Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth I

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the first in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The second can be found here and the third here.

Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech begins, oddly enough, with a banking metaphor. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963 King thundered:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street protesters could have used that.

In any case, I’m struck by the way King’s rhetoric has dated. It still moves me deeply, but I just cannot imagine a public figure today getting away with such bold and unqualified demands. We have come to expect a measure of realism, a curbed enthusiasm, a toned-down rhetoric from our political leaders. To our contemporary ears King’s words sound somewhat naïve, and his idealism might even evoke in us a hint of wariness.

Am I right? Why do you think that is? Can it be put down merely to changes in rhetorical style? What should we make of King’s demands for justice?

King returns in his speech to the theme of justice in the famous line: “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’.”

The quotation comes from the biblical prophet Amos. And, as Oliver O’Donovan explains, the prophet’s poetic metaphors express the longing for there to begin “a flood of judicial activity” in a society in which judicial activity has dried up: “Courts are to be held every day ‘in the gate’, appellants are to be heard quickly and without the need for bribes, verdicts are to be clear-sighted and decisive, and enforced” (The Ways of Judgment, 6).

This petition for renewed judicial activity is not unique to Amos. In fact, it’s a desire that is expressed repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. The moral imagination of Israel is marked by this posture of deep yearning for proper judicial oversight. The poor, the vulnerable and the exploited should have their cases heard; and those who have wronged them should be publicly exposed and held responsible for their misdeeds. Similarly, in the Hebrew scriptures the qualities most venerated in kings and rulers are not military prowess, rhetorical skill or political cunning but the readiness to execute justice and the determination to see that peace and righteousness are established and maintained. The Old Testament people of God were clearly convinced that nothing could be a greater blessing to a nation than to have a just and wise ruler, and nothing worse than to be subject to a corrupt or foolish ruler who has no concern for justice.

This guiding conviction is picked up again in the New Testament. In continuity with the message of the ancient prophets, both John the Baptist and Jesus come preaching against the rulers of Israel whose failings were precisely failures to exercise their authority with the appropriate justice and mercy; rather than teaching and applying the law of God without hypocrisy and without favour, they were exploiting and neglecting the people under their care and serving their own interests.

By contrast, Jesus is studiously portrayed in the gospels as one who demonstrates all the qualities of a just king or ruler and who will at last fulfill the oracle of Isaiah 9:
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
Throughout the Bible, then, it is axiomatic that the primary purpose of government is to establish and to uphold justice; and that without institutions of justice a society simply cannot enjoy peace and lasting happiness. Whether they are politically naïve or not, King’s focus on justice places him squarely in the biblical tradition.
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Twelve days of carbon Christmas

A very large part of our ecological impact is hidden in the stuff that we buy. We often overlook the resources required to produce our consumer goods. For instance, some people obsess over personal water use and are proud that they now turn the tap off while brushing their teeth (a no-brainer), saving a handful of litres each time, but ignore the hundreds of litres required to produce the dairy and meat products they consumed before brushing.

Now that Advent has begun, it may be fruitful to consider the ecological impact of our Christmas shopping. This infographic (click to see at a more readable size or go here) lists twelve kinds of presents which each involve about 50kg of carbon dioxide emissions (or equivalent) in their production. Some may surprise you (for instance the ecological impacts of gold mining are shocking, and carbon is not the worst of it. I am seriously reconsidering whether gold rings are a wise symbol of fidelity). For reference, the average annual Australian, Canadian or US per capita footprint is something like 18-25 tonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent), depending how you calculate it. The UK average is approximately 8-14 tonnes. The global average is around 5 tonnes. To minimise very serious climate consequences (which mean social, economic and political consequences), we probably need to be more like 1-2 tonnes each, so a 50 kg gift would represent up to 1/20th of one's total annual carbon budget.

If you're looking for ways to cut down the stuff you give and receive this Christmas (while enhancing the spiritual, relational and celebratory tone of the season), you might like to check out some suggestions I made last year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy (and) the church

The recent emergence of the Occupy movement is a fascinating social and political phenomenon. The existence and persistence of this fledgling movement is an ongoing protest against the excesses and contradictions of contemporary hypercapitalism (particularly as it is embodied and enabled by the global financial system as underwritten by national governments after 2008). Yet the form is important since this is not simply an angry rally or creative media stunt; it is an experiment in a temporary alternative society run by direct democracy, a second society existing amidst a broader one and to which it appeals with both invitation ("This is what democracy looks like. Join us!") and critique. It is an anarchist meme drawing in a wide range of sympathisers and has rapidly spread via imitation and facilitated by the net beyond the national context that gave it birth (unlike, say, the Tea Party to which it is often compared). Much has and will continue to be written and said about it, and this is precisely what ought to happen, since such new forms call out for interpretation and the movement is if nothing else an opening, a chance for a fresh start to old conversations. What it may become remains to be seen.

