Shrinking the Footprint Ecotheology of human fertility and population

17 July 2013

Danny Dorling, Population 10 Billion

Filed under: Reviews — John @ 5:14 pm

Dorling-10Billion-coverReview in progress of the new book by Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography, University of Sheffield.

Population 10 Billion : The Coming Demographic Crisis And How To Survive It (London: Constable, 2013)

I heard Danny Dorling speak (on the UK census) at a Population Studies (BSPS) conference in Nottingham in 2012. After many successful academic books he ventures this polemical book to calm readers’ worries about population (he is especially reacting to Stephen Emmott’s recent book which also has “10 Billion” in its title). Dorling’s book is wide-ranging, sweeping across many disciplines. I understand his wish to steer a “possibilist” path between optimists and “angry pessimists” but there are parts where his ideas are close to cornucopian optimism and I begin to critique those below.


Dorling claims “it is consumption, not population, that matters” (123). This is not a throwaway line: he spends more than a page trying to justify the idea. Dorling suggests that “some extra people can teach others to consume less and hence reduce consumption overall, even as population rises” (125). I accept that given a rising population at some level consumption per person will start declining, but his idea that total consumption by humankind could shrink (voluntarily in a non-catastrophic situation) while population grows is speculative.

Dorling’s optimism regarding the future cannot be falsified, but he also suggests that population is not a multiplier of consumption, and he claims it is “not true that human environmental impact on the planet is a product of the number of humans” (124). This can be tested. There has been research since the 1990s seeking to quantify the relationship between population size and ecological impact in terms of “elasticity” which varies regionally.

For example an elasticity of 1.0 (unity) indicates that a 1% increase in population causes a 1% increase in impact. Above 1 means the effect is more than proportional. How could that be? John Harte (2007) argued that elasticity may worsen as population rises due to nonlinear thresholds, for example farming expanding on to marginal land. Conversely, below 1 means it is less than proportional. For example in a densely populated area well organised transport may be more efficient, as is high-density housing.

Most studies are limited to greenhouse gas emissions, rather than the much broader “ecological footprint” (GFN), but even so they are worth considering. A meta-survey by Liddle (2012) found a range of results for elasticity from 0.69 to over 2. A study by Dietz and Rosa (1997) calculated a global average elasticity (with regional variations) of 1.15 – so a 1% increase in population causes 1.15% more emissions. Anqing Shi (2003) found a global elasticity of 1.42. Theoretically the same principle can be applied to population shrinkage: what reduction of impact would it deliver? For the USA, Michael Dalton (2008: 90) found that the “effect of smaller population size on emissions is somewhat more than proportional.”

Though proportionality for the broader measure of ecological footprint is less well established, I think it is safe to say that impact is roughly proportional to population. I accept that for urban areas proportionality could be less than 1, but that still means a larger population has a larger impact, just not in a 1:1 proportionality. Dorling by contrast is claiming that there is no relation, and even that total impact could be less with more people. That would require a negative elasticity, and that is well outside the range observed in any research.


Dorling rightly critiques the idea that population is limited by living-space, noting that even among non-human species, for example bats, numbers are not limited by roosting space (131). Cornucopian writers often rehearse the (defective) argument that suburban homes for the global population could all fit into Texas, so we have plenty more space. By contrast, even old-fashioned “carrying capacity” ideas were about food (e.g. based on grazing regrowth for livestock) not accommodation, and the capacity calculation used by people concerned about population size today is not living-space, but the ecological footprint.


P.S. This is provisional as I have not yet finished reading the book!

John McKeown

21 October 2012

Johnny Miles, Constructing the Other…

Filed under: Reviews — John @ 7:57 am

A version of this book review was published last year in Theological Books Review. Johnny Miles’ book contains some reflection on modern reception of the Bible, but not as much as I expected from the Reception genre. Instead it attempts to draw parallels between Israelite attitudes to foreign peoples, and some Americans’ views of particular types of foreigners over the last century or so.

MILES, JOHNNY, Constructing the Other in Ancient Israel and the USA (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), pp. xxvii, 374. This monograph brings together postcolonial theory, the Deuteronomic History, and nineteenth century white-American attitudes to native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Africans. Miles is concerned with the politics of re-presentation. He draws parallels between ancient and modern stereotyping of subaltern others.

