besides this, it has resulted in two other very important things:

            Result #1: because of increased supply of oil and natural gas, the price of oil and gas worldwide has gone down dramatically from where it would have been otherwise;

            Result #2: the USA imports substantially less hydrocarbons than before, greatly improving the country's balance of payments.

            Result #2 is certainly important, but let's focus on result #1.  Greater hydrocarbon supply has reduced worldwide prices, making natural gas far more competitive than coal as a power source.  The key reason coal power plants are being retired, and very few new ones are being built, is the competitiveness of natural gas.

            Fracking, of course, is not without its problems.  Many environmentalists are concerned that it is damaging local environments in serious ways, and many environmental advocates have come to hate frackingIronically, the very thing many environmentalists have come to hate is also the very thing that is causing another hated thing – coal power plants – to be retired.

            It's a completely unexpected outcome.  However, let's not get too comfortable because some other unexpected outcomes may be on the horizon.  We probably should be worried, just not for the expected reasons.  Instead, we should actually be worried about fracking.  Not so much because of potential environmental concerns, rather because in the long run, fracking may just be un-economic.

            So why might fracking be un-economic?  It's because most fracking companies still haven't figured out a way to make real money.  Oh, they generate a lot of revenue from fracking, but upon closer examination, they haven't figured out a way to generate free cash flow from the practice.  Free cash flow equals operating cash minus operating expenses minus capital expenditures.  What it means is that fracking companies actually may be fooling themselves - and everyone else - about the real economics of the business. 

            So long as free cash flow is negative, fracking concerns need to borrow money.  They can get away with that if interest rates are low, as they have been for the past decade, but what happens when interest rates start going up, as they have been recently?  What happens when companies borrow too much and the debt load becomes unsustainable?  What happens when that becomes an industry-wide problem?

            In the long run, absent some big change, absent the typically fracking company generating free cash flow, the industry will be unsustainable.  If fracking is unsustainable, total oil and gas production will decline, the prices of oil and natural gas will go up, and other things being equal, coal will not be at such a disadvantage.  Bottom line, coal could again become competitive as a power generation source, at least compared to natural gas.

            When you and I are sleepless at night, worrying about things that could happen, we'll again be worrying about the wrong things. Rather, the things you never expected to happen could end up happening!

            But before you start worrying about coal making a resurgence, consider something else.  That "something else" is the declining cost of generating power from alternatives like wind and solar.  The other reason coal plants are being retired, and not replaced, is because wind and solar have become truly cost competitive. 

            Thus, even if fracking turns out to be uneconomic on a large scale, the declining cost of wind and solar will very likely keep utility companies retiring old coal plants.  Unlike fracking, wind and solar don't have a free cash flow problem.  Not only that, because of ever improving technology, the cost of industrial scale wind and solar keeps going down, making them ever more cost competitive with coal.

            The bottom line is that wind and solar will likely continue to displace coal plants.  They may even displace natural gas plants, too, if the price of natural gas increases, especially due to any future decline in fracking.

            Ironically, improvements in technology could also ultimately make both fracking and coal powered utility plants environmentally friendly, or at least friendlier. Technology to capture carbon emissions is under development.  If it could be perfected, and if carbon emissions could truly be captured – a very big if – coal might resume its place as a preeminent power source – and we probably wouldn't care.  Likewise, technology might eventually address the two big problems of fracking – environmental damage, and the problem of negative free cash flow – making it a truly good alternative to coal.

            At the end of the day, the key is technology, not politics or regulation.  Deregulation isn't making coal more competitive, and it won't in the future.  Instead, it's technology.  Likewise, what is making wind and solar realistic alternatives is improved technology.

            Bottom line, the key to solving the problem is technology.  The things that keep us awake at night so often don't come to pass, so we'd best not worry about them.  Instead, we need to worry about the things we haven't thought of, as that's what could really create problems for us.  Then we need to look for technological solutions that will help us deal with lots of those unexpected things that we never imagined could create problems.

            I probably will still periodically lay awake at night, worrying about something that could happen.  You probably will, too.  Again, what we'll worry about probably won't come to pass.  It will be the thing we failed to consider.  Alas, human nature probably won't change, but maybe some improved technology will help make it a little less painful.        

           

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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It's the start of a new year. As we attempt to change different things in our lives, some thoughts on finding a way to change the climate "narrative".

            Happy New Year!  I hope that 2019 is off to a great start for you, your family, and those around you. 

            Chances are you have many hopes, plans, and aspirations for 2019.  Doubtless, you'd like some things to be different than they were in 2018 and before. 

            For many of us, a different narrative on "climate change" would be wonderful news.  Unless you've decided to swear off media, you likely feel bombarded with stories about impending environmental doom due to climate change.  Lots of scary scenarios are on the horizon.  While there is hope that environmental disaster can be avoided later in the 21st century, there is a great deal of fear that not enough is being done now to avoid future calamity.

            Which brings me back to the need for a "change of narrative".  In my mind, too much of the debate is focused on one of three topics: 1) international climate forums such as the recent talks in Poland; 2) impending climate catastrophe projections; or 3) climate change denial.  It's rare to find a story that doesn't somehow fit in one of those three "buckets".

            So here's a story about climate that doesn't fit any of the three conventional "climate change storylines".  Instead, it focuses on some of the practical, behind the scenes things being done to deal with the problem.  For me, a great "change of narrative" for 2019 would be to stop talking about the three "buckets" above and re-focus onto practical solutions. 

            My "practical" story is definitely about climate change (because it's real), but it isn't the usual narrative about what governments are doing.  In fact, some of the protagonists in this story are the last you'd ever think of in the climate change debate: Big Oil companies. 

            Please understand, this is not an apologetic about Big Oil, and it isn't about environmental "green washing".  Instead, I want to talk about some practical strategies being used to try to deal with the problem of greenhouse gas removal.  It fits into what you might call the "angel/venture capital investing" model.  It isn't a panacea, but it could provide a useful, if slightly unexpected, model of the "practical" variety.

            The common denominator is technology.  If you look back in history, there have been various predictions of environmental catastrophe, beginning with Thomas Malthus.  Malthus predicted that the Earth would be destroyed by overpopulation.  It never happened, and the reason it didn't was because technology changed. 

