Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: "Unclean" by Richard Beck

This book is subtitled "Reflections on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality", and it is a blend of psychological and theological analysis.  Starting from a similar grounding in psychological research to Jonathan Haidt ("The Righteous Mind"), Beck probes deeper with a profound meditation on the significance of the text "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" for Jesus' ministry and for the Christian church.

In brief, Beck's contention is that the psychology of disgust is active in many conscious and unconscious ways in the thought and worship life of the church.  The core function of disgust, he says, is to protect the boundary of the body, for example to prevent us from eating offensive food.  But the psychology of disgust and the associated notion of contamination spill over from this core role into the sociomoral and existential realms.   "The central argument of this book", writes Beck, "is that the psychology of disgust and contamination regulates how many Christians reason with and experience notions of holiness, atonement, and sin. In a related way, the psychology of disgust and contamination also regulates social boundaries and notions of hospitality within the church."

Beck wonders why churches, followers of Jesus whose practice of inclusivity – of table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” – was one of the most notable features of his ministry, so often retreat into practices of exclusion, into “gated communities”. “Why is it so difficult to create missional churches?”, he asks.  And he finds the answer in the psychology of disgust: the unconscious activation of this psychology in church affairs prioritizes “sacrifice”, that is boundary-forming ritual activity, over “mercy”, that is, boundary-transgressing hospitality and welcome after the model of Jesus.  Beck suggests that the tendency for Christians to be “captured” by disgust psychology is like a “theological sweet tooth”, and that this “capture” has a variety of unhealthy outcomes: fear of contamination, scapegoating, exclusionary practices, even a Gnostic flight from physicality.  Indeed, it is remarkable how many aspects of church life are illuminated by Beck’s psychological insights.

In Beck’s view, the “theological sweet tooth” represented by our attraction to disgust psychology cannot (and perhaps should not) be eliminated: it can only be managed.  How can this come about?  In his final chapter Beck suggests that the Eucharist can function as a divinely ordained regulating ritual against the danger of what he calls “purity collapse”, that is, the privileging of purity over all other concerns such as welcoming others or facing our own need and mortality. For the Eucharist simultaneously activates many facets of disgust psychology; food and ingestion; ritual purity, atonement and sacrifice; table-fellowship and hospitality (as in I Corinthians); and animality/mortality (“this is my blood”).  “In this ritual, purity is tethered both to hospitality and to the body… the Eucharist, properly practiced, regulates how the church experiences otherness and difference… (and) pushes against the Gnostic temptation by keeping the disgusting aspects of the body firmly in view.”

“If this book has any recommendation”, concludes Beck, “it would be for churches to attend to and cultivate the tensions inherent in the celebration of the Eucharist.” His meditation provides an incisive resource for such attention.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Corner on Everything

In 1979 and 1980, the brothers Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt attempted to corner the world market in silver.  At one point, it was estimated that they held one third of the entire world supply, valued at several billion dollars.  As a result of their manipulations, the price of silver increased by over 800%.

The story ended badly, of course.  Rich though they were, the brothers needed to borrow money to finance their scheme.  Changes in the rules of the commodity exchanges were adopted to make it harder to purchase silver "on margin" (that is, with borrowed money). The price of silver began to fall, and the brothers were issued a $100m margin call which they were unable to meet.  This caused the silver price to crash.  Eventually, the legal fallout forced the brothers into bankruptcy.

The scheme was made possible because a couple of individuals had sufficient wealth to command a significant proportion of the world's stock of an important physical resource.  Suppose though that someone had enough money to corner the world market in a resource that is not just important but truly vital - like oil, or wheat, or maybe copper?  Of course no-one right now has anything like that level of wealth.  But remember the "decoupling" thesis? Believers in endless economic growth on a finite planet claim that, as wealth keeps growing, we will remain within physical limits because the physical fraction of each unit of wealth will become less - will indeed become arbitrarily small.

Let's conduct a thought experiment, then.  Mathematically, "decoupling" would mean that the value of the Earth's entire physical stock of some resource, when expressed as a multiple of (say) per capita income, would be expected to decrease steadily.  After sufficient "decoupling", the entire silver stock of the planet would be worth less than a teenager's weekly allowance.  Anyone could corner the market in silver, or copper, or any physical resource.

But obviously this is absurd.  If some greedy or crazy person corners the market in the entire physical substrate of our lives, the rest of the economy cannot continue unaffected!  Without the physical substrate, the "added value" that supposedly constitutes the remainder of global wealth would become nothing.

In its attempt to break free of the physical, "decoupling" perhaps has transgressed an ancient scripture.  "Remember that you are dust." (Genesis 3:19)

Acknowledgment: I got the idea from this blog post, which explains the argument at greater length and with graphs and calculations.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Waiting in Line at the Library

I wrote this a while ago (obviously in pre-Kindle days!), but I'm posting it again in honor of the reopening of Webster's Bookstore and Cafe in State College...

They’re waiting in line at the library
At Webster's they’re wondering why
All the boxes of books now attract loving looks
And sell like ice cream in July

Jane Austen’s adored in Altoona
The Brontes are big in Bellefonte
And in Centre Hall they are nuts for Naipaul
And they all love Leroux in Lemont

The provost is publishing poetry
The dean has a novel to write
New shelves line the walls of each room in East Halls
And bookstores stay open all night

To read, you don't need electronics
No battery, keyboard or screen
That's why TV execs get paid six-figure checks
To make sure this is only a dream.
Image source: Webster's Bookstore and Cafe, facebook page

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Green Are Electric Cars?

