Western Lessons

I have crossed the American West, particularly Montana, several times in the last two years. The first time was by car, via Interstates 90 and 84, when some friends and I were traveling from Seattle to Friends General Conference (FGC). After that, I started visiting my beloved, Adrian, in Chicago. The trips, and what I’ve learned subsequently, have taught me vital lessons about what Friends—and indeed, all humans—are now called to do.

The friends I traveled with to FGC are dedicated environmentalists. One is the founder of the Seattle chapter of 350.org, and the other is her daughter, who planned and led a protest against climate change at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle before she left for college this fall. As we crossed the western plains we saw hundreds of windmills, generating electricity with no carbon required, and we were cheered to see them. But as we drove we reflected on the emissions we were pumping out, for even though we were driving a Prius, we were still burning oil. Continue reading

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Great and Small

(As I expect we will have some new readers shortly, this is both a new post and a guide to some of my recent thinking. Most of the links connect to earlier posts I’ve made.)

It’s quiet in my apartment this week. My partner Adrian is gone on work business, and it’s the first time we’ve been separated since we moved in together, so the daily rhythm that we’d begun to get accustomed to is suddenly gone. I’m not alone in the place, however; our cat, Hannah, is with me. Hannah is a tiny cat—in fact, her official nickname here is “Small One.”

I decided to take advantage of the quiet, and of Adrian’s library, by doing some reading and then some meditation. I picked up a book on alternatives to capitalism, a topic much in my mind of late. The theme dominated my thoughts as I tried to balance on my exercise ball and enter meditation.

I put the query out to the Spirit: “What would you want the economy to look like?”

And the Spirit answered, quite promptly: “Listen, and I’ll tell you.” So I listened. And the Spirit said:

“The great take care of the small.”

Ah, I thought. That makes sense—those with the greatest resources should take care of those with the least. Very Biblical, really. But how is that to be enforced? After all, there are many mechanisms in today’s society where the powerful and wealthy are supposed to look after the weak and poor, but too often they don’t seem to be doing it, or seem to do it so selectively that it’s not generally helpful for most people.

As I pondered this, a plaintive noise intruded on my thoughts. I looked down and saw the cat, trying to climb up into my lap. But since I was sitting on the exercise ball, I didn’t really have a lap, and Hannah was mewing with dismay. Oh, right, I realized. The great take care of the small. And here was the Small One, asking for some help. So I moved to the couch to generate a lap for her.

At first she decided she didn’t want it, after all, and roamed about the apartment for a bit—but before long she came back over and settled down, purring up a storm as we helped keep each other warm. Then the second piece of the lesson fell into place. “The great take care of the small” isn’t just an instruction—it’s a definition. If you don’t take care of others, you’re not great. Simple as that.

Which reminded me of many things: the idea of asking and giving rather than buying and selling; my thoughts on heaven and hell; how you get into heaven, according to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; the laborers in the vineyard; and the story, probably apocryphal but still containing much truth, of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to recite the whole of Hebrew Law while standing on one foot. Hillel promptly stood on one foot, recited “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), put his foot down, and said, “The rest is commentary.”

What should the economy look like, according to the Holy Spirit? One where people take care of each other. The rest is less critical.

An Adolescent System

Capitalism’s basic mechanism is sometimes boiled down to “Find a need and fill it.”*

Growing up, as I often teach my students, basically means, “You don’t always get what you want.”

If capitalism seeks to profit by filling every need (and inventing new ones, or trying to fill them faster), and if maturity means setting aside what you want, for a time, for someone else’s sake, or forever, then doesn’t it follow that capitalism is adolescent?

Some needs are best filled slowly, some needs are best filled only in part, and some needs are best not satisfied at all. But with the market’s efficiency, capitalism will try to fill the first category rapidly, the second category fully, and the third category quietly.

To say “I want everything and I want it now” is classic teenager behavior. But instead of advising us, “You can’t always get what you want,” capitalism says, “Absolutely! And here are more things to want, and ways to get them faster! Just type in your PIN here…” In fact, in doing some research for this piece, I came across many comments that “find a need and fill it” is bad business advice: the real money is in filling wants. Capitalism will even go so far as to suggest, “If you don’t get what you want right now, then you are a failure.” Capitalism does not understand self-sacrifice, and has forgotten anything it knew about delayed gratification.

Growing up means, in part, controlling one’s desires. This was something our wiser teachers tried to get into our heads. But capitalism would much rather our desires controlled us, to profit by us. The most insidious form of capitalism, after all, is to make money off never-ending desires: promise to fulfill a need/want, and not quite deliver, so that there’s more need tomorrow. This is why the drug trade is capitalism perfected: create a want so strong, so controlling, that a person will give you everything, including selling their children, in order to get it. And they’ll come back tomorrow for more.