            The best chance we have of avoiding an environmental catastrophe due to greenhouse gas-induced climate change is new technology.  The good news is that a whole bunch of new technology has already emerged:

  • Better solar panels
  • Better wind turbines
  • Better battery storage.

These three technologies have made all electric vehicles, as well as solar and wind power, highly cost competitive, in a way hardly dreamed possible just 10 to 15 years ago.

            However, we're going to need even more technology, and we'll need it pretty quickly, especially in heavy industry, particularly to deal with greenhouse gas associated with things like cement and steel production. 

            One approach is to encourage university research, then get that research spun out into start up businesses.  This is a well known strategy employed by angel investors.  Exhibit A for this approach is a company C-Capture Technology.   The Chemistry Department at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom sought to find a way to improve carbon capture technology.  The technology most recently available is very energy intensive, and it reduces the economic efficiency of any plant that adopts it. 

            The chemistry researchers at Leeds have developed a new technology they believe will significantly improve the process.  The technology has been spun out into C-Capture Technology.   C-Capture will try to commercialize technology.  If the company is successful, it will likely mean both a much better commercial method to capture carbon in an industrial plant, but it will also provide a large financial reward to the university, to be reinvested in the school.

            Lots of technology companies spin out of university-based research.  The challenge, then, is to commercialize that technology and create viable businesses.  It's one thing to build a company based upon software, but a very different thing to try to build a business that requires lots of assets.  Unfortunately, many technologies associated with greenhouse gas reduction require huge asset investments.  From where will that capital come?

            A four year old project called the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative provides an interesting approach.  The OGCI is a joint undertaking of a number of international oil and gas companies.  Members include ExxonMobil, Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, BP, Shell, and Total.  The companies have joined together to make investments in a variety of "green" technologies.

            This particular initiative is interesting for several reasons.  The first is that it points to the idea that major oil and gas companies are being pushed by their shareholders, as well as governments and other entities, to do something about greenhouse gas emissions.  Some think the companies are only doing this because they're being forced by public opinion. 

            I don't think so.  Instead, they're doing it because they perceive that greenhouse gas reduction is not just politically popular, it's a good business investment.  In my mind, these companies are making investments because they perceive a potentially huge payout. 

            The OGCI companies have already invested in seven companies that have developed "green" technologies.  Here's a quick rundown of the companies in which they've invested:

            Achates Power:           

Achates has developed high fuel efficiency piston engines.  The most obvious application is in aviation.

            Clarke Valve:              

Clarke has developed the world's first new valve in more than 50 years.  It's valves can be used in a broad range of industrial applications.  They're considerably more efficient than traditional designs.  (Full disclosure: I am an investor in this company)

            Econic:                       

Econic has developed catalysts that permit the incorporation of CO2 as a raw material in various plastics.  The idea is to take CO2 emissions and turn them into plastic, a fantastic recycling strategy if it can be commercialized!

            GHGSat:                    

GHGSat is developing a set of greenhouse gas monitoring devices and data services.    The need for such monitoring is quite evident, as the first step to reducing greenhouse gases is to identify where they're present, as well as their source.

            Inventys:                    

WhiIe various organizations are trying to develop carbon capture technology, Inventys says it is trying to do it on the "gigatonne scale".

            Kairos Aerospace:      

Kairos is adapting aerospace technology to improve detection of methane gas, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

            Solidia Tech:                

Solidia is developing improved technology for making cement.  Many if not most people don't realize that cement-making is a potent source of greenhouse gases.  The world would be hard pressed to do without cement, so developing better processes â€" especially ones that reduce greenhouse gases â€" is really important.

            These are OGCI's initial investments.  The experience of angel and venture capital investors suggests that OGCI will need to create a portfolio of at least 20, and preferable 30 or more, investments.  Most likely, for every 10 investments that OGCI makes, half will fail and another three will provide only a fairly small return.  The goal, however, is for one or two of every ten investments to be very successful.  If that happens, the investors will likely realize excellent returns.

            In this case, however, there should be an additional benefit: the successful companies will be successful because they've developed and commercialized an important technology that will help reduce greenhouse gases.  In that case, everyone will win!

            OGCI has made one other investment.  It is in an initiative to build the first natural gas plant that uses carbon capture and underground storage (CCUS) technology.  The plant is in Teeside in the United Kingdom.  If this investment is a success, the technology could be used to capture carbon in plants around the world.

            Policymakers around the world should be encouraging similar types of investment in new technology to reduce or eliminate carbon.  The examples above provide a useful template:

#1: Fund basic and applied research in universities to develop carbon capture or other carbon reduction/elimination technologies;

#2: Encourage universities to spin out promising technologies;

#3: Encourage angel and venture capital investors to focus attention on these new technologies;

#4: Encourage other industries to model what the OGCI has done.

            Much, if not most, attention has been focused on government-led initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.  The entire Paris Climate Treaty strategy is built upon this.  Unfortunately, governments are poorly equipped to carry out the four steps listed above.  The only way that government can be helpful is with #1 and, to some extent, #4.  Governments could, and should, invest more funds in research, especially through major research universities. 

            The other place government might have a positive influence is through the promotion of OGCI-style initiative in other industries.  Consider the example of cement-making cited earlier.  Greenhouse gas is a significant problem.  Governments might encourage companies in cement-making to establish pools of capital to invest in new technology.  Why not create a portfolio of companies developing new technology to improve the process?  On one level, this could be financially remunerative to the investor-owners.  More importantly, it could help build new technology that could benefit an entire industry, much less the planet as a whole.

            Please understand, none of this is a panacea.   None of the companies cited above are likely to create a "magic bullet" that will solve the carbon emissions problem.  But encouraging the development of new technology is likely the very best way we'll avoid the climate disaster that appears in the offing.

            Had technology not improved, Thomas Malthus probably would have been proved right, with disastrous consequences for the entire planet.  The same is likely true for us today, so we'd best do what we can to encourage the improvement of technology.   Doubtless, technology will get better in 2019.  We just need to find ways to channel that technology to create better solutions to things such as greenhouse gas emissions.  Governments, especially national ones, tend to be pretty ineffective in doing this, but there are ways to get the job done.  The examples I've cited above could provide a useful, practical model.

