Friday, August 05, 2011

Giving vodka to a drunk

Do not try to prove your strength by wine-drinking,
     for wine has destroyed many.
As the furnace tests the work of the smith,
     so wine tests hearts when the insolent quarrel.
Wine is very life to human beings
     if taken in moderation.
What is life to one who is without wine?
     It has been created to make people happy.
Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation
     is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.
Wine drunk to excess leads to bitterness of spirit,
     to quarrels and stumbling.
Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his own hurt,
     reducing his strength and adding wounds.

- Ecclesiasticus 31.25-30 (NRSV).

Going to the pub for a drink with mates can be a very enjoyable experience. A pint or a dram, some good conversation, some laughs, maybe another drink and some time soaking up one another's company. Another drink? Why not, we're having a good time. With a proper sense of proportion, alcohol can make the heart glad (Psalm 104.15). But before long, drinking becomes drunkenness, and repeated drunkenness makes one a drunkard (cf. Ephesians 5.18; Galatians 5.21). By the time someone is seeing relationships fall apart and their liver, brain, heart, pancreas, nervous system, kidneys, bones, skin and/or sexual function give way from abuse we are well past the point at which enjoyment has turned into self-destruction. Alcohol use represents a gradual progression from a good blessing into a significant evil, without necessarily a clear line where one becomes the other.* The physical and social ills of alcoholism are vindications of (or at least corroborations of) scriptural warnings against drunkenness, yet spiritual injury can occur even prior to obvious relational or physical damage and the believer does not require sociological or medical research on the effects of alcohol abuse to trust the biblical witness on this matter. The latter are helpful confirmations of what has already been revealed, illustrating the principle that we reap what we sow and that part of God's present judgement upon human wickedness is to allow us to experience some of the consequences of our misdeeds.
*Many jurisdictions create such markers through legal limits on blood alcohol levels, but all such lines must be somewhat arbitrary when extended across a whole population with quite different physiological and mental reactions to alcohol.

But this is not really a post about alcoholism.

Seeking more economic growth* for developed economies is like offering vodka to a man already lying a pool of his own vomit. Justifying it by pointing out secondary benefits misses the point; the extra waitstaff will be out of a job unless enough booze is sold, but why should the security of someone's job justify aiding the dissolution of life? With a proper sense of proportion, some kinds of economic growth can be a good blessing on a society. But the pursuit of growth in all circumstances by all means at whatever cost is ultimately self-destructive. There is no hard and fast line between the one and the other. Attempts to calculate ecological footprints and planetary boundaries may give a ballpark idea of where growth starts being suicidal, but that doesn't mean that it is where the problem starts. The desire for growth without reference to the rest of the body is wrong in principle, not just once the symptoms of overshoot start to appear. The ecological and resource crises that are increasingly manifest may illustrate the ruinous trajectory of the desire, but from inception, the desire for growth without reference to context is already based on some combination of greed, myopia, lust for power and a reckless disregard for creaturely limits.
*There is some debate about just what is meant by economic growth. Most definitions at least strongly imply the increasing extraction and exploitation of physical resources for economic purposes, which is my primary concern in this discussion.


Juggernaut1981 said...

The more I keep on reading Byron, the more I feel compelled to post you a copy of the Brian McLaren book Everything Must Change.

byron smith said...

A comment from a FB discussion about mining where I tried to apply some similar ideas:

If we shift the discussion for a moment from mining to agriculture, then it becomes even clearer that the activity in question is a great blessing and supplies fundamentals of existence. Yet few serious observers are not deeply disturbed by many of the dominent or common practices in agricultural systems around the world and their effects on biodiversity, soil health, animal welfare, human health, social equality, habitat destruction/degradation, water pollution, air pollution, invasive species, groundwater depletion and so on and so on. To give thanks for the farmers and our daily bread in no way implies that some deep criticisms and reforms ought not be made. Furthermore, it is apparent that some of these worrying phenomena are the result not simply of agricultural practices, but also cultural expectation, consumption levels and economic policies: meat and dairy-intensive diets, diets that rely on long supply chains of high-energy transportation, season-less diets, monopolistic business practices, calorie counts that far exceed our requirements, regulatory capture by the interests of agribusiness, food dumping, inequitable terms of trade and so on and so on. It is not simply the farmers, but all of us (perhaps especially political and business leaders) who bear some measure of responsibility.

Taking these insights and shifting them to mining, then while we may and do rightly give thanks for miners and the many social benefits that arise from mining, this acknowledgement need not blunt the requirement of serious critique of both mining practices and the social, political and cultural context in which they occur, including lifestyles of hyper-consumption that generate economic demand for levels of mining causing significant widespread ecological damage as well as political systems too readily influenced by the money associated with the mining lobby. As with so many ecological matters, the damage is so frequently caused not by activities that are in themselves wrong, but by the accumulation of such activities beyond reasonable or sustainable limits. Thus, the consumption of goods produced by mining may perhaps also be compared in some ways with the consumption of alcohol. Taken in moderation, it is a blessing to make the heart glad (and even slightly healthier). But our current levels of alcohol consumption are causing massive social and public health problems. In a somewhat similar way, our present levels of resource extraction (and I include all resources being consumed at rates that exceed natural replacement, such that groundwater use in many areas can be considered mining, as can soil depletion) and their associated ecological impacts lie well outside of a reasonable, just or sustainable limit.

"nor is [mining] forbidden in any other religious tradition"
A minor point but some indigenous spiritualities warn against the dangers of taking things from the earth. For example, there is a Hopi saying, "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster." More significantly, the scriptural paucity of references to mining (beyond Job 28, which is far from unflinchingly positive about the activity, there are precious few substantial references) implies no automatic blessing (nor condemnation) of the practice. The scale of contemporary industrialism's impacts on the created order was simply not in the horizon of scriptural authors' imagination. Thus, the novelty of our problem doesn't mean the scriptures have become irrelevant, but like so many other contemporary issues (genetic modification, nuclear weapons, globalisation, electronic technology, etc.), we have to feel our way forward into responsible and faithful discipleship using the understanding of God's purposes and the human situation we do glean from the gospel.