Lots of good news

Latter-day prophets have usually been an optimistic group. Even though they see many negative trends in the world when it comes to moral behavior, they remain upbeat and positive.

“I am an optimist!” President Hinckley often declared. “My plea is that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight.”

So, it is in this spirit of optimism that I bring you some great news from the world around us.

The United States is energy independent and CO2 emissions are going down

I urge you to read this story, which indicates energy production in the United States is WAY up, much higher than predicted just a decade ago. The United States, because of new technology, is producing twice as much oil as a decade ago, and we no longer need to import oil at all. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions are way down as energy companies switch to natural gas, rather than coal.

By the way, the increase in energy production has created 4 million new high-paying energy-related jobs in the last decade in the United States. So, very good news all around.

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist from 2010, wrote a fantastic article in the Spectator a few days ago detailing many recent positive trends:

Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline…

…Perhaps one of the least fashionable predictions I made nine years ago was that ‘the ecological footprint of human activity is probably shrinking’ and ‘we are getting more sustainable, not less, in the way we use the planet’. That is to say: our population and economy would grow, but we’d learn how to reduce what we take from the planet. And so it has proved. An MIT scientist, Andrew McAfee, recently documented this in a book called More from Less, showing how some nations are beginning to use less stuff: less metal, less water, less land. Not just in proportion to productivity: less stuff overall.

This does not quite fit with what the Extinction Rebellion lot are telling us. But the next time you hear Sir David Attenborough say: ‘Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either a madman or an economist’, ask him this: ‘But what if economic growth means using less stuff, not more?’ For example, a normal drink can today contains 13 grams of aluminium, much of it recycled. In 1959, it contained 85 grams. Substituting the former for the latter is a contribution to economic growth, but it reduces the resources consumed per drink.

As for Britain, our consumption of ‘stuff’ probably peaked around the turn of the century — an achievement that has gone almost entirely unnoticed. But the evidence is there. In 2011 Chris Goodall, an investor in electric vehicles, published research showing that the UK was now using not just relatively less ‘stuff’ every year, but absolutely less. Events have since vindicated his thesis. The quantity of all resources consumed per person in Britain (domestic extraction of biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuels, plus imports minus exports) fell by a third between 2000 and 2017, from 12.5 tonnes to 8.5 tonnes. That’s a faster decline than the increase in the number of people, so it means fewer resources consumed overall.

If this doesn’t seem to make sense, then think about your own home. Mobile phones have the computing power of room-sized computers of the 1970s. I use mine instead of a camera, radio, torch, compass, map, calendar, watch, CD player, newspaper and pack of cards. LED light bulbs consume about a quarter as much electricity as incandescent bulbs for the same light. Modern buildings generally contain less steel and more of it is recycled. Offices are not yet paperless, but they use much less paper.

Even in cases when the use of stuff is not falling, it is rising more slowly than expected. For instance, experts in the 1970s forecast how much water the world would consume in the year 2000. In fact, the total usage that year was half as much as predicted. Not because there were fewer humans, but because human inventiveness allowed more efficient irrigation for agriculture, the biggest user of water.

Until recently, most economists assumed that these improvements were almost always in vain, because of rebound effects: if you cut the cost of something, people would just use more of it. Make lights less energy-hungry and people leave them on for longer. This is known as the Jevons paradox, after the 19th-century economist William Stanley Jevons, who first described it. But Andrew McAfee argues that the Jevons paradox doesn’t hold up. Suppose you switch from incandescent to LED bulbs in your house and save about three-quarters of your electricity bill for lighting. You might leave more lights on for longer, but surely not four times as long.

Efficiencies in agriculture mean the world is now approaching ‘peak farmland’ — despite the growing number of people and their demand for more and better food, the productivity of agriculture is rising so fast that human needs can be supplied by a shrinking amount of land. In 2012, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and his colleagues argued that, thanks to modern technology, we use 65 per cent less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. By 2050, it’s estimated that an area the size of India will have been released from the plough and the cow.