            May 2019 be the best year ever for you, your family, and those who surround you, and may you be showered with blessings.  May the "narratives" you hear be different â€" and better â€" than anything you thought possible.

 

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In the gift giving season of Christmas, here are four unexpected, no cost gifts you might want to consider

            Merry Christmas!  Wherever you live, and whatever your personal beliefs, I hope the Christmas season brings both good tidings and blessings to you and your family.

            Judging by the news, you probably feel very much in need of it.  Most everyone I talk with seems at least somewhat depressed.  While the reason for some is personal, familial circumstances, for the vast majority it is because of the seemingly endless stream of bad news: the stock market is cratering; Washington is in crisis; the Federal debt is exploding; and your data are probably being hacked as you read.  I could go on and on, and the troubles just seem to get worse and worse.

            Except that even though the headlines are bad, the world isn't imploding.  The Sun came up today, and it's pretty likely to come up tomorrow.  Most likely, you'll be here to see it come up tomorrow.

            So even though some things seem bad, it most likely isn't anywhere near as bad as it might seem in the moment.  We have lots of things about which to be happy, and to feel blessed. 

            Christmas is a time for gift giving.  In that spirit, I want to suggest four gifts that we can give, not only to others, but especially gifts we can give to ourselves.  These gifts will cost absolutely nothing, so you don't have to worry about depleting your bank account any more than you already have, but they could be some of the best ones you give and receive this year.  At first, you're likely to find these gifts to be highly unusual, but upon reflection, I think you'll see they are real gifts.

Gift #1: Stop Thinking That Facts Will Convince Others to Change Their Minds

            What's our natural reaction when we hear someone of a different political persuasion say something we don't like, or believe?  We start reciting our favorite facts that support our position.  We think our facts are persuasive, and we can't understand why they convince others to change their minds.

            So we think, when our facts don't persuade them to change their minds and see things our way, we conclude these people must be stupid, arrogant, or maybe even evil!

            Well, most likely, the people who disagree with us most likely are neither stupid, arrogant, nor evil, at least no more than we are.  Moreover, lots of evidence suggests that people in general, especially adults, don't easily change their minds.  Not only that, but people don't change their minds because they either learn that something they thought was true actually isn't, or that certain things they think are factual are actually incorrect.  In short, it is REALLY HARD to get people to change their minds about things, especially deeply held beliefs. 

            I personally like Politifact.  It takes statements made by public figures and evaluates their veracity.   They have a scale that ranges from "True", all the way to my favorite: "Pants on Fire".  Remember "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"?  The funny thing is, some research shows that not only does the Politifact strategy of "identifying errors, mistruths, and outright lies" not effective, it may even be counterproductive.  That's because some research shows that when a lie is repeated as part of an investigate into its truthfulness, the lie may become even more cemented as truth in the minds of many people.  Bottom line: Politifact is entertaining, but it fails to accomplish its goal of getting people to re-think untruths.

            So why, then, do we keep trying to throw our facts at others, then get frustrated when they don't "get in line" with our thinking?  It may be related to the endless efforts we take to get our spouses or other family members to change the things we find annoying about them.  Well, anyone who has ever been married knows that is a fool's errand.  Yet we keep trying to do it!

            So a great gift you could give yourself this Christmas is to stop doing this.  Stop thinking that you'll persuade others to change their minds by throwing facts at them.  Stop thinking they're stupid because they don't fall in line with your thinking.   The reduction in frustration will be a great gift for you.

            Now please understand, I'm not telling you to stop trying to be factual, just stop trying to use your facts as a weapon against others.

            Instead, go back and rediscover a gift you were given at birth, but which you probably have largely thrown in your pile of discarded toys.

            Rediscover your natural inquisitiveness.

Gift #2: Draw a Little Upon Your Natural Inquisitiveness

            Anyone who's ever been around children know they're naturally inquisitive.  Most likely, you once drove your parents nuts by all the questions you asked as a child. 

            We adults just somehow lose that capacity.  One of the best examples of how we've lost that is our general failure to inquire why people who think differently from us think the way they do.

            Ask yourself, when you hear someone express an opinion radically different from you, what was your natural reaction?

            They're ignorant, stupid fools!

            Liberals who can't understand why many conservatives have strong feelings about the Second Amendment, or are skeptical about climate change.

            Conservatives who can't understand why a high percentage of the population thinks the idea of building a 20 or 30 foot wall across the southern USA border is a really stupid idea.

            Instead of doing that, when we hear someone express a contrary viewpoint, why not revert to the inquisitiveness of our "inner child" and ask, why does the other person think the way he/she does?  Is there something I might be missing myself?  If so, what might that be?

            The funny thing is, when one stops and really thinks about contrary viewpoints, there are often "aha, I never thought of that" moments. 

            The gift of inquisitiveness often provides the dual rewards of new ideas and new perspectives.  It truly is a gift to any adult who rediscovers it.  And it doesn't cost anything!

            Now, of course, there is no assurance that even added insight will eliminate your sense of frustration at world events.  Which leads me to consider the third gift we can give ourselves.

Gift #3: Focus on the Things Within Your Control

            Doubtless, you've heard the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change/ Courage to change the things that I can/ And wisdom to know the difference."  It was composed by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).  Technology developed over the past few hundred years has radically changed the world.  We've developed the ability to overcome nearly every obstacle imaginable.  Unfortunately, it has left too many of us with the idea that anything and everything is within our power.  Too bad that just isn't the case.  Intellectually, we know we ourselves can change only a few things, and we get frustrated when so many things seem beyond our grasp.

            Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer is appropriate for all such occasions.  Instead of getting frustrated by world, national, or even local events out of our individual control, let us take pause, and hopefully reduce our stress and frustration.

            Instead, we should focus our individual attention on the things we really can change.  For each of us, there are plenty of things we can and should change.  A great place to start is with how we treat our family, friends, and co-workers.  If you want change, let's start there, not with national and international matters largely beyond our immediate control.  Why not provide the gift of ourselves at our very best?  Our family, friends, and co-workers will doubtless love to see that.  Each of us will, too.

            Which leads me to a fourth and final gift we can each give to ourselves: the wisdom to realize the world is not composed of good and bad people, but people who are all simultaneously good and bad.