Of course, since we are all participants in a capitalist system to one degree or another, capitalism is us.

So let’s pause for a moment, shall we?

What do we want… and what do we need?

I have been experimenting with paring back my desires. Some of my most heartfelt wants are for things that we capitalists have always promised each other but never could quite deliver: Time. Love. Peace. I also want justice, but I can’t remember capitalism ever promising that. I’ve wanted glory; I’m learning better, though my desire to leave a mark on the world is no less—I’m just much less excited about getting the credit. But let’s turn to the tangible. I want books; I’ve been selling off my library. I want music; I never buy albums, and have learned ways to borrow. I want games; I don’t buy new ones, and I’m contemplating throwing out or giving away the ones I have. I want TV shows: instead I watch online, or just tell myself no. I want a nice place to live—quiet, well-lit, safe, with a good kitchen. I’ve settled for a place to live, period. I want good, healthy, clean food; I’m still spending a lot of money on that, but I don’t buy meat even though I will eat it, and I’m starting to figure out how I can grow some of my own food.

I mean to control my own wants, needs, and desires as much as I can—because that’s what growing up means. I think most mature people would agree with me, and I hope they start to find similar ways to cut back the wants, scale back the desires, and focus on what needs to happen and what’s most important in life. If enough of us start to do that, we can begin to sort out the adolescents from the adults… and I think age would have nothing to do with it.

 

* The quote is attributed to Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale, but it was possibly popularized by Kaiser Cement Co., among others.

Want to Bet?

Today, campers, we’re going to talk about global warming. If you already believe in that, you can go play outside―or stay and watch the show, if you like, but this is specifically aimed at those who don’t think the planet is changing temperature. In fact I’m going to break my normal practice and refer directly to my skeptical audience as “you.”

Before we get started, a few definitions. What I mean by global warming―more properly termed climate change or climate chaos―is the average temperature of our planet climbing, generally because of an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “greenhouse effect” has been pretty well proved by the example of Venus, which is in fact warmer than Mercury due to carbon dioxide.

Note that I say nothing of what’s causing this increase in CO2. That’s because the effects of the increase are much the same regardless of whether it’s a natural process or man-made. Many people have pointed out that the recent increases in CO2 levels and average temperature are well within the extremes that Earth has experienced, according to the geologic record. This is true… but irrelevant, here. Continue reading

Cure the Sick

Recently it became clear that certain parties vying for the highest office in the United States feel that health care is something to be earned, not something freely given. Dr. Ron Paul essentially advised that anyone who could not afford care be left to die, and the crowd in the room with him evidently agreed. It has since become clear that this is no hypothetical for the congressman, as his manager in his 2008 campaign, Kent Snyder, died of pneumonia, uninsured. Reportedly a preexisting condition made purchasing insurance too expensive for Snyder.

Dr. Paul’s recent words on the subject:

“That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody…”

He didn’t quite finish his point, as there were too many people applauding. Continue reading

Palliatives

Every morning I climb out of bed, pull on some clothes, and fire up my computer. I check my email first — I work online, and keep in touch with my Quaker business via email, so this is a must. After that, I usually skip over to the Seattle Times website, to see what a mainstream newspaper has to say about the headlines; then I visit my favorite liberal/radical sites: AlterNet, for that note of hysteria; Feministing, to keep my white middle-class male self in line; and finally Sociological Images, to teach myself how to see the world with clearer eyes. As I mentioned earlier, I check the National Hurricane Center’s website during storm season.

Then I read the comics. Continue reading

Something for Nothing

There was a candidate who ran for senate in my state this summer; he was eliminated by the primary, as expected, but he serves as a useful example of a common phenomenon in the United States these days. He is a farmer of sorts, and stood with the Tea Party in saying that he and his fellow agribusinessmen of Eastern Washington are taxed far too highly and receive nothing but grief from the government in return. Yet his farm is watered by the Grand Coulee Dam, a New Deal project, and he receives government subsidies from the Department of Agriculture. In short, without the Federal Government his farm, and all the others between the Cascades and the Palouse, would not exist. Not profitably, anyway. So his insistence that he pays more in taxes than he receives in benefits is puzzling. His distaste for taxes is understandable; I even share his dislike. Yet the Feds are undoubtedly pouring money into his farm, not taking it out, in the form of subsidies and water–and both are paid for by taxes. In short, until recently we had a candidate for senate who swears he owes DC nothing, when in fact he owes DC everything. He, the rest of the Tea Party, and often the rest of the GOP as a whole, seem to expect something for nothing–and how often does that work? Continue reading