Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked, “Where are you going?”
He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.”
While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it..”
Zechariah is one of the prophets who speak to Israel during the period of return from exile and re-establishment of worship in Jerusalem. The return is an event to be celebrated - but it is also in some ways a marginal enterprise, embarrassingly dependent on imperial subsidy (Ezra 6:8-10) and unimpressive compared to the way things used to be (Haggai 2:3). It's in this circumstance that Zechariah sees his vision of the man with the measuring line. The "measurer" wants to carry out the kind of quantitative assessment that I'm hoping the students in my Math for Sustainability course will be able to do: to delimit the size and the needs of the community. But this perspective of a limited community is not allowed to stand. Instead, it is overruled by a vision of abundance, a "city without walls", a community which overflows with good things.
I keep coming back to this tension between "limited" and "unlimited" ways of seeing the world, between zero sum and abundance. This time, I am reflecting on it because I set my students the task of reading and responding to some materials that challenge the conventional pieties of "sustainability": items like Ronald Bailey's The End of Doom or Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. These books, and others like them, are marked by boundless confidence that human creativity, channeled by free-market capitalism, can and must continue to produce unlimited wealth. (Their anxiety that this inevitable process might be impeded by officious government regulation must surely be seen as dual to the Marxist concern that the inevitable proletarian revolution might be hindered by the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie). This is the mentality of abundance, arising (as I think it must) from a (quasi-)religious faith. Yet, at the same time, current popular conservatism seems to be characterized by a zero-sum picture of the world, whether by literally wanting to build a wall like Donald Trump, or by a more generalized insistence that the world must be divided into winners and losers. How does this angry insistence on a limited present mesh with an insistence, sometimes equally angry, that an unlimited future is possible? But of course it is not only conservatives who feel the pressure of this dilemma. How can those of us who are persuaded that there are physical "limits to growth" which no amount of cleverness can evade, nonetheless also make room for a celebration of abundance and of a love which truly knows no limits?
Graphic: Zechariah as depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Source: Wikipedia,