Gift #4: Try to Stop Dividing the World into Good People and Bad People

            The question of whether people are basically good or bad is a very old one.  Lots of traditional wisdom says, however, that individual people are neither basically good nor basically bad.  Instead, each of us possesses both good characteristics and bad characteristics.  We all have our flaws.  Even universally reviled mass murders such as Adolph Hitler had a good side.  Virtually none of us ever saw it, but it was very likely there.  Please understand, I'm not in the least trying to excuse the terrible things people like Hitler have done, merely to say that the world is composed of lots of good people, and a few very bad ones, is at best a caricature.

            The idea that people are basically good is a thoroughly modern one.  So what's wrong with this very widely held viewpoint?  The problem is that it simultaneously leads us to look for the evil in others and overlook the evil in our own hearts.  If we think, on balance, that we, our family, and our friends are all basically good people, it leads us to point the finger at others rather than point at ourselves. 

            Now I realize, very few people enjoy acknowledging their own shortcomings.  It's way easier, and more fun, to look for what's bad in others.  But if we want to get along with each other, far better first to consider our own shortcomings than point out those in others.  Not only that, but when we start thinking the world is composed of good people and bad people, we start trying to change, or get rid of, "the bad people".  As I recall, trying to rid the world of "the bad elements" (i.e., Jews, gypsies, and other so called "undesirables") was one of Hitler's major shortcomings. 

            But you don't have to be one of history's greatest mass murderers to believe that we should do something about "the bad people". 

            Instead, think of the world as composed of people all of whom have both good and bad characteristics.  Each of us has good characteristics, maybe even noble ones.  At the same time, we are each flawed in different ways.  While many religious traditions believe this, Christians in particular believe that because we are that way, God came to Earth in the form of a man to live, then die as an atonement for the shortcomings all of us have.  Christmas is a celebration of the first appearance of God on Earth.

If we think of ourselves as simultaneously good and bad, our outlook upon with world will truly be different.

            So how could this change in viewpoint be a gift?  If we stop thinking the world is composed of mostly good people and a few bad ones, we'll stop frustrating ourselves with fruitless efforts to "perfect" mankind on our own.  Apart from technological progress, attempts at "human progress" over the past few hundred years have done nothing but make us individually and collectively frustrated and angry.  If, instead, we adopt the traditional view that people are simultaneously good and bad, and we can't do too much about our bad sides by ourselves, we may afford ourselves the gift of a little less frustration and anger.

            When you think about it, these are just little bits of traditional wisdom.   You've probably heard every one of them before, and you probably think you're already following them.  I'd like to think I follow them regularly, too, but I know oftentimes don't, and need a reminder.

            While there's lots of bad news around, the world isn't coming to an end.  As you give and receive gifts this Christmas season, indulge yourself in the gifts I've described above.  They are freely available to each of us, and they could help make this Christmas, and the coming year, better than you ever thought. 

            In whatever way you celebrate Christmas, I truly hope it is a happy and joyous time for you, your family, and your friends.  I hope you derive joy from the gifts you give a receive.  I hope you'll consider the four gifts mentioned above.  They're freely available, and receiving them may just make your Christmas, and your coming year, a little bit better.

            Merry Christmas!

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New Evidence Suggests an Earlier Date for the First Appearance of Life on Earth

Our Earth is estimated to be about 4.4 billion years old. Over time, scientists have pushed the date of the earliest appearance of life on Earth farther and farther back. For the past two decades, the general consensus has been that life first appeared on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago, meaning that for the first billion years, Earth was "lifeless". Now a new study in Nature magazine suggests the date is much earlier.  The research is definitely controversial.  In fact, some critics of the new study have called the fossil evidence "dubio-fossils".  Obviously, it isn't just politics that's controversial today! Check out Oldest Bacteria.  

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The fifth reason Christians should love Darwin and the Big Bang Theory is because they can be used to help Christians formulate a solid response to secular humanism.

THE FIFTH REASON

            The fifth reason for Christians to embrace Darwin and the Big Bang Theory has to do with secular humanism.  Secular humanism is a group of creeds that have emerged over the past 100 plus years representing an alternative to Christianity and other religions.  While not exclusively so, a very high percentage of secular humanists are atheists and freethinkers.  Their thinking is summarized in three Secular Humanist Manifestos, issued respectively in 1933, 1973, and 2003.  In general, one can summarize their beliefs as follows:

  • Humans have an innate capacity to do and be good
  • We should focus our attention on the needs of this world, not on some mythical deity and  "afterlife"
  • The values of scientific inquiry, as well as justice and fairness, are paramount
  • Humans are capable of making progress, and given this capacity, should focus on building a better world.

There is much one can find appealing in the beliefs of secular humanists.  The

problem, of course, for Christians is that secular humanists believe there is little or no place for God in the world: in the secular humanist world, God either doesn't exist, or He takes a completely "hands off" approach to the world, similar to the conception of the Deists.  Either way, in the mind of the average secular humanist, God, even if He exists, is completely irrelevant.  When the subject of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, comes up, secular humanists tend to make the following arguments:

  • Religious beliefs tend to become fanatical, causing unnecessary wars
  • Humans have demonstrated tremendous progress, particularly in the past few hundred years, and that progress will lead us to solve any and all problems without the help of God
  • One of the highest values for humanity is science, and religions tend to be opposed or at odds with scientific endeavors
  • Sacred books such as the Bible are merely a bunch of stories and myths, things that can be disproved by science
  • Secular humanists can be just as moral, maybe even more moral, than Christians and those who adhere to other religions, so why bother with religious dogma?

These arguments will understandably cause Christians to get red in the face, but what responses can be offered?  First, with respect to wars, it's true, sometimes wars have been undertaken in the name of religion.  However, what secular humanists are forgetting to consider is that atheists have been the cause of incredible suffering, too.  All one needs to do is consider the murderous reigns of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung.  Thus, the argument that religious belief leads to irrational, possibly murderous, behavior is not credible. 

Beyond this, in response to secular humanism, Christians tend to refer back to the Bible, but secular humanists already dismiss the Bible as a bunch of myths that lack credibility.  The result is that Christians and secular humanists largely shout past one another. 