Land-sparing is the reason that forests are expanding, especially in rich countries. In 2006 Ausubel worked out that no reasonably wealthy country had a falling stock of forest, in terms of both tree density and acreage. Large animals are returning in abundance in rich countries; populations of wolves, deer, beavers, lynx, seals, sea eagles and bald eagles are all increasing; and now even tiger numbers are slowly climbing.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that Britain is using steadily less energy. John Constable of the Global Warming Policy Forum points out that although the UK’s economy has almost trebled in size since 1970, and our population is up by 20 per cent, total primary inland energy consumption has actually fallen by almost 10 per cent. Much of that decline has happened in recent years. This is not necessarily good news, Constable argues: although the improving energy efficiency of light bulbs, aeroplanes and cars is part of the story, it also means we are importing more embedded energy in products, having driven much of our steel, aluminium and chemical industries abroad with some of the highest energy prices for industry in the world.,,

As we enter the third decade of this century, I’ll make a prediction: by the end of it, we will see less poverty, less child mortality, less land devoted to agriculture in the world. There will be more tigers, whales, forests and nature reserves. Britons will be richer, and each of us will use fewer resources. The global political future may be uncertain, but the environmental and technological trends are pretty clear — and pointing in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the world is suffering through fewer and less deadly wars. Although the United States is unfortunately involved in many conflicts all around the globe, the reality is that we have not seen the types of massive wars that shook the globe for many decades. Recent figures show a significant decline in deaths from war over the last half century or so.

Coming back to the United States, I am happy to report that the abortion rate in our country is the lowest it has been since abortion became legally nationwide in 1973. You can read more about that here. Meanwhile, the teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it has been perhaps ever in the history of the United States.

To be clear, there are very worrisome trends that I and many other Latter-day Saints see around the world. Anybody who has read this blog over the years knows I am far from a Polyanna. But today is Christmas Eve, so let’s celebrate the many good things going on in the world and be optimists like President Hinckley. At least for a day or two.

Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are

This is the sixth of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger (see earlier essays exploring competing narratives of faith struggles, the pain of walking awayhistorical concerns, and The Church of Jesus Christ itself – along with the under-discussed effects of socio-political narratives on faith). 

“I thought it was a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Crazy thing is… it’s true…All of it. It’s all true.” – Hans Solo, The Force Awakens

Upon stepping away from the Church of Jesus Christ several years ago, a friend of mine wrote publicly about his new feelings at Christmas time.  In recounting a seasonal concert his family had attended, he remarked at how “transfixed” his young son was with the magic of the holiday event. Although this young boy still believed in Santa Clause, he no longer believed in God – following his parents’ lead.  

After reflecting on that ironic contrast, my friend’s concluding take-away was this: “They’re just stories! Santa Claus. Baby Jesus. Elves and reindeer. Angels and wise men. Each as real or fictional as the other.”

No matter how engrossing any of these dramatic stories may be to us, he’s arguing that like Star Wars, they’re really just pleasant fictions – no matter what Hans Solo might think.

Each time I revisit the conclusion of this man I continue to love and respect, I feel the same thing: A sadness. For him.  His sweet boy. And his whole family – especially during this season of the year.    

If the whole thing – baby Jesus, angels, the cross and empty tomb – really was just “mumbo jumbo” or a captivating fable…would Christmas have any meaning at all – outside of, perhaps, a raw anthropological acknowledgment of inherent value in social bonding, human community and cultural myths that help all of that happen?

Not really.

Transcendent joy?  Peace on earth?  Good will to men and women? 

Some nice feel-good concepts, arising from enduring myths that would make Joseph Campbell proud. 

As quickly as a child discovering who really left presents under the tree, the magic of this holiday season would vanish for me and many other believers. 

But it doesn’t have to.