Chapter 1 reviews previous work taking a postcolonial approach to biblical texts and their afterlife. Chapter 2 presents Persian Yehud as the context of the Deuteronomic History. The remaining four chapters treat stereotypes: savage, stupid, deceitful, and rebellious.

Chapter 3 pairs Edomites and native Americans. Chapter 4 pairs Moabites and Mexicans (a shorter version appears in Miles’ 2008 article ‘‟Who are you calling ‘stupid’”? Ethnocentric humour and identity construct in the colonial discourse of Judges 3.12-30’. The Bible and Critical Theory 4.1: 1–16). Chapter 5 pairs Ammonites and Chinese. Chapter 6 pairs Samaritans and Africans. One aim of the book is to bring ‘a postcolonial optic to the consumption (including effects)’ of DH in two colonial contexts: fifth century BCE Yehud, and nineteenth century USA (p. xix).

Accordingly each chapter contains two sections. The first considers how scriptures, especially from Judges and 1 Kings, served Yehud. The second section of each chapter is on the USA. These are mostly historical surveys and they work better in some chapters than others. Chapter 3 provides evidence of Anglo-American use of biblical texts, including a comparison with Edom (p.110); and chapter 6 discusses African-American use of scripture. Chapters 4 and 5 however offer little evidence of biblical appropriation concerning Mexicans or Chinese, so the link between ‘The Bible and the Modern World’ depends on coincident stereotypes.

Overall this timely book suggests that constructions of the ‘other’ shaped the Deuteronomic History and remain influential today.

John P. McKeown

2 July 2012

Summary of article from Quaker Studies journal

Filed under: Reviews — John @ 9:09 am

I was asked to write an “executive summary” of a prescribed article as part of the job application process at a Quaker research centre. I may as well post it here…

‘Theorising A Quaker View of the Atonement’, Quaker Studies 16/1 (2011) pp. 105-123, by T. Vail Palmer, Freedom Friends Church, Oregon. A summary by John McKeown.

Atonement (the effect of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection upon sin and evil) has been understood in different ways using a variety of theoretical models. Vail Palmer argues that seventeenth century Friends regarded the crucifixion as God’s victory over evil powers, and not as the Father punishing the Son. Palmer then combines insights from recent models that prioritise nonviolence, restorative justice, and covenant renewal, to develop a Quaker theory of atonement.

Any theory of atonement should be guided by certain criteria. Ethically it must accord with justice and peace. Evangelistically it must offer hope. Methodologically it must draw on scripture, tradition, reason and experience. To be a Quaker theory it must be in harmony with early Friends’ writings. Those writings can be examined using the lens of Gustaf Aulén’s typology. He categorized theories of atonement under three broad types. From the early Church Fathers he retrieved ‘Classic’ ideas that included motifs of ransom and Jesus’ defeat of evil which he labelled Christus Victor. By the medieval period this was displaced by ‘Latin’ or forensic (legal) models, notably the Satisfaction theory of Anselm, and the penal substitution (punishment) theory associated with Calvin. Another type, the ‘Subjective’ theory, is not prominent here.

Early Quaker writings are not systematic and historians disagree about whether atonement theories can be discerned in them. Lloyd Lee Wilson and Arthur Roberts saw traces of various theories in the writings of George Fox, Robert Barclay, and William Penn. Wilson mistakenly interpreted sacrifice language in Barclay as indicating the punishment theory, but sacrifice also features in Classic ransom ideas. Roberts saw the phrase ‘debts of sin’ in Fox as suggestive of a Satisfaction model, but the picture of sin as debt can feature also in the ransom motif, and the context in Fox’s writing links it with destroying the devil and oppression. Martin Davie wrongly asserted that early Quakers regarded Jesus’ crucifixion as paying to God the penalty for sin, but Penn explicitly rejected that notion. Further, imputed righteousness (an essential ingredient of forensic theories) was explicitly opposed by Barclay and Fox.