The most frequent complaint regarding the movement is that it does not have a coherent message. There are three things to say about this. First, the willful inability of much of the mainstream media to report what Occupy camps are actually saying is depressingly predictable. Second, in a genuinely grassroots movement that has arisen from a primarily negative stimulus, a positive alternative may take time to emerge and the camps testify at once to the urgency of the need for such alternatives (through participants' willingness to camp out even amidst a northern winter) and to the patience required to seek them (as seen in the characteristic interminable general assemblies). Third, it remains an open question whether this movement is itself already in embryo the alternative it puts forward (that is, an anarchist non-hierarchical alternative model of a society based on trust and mutual care rather than our one mediated primarily by market exchange) or if its primary function is to highlight the public wounds inflicted by plutocracy in order to provoke reform and/or revolution (as Tahrir Square was, and appears to again be becoming).

An alternative community within the world that stands as both critique and invitation to the surrounding culture and structures, claiming to be a foretaste of a possible future while holding open that very future as essentially unknown in the face of forces that seek to maintain the ongoing catastrophe of the status quo: the similarities between the Occupy movement and the church are striking. Indeed, this whole post was really intended as a brief intro and recommendation to this very insightful piece by Luke Bretherton, theologian (and former student of O'Donovan).
H/T Andy Stiles.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

When history was made and other stories

The Economist: When history of made, a graph in which the historical novelty of the last six decades or so is made breathtakingly clear. H/T Michael Tobis, who offers his own reflections upon it.

SMH: Bob Brown, the most ______ man in Australia. Fill in your own adjective to complete the title of an interesting profile of a fascinating man.

Naomi Klein: Climate change, capitalism and the transformation of cultural values. Klein suggests that perhaps the insistence of the deniers that climate change implies the necessity of a left-wing cultural transformation ought to be taken with more seriousness.

Slavoj Žižek: Occupy First. Demands come later. Žižek answers the critics of the movement who claim it is a gathering of un-American violent dreamers. Speaking of Occupy (which surely deserves its own post or three at some stage), I found this summary (from a NZ perspective) useful, these images illuminating of protesters' motives and this warning (from an American in London) quite salient.

ABC: Anti-consumerism is the new democracy.

John Dickson: Art of persuasion not so simple. Dickson turns to Aristotle to gain some basic insights into how to be convincing: logos, pathos and, crucially, ethos.

Orion: The Consolations of Extinction. A reflection on how deep time affects our perception of the ongoing sixth extinction event and of our own mortality as a species.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wait eleven seconds, then celebrate

11:11:11 11/11/11.

If you're not on twenty-four hour time, then do it all again in twelve hours.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On supporting a friend with cancer

After my own experiences of cancer diagnosis, treatment and remission, I more or less regularly receive requests from people whose friend, family member or colleague has just been diagnosed asking for advice on how they might best care for them. I thought I would post one of my answers (with permission) in case it is of some benefit to others.
Hi friend,

Good to hear from you, though sorry to hear about this news.

I guess the first thing I'd say, which may actually not sound very helpful at all, is that cancers are very different and the experiences of cancer patients even more diverse, so I would be quite hesitant to extrapolate too much from my own story.

Having said that, it is still possible to say a little more. Grief and suffering come in many forms (even in the same person) and bring with them various needs and opportunities. At times, silence is the best support; at others, the chance to talk to a sympathetic ear; at others, a word of comfort; at others, an act of silent service. In general, I guess I'd suggest that responsiveness is therefore key, being willing to play whatever role will be a blessing to those in need. While at times grief needs space, I suspect it rarely needs absence, so as a start, simply indicating your willingness to be there for them and to grieve with them is probably the best bet. If they have practical needs, then offers of help from trusted friends may well be appreciated (babysitting while parents go to some of the endless appointments these things seem to involve? Doing some housework? Frozen meals? The latter can probably be safely brought without being asked, as long as you stick to any known dietary requirements). Some people may find themselves with little energy for daily tasks like these. Others might throw themselves into them as a distraction and comfort.