The bottom line, however, is that for increasing numbers of ordinary people, secular humanism seems very appealing.  Once again, this is where a Christian embrace of Darwin and the Big Bang Theory could be beneficial to Christians.  Let me explain how and why.  First, I've laid out the argument that Darwin's theory actually reinforces the idea that sin is a byproduct of the evolution of humans.  Thus, the core belief of Christianity, one can argue, is based upon the very science that secular humanists seem to embrace. 

Second, secular humanism is grounded in the idea of human progress.  I agree that humans have, and continue to make, tremendous technological and material progress.  No one would disagree with that.  Even the most committed Christians still love their Ipads and Iphones, and wouldn't trade them in for old fashioned rotary dial up phones or 300 baud computer modems.  Where the disagreement comes is whether or not humans are making any real moral progress.  A fundamental tenet of secular humanism is that humans have the capacity to solve their own problems.  It may take us a while to do that, but we can eventually solve pretty much any problem.  My response is that secular humanists are mis-guided in this because they are not taking antagonistic pleiotropy into consideration.  Let me provide a brief review of the concept.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection suggests that traits that do not fit well will eventually die out.  If that's the case, one would expect that various terrible diseases would eventually disappear because humans, and other animals and organisms, would adapt to the diseases, much as microbes tend to adapt to antibiotics intended to kill the microbes; unfortunately, after a period of time, the antibiotics no longer work.  The problem is, terrible diseases don't seem to disappear, or at least humans don't seem to develop innate resistance to those diseases.  In my book I cite the example of Sickle Cell Anemia, a terrible disease that tends to strike people of sub-Saharan African descent.  The reason is because the genes that cause the disease have both negative a positive characteristics: the positive side of Sickle Cell Anemia is that it confers resistance to malaria, so the disease doesn't disappear because it simultaneously has negative and positive characteristics.  I make the argument that Sickle Cell Anemia is a metaphor for human sinfulness: each human behavior has both a positive and a negative side, the positive being the reason the person has survived, and the negative being the sinful side of the trait.

The argument I make is that each human behavior has both a positive side and a negative side, much as Sickle Cell Anemia has both a positive side and a negative side, and much as every coin has both a heads and a tails.  Assuming that's the case, the notion of human moral progress becomes impossible.  This is because the bad sides (the tails of the coin) of our individual natures are – what we call sin – are the flip side of the very things that have helped us survive – the heads of the coins.  These bad traits aren't going to go away.  Yes, humans will likely continue to make technological and material progress, but our real problem is that we're unable to make moral progress: we continue to deceive others, cheat on our spouses, gossip, bully others, engage in wars, and do all manner of other bad things, ostensibly because these things help us to be genetically successful.  Precisely because these bad things help us to be genetically successful, they're not going away. Moreover, the argument of the secular humanists – the reliance upon science – is used to overturn the secular humanist belief in human progress. 

Christians can then combine this understanding of Darwin with traditional Biblical arguments, as follows.  When mankind evolved from lower species, the negative traits that helped us to survive, combined with our far greater brainpower, led us to become simultaneously capable of doing good along with being sinful.  That's the traditional Christian formulation – the dual nature of humanity.  Moreover, Christians argue that we cannot overcome this on our own – it's "baked in."  The only thing we can do is to rely upon faith in Jesus Christ to help overcome this.  We can't do it on our own.

Thus, by relying upon Darwin, Christians can build an argument that secular humanism is fundamentally flawed.  The argument relies upon science – the very thing secular humanists say is the cornerstone of their thinking.  Secular humanists will no longer be able to make a claim that they're the only ones relying upon science.  Christians will be able to do the same, in addition to having the arguments laid out in the Bible.  Of course, secular humanists will reject these arguments, but Christians will now have a new set of arguments to use, ones that will buttress their underlying arguments about the claims of the Bible.  In other words, Christians won't be using science to replace the Bible – the thing secular humanists have been doing – but use science, in conjunction with the Bible, to undercut the secular humanist case.  So far, I haven't seen any effective secular humanist argument in response. 

In summary, Christians should love Darwin and the Big Bang because they can be used to help Christians to build solid, credible arguments against secular humanism.

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There's a lot of concern that climate change is making hurricanes more frequent and worse. That may be the case, but climate change isn't the place to focus attention if you're trying to reduce the impact of hurricanes.

            The incredible destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey on Texas, as well as that from Hurricanes Irma and Michael – reminds us of the unbelievable havoc and misery that hurricanes and tropical storms can wreak.  The fury accompanying these three storms has raised an obvious and important question: is climate change making hurricanes worse; and isn't this an important reason to take action on climate change?

            I definitely believe in human-induced climate change, and I also strongly suspect that climate change may well be making hurricanes at least somewhat worse.  But if we want to try to reduce the tragic impact of hurricanes, focusing on climate change is at best a distraction in the effort.  Let me explain how I come to what is probably an unexpected conclusion.

            Before going any further, let's consider why climate change might be making hurricanes and tropical storms worse.  The two key reasons are water temperature and water vapor in the air.  Hurricanes gain their energy from warm ocean temperatures.  In fact, a hurricane can only form if the water temperature is at least approximately 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6 degrees Celsius).  It can only be sustained with warm water temperatures.  The warmer the temperature, the greater the chance of a hurricane forming and/or strengthening.  Global warming certainly appears to be increasing water temperatures.  At the same time, higher temperatures tend to increase the amount of water vapor in the air, something else that helps nurture a hurricane and make it more destructive.  So other things being equal, global warming may well be contributing to the problem both of the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms.

            Yes, but it isn't so simple.  Let me explain why.

            First off, even if we could somehow end the problem of global warming and associated climate change, it's not clear what impact there would be on the number of hurricanes or their intensity.  We know this for no other reason that there were intense hurricanes before there was evidence of global warming.  In fact, since the start of the 20th century, the USA has experienced a Category 5 hurricane about once every 25 – 30 years: one in 1900, one in 1935, one in 1961, one in 1969, one in 1992, and now one in 2017.  Category 4 hurricanes are an even more frequent occurrence.  Table 1 below shows a list of the most intense Atlantic basin hurricanes over the past century.  Hurricanes such as the 1900 Galveston storm, the 1935 Florida Keys storm, Carla, and Camille were likely just as intense as Irma and Katrina, and all occurred before global warming was an issue.   So solving the global warming problem is certainly not going to eliminate these hurricanes.  It may reduce the frequency, but even that isn't clear.

