Wondering about Fall

I’m not a professor, but I play one on—no, wait—wrong commercial.  I’m not a professor, but I used to be.  Now as the spring semester, which ended remotely, is winding down all over schools are asking what they should do in the autumn.  Should the fall semester—the great migratory event of the human species—be virtual or actual?  We know the coronavirus will still be lurking out there, and we know that colleges mix people from all over the world, which is one of the real essentials of education.  I try to picture myself teaching to a classroom of masked faces.  I try to envision frat parties with social distancing.  I try to imagine the dining halls where students are packed in closely together, handling knives, forks, and spoons that others have touched.  I think and shudder.

I know some younger folks.  They tend to trust certain internet personalities because they seem smart.  I’ve even occasionally asked what the qualifications of such personalities were only to receive an “I don’t know” answer.  This is among educated viewers.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t have my diplomas on the wall behind me.  I never even had them framed.  They’re still in the tubes.  I had to show my Ph.D. diploma to two recent employers even though I was hired by universities without ever having to unroll it.  That was back in the day when you could have face-to-face interviews.  Back when a bona fide degree from a world-class research university meant something.  Now economics are being weighed against wisdom.  It’s not a fair fight.

There’s a reason economics is called “the dismal science.”  With Malthusian overtones, we increase to the point of stressing our resources.  A disease breaks out and quickly spreads through our dense populations, but not our denser individuals.  We don’t want to be seen as uneducated, but there’s the great god Mammon to consider.  Funny thing is, back when I was still teaching schools like Rutgers had a difficult time getting tenured professors to train for online courses.  Why put yourself through the trouble when your job is already secure?  They trained adjuncts such as myself instead.  There was, to put it in economic terms, already a demand for online education.  But there are campuses to be maintained, and there’s only so much you can do at home with your own chemistry set.  And so we face the summer wondering how it will end.  It’s time for some critical thinking, but that’s above my pay scale.

Peaceful Resolutions

It came as a shock.  Raised as I was in a nation enamored of weaponry, I did not realize that many countries in the world do not have armies.  In some places, such as Israel, service in the military is compulsory.  In approximately twenty nations, however, people are secure enough not to require armies.  It’s probably symptomatic that such nations are fairly small in land area.  The more you’ve got, the more you want to protect.  Without materialism would we even need militaries?  Yes, we fight over different religious beliefs, but those conflicts are tied to a sense of ownership as well.  This is “our land” and don’t “you” tell us what to do in it!  I can imagine a world where armies need not exist.  The key, it seems to me, is love.

In a Simpsonesque way, of course, hostile aliens might invade.  Could we not try to come to a peaceful resolution?  Or could we not learn to protect ourselves without having to be in a position to destroy those who might prefer a more socialistic lifestyle?  Those who might look different?  Those whose moral standards push us to think more broadly?  Like many people I’m dismayed at the unconscionable size of our military budget.  Killing the world once over is no longer enough.  Now we have to try to pollute space as well.  Where are those aliens when we need them?

The fact is nations exist on this earth without standing armies.  They don’t cause trouble and some of them are extremely bookish (no surprise there).  Can we imagine what our world would look like with an education budget swapping places with the military one?  Do we dare even think such dangerous thoughts as peace and mutual goodwill?  Is no-one big enough to stand up to Adam Smith (with kudos to Thomas Piketty for trying!)?  The wealth of nations could be applied to make well-fed security mostly a reality.  We lack the will.  Well, most of us do.  I draw comfort knowing that several small nations around the world feel no need to waste their budgets on weaponry.  Their rich may not own dozens of houses fit for dozens of kings, but they have perhaps a peace of mind that no amount of military might can give.  We don’t seem to understand that weapons cater to fear, and that, as one religious text says, “perfect love casts out fear.”   

The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Net Worth

Net worth—a strange concept for human beings—is calculated on the basis of how much cash you’re “worth.”  While on that lonely task of sorting through the attic, I came across many boxes of books for which we didn’t have room in our apartment.  Our guests, who’ve been few, feel obligated to comment on how many books we have, as if it’s an infirmity to be delicately broached.  Or for which something might be prescribed.  I grew up believing that what we call “net worth” should be assessed in how much a person knows.  Knowledge, not money, in my fantasy moments, would drive the world forward.  Books are cheap (generally, but you don’t want to know what I’ve paid for some of these volumes when I really needed them!) and don’t retain resale value, except perhaps in the textbook market.  They’re considered a throwaway commodity.

