Monday, December 26, 2011

Beyond our hope

Teatime, in England, the week before Christmas, years ago.  The hostess, graciously entertaining a family that included a young child, a boy, perhaps four years old.  As is perhaps inevitable, the conversation comes round to Father Christmas (Santa to my American friends).

"Will Father Christmas be coming to your house next week?"

The boy looks nervous, uncertain. "Maybe."

"Will he bring you presents?"

"I don't know."  His lip is trembling.

"Have you been good?"

The boy bursts into tears.  Embarrassed, his mother sweeps him into her arms and the little incident is over.

But it has stayed with me. Kids know the deal: if you are good, you get the stuff; if you aren't, you get the lump of coal.  But can you be sure that you've been good enough?  Is anyone good enough?  Maybe that over-sensitive four-year-old was wrestling with that ultimate question.

The difference between Jesus and Santa is this: Before sending his Son, God did not say to humanity "Have you been good?"  The angel did not say to Mary, "Have you been good?". The shepherds did not hear the celestial message, "Peace on earth and good will to those who are good."  If Jesus was like Santa, his gifts would not have been bestowed.  Because, no, there is not enough good in any of us to deserve his coming.

But we are not asked whether we deserve it.  We are empowered to welcome it.  As the Prologue to John's Gospel (itself a profound meditation on Christmas) says, "Of his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace".

That is good news beyond our hope.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Inside Job

I just took the time to watch Charles Ferguson's searing documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown, Inside Job.

The film is not a rant.  It does well at explaining the repackaging of risk into derivative securities, the unregulated "insurance" market of credit-default swaps, and how in the edn even small changes in the underlying assets could bring down the whole over-leveraged facade.

But as one lobbyist after another professes incomprehension that anyone could question the wisdom of Wall Street's obscene bonus culture (millions of dollars if you win! and if you lose, someone else goes bankrupt), one cannot but think of Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Academe is not exempt. See the chair of Harvard's economics department reduced to  bumbling incoherence as he tries to explain how there is no conflict of interest when faculty members are paid six-figure sums to write objective-looking reports that just happen to promote the interests of their paymasters.  No, they don't have to disclose the payments, or even the fact that they had been paid.

I suppose the follow-up is to read Confidence Men and learn how the foxes are still in charge of the henhouse.  Sigh.

Seriously, watch this movie.  Key line at the end: "Real engineers build bridges. Financial engineers build dreams. And if those dreams turn out to be nightmares, someone else pays."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fill the Earth

In Genesis 1:28, God commands the first humans to "fill the earth".  What does this mean?

If I ask someone "please fill this glass" with water, and he takes it and brings it back empty, then it's clear he did not do what I requested.  But if he holds the glass under the faucet endlessly, while the water spills over and runs on the floor, then my request has been disobeyed in a different way.

In other words, the commandment to "fill" something implies a limit - "now it is full". It is not a mandate to keep filling for ever.

In the context of Genesis, is the instruction "fill the earth" a limitation on the earlier instruction to "go forth and multiply", rather than a reaffirmation of it?

Friday, December 9, 2011


One of my students came to my office today to talk about a math problem.  He's a finance major and as he was leaving he spotted a copy of Samuelson's economics textbook nestling among the geometry and differential equations.

"Are you interested in economics?", he asked. I had time only for a quick answer.

"Yes.  But I'm especially interested in the limitations of contemporary economic thinking and the ways that they might lead us astray as we think about the future."

"What do you mean?"

"Two key assumptions in particular: that humans are individual utility maximizers, and that the economy is a self-contained and self-perpetuating growing system.  The first assumption makes it difficult to talk about community, and the second makes it difficult to talk about limits.  But perhaps those two are exactly the things we need to be talking about now."

I went on to quote Herman Daly: "The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystem".  And not a small subsidiary any more.  Take a look at the article A safe operating space for humanity in Nature, maybe the world's premier scientific journal, a couple of years back. The diagram at the beginning of the article symbolizes their assessment of humanity's impact on the Earth in a number of different categories.

To learn more about Daly's and related thought, visit the web site of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The View From Seat 1D

Traveling back from Denver, I am lucky enough to score an upgrade to first class.

On the 3-hour flight, I enjoy a comfortable seat and a nice meal and attentive service.  And don't forget the exclusivity of the first-class lavatory, so carefully defended by the request that "passengers please use the facilities in your class of service"!  (Disappointingly, it is just like all the other lavatories.)

The experience is set up to convey a message: You are special. You are important. You deserve this. And almost imperceptibly, I come to think that way, as though I had "earned" this "exclusive" seat by my own status.  (Since when did "exclusive" become a term of approval, as though making good things unavailable to others was a specially virtuous act?)

It's rubbish of course.  I'm here courtesy of some random selection by US Airways' computer, not because I paid full fare.  Even if I had paid full fare, where did the skills and training and resources come from that enabled me to do that?

Those of us riding in the front of the global plane desperately want to believe that we've earned our seats.