 

Table 1: Past Category 4 and 5 Hurricanes

 

Hurricane

Year

Windspeed (Miles/Hour)

Irma

2017

185

Katrina

2005

175

Andrew

1992

175

Camille

1969

175

Carla

1961

175

Mitch (did not hit USA)

1998

180

Rita

2005

180

Florida Keys

1935

185

Gilbert (did not hit USA)

1988

185

Wilma

2005

185

Allen

1980

190

Galveston hurricane

1900

Unknown Cat 5

 

 

            But the intensity of the hurricane really isn't the thing we should be worried about anyway.  Instead, deaths and injuries, as well as the resultant damage, are the real concern.  After all, there have actually been a number of extremely intense hurricanes in the Atlantic that never touched land.  Nobody remembers the names of those storms, and nobody really cares.

            So which storms have actually been the deadliest and costliest?  The deadliest by far was the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which killed an estimated 6,000 people.  They had virtually no warning on that one.  Fortunately, modern technology has helped to provide better warning, with much less loss of life.  The 1926 Miami hurricane killed 372 people, mainly because people didn't understand the calm of storm's eye is but a precursor to another round. 

            Then there's property damage.  Table 2 shows a list of the most costly hurricanes and tropical storms.  One interesting thing to note is that amongst the costliest were storms that weren't intense.  In fact several of them – Tropical Storm Allison and Superstorm Sandy - weren't even hurricanes.  They did incredible damage, however, and besides fatalities and injuries, that's what really gets our attention.

Table 2: Costliest Hurricanes/Tropical Storms

 

Hurricane

Year

Estim Cost (Billion USD)

Hugo

1989

7.1

Jeanne

2004

7.6

Tropical Storm Allison

2001

9.0

Frances

2004

9.5

Rita

2005

12.0

Charley

2004

15.1

Irene

2011

7.3

Wilma

2005

21.0

Andrew

1992

26.5

Ike

2008

29.5

Superstorm Sandy

2012

71.4

Katrina

2005

108

Harvey

2017

100+

 

            Our real concern shouldn't be how intense the storm is, it should be how much loss of life (and injuries), as well as the damage.   To deal with those, there are three things we can focus on.  Let's consider each of them.

            The first is the technology associated with tracking storms and predicting where they'll go.  The 1900 Galveston hurricane killed so many people because there was little technology to track the storm and warn people to get out.  We can and should continue to improve this technology, but we're not likely to have much impact here.  Yes, we can build ever better weather satellites and sensors, but such improvements will probably have only marginal impact.

            Instead, we should give greater attention to the second area where we can improve – building technology and building codes.  The destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 led to a detailed review of building codes and practices.  They were strengthened significantly, especially with respect to window and door technologies, as well as methods to insure that roofs won't blow off.  Homes and businesses built since 1992 are far more likely to survive an intense hurricane, thanks to the Andrew-induced changes.  More obviously can be done in this area, particularly in retro-fitting existing structures.

            While spending on hurricane tracking and building technologies can help save lives as well as reduce property losses, there is a third area that will yield substantially greater reductions in deaths, injuries and property damage … and it has absolutely nothing to do with global warming or technology.  Instead, it has to do with zoning and insurance.

            The biggest single danger in a hurricane or tropical storm is storm surge.  The low barometric pressure associated with a hurricane causes the ocean to rise at least a few feet.  The lower the air pressure, the greater the surge.  How do you avoid this problem?  By either not building structures in low lying areas adjacent the ocean, or building the structure high enough that storm surge passes underneath the structure.

            This isn't some great new revelation – it's been known for at least fifty years.  The other thing that's been known for many years is what areas are susceptible to storm surge and flooding.  So you may ask, if we know that storm surge is a problem, and we also know where it could be a problem, why haven't we solved the problem?

            The answer, unfortunately, is that we don't want to acknowledge the problem.  Not only that, we take active measures through our government to make the problem worse.   Let me explain how, and why.

            We have pretty detailed maps that show what areas in the country will flood, as well as the estimated frequency of flooding.  This is quite well known for coastal areas, especially low lying coastal areas.  You may ask, if we know the relative frequency that these low lying coastal areas will flood, why do we build structures in those areas?

            It's a good question.  Some say we shouldn't build structures in low lying coastal areas for this very reason.  One way to solve the problem is through property insurance.  Unfortunately, about fifty years ago, property insurers concluded that flood insurance simply wasn't a good product to sell.  This is because the property insurers calculated they would have to pay out too many claims and wouldn't be able to make money.

            To the rescue came the US government, which decided to provide insurance companies guarantees for the flood insurance policies they wrote. This helped foster the development of property in flood prone areas, including areas subject to hurricane storm surge.  Lots of people were happy about this – property developers, because they could build beautiful beach front developments; and buyers.  So what could go wrong?  Plenty.

            Remember that the reason the Federal government started guaranteeing flood insurance policies was because the private market wasn't working.  By getting involved in flood insurance, there have been a whole host of unintended consequences.  The key one is that a huge amount of development has occurred in these flood prone areas.  Every time a hurricane or tropical storm hits, huge claims need to be paid.  The real reason the costs in Table 2 are so high is because these storms did serious damage to structures that were principally located in flood plains.   The 1926 Miami hurricane, a pre-global warming storm, killed lots of people and did a lot of damage.  If the same storm occurred today, it's estimated it would cost $ 164 billion in damages.  This is because of so much development, as well as lots of it in flood prone areas.

            Unfortunately, the problem just gets worse, because we keep permitting development in known flood plains; and that development is backstopped the Federal government.

            We probably can't do much about reducing the number of hurricanes and tropical storms we have, at least in the short run, but we can do something about building structures – especially expensive structures – in known flood plains.  If we curtailed the number of structures in flood plains, we're likely to reduce storm induced damage there.

            We could materially reduce the terrible cost of hurricanes by focusing on items two and three (i.e., improving building codes, zoning,  and reducing the amount the amount of construction in flood plains.

            Here's the really good news about this.  It can all be done without the Paris Climate Accord … without developing any new technology to reduce carbon emissions … and without worrying about who is the President of the United States.  Much of it can be done without even spending money. 

