Thursday, June 5, 2014

Why Christians Ought to Care About Scarcity, Dependency, and Relocalization

At one point in the film Titanic, the character Thomas Andrews (who was the naval architect who designed the ship) is talking with J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the steamship line that owned the Titanic.  Ismay is incredulous about Andrews' pronouncement that the ship will sink in less than two hours.

ISMAY:  But this ship can't sink.

ANDREWS:  She's made of iron, sir.  She can . . . and she will.  It is a mathematical certainty.

There are, likewise, certain ecologic and financial trendlines that -- when studied apart from agendas that are embarrassed by reality -- have arrived at a point and achieved a degree of momentum in the direction of certain catastrophe from which there will be no return.  Climate change may be the most obvious, but included in the list of certain calamities are ocean acidification, fresh water depletion, topsoil loss, resource extraction peaks, species dieoffs, deforestation, fishery collapses, unpayable debts to core nations by peripheral ones, and unpayable debts by the United States to other core nations, and the list goes on.

No deus ex machina hangs above the stage to rescue the situation, though many expect one -- technological or political or both.  Pure fantasy, one that even Christians indulge in the face of our own conviction that the world is, indeed, broken (by human arrogance) and can be unbroken only through our reconciliation with God.

Equally certain is that political organizing by the comparative handful of people who simultaneously recognize these trends for what they are and want to do what would be necessary to halt them will be insufficient to overcome political opposition to those necessary changes . . . and furthermore, were the politically improbable come to pass and this tiny handful of caring activists take political office in time to reverse policies, no policy or set of policies would be sufficient to overcome the momentum/inertia of society's actually existing self-organization within the current social paradigm (hydrocarbon industrialization, market domination of human economic activity and relations, and bureaucratically organized, large-scale centralization).

There is a final certainty at play here, one that is in a sense anthropological, and that is that people will change the way they do things when change becomes unavoidable.  They will do what they deem necessary to eat, drink, clothe themselves, take shelter, and stay warm during the winter.  Michel de Certeau, a Jesuit philosopher, psychologist, and social critic, pointed out in his signature work, The Practice of Everyday Life, that rules and instruction books and norms, which attempt to freeze time and exert control, are constantly bent or broken by real people who cannot freeze time and find themselves facing situations that are too unique and too complex to be accounted for by the rules.  People, in other words, "get by" through improvisation.

I have been guilty of saying that people "ought to" grow more of their food and otherwise reduce their dependency on a far-flung, bureaucratically centralized, large-scale, and unsustainable ("It is made of iron.  It can . . . and it will.") systems-grid over which they currently exercise no meaningful control.  But that is a normative statement.  The fact that the last part is true -- that part about these systems being incapable of survival in the long term -- means they will collapse by and by, and that when they do, we will no longer be dependent upon them, because they will cease to exist.  What things shall look like between now and then, however, is not as inevitable as the approaching fact of these systems' dissipation.  The figurative landing from this flight, you might say, can be a crash, a rough landing, or a comparatively smooth landing.  Different people in different circumstances will experience it differently, and, moreover, differences in circumstance is one aspect of the future over which we can exercise some actual degree of control.

The reason there is some control available, delimited as it is by the macro-environment, is that people can take certain measures below the radar (forgive the accumulation of aeronautical metaphors) of political and economic power.  This is the level, so to speak, at which de Certeau observed people "getting  by," improvizing by bending, breaking, or circumventing the rules and expectations built into the systems.

One of the characteristics of our dilemma that goes unnoticed because it has been naturalized by modern language and practice is that we live in a condition of enforced scarcity.  I don't mean maldistribution, the rich taking more than their share and leaving the rest to fight one another for crumbs, though that is one facet of the problem.  I mean that when society is organized in such a way that monetized markets dominate all other forms of activity, the finitude of money is felt as scarcity itself.  This is not merely a function of greed.  It is structural, and money can only function as a totalizing force when production and consumption are spatially separated.

If one thing you need is made in California, another in China, another in New York, another in Honduras, and yet another in Switzerland, then general-purpose money is necessary as a universal exchange equivalent to make, move, and sell these products.  An old-time subsistence farm produced much of what it consumed.  Production and consumption were co-located.  No money was involved; and in localized economies, money was useful, but it might be substituted for through barter and other forms of reciprocation.  In some local economies prior to the advent of modernity, there was local redistribution of surpluses by a local central authority known and recognized by all.