Great article in the NYT today, following up on a Union of Concerned Scientists report on the full-cycle efficiency of electric cars.

Electric cars - I mean all-electric, like the Nissan Leaf - tout their green credentials: zero carbon-dioxide emissions!  Well, it's true, there is no CO2 coming out of the tailpipe, because there is no tailpipe.  But the electricity to charge the car's battery has to come from somewhere.  Depending on the mix of fuels used for electricity generation (coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind) and the costs of distribution, the net CO2 effect can be quite substantial.  How substantial? Well, the result is a map showing some regions of the country with relatively "green" electric generation mixes, where your electric car would definitely do better.  But there are other regions where from an emissions perspective you could be better off driving the most economical cars currently available with a regular gasoline engine.

Read the full article here.

PS: I wonder whether the emissions associated with the production and distribution of gasoline were included in this "full cycle" analysis?  But gasoline is so energy dense that these may be a rather small proportion.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Six Million Ton Baby

Attack of the Giant Baby
A bit more than twenty-one years ago, as we prepared for the arrival of our first child, I attended some classes for "expectant fathers".

I am not sure how well they set me up for the realities of parenthood - can any class do that, really? - but I learned one thing that I have not forgotten.

If a baby grew as fast throughout the entire pregnancy as it does in the first trimester, we were told, then at birth it would weigh six million tons!

Exponential growth is like that.  Mathematically, it can produce fantastic numbers; but in the real world, it bumps against limits, and slows down or stops. (A newborn is still growing pretty rapidly, but after twenty-one years s/he is pretty close to final size...)

Another way of saying this is that if we demand that some mathematical quantity grow at a steady exponential rate over time, then that mathematical quantity will become more and more disconnected from any physical reality.

Unfortunately, there is one mathematical quantity, central to our lives, of which we do demand that it grow at a steady exponential rate.  That quantity is money (and the exponential rate in question is the rate of interest).

So we should expect the financial sector - that part of the economy that deals directly with money - will become more and more disconnected from the part of the economy that deals with  physical "stuff".

Sound familiar?

Scripture and the Anthropocene

 A series of recent articles have me thinking about the ideas of Peter Kareiva (pictured left), who is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, itself the world's largest environmental organization.  Kareiva's original essay,Conservation in the Anthropocene, can be found online; and extended discussion on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog is here, here, and here.

The term "Anthropocene" is a recent invention. Geologists would say that we are living in the Holocene Epoch, beginning about 12000 years ago (at the end of the last ice age) and continuing to the present day.  It reflects an understanding that a new era has dawned, one in which the primary influence on the ecology of the earth has become one of its own species - ourselves, the human race.  The word is being considered by the Geological Society of America and may become "official" terminology soon.

The Kareiva article uses the "Anthropocene" language as a lead-in to an indictment of the strategies of the 20th-century conservation movement, which (he claims) have focused too much on protecting a supposedly-fragile Nature from the ravages of humanity, thereby creating parks and reserves as "islands of the Holocene in the world of the Anthropocene."   Conservation, writes Kareiva, "cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so. What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature -- forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems -- exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes."

It's intriguing how this kind of discussion harks back to one of the seminal texts of the modern religious-ecological movement, Lynn White's thesis which charges that the "dominion mandate" of Genesis 1:28 is responsible for the exploitation of nature.  One can hear echoes of White's charge that Christianity "is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen" when Kareiva's followers explain that "ecosystem services" (what the ecosystem provides for us humans) must be the basis of a "cost benefit analysis" which will allow us to "triage" what should be saved (these quotations are from this article). Yet, interestingly, Kareiva turns this charge, suggesting that conservationists promoting "wilderness untrammeled by man" are the real dualists..."it never existed, at least in the past thousand years, and arguably longer".  In the end, the one point on which both he and his opponents seem to agree is that the separation of humanity from the rest of the created order is a mistake.  Are they right?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A climate model after 30 years

Life has been busy here in Points-of-Inflection land for the last couple of weeks, and posting has been a little slow.  There is a bunch of things I want to write about, but until direct brain to blog connections are established, it'll take a few days to get them out there.

Meanwhile, I heard about this interesting article.  A couple of physicists went back to a paper published by James Hansen in 1981 about CO2 forcing and global temperatures.  This is well before "climate change" had become the political football that it is now.

Hansen's paper made some specific predictions about the trajectory of global temperatures out into the future, and there are now thirty years of measurements to check his prediction against.  (Actually, Hansen made several predictions depending on different scenarios of fossil fuel use, but he assumed that use patterns would only begin to diverge around 2009.)  So how well do his predictions match up to the observed reality?  Read the paper and find out!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Connecting with the PSU Center for Sustainability

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to spend some time chatting with Dr. Sue Barsom, one of the staff of Penn State's Center for Sustainability.

CFS's mission is to develop "integrated research, education, and outreach efforts that advance the ethic and science of sustainability."  This involves courses and co-curricular activities that engage students with sustainability challenges in a variety of ways.  In fact, thanks to the Center, Penn State is this year introducing a new undergraduate minor in Sustainability Leadership.

The agenda for our conversation was to discuss a possible joint seminar or more extended event about incorporating sustainability themes into math courses. With thousands of Penn State students passing through "general education" and calculus-level mathematics each semester, and the insight into sustainability questions that can be gained from even quite simple mathematical models, it would seem a natural connection to make.

I'm excited about the possibilities here!