Depending how wide and deep the pre-existing support networks of this family are, it may be that they are initially swamped with offers of help and sympathy. If you think this might be the case, you (or someone else) could perform the service of coordinating the practical support (putting together rosters for babysitting or frozen meals, etc.).

Don't neglect the partner of the patient, whose grief is double: grief for their partner's sake and for their own (potential) loss. And depending how old the kids are, they may need extra support from trusted family friends.

Again, depending how well you know them, then make your level and form of contact fit the relationship. If you are not close friends, then make contact through forms that can be ignored or noted and replied to later (email, letter, card, SMS). Only call if you know them well, because they might receiving a string of calls and probably don't want to be having the same conversation with dozens of people.

If my experience is anything to go by, they are likely to find themselves the target of more unsolicited advice than at any time outside of pregnancy. Although I know everyone meant well, I'd suggest keeping any crank miracle cures you've heard of or stories of amazing recoveries to yourself. It is actually not very encouraging to be told about someone's aunt who was cured simply by prayer and faith or someone's grandfather who drank only goji berry juice and lived to 100. Such stories are (a) irresponsible (I'm not a big fan of alternative medicine, nor of purely faith-based healing, for both scientific and theological reasons) and (b) sometimes contain an element of accusation in them ("if only you had enough faith, you too would be healed like my cousin").

Many cancer treatments become complex, and there is often a high volume of information to share with those concerned. One suggestion that a friend made to me (more unsolicited advice from a guy I didn't know well at the time, but of all that I received, almost the only piece of pure gold I got) was that it might be a good idea to set up a blog where interested family and friends can self-medicate on as much or as little information as they wish. This means that rather than having the same conversation fifty times after each appointment, I could simply write out a summary once and post it on the blog, then direct people to the blog. Mine is here (only updated very infrequently now).

I would also suggest keeping your theological comments minimal unless they raise it. I was probably unusual in that I'd just written my 4th year paper on suffering and the problem of evil just weeks before being diagnosed and so was (usually) quite happy to discuss theology with anyone who wanted. But not everyone is in that place, and for many, just retreating into survival mode is all they can handle for a while (once treatment started, my willingness to talk dropped rapidly as I just had little energy for anything).

I could write reams about my experiences of treatment, but here, the specifics of the cancer become most stark and what I say may bear little or no relevance to their situation.

They may or may not find it helpful to meet with other cancer patients, though I suspect that such groups will be available through the hospital, so you probably don't need to worry about that.

Finally, I'd suggest taking this tragedy as an opportunity to reflect upon your own mortality. Our society has hidden death and dying as far from view as possible and here is one place that the gospel truly does have good news (though not always easy news). Of all that I read, wrote and heard during the intense few months after diagnosis, the best was undoubtedly this talk by Stanley Hauerwas. It may or may not be appropriate to share with your friends (that is for you to judge), but it is almost certainly worth an hour of your time (if you can get past his braying cackle and Texan twang).

It hardly needs saying, but when words and wisdom falter, groans are also part of a faithful response to serious illness.

Grace & peace,

PS If you don't mind, I might post my reply (omitting your name and any other identifying details) on my blog since I have been asked this question quite a number of times (not that I mind being asked!) and putting it there will mean I can refer to it in future. Let me know if you'd rather I didn't.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Seven billion: too much of a good thing?

According to the best available estimates, the global human population reached seven billion individuals last Monday (give or take a few months) and continues to rise by about 10,000 each hour. We took all of human history to reach one billion around 1800. We then took a leisurely 120 odd years to reach two billion in about 1923. The third billion came in 1959 after 46 years; the fourth in 1974 after 15; the fifth in 1987 after 13 and the sixth in 1999 after 12. Since we've just taken another twelve to rise to seven billion, it may appear that human population is growing faster than ever before in history. In absolute terms, it is. The cause is not rising fertility but declining mortality. We are living longer and more are surviving childhood to raise children of their own. Yet in relative terms, we have passed our peak growth back in the 1970s. The annual rate of growth has been slowing since then as fertility rates are plummeting. Sixty years ago the average adult female gave birth to six children, now it is only two and a half. Yet sixty years ago the global average life expectancy was 48, now it is about 68, with infant mortality having declined by two thirds.

Longer, healthier lives; fewer tragic losses for parents; smaller families (largely reflecting more educated and affluent women, greater social security for the elderly and less manual labour): these are all good things. More human beings created in the image of God, more neighbours to love, more brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. This is a thing of wonder.