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Does Progressive Teaching Represent a Higher Embrace of Jesus’s Gospel or a Misunderstanding of It?

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the fifth installment of a seven-part series that first launched on Millennial Star, now updated on Meridian Magazine, “Recruiting Alma the Younger (see earlier essays exploring competing narratives of faith struggles, the pain of walking awayhistorical concerns, and The Church of Jesus Christ itself). 

Time for a pop-quiz: Please answer yes or no depending on what most closely represents your own personal views (or that of a loved one).

1. Do you believe, generally, that women are not valued and treated well in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

2. When you see another sad example of sexual assault reported in the news, do you first think of the influence of patriarchy, sexism or misogyny (compared with the influence of endemic, increasingly violent pornography)?

3. Do you believe, generally, that people of ethnic backgrounds other than Caucasian are not valued and treated well in the Church of Jesus Christ? 

4. Do you believe that prophet leaders, generally, haven’t done enough to show they truly “love LGBT+ people.” 

5. Are you confident that the words “gay,” “lesbian” and “transgender” represent something fundamental about who someone is – even in an eternal sense? 

6. Do you believe the gay rights movement represents a natural continuation of the inspired efforts to expand civil rights that galvanized in the 1960’s?

7. When considering a heart-breaking instance of a gay teenager taking his/her life in our faith community, do you believe this largely has to do with this individual not feeling accepted enough by family, friends and the Church as a whole (compared with the influence of many other common factors)? 

8. Generally speaking, would you say you’re more concerned with changes you believe Church members and leadership need to make (compared with changes in the lives of those who might receive the restored gospel)?   

Last two questions: 

9. Would you consider yourself an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ?

10. If so, would you say you are happy and at peace in your participation as a member? 

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On Money

This morning my husband came down and turned on the radio, disturbing my typical silence.

“NPR said there’s going to be a story about the Church and Tithing.“

The story came on, and the news report says a whistleblower with the Church’s investment arm has said some stuff to the IRS. But it’s not the whistleblower who has gone public. It’s the whistleblower’s brother.

At issue is that when funds that come into the Church that aren’t immediately needed for Church operations they are invested. And apparently there are times when the whistleblower feels that some of this investment fund is used in ways inconsistent with the charitable donation status of the source of the funds.

There are articles on this at the Salt Lake Tribune and The Washington Post. One comment I appreciated pointed out that most businesses keep a reserve of 30 years of operating costs to sustain an organization through periods of economic hardship (or one can think of unprofitable growth, spreading the gospel in places where tithing income doesn’t cover operations costs). According to this individual, the touted $100B actually amounts to only 17 years of operating costs, leading to the conclusion that the reserve should be $200B rather than the relatively paltry $100B reported.

As for me and my house, we pay tithes not because the Church has imminent expenses, but because it’s a commandment. And it doesn’t hurt that when I’ve failed to pay a timely tithe, God has gone ‘repo man’ on me. There was my decision circa 2000 to use my minor excess to fix a teetering car transmission instead of bring my tithing current. In the wee hours of Conference Sunday that car was stolen and used in a high speed chase, ramming a police vehicle, harming the officers in the car. The thief then ditched my totaled car in a ravine. So I was bereft of the thing I had paid to repair, my wallet further lightened by the fees associated with the car being impounded by the police, and I had the expense of purchasing a new-to-me car. That’s the kind of experience I have when I don’t pay a timely tithe.

Back to the whistleblower’s report, this is a matter for the IRS to investigate. If the reserve funds are in fact being used for inappropriate payments, then appropriate fines and sanctions will ensue. But the fact of a reserve and the size of the reserve and possible misuse of some small portion of that reserve do not rescind the commandment to tithe.

if people really feel the Church shouldn’t have such a big fund, the faithful response is to volunteer for a mission amongst those children of God who lack, de facto increasing the Church’s operating costs. A decision to simply break the commandment to tithe is not a response appropriate to one who believes in God and the restoration.