Monday, July 28, 2008

On the edge of a precipice...

I've been reading an incredible book over the past few months. I'm savouring it, really - reading a few paragraphs or pages at a time and not wanting it to end. The book is Simpler Living Compassionate Life, a collection of essays edited and compiled by Michael Schut (ISBN 1-889108-62-6). Originally published in 1999, it's now on its thirteenth printing. That says something, right?

The articles are challenging, inspiring, provocative, gentle, insistent. I feel that I'm being drawn closer and closer to a precipice. One minute, I want to stop - I don't want to get any closer. But then, I'm lured on by my own sense of curiosity - like a moth to a flame. My gut feeling is that if I continue, the consequences are going to be unavoidable and significant - not bad but scary. Not to carry the imagery too far, but the feeling might be similar to being next in line to go bungee jumping. There's the gut wrenching fear but also the breathless anticipation. You probably know me well enough through these blogs to know that I'm not likely to be in a line for bungee jumping, but still - I think the feeling I have as I read this book must be something like the feeling I WOULD have, if I were the adventure seeking type.

I'll try to explain very briefly why this book is so compelling. This blog has often been the place where I've commented on global statistics as I become more and more aware of the disparities between the global rich and the global poor. As a sociologist I can't help but be impressed by the statistical evidence in all kinds of areas that the "good life" as defined by our secular North American society, is totally unsustainable - not only for us in the long run but very obviously for the globe, even in the relatively short run of the next 20 or 30 years. There are ecological limits, and social, cultural, economic, political and even spiritual consequences of exceeding those limits. BUT, this is not a doomsday forecast.

As it happens, I don't think it's too late for us to change our ways and, as much as I don't have a lot of confidence in our ability to FIX all the problems we've created, I DO think that governments, industry, science, academia, and even faith communities can make a HUGE difference, especially if we work together to address problems. There are so many good quotes in Simpler Living Compassionate Life - but consider this one, from an article entitled "Christian Experience in a World of Limitis" by John B. Cobb, Jr. (pg. 118):

"Some Christians may elect to live now in terms of what they envision as quite new possibilities for human society even when they do not know how to get from here to there. We may not know how to bring about a society that uses only renewable resources, but we can experiment with lifestyles that foreshadow that kind of society. We may not know how to provide the Third World with space and freedom to work out its own destiny, but in the name of a new kind of world we can withdraw our support from the more obvious structures of oppression. We may not know how to shift from a growth-oriented economy to a stationary-state economy, but we can work out the principles involved in such an economy."
This gives me great hope! I don't have to have it all worked out, but I can take small steps to live more justly and to encourage a sense of optimism that there is a truly BETTER way for us to live. Even as I think of changes that I can make (and am making!) in my everyday life, and as I am more sensitive to the creative ways that some other people are living, I'm convinced that reducing our standard of living is not the same as reducing our quality of living. In fact, I'd argue that reducing the standard of living will actually serve to enhance the quality of our lives - exponentially! And, not only that, but by consuming less we will begin to see how the global economic systems are actually very exploitative. And once we see and understand that, well - here's another quote by Cobb (pg. 121):
"... in a world in which global poverty is here to stay, we are called as Christians to identify with the poor. That has always been Christian teaching, but when we thought that our own affluence contributed to the spread of affluence around the world, we could evade that teaching. Now we know that riches can exist in one quarter only as the expense of the poverty of others. In a world divided between oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor, the Christian cannot remain identified with the oppressor and the rich."
See what I mean about the precipice? I'm being drawn on to a deeper level of understanding of this amazing world AND, by the way, of a vision for God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It's pretty exciting, but it's not easy or obvious what my next steps need to be. OK - just one more quote - this time from the conclusion of the article (pg. 123):
"Perhaps for affluent Christians [that would be me and perhaps you!] the deepest level of response to the awareness of limits is the recognition that we cannot free ourselves from guilt. We are caught in a destructive system, and we find that even our will to refuse to identify with that system is mixed with the desire to enjoy its fruits. None of us is innocent, either in intention or behavior."
Hm. What does this mean? How often do we seek out a "good buy" without giving a moment's thought to all of the contingencies and relationships that move that item from production to our consumption? How sure are we that we have not endorsed or participated in the inhumane exploitation of workers - maybe even children - in a distant factory or sweat shop? In our enthusiasm to stretch our hard earned dollars further and further and our vulnerability to a consumer culture and advertising campaigns designed to make us WANT things that we don't actually NEED... Well, enough said. I could go on and on - and on!- but I'll stop here for now.

Did I mention that it's really a great book?


In another land said...

Great seminar at Convention, Lois. BTW, why not add pictures to your blog like the jackets of books you like?--Nancy

Erskine said...

I think I will look for this book and see if I can't get my book club to start reading it this fall... I am so glad we are able to be informed about these matters. Ignorance is no longer bliss, but destructive and binding! I hope to learn more...

Anonymous said...

thanks lois. and thanks for sharing at our youth leader's summit in pei.
'practicing and experimenting' in ways that 'forshadow' future..... this is very helpful. otherwise I/we are left feeling overwhelemed and with aq 'why bother' mentality.
hoping that Ferne and I can connect with you again soon. let us know when you are in Dartmouth.

The Guthries said...

I want to check this out!
I am currently reading " Freedom of Simplicity" by Richard Foster. It is the same kind of book, where you read a little then you have to savour. Awesome.