Although I didn’t read it, a recent bestseller claimed you could find happiness by removing clutter, and high on the priority list of things to ditch was books.  Will you ever read that again?  For me the question is rather, will I ever need to look something up in there again?  Surprisingly often the answer is yes.  Considering the fact that books are knowledge, they’re a remarkably good bargain for the price.  Regardless of clutter.  Perhaps that’s a kind of wisdom itself.  Books are heavy, though, especially in any numbers.  Weight means something.  What they contain has the potential of being priceless, even though it’s available to anyone else with a copy.

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow, back in the days when you could still get television reception with just an antenna.   You always felt bad for the poor hopeful who’d brought an old book, dreaming of riches.  Apart from handwritten manuscripts, books are mass produced, almost by definition.  The printing press, after all, was designed to produce multiple copies.  Sure, if you go back far enough, or you have a tome rare enough, you might get a nice price for it.  Everyone I saw on the Roadshow left with their disappointment worn obviously on their faces.  You’re better off buying a vase.  That’s only if your bottom line is your net worth, though.  If you want to strive for what’s really important in life, I’d go for the book almost every time.  Of course, while up there moving those boxes around I began to wonder about the net worth of a good back brace as well.

Whose Story?

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What really happened? I grew up thinking that reading history gave the answer to that question. In fact, it is a viewpoint that I still struggle against. You see, historians try to marshal as many facts as they can to support their reconstruction of events in the past. Somethings, clearly, “really happened.” What those things are, however, depends on your point of view. For example we know that the twentieth century was dominated by wars and economic crises. Apart from a few periods when things seemed largely okay, it was a century of leapfrogging crisis after crisis. Historians pick a set of circumstances in this mix—let’s say the Second World War—and try to explain what led to certain results. But what if we stop to think about such events from another point of view? What if we think about it from the perspective that “nations” are purely fictional inventions? Who wins such a conflict?

This is more than an idle thought-experiment. We, as people, base our self-perception on how we view our personal histories. It can be quite jarring to have someone contradict our own personal narrative of “what really happened.” I’ve run into that from time to time—my reconstruction of events is not the same as someone else’s reconstruction. Who’s right? There’s no objective history. There are only events viewed from multiple angles. Turn the clock back a few centuries—was Jesus of Nazareth a political criminal (the Roman point of view), or a great sage out to save the world (a Christian point of view)? And these are only two out of many possible views of a political execution.

As we enter an era of post-truth politics, we’re going to find more and more historical events questioned. Facts have lost the anchoring functions they used to have. Historians built narratives by stepping from fact to fact, like using a series of stones to cross a river. They can’t tell us what really happened, but they can make sense out of an otherwise confusing stream of chaotic events. The thing about history, however, is that you have to read it to understand. Certain things we’ve pretty much all come to agree upon are now being questioned by those who see everything through the lens of capitalism. Money changes history. It is a narrative of great power as long as everyone agrees it’s true. What really happened? I think we may have all been too quick to accept what economists have told us and we have fabricated a fictional story that we can all believe.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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Buying Faith

Can belief be quantified? Apparently yes. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid the dismal science, yet it seems that everyone else is pretty much agreed that money is the measure of all things. Higher education has certainly been chasing that rabbit for years. My choice of “careers” has always been aimed at those which downplay finance while paying enough to cover the bills. One has to be practical. My wife recently sent me an article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood entitled, “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined’.” At first, I have to admit, a kind of triumphalism overcame me. A vindication that I had chosen a valuable aspect of human existence with which to while away my years here on earth. Then came the troubling implications.