            If it is indeed that easy, why hasn't it been done?   Quite simply, because there are lots of incentives to build structures in known hurricane flood plains, but not enough dis-incentives to prevent this from happening.  The incentives are obvious: buildings near the sea are highly desirable.  Economic development of the beach is highly attractive for lots for people.  The disincentives are far less obvious.  The big disincentive – paying out Superstorm Sandy size insurance  claims – just isn't a disincentive until it happens.

            What realistically can be done?  At one extreme, we could stop all development in flood prone areas.  Pretty draconian, but that would reduce the problem going forward.  At the other extreme, we could end all Federal flood insurance guarantees and just let the marketplace sort out the risk.  This solution would save taxpayers a lot of money, but it would create problems, especially for lower income groups.  Moreover, it would be very unpopular with those whose insurance is presently being subsidized.  Any way you look at it, there are tough choices to make.  The key point, however, is that these are the real decisions that need to be made if we want to reduce the cost of hurricanes.

            This problem isn't limited to construction of properties that are in storm surge prone areas.  The case of Houston and Hurricane Harvey is instructive here.  The impact of Hurricane Harvey on Houston was not related to storm surge.  Even though Houston is a good distance from the Gulf of Mexico, it still has numerous areas that are prone to flooding.  Yet there's been lots of development in those areas thanks to government backed flood insurance. 

            The other thing about Houston is that flooding is a recurring problem.  I personally experienced in 25 inch rainstorm in Houston one day in the summer of 1976.  It had absolutely nothing to do with a hurricane.  The flooding was horrendous.  There have been numerous other floods since.  The problem is exacerbated by poor soil, excess construction, and inadequate zoning – all problems which are understood, but for which not enough has been done. 

            Hurricane or no hurricane, these are costly and deadly problems that need to be prevented.  My point is that one can superficially cite global warming and climate change as the cause, but by doing so one obscures the real problem: building in flood plains and inadequate building codes.

            So while it's important to deal with global warming and climate change, let's not let that be an excuse.  When it comes to problems like hurricanes, lets focus attention on solving the real problems.   

            Please share your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree.  Thanks for reading.   

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The fourth reason Christians should embrace Darwin and the Big Bang Theory is because it will provide a way to resolve the issue of what type of science should be taught in schools, a question that has caused great angst for Christians for many years. Christians will definitely like my proposal.

THE FOURTH REASON

            The fourth reason Christians ought to love Darwin and the Big Bang is because it provides a way to deal with the longstanding problem of what to teach about science and religion in the public schools.  This is certainly a very old problem, one going back to the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee in the 1920's. 

Unfortunately, Christians have generally come out on the losing end in court cases, the courts pretty much always ruling that Christian efforts to present alternatives to Darwinian science are unacceptable.  Many would argue that everyone – Christian and non-Christian alike – has lost out, the reason being is because teachers and schools are so afraid of this issue they shy away from teaching anything.  Some would argue that students are simply being taught "junk".  I believe that my proposed approach can come to the rescue, offering benefits to all:

  • NonChristians will be happy because good science will be taught
  • Christians will be happy because they will be able to build the set of arguments they've always wanted taught in schools, but simply haven't been able to advance, until now.

Sounds like a pretty bold claim – and it is – but let me show you how I believe I can make it.

            Let's go back to the great fear that Christians have had about Darwin.  I think there have been two: 1) that Darwin is inconsistent with the Biblical narrative; and 2) that it hypothesizes a world without purpose, and one without God, so students will be taught that the atheistic conception is correct.  Elsewhere I've shown how Darwin is clearly not inconsistent with the Biblical narrative, so we can definitely dispose of that objection.  Let's now turn to the other objection.  My proposal will provide atheists and other non-Christians with something they've always wanted – to teach Darwin in the schools – but it will come at a cost they haven't considered, one that Christians will definitely like.

            Let me explain how I think the subject of Darwin and the Big Bang should be taught in schools.  Bear with me, because if you're a Christian, I think you'll like where this is going.  As I've argued in my book, I think the schools should teach that the Big Bang and Darwin's theory are essentially correct, so let's teach that in the schools.  Atheists should love that, so what might their objection be?  Well, the problem that arises for atheists is that, just as Christians are practicing religion, atheists really are, too.  They'll object mightily to this, but let me show you why they actually are practicing religion.  If the schools follow through with what I'm suggesting, it should be fairly obvious.

            So here's what I think should be taught in the schools.  First, the Big Bang is our best explanation for how the universe began, about 13.8 billion years ago.  From that, the universe, as well as life, emerged and evolved to the present.  Here, though, is the big question: what caused the Big Bang?  Christians, as well as adherents of other religions, believe that God, or some type of God-like agent, caused it.  Atheists, of course, believe that it more or less happened by chance.  Who's right, and what proof is there?  Let's consider the alternatives.

            The question of the cause of the Big Bang is an excellent opportunity for schools of all sorts to teach the scientific method.  Pretty much everyone believes it's a good idea for children to learn the scientific method, they just haven't thought about it in this context.  So let's demonstrate the scientific method in the context of the question, who or what caused the Big Bang?

            Teachers at all levels could describe the following experiment.  Imagine that there is a giant wall, with all humanity on one side of the wall and an unknown world on the other side of the wall.  The question is, what's on the other side of the wall, and how can scientists prove it, one way or the other?  So imagine that a group of scientists get the very best scientific equipment available and aim it at the wall to determine what's on the other side of the wall.  Now even young children are familiar with X ray machines, if only because they may have seen them at airport screening.  Imagine that the scientists aim all of their sophisticated equipment at the wall, but despite their best efforts, the equipment provides absolutely no information about what's on the other side of the wall.  The question is, what conclusions can the scientists draw about what's on the other side of the wall?

            The obvious answer is, nothing!  If there are no data produced by the machines about what's on the other side of the wall, it remains a mystery what is on the other side.  Since no data are available, any conclusions reached are in the realm of speculation, and possibly religion.  I say this because one of the definitions of "faith" is belief in things that are unseen and not provable.  The experiment I've described is a perfect example of our understanding of what happened before the Big Bang.  Right now, we have absolutely no data points, so the experiment I've described pretty well summarizes our understanding of the "cause" of the Big Bang.  The scientific method dictates that we can reach no other conclusion than that, at least at this time.  So if someone tries to draw conclusions about the cause of the Big Bang, it means they're moving from the realm of science and into the realm of the metaphysical or religious.