And yet, seven billion of us live on a single planet, with a single atmosphere, single ocean, and finite land area with limited supplies of fresh water, fertile soil and biodiverse ecosystem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? For some people, this issue is "the elephant in the room" of ecological discussions (for some reason, this seems to nearly always be the phrase that is used). More mouths to feed means more food, means more land devoted to agriculture, means more forests cleared, more fertilisers disrupting the nitrogen cycle, more stress on water supplies, more trawlers scraping the bottom of the oceanic barrel, more rubbish, more carbon into the atmosphere and more demand on finite resources. We are invited to conduct a thought experiment in which every square metre of the surface of the planet contains a human: a ridiculous impossibility. So at what point do we reach too much of the wonderful thing known as homo sapiens? We love water, but too much is a destructive flood. Have we, in our enormously successful filling of the earth, now become a human inundation?

Such questions are always controversial, not least amongst Christians who (rightly) cherish children as gifts from a loving Father. But raising such questions in a simplistic manner can actually serve a dangerous hidden agenda. When you start crunching the numbers, the key figure in ecological degradation is not seven billion, since seven billion are not created equal (at least in terms of ecological impact). A single affluent Australian may have a total destructive impact on the planet that is more than one hundred or even a thousand times greater than a typical rural African. Taking carbon footprints as an example, the average US baby will be responsible for more carbon emissions in their first year of life than an average Ethiopian in their entire lifetime. The Bangladeshi with ten children may still have a far smaller drain on the planet's resources than a childless European businessman. And so, if we only look at population and ignore consumption, then the problem becomes Africa, where birth rates are highest.

Yet Africa contributes a relatively tiny share of the total demand on the earth's systems. In absolute terms and especially per capita, the developed world still bears the lion's share. Again, to pick a single statistic (which turns out to be reasonably representative of other metrics): globally, the wealthiest 11% contribute 50% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions while the poorest 50% contribute 11% (a surprising, but very memorable symmetry).

Therefore, the first issue is and must remain consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption. Or as Monbiot puts it, it's not sex, it's money. Too narrow a focus on population enables those of us who are wealthy to ignore the very real threat our lifestyles and economic system are to the planet and all its inhabitants. In some cases, a population obsession may even be a mask for xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments that have little to do with ecological concerns.

The much-feared "population bomb" is already being de-fused. As mentioned above, fertility rates have fallen rapidly across much of the globe to levels now only just above replacement (2.5 children per women; replacement is considered to be 2.1). While each billion has taken fewer years to add than the last, the rate of growth has been in decline for about four decades and the ongoing growth is largely the result of so many young people being born in the last few decades, giving the system a certain momentum. Where we end up is currently estimated to be around ten billion (give or take a billion or two, largely depending on how quickly African women receive access to adequate education and healthcare). As countries develop out of absolute poverty, first death rates decline, then birth rates, until population levels stabilise. This has been (or is currently) the experience of every nation thus far and is known as the "benign demographic transition". The demographic transition refers to the shift from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. It is labelled benign because it means that human populations will not continue expanding exponentially like bacteria in a petri dish (another image much loved by certain demographic doomers).

What is less often noted is that the benign demographic transition assumes that the nations currently still experiencing high fertility rates will see them decline as their affluence increases. Thus, we avoid a population explosion though a consumption explosion. The benign demographic transition may not be so benign after all if the model of development used to bring it about assumes that everyone ought to be living like us.

I do think that "the more the merrier" is true, yet on a finite planet, I believe it most prudent to pursue this diachronically, not synchronically. That is, the way to welcome the most humans onto the planet is probably not to try to do so all at once, lest we exacerbate the damage we are presently doing to the globe's carrying capacity and so reduce the possibilities of future generations. In considering this damage, population is a secondary issue, yet it is an issue nonetheless. Since we still walk a path of high consumption and great inequality (and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future) then efforts to slow population growth sooner rather than later are one way of reducing the damage being done to the planetary conditions necessary for human flourishing. Of course, these efforts must remain subordinated to tackling over-consumption (which is the primary issue) and never be allowed to become an excuse to shift our own weighty responsibilities onto the poor.

Ultimately, it is possible to live a flourishing life not mired in stupid poverty without it costing the earth. A good life need not be a life of high consumption. The other alternatives are to abandon any notion of justice and expect the poor to stay poor, to institute draconian population controls or to abandon any attempt to pass on an earth anything like the present one to our children. Very significantly lower per capita consumption in the rich world is the only path that enables the simultaneous pursuit of both ecological responsibility and social justice for those living in absolute poverty in a world of seven billion and rising. Fortunately, it is also the path to greater joy.