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?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is necessity really the mother of invention?

I was listening to an audio version of The Economist magazine the other day - a special feature on the future of energy (an article called "The Power and the Glory", June 19/08)- and my mind snagged on a comment made early on. I looked it up to be sure to get it right and here it is: "The pressure to innovate has been minimal." The gist of it is that until recently, energy has been pretty cheap so there hasn't been a lot of incentive to innovate. Of course we all know that's changing - at least the part about energy being cheap.

So then I was watching a documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? - a 2006 film that explores the birth and subsequent "euthanization" of General Motors' electric car called the EV1 - and I got thinking of this popular maxim: necessity is the mother of invention. Hm. IS necessity the mother of invention? Who defines necessity? Who pays for invention? I think sometimes we imagine innovation as being the simple product of a creative or clever mind, imagining what could be and coming up with some innovative solution to a problem, whether big or small. But is that how it really works?

Let's look at necessity. Who decides what's a necessity or what's not? We might theoretically agree that having access to safe and sufficient food and water, adequate shelter and sanitation, basic health care, clothes appropriate for the season, primary school education - these could be considered basic necessities. But what about other things like dental care, secondary and post secondary education, running water, things like telephones, computers, appliances? Or, to notch it up even further, vacations, cars, jewellry, hobbies like golf or tennis or water skiing, extensive wardrobes? It's pretty clear that necessity can wear different hats!

But wouldn't you think that we would ALL agree that everyone on the planet should have those things that really ARE basic necessities? Shouldn't that be the starting point? I'm not so naive as to think that we would agree that everyone really should have equal access to the "stuff" that adds spice (and sometimes a wee bit of stress!) to our lives, but who can really argue that food and water, health care, education, shelter and sanitation should be reserved only for those who can pay? You've seen the stats. Currently there are millions of people on the planet who lack these things. So, by definition, is that not necessity? Is this necessity spawning invention?

I think it is, partly - at least it is sparking the impulse to invention. Many smart people are trying to solve global issues of poverty, hunger, etc. but the challenges prove to be quite significant. There are political issues (for example, should the global community help countries who violate human rights standards?), economic considerations (i.e. who pays for innovation, especially if the innovation is very expensive OR if innovation will have negative economic repercussions for someone higher on the "food chain"?), environmental challenges (can a "solution" to one environmental or ecological problem cause new and maybe even MORE serious problems like using biofuels to take some pressure off our reliance on fossil fuels but then diverting agricultural land away from food production?). When it comes to invention it seems that there may be a number of mitigating factors.

In Who Killed the Electric Car?, the film makers build a pretty compelling case that the production and presumably subsequent improvement of technology for electric cars was short circuited (pun intended!) by unseen forces or interests. Someone REALLY didn't want the EV1 to succeed in providing an alternative to fossil fuel based transportation. Sure, the EV1 had some limitations, but it was a pretty good beginning and - one might reasonably argue - would only improve with further developments and modifications.

I'm not usually a big advocate of conspiracy theories, but it occurs to me that most of us can be easily fooled into thinking that someone is making good and honorable decisions on our behalf and that we are, after all, good guys. We're not like those "other" people - those people from Africa or India or Indonesia or the Middle East or wherever - those people who resort to violence or other criminal behavior when they are hungry or sick or frustrated by political corruption or inaction. We, we like to think, are mild mannered, polite, even generous. And yet, I wonder. Maybe we're kidding ourselves. Maybe we'e like the guy Jesus talked about in Luke 18:10-14 - the Pharisee who was so proud of not being a publican (sinner) because he could boast of all kinds of outwardly spiritual practices.

Sometimes I think we are in a collective state of denial, aided and abetted by financial interests far beyond our conscious level of awareness who have dulled our senses so that we participate in global acts of barbarism without any sense of participation, let alone responsibility. Necessity IS, I think, the mother of invention, but invention can be thwarted by unscrupulous forces.