Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cheap Oil and the Orthodox Churches in North America

Excuse this rather odd post, but I've been thinking about these things quite a bit - right use of "energy slaves" as some call them, and how that affects the distribution and growth/health of the Orthodox Churches in North America.

The closest Orthodox Christian parish of any kind to me is about 15 miles away. A full day's journey or more by horse drawn wagon (there's a rather sizeable river in between). It happens to be an Old Believer community. I'm not probably welcome.

The next closest parish to me is approximately 16-17 miles. For various reasons for now I do not attend this parish, although I may in the future. My parish is approximately 35 miles away - meaning a round trip for each service of about 70 miles.

My friend/correspondent John over at Notes From a Commonplace Book used to drive, I believe, as much as two hours one way to his parish once upon a time. He can correct me if I'm wrong.

This is not unusual, especially in the West where the numbers and spacing of Orthodox parishes is spotty at best.

All of this is possible through the miracle of cheap oil - the wonder substance of the age.

While many have scoffed over the years at the idea of "peak oil" and the effects of a declining supply of oil and gas in the face of growing demand, one must sit up and pay attention when (1) the US Department of Energy commissioned an analysis, which resulted in some grim findings in 2005 (the Hirsch Report); (2) The International Energy Agency (Paris), long resistant to ever mentioning the words "peak oil," now report in their 2010 World Energy Outlook that crud oil production probably peaked, in fact, in 2006, while global oil production of all sorts will peak and start to fall somewhere between 2020 and 2035!; and finally, the US Joint Forces Command, a functional unified command (as opposed to geographical, such as CENTCOM or PACOM), issued it Joint Operating Environment 2010 estimate addressing future trends and risks of concern to joint force military commanders which highlighted the concerns of peak oil and growing energy demand.

Notably in the JFCOM JOE are these chilling statements:

"[P]etroleum must continue to satisfy most of the demand for energy out to 2030. Assuming the most optimistic scenario for improved petroleum production through enhanced recovery means, the development of non-conventional oils (such as oil shales or tar sands) and new discoveries, petroleum production will be hard pressed to meet the expected future demand of 118 million barrels per day.

. . .

A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment. To what extent conservation measures, investments in alternative energy production, and efforts to expand petroleum production from tar sands and shale would mitigate such a period of adjustment is difficult to predict. One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest."


I will leave to the reader to consider other sources regarding these matters, and the various data that such sources provide. It is enough to say here that all that you and I take for granted - our lights, our grocery-bought food, our lovely cell phones, our drive to our parish to sing praises to our Lord, have come in the last 60-70 years, at least, from the glory of cheap oil, for which there are questionable replacements, and none of which portend that life will go on as "business as usual."

So what? So what has this to do with Orthodox North America? Well, frankly, we go to church and have parishes based on this very model of the assumption of the availability of cheap oil, enabling us to afford the cars (each new tire takes about 22 gallons of oil to produce, a retread takes about 7 - not to mind the oil-based energy to build your car, to make the plastics in it, and the shipping energy costs to get it to the lot, maintenance it and run it) which allow us to whisk over and back to the parish.

So what happens if (some will say - when) in the not very distant future (some will say quite a bit sooner - perhaps this decade) the price to obtain the fuels and parts to provide these wonderful transportation options becomes so unrealistic that one cannot make these sorts of travels? While I don't believe cars will go away - they may become a decided luxury.

How should we order the establishment and growth of parishes to reflect these sorts of energy estimates. Or to put it another way, should we really start thinking about parishes serving a much smaller area and focusing on their local neighborhoods? What do we do for parishioners that are quite distant from their parishes - not uncommon in rural America. What resources can we start providing now to support them, and possibly help grow small Orthodox communities that may not be able to support a priest full time. Should priests start becoming circuit riders rather than parishioners converging in their cars on a central parish location?

On a personal level, I've though a lot about right use of resources in going to parish. While "conservation concerns" should not be used as an excuse for not attending church at this time, as fuels are still cheap - there is something to be said for the idea that whether or not we have abundant oil - we are quite wasteful in our culture as it relates to energy use and this does not seem to be the way in which we should be stewards of our resources. I have thought that perhaps, at minimum, I should be going to a closer parish for now and cutting half the miles traveled off, not to mention time. The other option, of course, is to move close to the parish simply to be close to the parish. This is not an option for a lot of people in some rural communities in America since, even to be "close" entails considerable distance.

Much like the local food movement and such, I think we need to really think about local parishes in future - or proto parishes. The density of Orthodox parishes, especially in the West, is so low that perhaps we need to address local small gatherings (readers services) that are supplemented perhaps by trips to the nearest parish for feast days and other opportunities. Looking to the history of the Church in Alaska may provide good instruction in how this has been done where there is low density and distant populations. Beyond that, however, is the need to have the Orthodox Church be "where you are at now" - two or more gathered and all that.