Specialization is the enemy of local autarky, and specialization has been driven by the need for greater and greater "efficiency" in the production of commodities for profit (which in turn require greater and more distant markets to compensate for local market saturation).  Specialization increases our dependency, because we only know how to make a piece of a thing, as it were.  The subsistence farm family knew how to do all the things necessary for the production of a livelihood.  They were generalists.

This rather abject dependency on money constitutes our inability to escape the ways in which we are dependent on the systems-grid and our dependency on the powers that control both politics and production . . . powers for which we have little to no access, and which operate with no meaningful accountability to us.  (Elections do not solve this, they legitimate it with the illusion of participation.)

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this dependency for thoughtful Christians is the way this entrapment in monetary dependency, delocalization, and hyper-specialization forces us to be (and feel) complicit in so much about the world that we recognize as wrong.  People with more money have greater power within our congregations, whether we like it or not.  We are obliged by law to pay taxes for targeted assassinations, war materiel, and corporate subsidies.  We practice charity impersonally, through agencies using "experts."  We purchase things knowing that they were produced in conditions that are alienating and exploitative.  We drive cars, knowing that they contribute to climate change.  We can't see the way clear.

We conform.

Because we can't see how not to.

And yet, at least as I understand the church as it ought to be, Christians are called to be counter-cultural.  We are called as communities that in our speech and actions cast before us the image of the Kingdom of God, the peaceable kingdom that was inaugurated in cross and resurrection.  We are called to be the outposts of that kingdom in a world still in rebellion.  That kingdom is not characterized by scarcity and conflict, but by abundance and peace.  Its boundaries are not impregnable, impermeable, but open.  It is not organized by domination, but by love.  Our sovereign, who became flesh, did not wield a sword, but made himself vulnerable even to death.  There is no such thing as intimacy without vulnerability, and this applies not only to our relations with others, but for our relation to God's Creation.

So what can the church do?

Here, at least, I have a modest suggestion.  First, we can discern the ways in which scarcity, dependency, and delocalization contribute to our complicities.  Next, we can recognize, if we discover that the grim forecast is indeed likely, that likewise, people will be compelled to adapt.  If we accept that this is indeed inevitable, by and by, we can begin to reflect on the ways that people can change their own circumstances to minimize the crashes, survive the rough landings, and, wherever possible, achieve the smooth landings.

These are the reasons we need to understand what is going on "under the radar," already, among people who use terms like resilience, relocalization, permaculture, and transition.  Churches (using the plural now to emphasize locality) are in a unique position to take the initiative to explain these things to people, to provide the resources for reskilling, and to begin to experiment with and exemplify the ways that people can reduce dependency, relocalize, and begin to see that Creation is abundant when we learn to work with nature instead of trying to dominate it.

Churches also have their problems with a Jesus whose only economics are jokes. A savior undermines the foundations of any social doctrine of the Church. But that is what He does, whenever He is faced with money matters. According to Mark 12:13 there was a group of Herodians who wanted to catch Him in His own words. They ask "Must we pay tribute to Caesar?" You know His answer:

"Give me a coin – tell me whose profile is on it!." Of course they answer "Caesar's."

The drachma is a weight of silver marked with Caesar's effigy.

A Roman coin was no impersonal silver dollar; there was none of that "trust in God" or adornment with a presidential portrait. A denarius was a piece of precious metal branded, as it were, like a heifer, with the sign of the personal owner. Not the Treasury, but Caesar coins and owns the currency. Only if this characteristic of Roman currency is understood, one grasps the analogy between the answer to the devil who tempted Him with power and to the Herodians who tempt Him with money. His response is clear: abandon all that which has been branded by Caesar; but then, enjoy the knowledge that everything, everything else is God's, and therefore is to be used by you.

The message is so simple: Jesus jokes about Caesar. He shrugs off his control. And not only at that one instance… Remember the occasion at the Lake of Capharnaum, when Peter is asked to pay a twopenny tax. Jesus sends him to throw a line into the lake and pick the coin he needs from the mouth of the first fish that bites. Oriental stories up to the time of Thousand Nights and One Night are full of beggars who catch the fish that has swallowed a piece of gold. His gesture is that of a clown; it shows that this miracle is not meant to prove him omnipotent but indifferent to matters of money. Who wants power submits to the Devil and who wants denarri submits to the Caesar.
                  -Ivan Illich, 1988


  1. Very good. Many things to think about, not all of them pleasant. But it's what's happening now.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.