Saint Paul says, though,  "What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that God hasn't given you? And if all you have is from God, why boast as though you have accomplished something on your own?" (I Cor 4:7, NLT)

What do you have that you did not receive as a gift? 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Mindfulness-Based Greed Reduction

I have been reading the book "Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy".  It's an online book which you can buy for 99 cents from Amazon here.

The author, Rich Heller, spent time conducting mindfulness meditations at the Occupy Boston encampments.  He writes, "Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment with a curious, friendly attitude and with little in the way of judgment.  The opposite of being mindful is being mindless. The mindless pursuit of economic growth without considering the negative consequences is what has produced the current global crisis."

And in words that stuck in my mind, he goes on to advocate for a path of "mindfulness-based greed reduction".  For example, when I'm greedy for food, I am not really paying attention to it.  When I savor each bite - the flavors, the textures, the experiences that make it up - I eat much less.

Heller cites some experiments with popcorn.  Students watching a movie were given free bags of popcorn.  Unbeknownst to them, some of the popcorn was fresh, and some of it was two weeks old and gross.  Those students who didn't usually eat popcorn noticed the difference and rejected the stale stuff.  But those who usually ate popcorn with their move noticed no difference.  They guzzled the stale popcorn as much as the fresh.  They had stopped being "mindful" of their eating experience.

I like the book because of the practical advice it offers, and also because it understands that the cure for greed is not "just a little bit more" - there is  never any "mroe" that is going to be enough.  The cure is a heart change ("godliness with contentment", to quote St Paul).  I'm a bit nervous though about its trickle-up theory of mindfulness (as "we" the 99% become more mindful maybe the rich  and greedy 1% will become more mindful too).  That may be about as likely as the trickle-down theory of wealth creation...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Life after the end of economic growth

Richard Heinberg writes in the Guardian (UK):
"The tide of economic growth that has flowed since the second world war may finally be ebbing. For politicians and most economists, this is like saying the sky is falling. Growth has become guidepost and grail, the sine qua non of economic existence. Growth is necessary to job creation and the health of businesses. Without growth the rolls of the homeless and jobless swell, requiring governments to shoulder more responsibility; yet at the same time tax revenues fall, making both new and existing government debt unbearable.

Stimulating growth has become job No 1 for policymakers. David Cameron insists that his nation must deregulate business and reform employment law in order to "go for growth". And at the conclusion of the recent G20 global economic summit, the US president, Barack Obama, reported that the discussions there had revolved around the question, "How do we achieve greater global growth?" Such statements raise nary an eyebrow; they are entirely expected.

Nonetheless, in recent years a few economists have advanced a contrary view. Tim Jackson in the UK, Herman Daly in the US, and Serge Latouche in France have argued that growth is not always good for the environment or for the real health of communities, and that GDP growth is impossible to sustain over the long run anyway because we live on a planet with limited natural resources. Their position has won few adherents in the mainstream. In the "real" worlds of politics and economics, questioning growth is like arguing against gasoline at a Formula One race."

Read the full article here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jonah and the Vine

Jonah and the Gourd Vine, Jack Baumgartner
I've been thinking about Jonah.

Not the Jonah of chapters 1 and 2 - the reluctant prophet, running away from God, thrown into the sea, finally making it to shore in a tide of fish vomit.

But the Jonah of chapters 3 and 4 - the prophet without compassion, all too eager for his disastrous word to come true, sulking in the desert because God is merciful.

The picture (used by permission, see here for more) is of Jonah after his journey to Nineveh.  The text portrays Nineveh as a vast megalopolis, "three days journey across".  Its huge and complex structures are not sustainable; Jonah warns that the city has only "forty days" on the path on which it has set itself.  Indeed, this sounds like a true word of prophetic warning.  But as the story unfolds we find that what underlies it is Jonah's secret contempt for the people to whom he is sent, and his nasty doubt as to whether he will actually see the catastrophe that he depicts. Sitting under the vine, outside the city, he "waits to see what will happen".

If I sound a warning about the unsustainability of our teeming world, I need to beware of this attitude of mind. 

But in the end the last word as the word of grace that belongs to God, who says "Should I not have mercy?" - both on the people and livestock of the huge city, and on the isolated, vengeful prophet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

A long-buried memory stirred for me this week.

October 21, 1966. I was just starting elementary school, six years old. People seemed somber, hushed; mourning. That day, in the village of Aberfan, a colliery spoil tip collapsed after heavy rain.  The resulting landslide engulfed an elementary school - a school just like mine - and 116 children, as well as 28 adults, lost their lives.

I can't get back into the head of the child I was then, but I think I learned something about pollution that day.  Not pollution as slow insidious poisoning - that would come later - but pollution as waste piling up in plain sight, a process which it is obvious cannot go on for ever but which it is nevertheless convenient to ignore.

After the disaster, a huge sum of money was raised by public subscription.  But money could not bring back the lives lost or compensate for the damage done.  No more than the efforts this week by Penn State students and alumni to raise money for RAINN can atone for the sexual abuse of children.

