Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Hippies Were Right All Along

Jump!One of the drivers of the economic growth engine is our perception that greater wealth - more money, more "stuff" - will make us happier.  But there is surprisingly little evidence for this, once basic needs are met.  In 2006 the Financial Times, no less, published an article entitled The Hippies Were Right All Along About Happiness.  "The hippies, the Greens, the road protesters, the down-shifters, the slow-food movement – all are having their quiet revenge.", writes author Andrew Oswald.  "Routinely derided, the ideas of these down-to-earth philosophers are being confirmed by new statistical work by psychologists and economists."  He goes on to explain that self-reported levels of happiness in Britain and the US have hardly changed over the past half century, even as those societies have become immensely richer in material terms.

In the same vein, here is a recent report from the Stanford Business School: If Money Doesn't Make You Happy, Consider Time. They write: "Very little research corroborates the idea that more money leads to more happiness... In fact, even the mere mention of money can result in individuals being less likely to engage in behaviors linked to personal happiness, such as helping others, donating to charity, or socializing with friends and family. After being prompted to think about wealth, individuals work more, and their ability to enjoy small moments becomes significantly compromised."  Instead, say the authors, slowing down, inhabiting the present moment, and focusing on using time rather than spending money are likely to foster the kind of interpersonal and emotional connections that are associated with happiness.

Read the whole article here.

Image courtesy of Flickr user danorbit, licensed under Creative Commons.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What if the door is not locked?

un paraíso escondido Back around 1980 (I think), I and a couple of friends from college were camped out on the tiny island of Sark (five miles by two, no automobiles) in the English Channel.  A friendly farmer had allowed us to set up our tents in his field, above the cliffs that fall down steeply to the shore.

Late one night a storm blew up and by midnight it was clear that our tent was not going to last.  As we struggled to break our camp and head for the shelter of a nearby barn, I saw it clearly, out on the stormy waters.  A distress flare.  Somewhere in that howling night, a boat was in trouble.

I ran back to the farmhouse as fast as I could, and beat frantically on the door. In the kitchen was the telephone that would put me through to the Guernsey coastguard, who would coordinate a rescue at sea.  But why did no-one answer? The storm was frighteningly loud and perhaps my knocking was drowned out. I redoubled my efforts.  After what seemed like a long time - though perhaps it was just a few minutes - it was obvious that no-one was going to answer.  What to do?  Lives were at stake.  Should I break a window? What kind of payback would that be for the hospitable farmer?  Thoughts whirled through my head and then, as if from somewhere far distant, a new voice made itself heard.

What if the door is not locked?

It wasn't, of course.  This is a tiny island, and no-one (in those days at least) would lock their doors at night.  I lifted the catch, pushed the door open, went to the phone, and called the Coastguard.  The Guernsey lifeboat was launched, and the distressed crew rescued.  The next day we read about our adventure in the Guernsey Evening Press. But, still, I had wasted precious minutes because I had assumed that the door would be locked against me.

This story came back to me at the GreenFaith retreat last week when we were asked to share a story of "a spiritual or deeply moving experience in nature".   Of course, it carries all sorts of metaphorical my mind it connects with the "Let us walk through the door" of Updike's Seven Stanzas at Easter. But I had not recognized until the retreat what an apt question it poses for those who think they have discerned, in the stormy night of financial crisis and climate uncertainty and wars and rumors of wars, a distress flare sent up on behalf of the planet.

So we perhaps run to our friend's house and beat upon the door, wondering why he does not listen or she does not hear, not knowing that in her ears the noise of our knocking is just part of the overall, fearful noise of the storm; and perhaps, caught as it seems between imminent peril and inability to find a hearing, we may become cynical or despairing or even violent (trying to break the window).  All this may happen; and it has.

But what if the door is not locked? What then?

Image courtesy of Flickr user josimh, licensed under Creative Commons

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Hunger Games, Once Again

The distinguished speaker chosen to honor the graduating high school class was approaching his peroration.

"We're proud of you", he said, "and you should be proud of yourselves.  You're getting ready for a global marketplace.  In this marketplace, you never will know where the competition will come from.  Your rival may be in Adelaide, in Beijing, in Seoul, in Jerusalem, in London... but because of your hard work and studies, you will be prepared to compete and to win!"

 Alright. I agree that competition can be a powerful creative force.  Just like fire.  But, while fire in the fireplace is good, fire throughout the house is not.  

In order that competition can do its creative work, it needs a fireplace: boundaries, in space and time, and relationally, to those areas that it governs.  Athletes know this (or should): after the game is over, win or lose, competition gives way to brotherhood, to relationship.

In our moral ecology, though, the sense that there are boundaries to competition, places where it does not belong, has been weakened.  It is all too easy for graduation speakers to suggest - and, what is worse, for graduates to believe - that, as the Social Darwinists say, competition is the fundamental rule for all of life.