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We tend to hear only the bad news about religion. Religion, we’re told, is only super-sized superstition. It supports prejudice. It capitalizes on fear. And nobody really believes anymore. And so the trite truisms march past like tin soldiers on their way to a real war. You see, if we can’t put a dollar value on religion—or any belief system—then we have no way to assess whether it’s worth wasting our time on or not. Maybe people will begin to pay attention now. There’s gold in them thar hills. Yes, the religious are more likely to open their wallets and keep the economy moving than are the wealthy. Yes, those are antithetical groups, for the most part. When we can start toting up dollars and pence it is time for those with more dismal scientific interest to take notice.

Religions, like all human institutions, have faults. They are prone to takeover by self-interested individuals who look for the angle that will lead to personal power or fame. They do often insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of what life means and how we should go about pleasing a deity that only they truly understand. And they bicker amongst each other. It’s easy to forget that religions are based, without exception, on the belief that human life can be improved. We can do better, people. Takeovers, sometimes hostile, can occur. One sect may take out a contract on another. Love may be recast as hatred. Overall, however, religions are, to borrow a phrase from a sage, “our better angels.” And of course, the fact that you can put a dollar value on that only sweetens the deal. The dismal science has studied the matter and its conclusions are indisputable.

Meaningful Fear

BeVeryAfraidReading about the things that wrong, like terrorist attacks, may not be the best way to occupy your time on a bus heading to New York City. Robert Wuthnow’s Be Very Afraid is appropriately titled, in any case. I had been warned. Discussing sociological reactions to nuclear war, terrorism, pandemics, and global warming, Wuthnow suggests, sensibly, that action is the best response. He also points out that, statistically, people tend not to panic. What I’d like to focus on is his repeated assertion that humans need to find meaning. Disasters only bring this into clearer view.

We live in an age when religion and philosophy have been relegated to the children’s table of academic pursuits. They are, however, the traditional intellectual ways of finding meaning . Economists may be paid much more, and scientists receive more respect, but when the bombs fall or avian flu really strikes, even they sometimes turn to their beleaguered colleagues for answers. Money is notoriously poverty-ridden when it comes to purchasing meaning. Reductionistic materialism may allow a final shrug as the curtain falls, but plenty of scientists hope for a little something more. Not everyone, of course, finds meaning in religion or deep reflection, but we are all human and we want to know what it’s all about. We need to have somewhere to look.

Even as a child I was preoccupied with meaning. I wanted to be the usual things when I grew up—scientist, firefighter, G.I. Joe—but when it came time to make actual choices I moved in the direction of careers that would allow me to find meaning. I swiftly learned they didn’t pay well. Money is not meaning, however. I was teaching in a seminary when 9/11—a major topic of Wuthnow’s study—occurred. I saw people desperately seeking meaning, but not knowing where to look. This was just my fear, growing up; what does it profit someone to gain the whole world if s/he is groping about in the dark for meaning? We’ve created a world where even greater causes of fear are likely to arise. In our emergency kits, it seems, we should leave a little room for meaning.

Can of Worms

A great variety of food comes in cans. My mind naturally turns to vegetables and beans, but “tinned meat” was a staple of my childhood, including the now derided Spam. When I see octopus and squid in cans I’m glad I’m now a vegetarian. Once—it may have been in Canada—I even saw bread in a can. My wife and I used to can vegetables at home when we had a garden and commuting didn’t eat up every spare second of the day. For the store-bought can, however, a can opener is essential. The idea is to seal the outside world out, to avoid contamination. To get to the goodies inside you need a tool. A can opener. In these days of emergency preparedness, a can opener can be a matter of life and death, or so we’re led to believe. Dry goods can survive without special preservation, but most require cooking and if the power’s out, well, cans can be much easier. I’m writing about cans because our can opener doesn’t work. We don’t have one of the electric machines that takes up counter space and would be useless in an emergency, but the basic hand-held device that’s designed to remove the lid from a can. I hope there are no hurricanes before we can get another.

A little context is in order here; after all, this blog is about profound things. We’ve gone through four can openers in the past six months or so. (Similar statistics apply to rotary cheese graters and garlic presses, but they are less crucial in an emergency.) The underlying issue is ethics: when you buy something durable, you expect it to last. Now you’re probably thinking, “don’t buy cheap merchandise, then.” We tried getting all of these devices from kitchen stores (not outlets!) and for a price that edged us beyond the comfort zone for a basic tool. These were the ones that went defunct the quickest. Our economy is built on the premise that people have to spend. When I was a kid, we had a can opener that remained the same through my childhood and college years. And we were poor. Now that we’re warned of terror on every side, you’d better have access to a store when that emergency comes because your can opener can fail you.

I know how to use a pocket-knife can opener. In fact, over the holidays I had to resort to one since stores weren’t open and our most recent addition to the can opener family had died. I made sure to show my daughter how to use the pocket knife device. When we lived in Wisconsin we learned how to make our own candles too. During Hurricane Sandy, a decade after they were dipped, these candles proved their worth. With no electricity for three days, we did rely on a can opener. Since then we have not found one that lasts. It seems that our economic plan as a nation is at odds with our national emergency preparedness. Even in the event of a war, we’re told, companies won’t produce weaponry unless they can make a profit. In days like these it seems that a pocket knife might be the wisest investment of all.

Why would anyone need two?  Now I get it!

Why would anyone need two? Now I get it!

The Bottom Line

AltarWallStUnderstanding, or even caring about, economics has been one of my abiding weaknesses. I suppose growing up poor, excess money was a foreign concept—at least on a quotidian basis—the possibility of acquiring much of it remote. The poor know their place. Still, I was intrigued by Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. It has turned out to be one of those very important books that could be world-changing, if enough people read it. The basic idea is simple enough: Economics is a religion. Immediately many people will put the book down. Economics may be the dismal science, but at least it’s a science, right? Not so. Not completely. While economics uses scientific principles (as does theology), it is a belief system based on an underlying myth that has pushed us to the place where the rich are far too rich and we’re convinced that the plight of the poor is simply a reality with which we must live. It’s all based on a myth of barter.

There are places I quibble with Gustafson, but he makes a very compelling case that the Global Economy, through a series of historically discernible steps, has come to be money making money for money’s sake. As he clearly demonstrates, developments in stock trading have made this an enterprise where people are completely left out of the equation and understanding what has happened impossible. As long as money has been made, the Economy is happy. This way of thinking, which is de rigueur for business schools and presidential wannabes, believes with the conviction of an evangelical that as long as money circulates everything will be fine. Those who believe this walk down Fifth Avenue with blinders on.

Step by step Gustafson demonstrates that Economics has all the trappings of any religion: a priesthood, mythology, rites and rituals, and an overarching theology. And this belief structure, like that of many religions, persecutes heretics. Indeed, human sacrifice is an innate part of this religion called Economy. It has sent missionaries out to the far reaches of the world to convert other ways of living to that of the Global Economy. And in this religion, it is safe to say, those who make it to Heaven are remarkably few. This book does offer potential solutions. They are solutions the wealthy and powerful will not like, so they are probably not going to be enacted any time soon, if at all. So while the rest of us are standing in line at the soup kitchen, I would suggest some reading that will make far more sense than you think it might. At the Altar of Wall Street could change the world for the better, if the Economy allows it.

Riding a Cycle

Spare-ribs and sauerkraut. My step-father always insisted on these for the turning of a new year. The old year was to end on something sour while the new was to begin with something sweet. So his reasoning went. It is this Janus-faced aspect of the new year optimism that we anticipate with such high hopes every twelve months, only to come back to another gray December. Time, since antiquity, was considered something cyclical. Today we think of time as linear—a line stretching from there to here, nobody really knowing where it might end. New Year’s Day reminds us of that obscure hope that things might indeed get better.

Since I’ve been cast into the role of someone dependent on business for a living, I’ve become keenly aware that, although the fiscal year doesn’t end for another three months, and the school year doesn’t begin for about six more after that, we open each year on the hope for better profit than the previous one. In a way that I’ve always felt earned economics its sobriquet of the dismal science, constant increase in a world of limited resources is sure to disappoint. What is really sought, it appears, is more for me, which means less for you. Born an idealist, I find the whole concept baffling. If I have too much to use, shouldn’t I share it with those who don’t have enough? Those who read about the behavior of apes would recognize this basic altruism as deeply embedded in the primate genome. Unless, of course, that primate is a human being.

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I wish that a New Year celebration could be more universal than just fiscal success. It is always my hope as a new year begins that by the end of it we will all be in a place we would prefer to be. Those of us who live under the law of greed and personal gain have long felt the frowning aspect of Janus’s face. As the year turns over in the month named for this deity of thresholds, we hope that a smile might beam down upon us, and that a new year might truly be new. Knowing this is an election year, however, has come to cause increasing anxiety. Those who can command public attention are those with the deepest coffers. Those most unworthy to lead. We do, however, love our entertainment. The Force has awakened, and what might we anticipate for 2016? For me, no animal has ribs to spare, but the symbol has become increasingly apt. Let’s hope the Force is good and will awaken peace.

Forward Planning

Smallmindedness bothers me.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t claim any great intelligence for myself.  I’m just an average guy who thinks too much.  No, the smallmindedness that I despise comes in capitalist colors.  More specifically, it comes in the form of business-speak.  This is a language in which I make no claims of fluency, but in which I am forced to converse from time to time.  I believe there is a secret coven of businessmen hidden in a dark board room determined to make themselves sound intellectual by cobbling together polysyllables.  Business is, at the heart of it, really simple.  I want your money; how little can I give you for it?  They call economics the dismal science for a reason.  In any case, the other day I was confronted with the phrase “forward planning.”  It was like one of those moments when you walk into the wrong room and you’re disoriented for just a second or two because what you see is not what you expected through that door.  Forward planning.  What other kind of planning is there?  Backward planning?  Victims of time have no choice in the matter.
 
I’m bemused by the ubiquity of “best practices.”  No, thank you.  I prefer to use worst practices.  Of course we all want to do things the best way possible.  Putting insipid neologisms in the way is not how one achieves it.  What’s wrong with just saying what you mean?  Oh, I forgot—the guys in the shadowy boardroom.  There’s nothing like lingo to substitute for depth.
 
At a campus book sale a few weeks ago, I found a copy of the Compact Oxford Dictionary.  Fully aware that any word can be instantly searched online, I hefted the two, heavy volumes and for six dollars walked out with over a million words.  People on campus looked at me funny.  Someone even asked why in the world would I buy a dictionary?  There are plenty of answers I could give.  I could say that I like the feel of something solid in my hands when I practice scholarship.  I could say that it impresses people when you show them how small the type is.  I could say that I have some leaves I’d like to flatten effectively.  The truth, I suspect, you’ve already divined.  I bought these books because no matter how much you look, you won’t find “forward planning” listed anywhere as a legitimate concept.

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O My Stars

I know many conservative religious believers. I also know a lot of nones and atheists. One thing they all have in common is that they want to believe the truth. They want to do what is right. Enter the media. A day of peace and prosperity for all is a slow news day. To keep the pot boiling, differences need to be emphasized and people’s fears and frustrations must be highlighted. Nowhere is this better on display than in party politics. Do people really not get along at all? Are we really so polarized? A friend recently sent me an internet story about the Republican elephant. Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to the posturing of the GOP since so much of it is obviously show. The coalition, cynical at best, between the evangelical camp and the fiscal conservatives has created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of the party which began out of an anti-slavery movement and was represented in the politics of Abraham Lincoln. I have trouble seeing him approve of Reaganomics or some of evils that have flowed from it. We are more deeply divided now than we ever were during the Civil War. And better armed too.

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So, what about the Republican elephant? The stars on the blue top half are upside-down. I’m not sure if this represents a change or not. The problem, of course, is that the upside-down star is a “pentagram” associated with Satanism (which is not what most people think it is). The insinuation is that the symbol was subtly changed to reflect the true values of the party. I don’t know if the stars on the elephant were ever right-side up. As long as I’ve been politically aware, the Republican party has been the one that supports the wealthy while trying to cut the poor and working class from the budget in any way possible in order to build an ever stronger military to protect the plutocracy for which it stands. One nation, under Mammon, with surveillance and distrust for all. Principles, in my opinion, far worse than Satanism.

Ironically, in this media fueled division of the nation, conservatives know and hate Satanism. In fact, seeing a pentagram pattern in school bus taillights can send the internet into a tizzy. We’re afraid, but of what we don’t properly know. Must be those liberals with their radical ideas of liberty and justice for all. On the street things haven’t felt like they’re getting better for a very long time. Each year since the overspending Bush decade the economy has found inventive ways to get worse and worse. One thing remains constant—the ultra-wealthy flock to the political party that once stood for freeing of slaves and uniting a deeply divided nation. The best way to keep us together is to keep us afraid. That’s easily done when economists tell us you can’t hope to retire with the medical benefits and living standards of the middle class without at least a million dollars in the bank. Something’s upside-down alright, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what.

Too Much Stuff

The informal name for economics, rightly, is “the dismal science.” When I recently learned about The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.org), I found myself again shaking my head in dismay. I have no problem admitting that I’m a liberal pretty much through and through. I believe what I believe is right. Statistics show that the older we grow the more conservative we become, but in my case the opposite trend seems to be in effect. I grew up in a conservative backwater and I saw first-hand what it did to those who adhere to it most religiously. Rouseville, the town where I spent my teens, was an industrial armpit, dominated by a large Pennzoil refinery, now derelict. The town smelled bad despite the pristine woods that surrounded it, and pollution was everywhere evident. People didn’t move away because they couldn’t. Drugs were a rampant problem and I never felt safe going out at night, even though it was a town of less than a thousand souls.

Growing up I often wondered about this. When you live close to the edge, you hang on. The existence of the working class is precarious. Living in a cancer factory like that, you needed your job more than you needed food. If you were to survive, you had to work. Pennzoil was the only game in town. Local pride at being near the fountain head of the oil industry helped only a little. I turned to spirituality to cope. I’m now told that’s naive. I’m told that meaning is found in consuming. The most disheartening part of The Story of Stuff was learning that this was all intentional. Victor Lebow’s 1955 assessment of where our dismal science must go chills me:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.”

Our spiritual satisfaction in buying? And what is more, this advice has been heeded as gospel by the government. Is it any wonder that one percent tell the rest of us what to do? It is time for civilization to grow up. Our infantile need for more stuff has poisoned the very well from which we drink. It may cost you some sleep, but take a look at the Story of Stuff. What you lose in sleep you may gain in peace of mind. And soul.

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Sustain This

Sustainability“Grant me chastity and continence,” Augustine famously prayed, “but not yet.” That tragicomic scene kept coming to me as I read Jeremy L. Caradonna’s Sustainability: A History. Few ideas can bear the sheer weight of irony than that of a human population destroying their own and only planet. We know we’re doing it, and yet for a few more greenbacks to flash before our fabulously wealthy peers, we don’t mind warming the place up by a few degrees. There’ll be time to throw on the brakes right before the crash. I once took a ride, perhaps unwisely, with a friend who believed nothing could go wrong. Although the car didn’t actually roll, it came awfully close, and I am haunted by what might have happened. The difference between that incident and destruction of the environment is that the latter has already happened.

I’m cynical enough not to believe in simple solutions to complex problems, and reading Caradonna was a sobering finish to a day that had started out optimistically. Such books are not easy to read. Science does not come charging over the hill like the cavalry to save us at the end of the picture. You can’t take your marbles and go home when the marble is home. Sustainability does not set out to be a bleak book. There is a guarded optimism to it, and I was particularly pleased to see that sustainists readily recognize that without some kind of just distribution of goods, no system will ever be sustainable. I had no idea, until I read this book, that some economists advocate for a steady state economic existence instead of the ridiculously illogical constant growth. Constant growth in a world of limited resources is the worst kind of delusion.

We’ve gone pretty far down the road to destroying our planet. Already it will take many decades to repair the damage done. If we can muster the will to address corporate greed with a good old dose of primate ethics. Society, in all honesty, may have to collapse before that happens. If it does, of course, the strong will survive. I have a prediction to make, and it’s one that rationalists won’t like. If we can’t avoid the wall that is right before us, and if society as we know it buckles under its own greed, the survivors will, as sure as gray matter, devise a religion to explain it. As a species we are all about myths. Like fabled saints we believe we can have our fossil fuels and consume them too. Before rising sea levels wash us all away, do yourself a favor and read Sustainability. And when you’re awake for nights afterward, tell everyone else you know to read it too.