I learned on the Environmental Justice retreat last week how our society unloads the burdens of waste, contamination and pollution disproportionately onto communities of low status: minority, low-income, whatever.  It is not hard to see this if one is ready to look. Several times in Dr Ana Batista's tour of the Ironbound area, I heard her say "We brought a team from the EPA" (or somewhere like that) "to look at this, and they took action the next day." But so often it is in the interests of the National Coal Board or the football program or the rich or the wealthy or the powerful - no, let's be honest, it is in our interests - not to look.  What change would we have to make, if we looked?

"The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them", said Jesus, "and their great ones exercise authority." That is the way of the world. There are the strong, the important; and there are those who can be overlooked. "But it shall not be so with you."  Jesus identifies himself not with the powerful and authoritative, but with the weak, with those on the bottom of the ladder, the "least of these", the overlooked.  Be careful who you overlook! (Matthew 25:45).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Environmental Justice

I'm in Newark at the moment, at a GreenFaith retreat devoted to environmental justice.

What does that mean?  I suppose, abstractly, you could say it means "justice in respect of the allocation of the environmental costs of the economy."  But that is way too dry.  Concretely, it refers to the way that communities which are already burdened or oppressed become the preferred location for the dirty operations that no-one else wants - the chemical plants, the incinerators, the huge goods transhipment operations, and so on. 

We visited the Port of Newark with a guide from the Ironbound Community Corporation.  In a few miles around Newark airport are located all the operations I mentioned above, as well as Superfund toxic waste sites, a recreation field "temporarily" closed (for the last 25 years) because of chemical pollution, and a prison.  Yes, warehousing unwanted people is just another "obvious" use for this area.  The Community Corporation is doing amazing work here, but they are fighting against decades of the powerful pretending not to know about the harm done to the weak.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Creation Care at Calvary

Over the last month or so I've been meeting one-on-one with people in my faith community - Calvary Baptist Church, State College - who I've learned are engaged in one way or another with the call to creation care.

It has been exciting to learn about the organic gardeners and the passion for sustainable community and the "incubator" for sustainability projects at New Leaf

I'm hoping to help bring together all these great initiatives - plus many more which I'm sure are there but I don't know about yet - under the umbrella of "Creation Care at Calvary" or CCC. We'll be having our first meeting in a couple of weeks. (If any Calvary folk are reading this and would like to be involved, please contact me.)

Karl Barth spoke of praying "with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other".  I hope we'll be praying with the Bible in one hand and compost in the other - metaphorically speaking at least.  I'd love for us to show in action that we care for the earth because it is God's, and he doesn't make stuff to be thrown away.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mathematics and finance

I just returned from a visit to China.  One of the things that I heard on my visit was that two-thirds of all mathematics students at one of the leading universities are taking courses to prepare them to work in mathematical finance. Two-thirds! Doubtless not all of them will end up following the career path they're aspiring too, but these are incredibly focused and dedicated kids and for sure many of them will.

The same aspiration is visible in the US (though I am not aware that any departments have reached the two-thirds level).  Masters' level programs in finance flourish, and the lure of "Wall Street" attracts the ambitious and talented undergraduate and graduate alike. Being around money is attractive, and academics are no more immune to this kind of attraction than anybody else.

It is quite puzzling though how the specific attraction to "financial math" has survived the financial crisis which began in 2008.  There is no argument that the failure of the market in mortgage-backed collateralized dent obligations was a major cause of the crisis.  The risk potential of CDOs was supposedly evaluated by mathematical modeling, but this modeling went badly awry - you can argue whether the blame lies more with the mathematicians who made the models or the managers and salespeople who ignorantly applied them, but whichever it was, mathematics was spotted near the scene of the crime.  (See here and here for articles which see the mathematical profession as implicated, and here for a very detailed response which also explains, for the trained reader, some of the math underlying CDO modeling.)

Some would say that the lesson is that we need more and better mathematics, and then we will be able to avoid the mistakes we made the first time around. No doubt. But what new mistakes will we then turn out to have made?  More fundamentally, do we need to continue to expand the "shadow economy" of finance when the "real economy" of actual goods and services may already be on a post-growth trajectory?

Is it really in the best interests of a country when two-thirds of its brightest students aim for the financial sector?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

5 Steps to Prep Your Credit for Holiday Shopping

The coming couple of months will bring cold, crisp, sunny days; a festival devoted to giving thanks for the blessings we have received; and, for Christians, a celebration of the coming of One who was born in obscurity, lived in poverty, and died in humiliation.

Oh, and lots of shopping. Remember the old definition of  a credit card?  "A way to spend money you don't have, to buy stuff you don't need, to impress people you don't like."

Breathless newspaper and magazine articles (like the one from Forbes yesterday whose titled I borrowed) will encourage us to get ready for the shopping orgy; will celebrate or bemoan the level of "consumer confidence" and the resulting sales; will rehearse once once again the consumer's litany: the meaning of our lives is measured by the abundance and fashionableness of our possessions. 

The more "old" goods are discarded to our groaning landfills, and the more "new" goods are mined from the irreplaceable resources of the earth, the "better" we will be told the year has been.

Can Christians find another way?  Yes, the presentation of costly love-gifts is part of Jesus' story (and not just at Christmas). He himself is the costliest gift. Can we celebrate that abundance of generosity in a way that does not involve us in the consumption of an abundance of stuff?

I think we will have to re-learn this together.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Counterculture to co-option?

I've been in Berkeley, CA for the last couple of days.  I'm staying in a newly renovated hotel downtown.  In the entrance lobby, a familiar symbol has been tiled into the new marble floor.

A symbol of resistance to the dominant culture has become a decorative artefact that that culture can make use of.

Kinda like another cross, really.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Good news for modern man?

Richard Chartres
I was moved by this quotation from Richard Chartres, Bishop of London: "Only a crisis brings about real change. When the crisis occurs the ideas that are adopted are those which are readily available. It is part of the duty of the Church to keep alive alternative ways of thinking and living in preparation for the time when the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."

Saint Paul wrote,  "The appointed time has grown short... The present structure of the world is passing away." (I Cor 7:29-31) An advocate for a minority cult, facing a massive and apparently stable empire, he was nevertheless confident in proclaiming a message - a 'gospel', good news, an alternative way of thinking and living - with which he had been entrusted and which his world needed to hear.

Part of the gospel for Westerners today is that "a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions" (Luke 12:15). Are we ready to proclaim this as "good news"? Because one day people will come asking the church, "We have heard that you know a way of living which is not always about 'more'. We need that now.  Tell us, please, how it can be."

Will the church have an answer?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A question of timing

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

When the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached its all-time high on October 9th, 2007, plenty of voices could already be heard drawing attention to the boom's shaky foundations in subprime mortgage and credit expansion. We fantasize about heeding their advice at just the right moment, selling out at the top of the market, and sitting out the next year and a half during which the Dow lost more than half of its "value".

But, at the time, although we know the party is going to end badly, we don't want to miss any of the fun.

Jeremiah told the people of his generation that the party would soon be over.  But it took decades for his vision of a boiling pot, tipping over from the north, to reach its fulfillment.

Common sense, not to mention a succession of writers from the 1970s until now, tell us that the endless growth model is going to run up against hard limits sooner or later.  Heinberg (The End of Growth, 2011) tells us that the time is now: "Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with." Maybe he's right.  But can't we stay at the party just a little longer?

The trouble is, getting out of this party is not as simple as getting out of the stock market.  It can't be accomplished with a few mouse clicks. It takes a change in direction, in values, in the emotional and practical skillset I bring to life.  In a word, repentance.

And by the time that changed direction is truly needed, it will be too late to begin learning it.  Better start practicing now, in the community of faith.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Harvest Fields Common Garden

There are many in our church community who are pursuing a vision for creation care. As part of my GreenFaith work I want to learn about what they're doing, and maybe I can help linking some of them together.

Yesterday I visited the Harvest Fields Common Garden.  Take a look at some of what they are up to:

  • growing produce to share with supporters and with the community through the State College Food Bank;
  • engaging young people, families, kids, community organizations like YMCA to learn the rhythm of food production and the skills to work the land;
  • celebrating God's gift through creation;
  • sharing labor, sharing wisdom, sharing the harvest.
Matthew, one of the leaders of the garden project, told me how excited some of the kids get as they first pull carrots from the ground. They're getting connected to where food really comes from: the mysterious earth of Mark 4:27-28, which "produces by itself, we know not how".

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I didn't go climbing this weekend.

Actually, this is the third consecutive weekend when I'd hoped to climb but it somehow didn't happen.  Weather, and sickness, and weather again have messed up my plans for September, usually one of the best months to climb in the eastern USA.

Climbing means a lot to me, but one of its moral dangers is a temptation to devalue other kinds of outdoor experiences.  When we climbers start referring to other outdoorspeople as "tourists", that's a danger sign.  What are we if not tourists?

Yes, climbing is the gateway to an experience which is not available elsewhere, a meditation on the rocky skeleton of the world. But the journey I go through to get there is recognizably similar to the journey that takes my neighbor to a football game.

So this weekend, I try not to complain that I cannot get on the rock. Instead, I get on my bike and ride for miles, praying for the inhabitants of the neat suburban homes that I pass.

Change is coming to all of us.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Interfaith Power and Light Meeting

I took part in the second annual meeting of PA-IPL last weekend: "The human face of climate change: food, faith, and other necessities.".  The auditorium in the Paterno Library on campus was packed for the plenary talks by Bill Easterling, dean of earth and mineral sciences at Penn State, and Jim Deming, Minister for Environmental Justice in the United Church of Christ.  A series of workshops followed in the spiritual center on campus.   Some notable moments of the meeting for me:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Earth is Full

I'm sorry for the six days without a post.  This has been a busy week.  I hope to write an update on the second annual meeting of PA Interfaith Power and Light (which happened last weekend) in a couple of days.

Meanwhile I thought I'd take the chance to link to an article from earlier this year by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (pictured), called The Earth Is Full. Friedman has written books about globalization and its effects, but recently it's clear how concerned he is that the global growth model is running into physical limits.  In fact an earlier article, The Inflection is Near, gave me the title for this blog.

Friedman refers to Paul Gilding's new book The Great Disruption, which I'm reading at the moment.  I plan to post a review of that when I'm done.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book review: "Pollution and the Death of Man", Francis Schaeffer

Pollution and the Death of ManPollution and the Death of Man by Francis A. Schaeffer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1960s, awareness was growing that humanity could have impacts on the planet's life systems that were profound and long-lasting. What did Christian faith have to say about this? A highly influential article by White, "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis" (Science 10 March 1967: 1203-1207; available online) set the agenda for eco-theology for the next half century. White argued that Christianity itself bore a heavy responsibility for humanity's destructiveness towards the natural world: "By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference".

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why Work?

Dorothy Sayers
The title of this post comes from one of Dorothy Sayers' wartime essays which forms part of the collection Letters to a Diminished Church.   Sayers' reflections on the economic contrast between wartime and peacetime make a surprisingly relevant backdrop for thinking about unemployment, and about what makes work meaningful today.

In Sayers' thought, good work is one of the ways in which human beings are to reflect "the mind of the Maker".  Work well done is "the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Storing up treasure

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
One of the alarming things about reading the New Testament from a "post-growth" perspective is the way in which its teachings about money and possessions come alive again. Like most Western Christians, I suppose, I have developed some defense mechanisms against "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" (Matthew 6:19) and the story of the "rich fool" who thought he had everything prepared for a long retirement (Luke 12:16-21) but forgot to be "rich toward God".

We like to feel that we have a claim on the future, and accumulated money - savings accounts, retirement plans, and so on - provides a way in which that claim can be expressed and organized.  But, ultimately, the claim on the future that we are making is a claim on a portion of the actual future wealth of the earth - not a claim for mere financial tokens.  If  the wealth of the earth is increasing less rapidly than the claims on it - the one constrained by physical limits, the other growing exponentially by the mathematical magic of compound interest - then it is not going to be possible to satisfy all those claims.  In the language of the European debt crisis, the claimants (bondholders) will have to take a "haircut" - or as the New Testament more vividly puts it, our gold and silver will have rusted; a chemically impossible metaphor for the loss of value of apparently assured investments.

The investments that count will be in people and relationships, rather than in financial instruments.  This is one message of the cryptic parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:9). 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Getting started with GreenFaith

Last week we held the kick-off "webinar" for the GreenFaith program. A combination of a phone conference call and shared presentation software - there is provision for text chat and things like that as well, but we did not use that much for this first meeting.

Most of the time we spent introducing ourselves. There are 24 fellows (if I counted correctly) this year. The great majority (all but 3, I think) are from various Christian traditions with Catholics and Episcopalians seeming to be particularly well represented. The others are (one of each) Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim. A lot of ordained ministers or pastors (as well as one rabbi), as well as others who had been faithful in service or nonprofit roles for many years - someone like me, coming into this from a quite different career path, is the exception. Several have felt the need to pursue this path for a while,  and retirement or life changes have made this possible  for them. 18 are women and 6 are men. I very much look forward to getting to know this group over the coming year and to learning from all that they have to share.

One of our early assignments will be to get started on an "eco-theological writing project".  The goals is that a GF Fellow will
  • deepen their understanding of their relationship with the earth
  • deepen their understanding of the teachings, resources, and roadblocks from their tradition in relation to the environment
  • strengthen their ability to express themselves publicly as a religious-environmental leader
I wonder what my writing project will be.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

All right for some?

"It's all very well for you to talk about the end of growth" said my friend. "You are comfortable enough.  Growth has been good to you and perhaps you don't need any more of it.  But who are you to deny to others the opportunities that you have had?  There are billions living in poverty.  Do you want to kick away the ladder that they are climbing up?"

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Idolatry and Stupidity

The Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah are hard on misdirected worship (idolatry).  And one of the most difficult things for some to relate to is their insistence that idolatry is not only mistaken or wicked; it's just dumb.

Look at Jeremiah 10, for example: "idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field - they're just lumps of wood - those who worship them are both stupid and foolish".  Some choice quotes from a chapter of sarcasm.

This kind of sarcasm is a dangerous weapon for believers to deploy.  After all, the New Atheists can use it against us pretty effectively. But sometimes it's hard to resist.

Take growth for example.  I think it is fair to say that growth plays the role for us that "idols" played for Jeremiah: something that can't be questioned, must be fed, and is thought to ensure prosperity for all.


That's just dumb.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light Annual Meeting

PA-IPL has its second annual meeting next month.  The program web page is here. There's a reception on Saturday September 17th and then some great-looking events on Sunday September 18th including an interfaith celebration; high-profile talks; a "green fair"; and workshops about practical actions at the levels of family, congregation, and community.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

GreenFaith press release

Here's a more or less final version of the press release about my GreenFaith fellowship that I blogged about last weekend.

John Roe Joins GreenFaith’s National Fellowship Program
National Initiative Trains Religious Leaders for Environmental Leadership

GreenFaith announced today that John Roe, a professor of mathematics at Penn State and a charter member of the Calvary-Gray’s Woods congregation in State College, PA, has been named a GreenFaith Fellow and will join the 2012 Class of the GreenFaith Fellowship Program.  The Fellowship Program is the only US comprehensive education and training program to prepare lay and ordained leaders from diverse religious traditions for environmental leadership.  “We’re thrilled to welcome John to the Program,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith’s Executive Director.  “We look forward to working with him to support his growth as a religious-environmental leader.”

Through three residential retreats, monthly webinars, and extensive reading,  John will receive education and training in eco-theology, “greening” the operation of institutions, environmental advocacy, and environmental justice. Each Fellow writes their own eco-theological statement and carries out a leadership project in their community, mobilizing religious leaders in relation to an environmental issue.  Upon graduating, they will join the Fellowship’s alumni/ae network and mentor other emerging leaders in this field.

John has made his home in State College since 1998 when he and his family moved here from England. Outside mathematics he lists his interests as rock-climbing, cooking, and playing the guitar.  “As soon as I heard about the GreenFaith fellowship program I knew I wanted to be part of it”, says John. “Jesus said that your life is more than the stuff you have. I want to explore how faith communities can hear that challenge and live it out – before our stuff ends up choking us.”

“I am grateful that John is diving into this” added Vic King, pastor at Calvary-Gray’s Woods.  “At Calvary we are growing in our awareness of the needs and opportunities to take better care of God’s earth.  We look forward to the information and influence John will bring to us.”

John will join a class of 25 Fellows from diverse religious backgrounds.  The Fellows represent over ten religious denominations, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist.  Fellows work in a wide variety of settings, including congregations, universities, campus ministries, NGO’s, and denominational organizations.

GreenFaith’s Executive Director, Rev. Fletcher Harper, directs the Program, with support from a multi-faith and multi-disciplinary faculty.  “This program will offer these leaders the opportunity to become well-trained leaders in religious environmentalism,” said Harper.  “They will help create an environmentally just and sustainable world.”

GreenFaith is an interfaith environmental coalition whose mission is to educate and mobilize diverse religious communities for environmental leadership.  Founded in 1992, GreenFaith is a leader in the fast-growing religious-environmental movement and has won national and international recognition for its work.  For more information, see

GreenFaith is grateful to the Kendeda Sustainability Fund for support for the Fellowship Program.  For more information, visit

The expressed opinions, informational content and links displayed above do not necessarily reflect a position or policy of The Pennsylvania State University or its affiliates. No official endorsement by The Pennsylvania State University of the viewpoints expressed therein should be inferred.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Press Release

I got my first homework assignment from GreenFaith today. I have to compose a press release about the program and my participation in it.

This is definitely a bit outside my comfort zone. I am better at reading and thinking than I am at acting and "going public". I'm glad now I started to blog about my experience... that's a step in the same direction. The world surely needs thinkers - but it needs activists too.

Anyhow, I'll post the press release when its done.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Discounting the Future

How much is the future worth relative to the present?

At the bottom of many environmental issues is the question of intergenerational justice. Are we passing on the planet to our descendants in as good a state as we inherited it from our ancestors (sustainability)? Or is my generation impoverishing the future? To try to answer this question one needs a way of comparing goods or harms occurring at different times.

The standard economic answer is given by the discount rate or time value of money. A discount rate of 10% means that a hundred dollars in my pocket now is just as valuable as a guaranteed payment of 110 dollars in a years time. Once the discount rate is set, once can compare economic impacts at different times. A high discount rate suggests that future events should have low influence on our present choices. The Stern Review of climate change, commissioned by the British government, recommended radical steps primarily because of its assumption of a much lower discount rate (I think 1.4%), which gave greater value to the impacts of climate change on long timescales. Critics of the review argued, among other things, that this discount rate was unrealistically low in the light of historical data.

But where does the discount rate come from? It reflects our belief that "resources today can be transformed into more resources later" - in other words, that we will keep growing. A high discount rate, which might tell us not to fret so much about climate change, means that we are committing to a high growth rate out into the future; and, things being as they are, that means more energy use, more fuel consumption, more carbon dioxide... and more climate change.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism, Oxford University Press, 1981

The Arrogance of Humanism (Galaxy Books)The Arrogance of Humanism by David W. Ehrenfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book when I was a graduate student in Oxford.  That must have been rather soon after it was published, though my memory is that the copy I still own was bought second-hand or remaindered. Perhaps this book’s uncompromising message meant that it was far from popular.   

One possible confusion should be cleared up at the start.  At that time, many books and articles could be found which aimed to mobilize evangelical Christians against what was often described as “secular humanism”, thought of as a kind of established irreligion.  Ehrenfeld’s title might make you think this is one of those books.  It isn’t.  In fact, many Christians (and other religious believers) might be surprised to find themselves among the “humanists” of the book’s title.

So what is the “humanism” that Ehrenfeld identifies? It is “our irrational faith in the limitless power of human reason – its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper.” Ehrenfeld perceives this faith as a secularized version of the Greek and medieval doctrine of final causes – the idea that everything exists for some discernible end or purpose, primarily for the benefit of humanity. “Thus the idea of using a Nature created for us, the idea of control, and the idea of human superiority became associated early in our history… It only remained to diminish the idea of God, and we arrived at full-fledged humanism.” And later, “Humanism is at the heart of our present world culture; we share its unseen assumptions of control, and this bond makes mockery of more superficial differences (among us).”

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Will "Growing Faster" Fix the Economy?

Here is President Obama's address for this week. Two or three times, he tells us that his priority is to "get this economy growing faster".

Republicans and Democrats disagree over how to achieve this objective.  Is "stimulus" money wasted, or can it prime the pump for growth?  Do tax cuts encourage businesses to hire, so expanding the economy, or do they merely line the pockets of the already well-off?  But virtually no-one questions the idea that "growing faster" should be our goal - not growth towards some vision of maturity, but "growing faster", growth for its own sake, for ever.

But nothing can grow for ever.

One of the few people who have been thinking carefully - from the perspective of technical economics - about what a no-growth or steady state economy might look like is Herman Daly, a former World Bank economist who is now a professor at Maryland.  Daly is one of the founders of the new discipline of ecological economics, which aims to understand the human economy as one component of the ecology of the planet that we share. In this recent interview, he explains more about this.  Here's the conclusion of the interview:

Interviewer: Do you think that in the future all economics will necessarily be ecological economics?
Daly: That’s what I expect. I mean, we’re faced with two impossibilities. On the one hand, it’s politically impossible to stop growth. On the other hand, it’s biophysically impossible to continue it ad infinitum. So, which impossibility is fundamentally impossible? Well, you know, I’ll take my chances with trying to change the politically impossible, because I don’t think I can change the biophysically impossible.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Material World

George Carlin hits the mark.  American households are drowning in "stuff".  But why?

There's a ready answer that many preachers and people of faith would give.  Materialism! Too much attention, too much attachment to physical objects; not enough to the realm of the spirit. Surely this is the ground for a culture of endless accumulation.

I don't think this is right; or, a least, I don't think it cuts deep enough. When you think of a greedy materialist, you might think of a miser returning every evening to gloat over the beautiful objects he has hoarded.  But that kind of greed is not really characteristic of consumer society.  When I've acquired the IPhone 4, I may gloat for a while; but only until my neighbor gets an IPhone 5. Perpetual dissatisfaction, rather than gloating satisfaction, is what I feel about my stuff.

William Cavanaugh writes, "What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment.  People do not hoard money; they spend it.  People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things...Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that's why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism."

What if our unsatisfying overconsumption is a symptom, not of materialism, but of a restless and misguided spiritual quest?  What if we're not materialistic enough?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Rebooting the Toaster

A few years ago, Liane gave me a wonderful toaster for a birthday present. (I like toast!)

It is the most sophisticated toaster I have ever seen. It has a selection of electronic control buttons which glow in various colors, tiny electric motors which move the toast up and down, and a microprocessor which governs the whole operation. Press the correct button and your bread is drawn into the machine, toasted, and returned, as smoothly and automatically as a DVD slipping into the disc drive on your computer.

At least, that's what happens most of the time. Quite often though, things work a little differently. Press the button, in goes the bread, all the lights flash in a peevish spasm, out pops the bread again (untoasted) and nothing is achieved. When that happens I can only find one thing to do. Unplug the appliance from the wall outlet, wait twenty seconds, plug it back in and try again. I call it rebooting the toaster.

Rebooting the toaster is a metaphor for the way even our simplest tasks - and let's face it, toasting bread is pretty simple, a campfire and a pointed stick will do it - can become technologized to a point where they have "no user serviceable parts inside".
As a kid I regularly repaired an old Dualit toaster.
Everything in there is solid mechanical engineering; a fourteen-year-old (especially one who was not too worried about electricity) could fix it with no problem. But the new hi-tech toaster is beyond the range of tools and competencies that I possess. If I can't reboot it, there is no alternative but to buy another one.

The principle of "subsidiarity" or "localism" suggests that 'all matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority'. I'm worried that I'm no longer the competent authority even to fix my toaster.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth"

The Moral Consequences of Economic GrowthThe Moral Consequences of Economic Growth by Benjamin M. Friedman

The main argument of the book, in a nutshell, is this. People want to feel better off. They have two standards to use in assessing this: (a) comparison to their neighbors, and (b) comparison to their own circumstances at an earlier time. If they feel better off by standard (b), then standard (a) will be relatively less important (and vice versa). Since it is obviously impossible for all members of society to be better off than their neighbors, an over-emphasis on standard (a) will lead to a frustrated, repressive, "zero-sum" society. By contrast, if people feel better off by standard (b), society will become more open, more socially mobile, and more democratic. This argument is made in chapter 4, pp92-94.

The central portion of the book is a lengthy examination of the historical evidence (in the US, Britain, France and Germany) for and against this thesis. Is it true as a matter of history that social advances are correlated with economic growth, and that repression and intolerance are correlated with economic decline? Friedman concludes that more often than not this is the case.

The last part draws policy conclusions. Because growth produces positive "externalities" - structural benefits to society as a whole - Friedman writes, "there is a consequent role for [public] policy measures to seek growth beyond what the market would provide on its own", and he goes on to detail some possibilities in the familiar areas of investment, education, and healthcare. But he does not seriously address the possibility that natural resource limits will mean that "strong economic growth" will prove to have been a transitory stage in the human story. (To be more precise, such concerns are answered with the usual claim that the price mechanism will provide "substitutes" for scarce resources, but this is just playing with words: increasing prices for a resource will lead to "substitution" in the economic sense that other resources will be relatively more consumed, but economics can offer no guarantee of a "substitute" in the ordinary English sense of an alternative which generates substantially the same benefits as the exhausted resource did.)

For this reason I find the book ultimately a pessimistic one, despite its opening evocation of Enlightenment optimism. Mass democracy, equality, and openness, it suggests, are luxury goods, epiphenomena of an age when economic growth blunts the costs of a generous spirit. If endless growth is simply an illusion, this is not good news.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Today I received the request to provide my directory information for the GreenFaith fellowship program. Along with the request came a copy of last year's directory to give an idea of the format.  What an interesting group of people! I look forward to the opportunity to dialog with the many voices of this year's fellows.

There are other voices, too, which I want to engage.  One of these is the voice of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.  At the end of a 250-year or so period of royal prosperity for the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding kingdom, Jeremiah begins a period of ministry that takes him from youth to old age, from an apparently prosperous nation to its break-up and exile. The first verses of his book, while paying ironic lip service to the convention of measuring time by the reigns of kings, in fact convey a different and subversive message: the word of the LORD is the constant element, while the kings come and go, and all their pretensions lead to "the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month".

250 years is a long time.  In fact, it's roughly as long as our present industrial civilization has been around, and that's certainly long enough to come to take prosperity for granted.  But as commentator Walter Brueggemann writes, "[the book of Jeremiah] is a literary-theological disclosure of the unraveling of a royal world, of the disintegration of a stable universe of public order and public confidence."  Their model on which prosperity had been built - even, their definition of what prosperity is - was faulty, said Jeremiah to the people, and those faults were about to be exposed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"You have a growth"

Thirty years ago I noticed that I had a lump in my throat.  Not a metaphor. A solid mass which seemed to get bigger every week.

Doctors at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge cut it out. Then they sprayed the site with beta and gamma rays to make as sure as they could that the growth would not come back. (They succeeded.)

Isn't it odd how the same word - "growth" - is used to describe a disease that we fear, and also a cycle of spending and investment which we imagine will keep satisfying new desires?

A healthy organ or organism reaches its mature size and stops growing.  When it doesn't, we call it a tumor. It will grow until its host can no longer support it, and then it and the host will die.

Our economy is an "organ" in the body of the  earth. What would a "mature size" economy look like? What will happen if we keep demanding growth for ever?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Clinging to the Skin

Untitled I just got back from a day's rockclimbing at the Shawangunk Ridge, an hour north of New York City.

I love climbing.  My skill level seems stuck at "moderate", but as Jeff Lowe said, "The best climber is the one having the most fun."  When you make a difficult move, there is a joyful intensity of focus as your gaze narrows down to the little nubbin where you will - oh, so precisely - place your foot. When you squirm out of a tight place and, with one bold swing, come out into the freedom of the open rock above, it is a kind of rebirth.  And of course the glow of the sunset is reflected in your heart from the high exposure of the topmost belay.

As a climbing team works its way up the buttress, they form a little community, clinging on - through their own skill and mutual trust, and through technology that they have brought with them - to the surface, the boundary between rock and air.

In fact, that is what all of us are doing all the time.  The livable part of our planet is a thin skin, a boundary layer between dead rock and dead space.  Maybe 10 miles thick - that's a generous estimate - compared to the 4000 mile radius of the earth and the over 200000 miles from the earth to the moon, our nearest astronomical neighbor.  We are clinging to the skin of the earth.

It is a scary and joyful place.

Image by Flickr user "prizepony", licensed under Creative Commons

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Green Faith

This blog started a couple of years ago.  I wanted to think here about how we care for creation - the planet, with all its complex web of animate and inanimate inhabitants, and us, Homo sapiens, pushing seven billion of us now, each with our own aspirations for the future.

"Fill the earth", God said in Genesis 1.  Well, we did that. What comes next?

Two years ago wasn't really the right time for me to start blogging, but now I think it is.  I'm going to join the fellowship program at GreenFaith.   For the next year and a half I will be interacting with a group of lay and ordained people to think about how our faith traditions teach and equip us to care for the created world.  I have never done anything like this before, and I am both nervous and excited!

Through Points of Inflection I want to chronicle my GreenFaith journey.  Will you join me by following this blog?

I've kept a couple of old posts from 2009 which explain the title.  Otherwise, though, we're starting from square one!