            Christians, as well as adherents of other religions, believe that God caused the Big Bang, but what proof is there of that?  Well, unfortunately, there is no proof.  As such, the belief that God caused the Big Bang is a faith statement – a belief in something that is neither provable nor seen.  Absolutely no surprise in that!  Religious people have always understood that at some point, at some level, there was no way to prove what they believe.  For Christians and other religious people, our conclusion that God is on the other side of "the wall" is understood to be a religious statement. 

The problem, though, is that the very same principles apply to atheists.  Let me show you why.  Recall, there is absolutely no data from our hypothetical experiment about what is on the other side of the wall, so any conclusions drawn are religious or metaphysical.  That means that the conclusions of atheists about the cause of the Big Bang are, well, faith propositions because there is absolutely no data to back up the statement.  Yes, while atheists insist they're not practicing religion, they actually are, because they're making claims that they dress up as scientific, but are not based upon science.

Thus, everyone benefits, for the following reasons: 1) good science is being taught in the schools; 2) children are learning about the boundaries between science and religion; and 3) no one needs to worry that a particular religious view is being taught.  Christians should also be pleased because children will be taught that the claims of atheists are, like those of Christians, merely faith statements, so any conclusions drawn are beyond science.

Christians, of course, can rest assured that the case doesn't end there.  After all, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the real "line in the sand" Christians should be drawing is not how the world was created.  Instead, the "line" is the Garden of Eden, the reason being that the core of Christian beliefs are derived from that event: 1) mankind is sinful; 2) we have a dynamic God who cares about us; 3) we can't overcome sin on our own; and 4) Christ's death and resurrection are the atonement for our sin.  As I've noted elsewhere, Christians can build a strong case out of Darwin that leads directly to the Garden of Eden.

Based upon this understanding, an embrace of Darwin and the Big Bang will benefit Christians, especially those who have been concerned about what is taught to children in school.

           

 

 

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In the last post, I discussed a number of the problems with intelligent design theory.  In this post I offer additional arguments why Christians shouldn't count on Intelligent Design.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN PART 2

In the last post, I discussed a number of the problems with intelligent design theory.  Many Christians view it as a viable alternative to Darwinism, but I noted the fact that it really isn't a coherent scientific theory, merely a set of objections to Darwinism.  Unfortunately, the majority (possibly vast majority) of scientists – including Christian scientists – object to it. Moreover, conventional scientists continue to find ways to overcome the objections that Intelligent Design has raised. Evidence keeps appearing that seems to confirm the Darwinian theory, as well as the Big Bang Theory, thus weakening the case for ID.  

The second key problem I have with Intelligent Design is that I see absolutely nothing "Christian" in it.  It's a theory that can be embraced by anyone with religious inclinations.  It seems to be equally applicable to Muslims, Hindus, Unitarians, and Deists.  In other words, even if one built a strong case for ID, it would not reinforce any of the unique claims of Christianity, merely that some god-like agent intervened to create the universe as we know it. 

The best example of this I can think of is traditional Deism.  Deists believe that God created the universe, but that He no longer participates actively in the creation.  Some have made the analogy of the great watchmaker who, having created a magnificent timepiece, is content to sit back and admire his creation.  However, as the timepiece operates on its own, without the need for its Creator to intervene, the creation is perfect.  As such, the Creator no longer has a role to play in His creation.  

Deism emerged in the 18th century.  Many of the founding fathers of the USA were themselves Deists.  Thomas Jefferson is one of the best know of the early Deists.  As Jefferson lived and died before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, the third president of the USA likely would have believed both that God was actively involved in the creation of the universe, but then chose to play the role of "admirer of his great creation".  Thus, Jefferson and the other Deists likely would have adhered simultaneously to Deism and Intelligent Design.  Christians, of course, reject the concept of Deism. This then creates the peculiar situation of many modern Christians defending a theory (Intelligent Design) that could easily have been embraced by those who were opposed to many of the precepts of Christianity.

In contrast to this, let me suggest a different form of "Intelligent Design", one that both accommodates accepted modern science and also fits into the traditional Christian narrative.  My version of Intelligent Design includes two key elements: 1) the evidence of "design" shown by the six scientific constants of Martin Rees, as well as Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Martin Rees is a well known Britist physicist.  He has identified six scientific constants that were present from the moment of the Big Bang onward.  What is interesting about these six constants is that even very slight changes in any one of the constants would have prevented the creation of the world we know.  I commend to you Rees's book titled The Six Numbers.  The existence of these scientific constants is acknowledged and accepted by scientists of all persuasions, including atheists and the religiously inclined.  Moreover, everyone acknowleges that if the constants changed even slightly, life as we know it could not exist.

Many Christians take the presence of these six constants as evidence of design by God.  It seems to be pretty good evidence, though even Christian scientists will readily agree that there is no way to prove this to be the case.  On the other hand, atheists and others will dismiss this as evidence of design, saying only that the constants emerged by chance.  Unfortunately, neither side can either prove its own case or disprove the case of the other side.

At the same time, one can make the argument that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is also a form of design, arguably an indication of Intelligent Design.  Of course, atheists don't believe there is a God, so no atheist will say that Darwin is evidence of ID.  It's a fair point, so the various parties will simply have to agree to disagree.

Thus, my argument is that the best evidence of Intelligent Design is the six scientific constants, as well as Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.  It can't be proved, at least not now, but it also can't be dis-proved, and no alternative theory can be proved either.  Many atheist supporters of Darwin seem to agree that these two elements - the scientific constants and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection - are all the Intelligent Design that is necessary.  I agree.

Why, then, do supporters of traditional Intelligent Design cling to the theory? Many have argued that the real problem with Darwin is that his theory eliminates "purpose" in the world.  It seems to say, in effect, that the world emerged without purpose; and Christians tend to have a real problem with notions that the world was created in any way beyond the hand of God, or that there is no purpose.  In upcoming blogs, I'll discuss why Christians can still believe in the idea of purpose to the world, even if it was created in a way that is consistent with what Darwin described.


    
 

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Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

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