There is evidence for Classic atonement ideas in early Quaker writings. Barclay’s few mentions of atonement feature ransom and sacrifice. As indirect evidence, victory over evil is a common theme. For example, many references to ‘Christ bruising the serpent’s head’ and releasing people from bondage to evil appear in Fox, and these are occasionally linked to atonement. A victory theme also appears in the ‘Lamb’s war’ writings of Fox, Burroughs, Nayler and others. Palmer refutes Margaret Benifiel’s claim that Classic and forensic ideas are compatible, that they are different kinds of reflection, early and late stages in an historical process of theological development. Against this he observes that recent systematisations of the Classic atonement approach havefound it to be incompatible with forensic theories.

Palmer constructs a Quaker theory of atonement coherent with a hermeneutic of reading the Bible with empathy, as practised by Fox, Margaret Fell and others. For this he appropriates the framework offered by the ‘biblical theology’ movement’s portrayal of revelation unfolding through ‘mighty acts of God’, notably the Exodus, return from Exile, and the ministry of Jesus. This vision of salvation history, and its key theme of covenant, require a model of atonement that embodies restorative justice to mend broken covenants and restore community. Classic atonement and narrative Christus Victor suit this drama, whereas forensic theories arose from a legal context and are individualistic. The penal model fails ethically for it assumes that justice is retributive punishment. Tim Gorringe claims it also had a baleful effect, a historical connection between the spread of Calvin’s theory and the rise of punitive judicial systems.

Denny Weaver developed a model of atonement as Jesus’ victory in human and cosmic realms. God’s kingdom nonviolently overthrows evil powers, both in the Gospel narratives and in the book of Revelation’s symbolic portrayal of confrontation between church and empire. The slain lamb pictures the means of victory through testimony, a peaceful witness, suffering, and the Word. The active participation of believers in this struggle echoes the early Friends’ Lamb’s war motif. In this drama, as Gregory Love states, the torture of Jesus is not designed by God but is his response to evil in history, his circumstantial will to transform the world.

That narrative Christus Victor model is extended by Palmer using ideas from the book Cross and Covenant by Larry Shelton. Atonement is mending and renewing of the covenant. Shelton extends the scope of atonement to nonhuman creation, and the renewal of all things. The new model theorises ideas in continuity with early Quakerism, for example Fox sometimes linked covenant with atonement and victory, and Dean Freiday observed that early Quakers affirmed a close relationship between atoning events in ancient Jerusalem and Friends’ present life.

7 January 2012

Death in the Iron Age

Filed under: Reviews — John @ 7:43 am

This brief review by me appeared in the Journal of Old Testament Studies.

Some themes from the book are relevant to natalism. Hays confirms in great detail that ancient Israelites, like many of their Near Eastern neighbours, regarded offspring and male heirs as the best way to overcome death, believing in a proxy “immortality” through descendants. Therefore numerous healthy and strong offspring, already important for practical labour and support in old age, were vital to them also because of their belief that a family line transcended individual extinction.

HAYS, CHRISTOPHER B., Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah (Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 79; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), pp. xviii + 445. € 129.00. ISBN 978-3-16-150785-4 (hardback edition).

Hay’s 2008 dissertation is here revised and expanded. He explores links between cultural productions (such as burial, memorial, afterlife, fear of spirits, and ancestor cults) and the imagery of death in Isaiah 1-39.

Four chapters provide a valuable and near book-length (almost 200 pages) synthesis of ancient Near Eastern ideas about death, looking in turn at Mesopotamia, Egypt, ‘Syria-Palestine’, and Judah.

The first two chapters discuss ‘mechanisms of influence’ before considering details of culture as reflected in archaeology and texts.

Chapter 3 is mostly about Ugarit, and Hays justifies his use of Bronze Age evidence.

Chapter 4 offers an interesting review of death in Israel, Judah and the OT, including a helpful exploration of recent shifts in scholarship on afterlife ideas.

Hays then turns to Isaiah in his long chapter 5, which has 144 pages. He considers fourteen texts, and also numerous hôy oracles, from Isaiah 1-39. They are grouped under four headings: threats of an unhappy afterlife, comparing the living to the dead, responses to cults of the dead, and life’s triumph. A few of the ideas here have previously appeared in Hay’s articles in VT and ZAW.

