Where’s Utopia?

When I wrote about possible apocalypses last month, I neglected the other extreme that we tend to go to. Just as many of us live preparing for a coming apocalypse, many think that we’re on the cusp of a new utopia, a golden era. Harvey Cox’s “Future of Faith” could be seen as one example of this, just as Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason“ could be seen as another. Both share a utopian view of the future: “One day, soon, we’ll all live in peace!” Today, a friend shared an article with me that manages to synthesize Cox’s utopian view with that of Harris’: “Stepping Up to the Age of Empathy; ‘Empathetic Civilization’: When Both Faith and Reason Fail”. I had just finished reading a review of “Kinds of Killing”, so it made an interesting juxtaposition. Following is my response to my friend.

When Jeremy Rifkin mentioned “embodied experience” the first thing that popped into my mind was existentialism. But then, also, the ancient (Hebrew) conception of belief: that it must be lived. At least in modern times it is common to claim to believe something, but live in ways that contradict that — often, it seems with little self-awareness. But this bit I would take issue with:

For the former, especially the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil.

I’ll agree that Augustinian Christians do see the body this way. Eastern Christianity (at least how I’ve experienced in, and in my reading of the Saints) sees the body as made “in the image of God”. The body is not the *source* of evil. In this way we echo the ancient Greeks who saw evil as the absence of good, rather than something of substance itself. The body isn’t evil, but when we fail to do good, we “do” evil. So, I’d say much of this is an straw man argument, or, at least, an argument against a distortion of Christianity. If we don’t think the emotions and the body are not part of our baptism into Christ, then, sure, the argument makes some sense. But those of us who see the body and emotions as integral parts of the whole person would disagree. This may not be the common understanding of Christianity in much of the West, but it isn’t a new take on Christianity that only just appeared during the “Age of Empathy”. Which makes this a non-question:

If empathic consciousness flows from embodied experience and is a celebration of life—our own and that of other beings—how do we square it with faith and reason, which are disembodied ways of looking at reality and steeped in the fear of death?

I think it is telling that the Enlightenment took place in Western Europe, but there wasn’t (at least as far as I know) a similar renaissance in the East. The Byzantine and then Russian Empires filled the power vacuum that the fall of the Roman Empire, along with its civilizing influence. Which is not to say that the East is somehow purer, but that our understanding of history and philosophical development is very Euro-centric. The very notion of “Ages” seems, to me, to be part of our desire to compartmentalize. “That was then, this is now.” This is fed by our infatuation with ourselves: the idea that Humanity is advancing philosophically as well as technologically. What period of time, wherever people had the resources to sit around and write articles like this, hasn’t seen itself as entering some grand new “age”? I’m sure, for example, American slaves didn’t see a new age coming, but their masters certainly did often enough. None of this is to imply that we haven’t seen a dramatic technological shift in the past 100 years. But our visions of the future are just that: dreams. Our dreams of utopia or apocalypse may change, but in the end, we’ll probably end up somewhere in the middle. Speaking of apocalypse, I just got done reading this book review. I thought the first paragraph, which talks about how to prepare private citizens for war was good. Then, this bit, farther down:

Mostly, though, soldiers complained of the miserable conditions of life that Russian villages offered them. “Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued.” This inevitability, ironically, seems to have escaped the notice of present-day nations. What is the use of an upper hand if you can’t spank someone with it?

How close is the end?

Everyone loves a good apocalypse. Whether that apocalypse is Y2K, 2012, