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.

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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!