In the world of the "Hunger Games", boys and girls - high school kids, really -  suddenly graduate into an arena where competition really does have no limits (with Effie Trinket playing the role of graduation speaker). Through the flat voice of Katniss Everdeen, the book lays bare what that arena really means; and it flays the evasions and doublethink of those who, themselves securely established, avert their sentimental eyes from the cost as they urge those graduates forward to the competition.

There has to be more for us to say to the next generation than, "May the odds be ever in your favor."

(Link to earlier post on The Hunger Games). 

Sunday, May 20, 2012


cornucopia detail

I've been searching for a word recently.

You might recently have read the story of a Wisconsin man who was asked to leave an "all you can eat" fish restaurant after consuming twelve pieces of fish. (He was given eight more for the road.)

This being America, he returned and picketed the restaurant, accusing them of "deceptive business practices".

Scripture celebrates abundance.  Look at the wonderful Harvest Festival in Psalm 65:9-13, for example. But abundance does not mean the absence of all limits, the right to consume without restraint.  Classical theology defined gluttony to be the inordinate desire for food and drink - "inordinate" meaning "not regulated by reason" - and listed it as potentially among the mortal sins (Aquinas, Summa theologica, question 148). What I'm looking for is a word that simultaneously gives the idea of abundance and the idea of reasonable restraint.  Because I think we're going to need such a word, and the attitude it refers to.

I believe I've found it.  The word is plenty.

Plenty means abundance. "Honor the Lord", says Proverbs,  "and your barns will be filled with plenty, your vats will be bursting with wine."   But it also means enough. "You've had plenty of strawberries", my mother might say, "save some for later".

What difference would it make if we were to talk about "green" issues (like recycling, energy conservation, moderating consumption, and so on), not in the all-too-available language of asceticism, but in the language of plenty?

Could our children's future be the "Age of Plenty"?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interview with Jeff Rubin

Jeff Rubin, formerly chief economist at CIBC World Markets, is interviewed in the Huffington Post today.  From the article:

Jeff Rubin has a message for all the economists and central bankers out there, waiting with bated breath for rock-bottom interest rates to kick the world economy into high gear: it’s not going to happen, and the sooner you realize that, the better.

As the straight-shooting former chief economist of CIBC World Markets argues in his new book, The End of Growth, triple-digit oil prices are here to stay -- a reality that will make it impossible for developed economies to return to the glory days of rapid expansion built on cheap credit and affordable fuel.

But as Rubin sees it, that’s not all bad news. Though he predicts permanently tepid growth will push Greece and Portugal into default, he also says it will reverse globalization, stop climate change in its tracks -- and put a limit on oil sands expansion.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rest Remains

Day of Rest
 A couple of days ago three of us GreenFaith fellows were having a phone conference about one of our GF assignments - to try to begin articulating our own "ecological theology".  Though coming from quite different faith perspectives, we all shared the difficulty of finding a place to start speaking of care for creation - "I know what I believe, but where do I begin?"

One natural place to begin is from the creation story. "God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31). This "everything" includes the radiation from the sun and the water cycle, as well as the lives and doings of plants, fishes, birds, animals and humans. Then one might go on to posit a fallenness of this creation order, arising from and connected to human fallenness ("Cursed be the ground because of you", Genesis 3:17) and a hope of redemption ("the creation itself will be set free", Romans 8:21).

The trouble I have is that by beginning from a prelapsarian state, it is difficult to avoid giving the idea that creation care is really all about wilderness care - about "preserving" special places that are uncontaminated by human doings.  And that is not the whole story.  Creation care has also got to be about caring for farmland and cities and (even!) suburbs... about the environments in which 99% of human beings actually live.

With this as motivation, I was wondering whether the sabbath should provide a starting-place for a theology of creation care.  In Genesis, immediately after the "very good" quoted above, God rests on the seventh day: "And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work." This is where the creation project is headed: to adapt some language from Barth, the sabbath is "the internal basis of creation." The point of creation is not endless  labor and "productivity", important as these things are, but a rest and rejoicing in which all the created order shares with God.  This then is what is prefigured in the Sabbath commands in Exodus and the related "ecological" laws like the one that commands the people not to glean to the edges of the field.  Perhaps understanding this better could lead to an eco-theology which is less anxious and more joyful, even if it contemplates "lean years" ahead.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ask An Environmentalist...

This is a post from the blog of Rachel Held Evans.  Among many other wonderful things, her blog contains a series of "guest interviews" where readers submit questions and a guest poster answers some of them ("Ask a Calvinist", "Ask a Gay Christian", "Ask a Unitarian", etc).  Today's "Ask An Environmentalist" has guest poster Scott Sabin. From the blog: "Scott is the Executive Director of Plant With Purpose (formerly Floresta), a Christian  nonprofit organization that reverses deforestation and poverty by transforming the lives of the rural poor in six countries. He is the author of the recent book, Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People"

Read the full Q and A here.