    The comments are interesting.

  3. Not sure if this fits on this topic or not, but here goes----I base these contributions on your statements that science is useful (not always good, but useful):

    A reply:

    In response to the Matt Ginsberg column about science and faith:

    Paul Scott: “He’s really walking on some very shaky planks trying not to offend either side. There is nothing in the scientific method that is dependent on faith. He would have been more accurate to say that the scientific method is not appropriate, or applicable, to all human decisions, including ethics, morality and religious practice. He’s completely right in saying rational decision-making is not the only way to motivate people. Conversely, religious faith is not appropriate or accurate in explaining the natural world as we know it either. For me, demanding that I chose one or the other is a false choice.”

  4. Sorry for the delay. I've been in the Upper Peninsula matching wits with fish (and I'll leave aside the embarrassing result).

    I can't get to the article in question, because it requires some kind of subscription. I agree that demanding one choose between faith and science is wrongheaded. I would also agree that rational decision-making is not the only way to motivate people. People are motivated by irrational things all the time. It is not scientific practice (which is all over the map) that is based on an article of faith (some is, some isn't... and there are several definitions of faith that need to be sorted here, too). Scientism, of the sort promoted by Dawkins and them, is totally faith-based.

  5. OK....sounds logical...goin" fishin' sounds good right now---been a carpenter on the new house for 2 months!

    Here's the article (you just have to hit the right button---return---they try and fool you!):

    "As I write this, I’m skipping church and en route to Detroit for a business trip. But most Sundays, I go to church.

    Monday through Friday, I’m a corporate executive and a scientist. Is there some conflict here between my being a man of faith on Sundays and a man of science the rest of the week?

    I would argue that there isn’t. To believe in science is to believe in the scientific method — it is to believe that intellectual progress comes from making falsifiable hypotheses (e.g., if I reward my dog when she obeys my commands, she will do so more reliably in the future). Those hypotheses are then checked against objective evidence and revised as required.

    Why do I believe that the scientific method works? The reason is unsatisfying: I believe that the scientific method works because it is supported by the scientific method. We make the (falsifiable!) hypothesis that this approach to knowledge will improve our ability to control our environment. And this hypothesis is borne out in practice, as we learn to modify our climate (intentionally or otherwise), cure diseases and build machines that would have been little less than miraculous a mere half century ago.

    But these successes do not change the fact that the underlying argument is completely circular. The argument that the scientific method is valid because it is supported by the scientific method is clearly absurd, like saying that I believe in the veracity of the Bible because the Bible itself tells me to. This isn’t reasoned belief. It’s simple faith.

    Random House defines “faith” as “belief that is not based on proof.” Conviction that the Bible is true is a matter of faith. And so is belief in the scientific method.

    Richard Dawkins is the shrilly atheistic author of “The God Delusion.” Ann Coulter, author of “Godless: The Church of Liberalism,” is just as shrill on the other side. Coulter would presumably argue that Dawkins has no faith; Dawkins would argue that Coulter’s beliefs are simply inconsistent.

    They’re both wrong. Dawkins’ faith in the scientific method is absolute. And Coulter’s beliefs need not be inconsistent simply because she doesn’t share Dawkins’ faith.

    It is not that one has faith and the other lacks it; it is simply that they have faith in different things.

    I am not trying to downplay the differences here. Differences of faith caused both the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. But differences of faith can — at least potentially — lead to more reasoned discussion than a lack of faith on one side or the other. I simply would not know how to discuss faith with someone who believed in nothing; thankfully, I’m not sure that there even are such people. We all have faith; it’s what lets us get up in the morning.

    If the question is one of what we have faith in, discussion should always be possible. If your unjustified beliefs are simply different from mine, we can work to understand the true source of the difference, the fundamental and essential beliefs that one of us has but the other lacks.

    And then ­— perhaps — we can simply agree to disagree. In a partisan world where beliefs are held passionately, that’s not such a bad result."

    Matt Ginsberg of Eugene, chairman of OnTime Systems, writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard.

  6. A link to RealNews:

    Emissions Reduction Impossible without Demilitarizing Foreign Policy

    Says, empirically, what we know, spiritually. One of the commenters below the main text was great....a (partial) quote:

    " Thus having the US secretary of war talk about 'climate mitigation', is like having John Wayne Gacy talk about being a good neighbor & mentor to young men."

    The tempter, indeed.