The book is indexed by subject, author, and biblical text.

14 January 2011

Approaches to Biblical Ethics

Filed under: Reviews — John McKeown @ 5:25 pm

A review of the book by Eryl Davies, The Immoral Bible: Approaches to Biblical Ethics. London: T&T Clark, 2010. A shorter version of this review was published by the Society for Old Testament Studies in 2011.

What can a preacher or commentator do when confronted with Old Testament texts which modern readers regard as immoral? Eryl Davies provides a valuable survey of some approaches. His first chapter presents the problem through examples of offending texts: polygamy and slavery are condoned; legal penalties include mutilation (Dt 25:11), with capital punishment for homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, and juvenile delinquency; some prophetic writings depict God as capricious, deceptive, or cruel; and the narratives ‘most likely to offend’ claim divine approval for military violence.

The subsequent chapters treat in turn six types of modern response: evolutionary, cultural relativist, canon-within-a-canon, canonical, paradigmatic, and reader-response. For each approach Davies offers a fascinating history of its development by biblical scholars, examples of how it has been used to handle various ‘immoral’ texts, and then an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. Each chapter also includes a case study based on Joshua 6-11, the ‘most abhorrent’ text and therefore the hardest test (13). Davies is evenhanded in his presentation of each approach, and his preference for reader-response is declared (2).

Many criteria are used in evaluating the approaches, and I will pick out a few for comment. First, it must save the relevance of OT scriptures for moral formation of faith communities. The evolutionary approach scores badly here as it devalues the OT to a mere preparation for New Testament study. The cultural relativist has no method to find ‘abiding relevance’ in OT law, and even the Ten Commandments lose universality (I wonder how modern it is, given that Luther suggests a similar idea in his sermon ‘How Christians Should Regard Moses’). The canon-within-a-canon method does not attempt a solution, rather it simply ignores problematic texts.

Another criterion is whether an approach is practical for use by ‘ordinary readers’ as well as scholars. The canonical method is ‘beyond the reach of most readers’ (87) and the paradigmatic method requires a knowledge of Israelite social systems (110). This highlights a tension concerning the type of Bible-readers in view. It is unfair to judge an approach by its practicability for readers without academic training; for if methods in science were judged by such a standard very few would be viable. On the other hand, as most Bible readers are not academically trained it is understandable that this is an issue.

Davies is acutely conscious of baleful reception, but often slips into language that imagines a modern consensus. For example, ‘nobody today would seriously entertain’ a death penalty for homosexual behaviour (54), but that is falsified by some Protestant fundamentalists. With regard to Joshua 6-11 and Deuteronomy 20:16-18, Davies imagines a ‘feeling of revulsion that modern readers … are bound to experience when reading’ such texts (14). However even for this extreme case dissenters exist; for example Gary North in Political Polytheism approves Joshua’s conquest and sees in ‘the advent of the European in North America a righteous historical judgment of God … the Indians were the moral and covenantal equivalent of the Canaanites’ (1989: 257). Davies nuances his generalisation elsewhere, as a ‘moral consensus shared by all thoughtful and sensitive people’ (113), but (in the absence of survey data) first-person language would be better.

Traditional approaches do not receive much attention. In his first chapter Davies observes that concern about the morality of OT scripture is not a modern novelty, and he mentions the ‘spiritual exposition’ developed by the Church Fathers. While conceding that ‘allegory’ may be appropriate for the Song of Songs, for most ‘immoral’ texts he judges that ‘few today would regard such strategies as an effective solution’ (17). That rejection is too brief given the recent revival of interest in Patristic commentary, drawing on traditions of christological, ecclesiological, and other spiritual exegeses of OT scripture, as resources for interpretation.

Davies finds a hopeful way forward in reader-response approaches. These enable metacommentary on past works of biblical scholarship that evaded ethical responsibility. Constructive approaches to biblical criticism are not merely self-reflection because they build tools from the canon’s internal self-critique, and they enter a conversation in which the Bible also challenges the modern reader. Davies’ book is a careful overview of approaches to the general problem of scriptures whose morality is troubling, and would benefit any student of the Bible, especially those training for Christian ministry and preaching.

John P. McKeown, 2010.

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