The Age of Cheap Oil is coming to an end. Whether, in decades to come, we have the sufficient investment that advances in fusion or other alternative electricity production comes along sufficient to divert fossil fuels more fully to transportation fuels and "hang on" for a while happens is unclear. But nevertheless, whatever that future, we need to sow seeds now for looking at our little local communities around us, not gathering parishioners by crossing "sea and land" for a single proselyte. The fields are close by.

There is a movement out and about, getting some air time with local governments, called the Transition Movement. I find their model interesting, but troubling and perhaps unrealistic in some respects. However, it does provide interesting food for thought insofar as we think about how we "do church" (sorry for the cliche!), especially in the Western US, and how we might do things differently.

In all things, I do not wish here to suggest that the reason for doing these things is primarily to conserve energy. Rather, I suggest that we may find ourselves, perforce, cut off from regularly getting to those rather distant parishes for spiritual food and forced to reconsider how we are evangelizing. Perhaps we should think now how we take care of our fellows and prepare them. Perhaps in doing so, we can build a more "resilient" church and "resilient" parishioners (to borrow a Transition Movement term that's bandied about) that ensures that our brethren have the tools and resources to address such situations. In the process, perhaps also we can be better stewards of our resources, and divert saved resources of time and money to our local community, spreading the seed of the Gospel locally.

To me such as task is challenging and frightening. But perhaps it will be thrust upon us nonetheless.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I think about this problem a lot myself, and not only this exact topic but related ones as well, all dealing with our ability to be far-flung due to our current control of energy and our misuse of it. This is not from a viewpoint of a ‘better than you’ attitude, just from thinking about life.

Many years ago I saw a film where some people walking down a road were offered a lift in a car from someone that knew them who was driving down the same road. Their response, cheerful enough, was, “Thanks, but no. We have feet!”

I have chosen to live as much as possible within walking or at least biking range of most of my needs, but I still drive almost everywhere.

One of the things I liked most when I was in Japan was that people still did a lot of walking, even though there too they have about one car per 2 persons of population.

As for church and the distances involved, I have always tried to live close to my parish and can still walk there if I have to.

Part of the problem with church, and not just for us Orthodox, is that the houses of worship are no longer where the people live. They were up until the 1950's in most places, but after that—and especially due to the mobility allowed by cars—church buildings began to be isolated from their congregations. This extremely unnatural development is, I believe, in large part responsible for the decay of the evangelical churches in America. Churches are now, and have been for 40 years, morphing into service bureaus and restaurants of the spirit chains, and it's no wonder, then, that people treat them as such.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

When I first became a Xtian at the age of 24 I definitely was into living as close to church as possible, in fact I lived three short blocks away from my first parish. Where I chose to live was entirely driven by where I worshiped. At that time too I first heard about a pan-Xtian movement in Lansing, Michigan, called The Work of Christ community, where people from all different denominations began to make their proximity to their churches and to each other as Xtians the highest priority in their lives. They even formally covenanted to stay together in neighborhoods of the inner city rather than escape to suburbia. That community is still in existence, but it has probably changed over the years. Many of the members were Orthodox, and in fact, I first read about it in an Orthodox publication, Logos, A Journal of Orthodox Charismatic Renewal. The charismatic renewal movement in Orthodoxy has nearly died out (except for Fr Eusebius Stephanou in Florida), but that initial experiment in prioritizing our lives by our membership in the Body of Christ is still with us.

As part of the bigger picture, instead of having a "green patriarch" like Patriarch Bart sailing around in his ecology ship and holding symposia with the sparklers of the world system, we Orthodox would do well to avoid being caught by the looming energy crisis and do our part to really conserve and not just look the part, by making where we live and worship and, if possible, work and shop, the same locality. We should move ourselves and our families around our houses of worship, clustering there because we really believe that our membership in the community of God’s people is more important than any worldly advantages. We evidently don’t do this because deep down, and not really very deep down, we don’t really believe in the importance of the Church. We think of Church as ‘membership” and of our responsibility as “pledge” and let it go at that.

I know it’s great to live in the country and all, and I’d love to do that too, but if I did, I’d build a chapel on my land, and try to grab any passing priest to come and say liturgy with us, and when we couldn’t have that, I’d make that chapel a daily place of prayer and study with my family and, eventually, my neighbors, because sooner or later, if I was faithful, God would send more of His people to me, and before you know it, we’d have a congregation! That’s how real churches have come into being all over the Xtian world from day one. Energy imperialism and its deceptive benefits have, in my opinion, diluted—and deluded—the Body of Christ, of which we are the heart, and we see its depredations daily.

These are some thoughts, brother, which reading your post put into my mind.
Lord, have mercy!

12:26 PM  

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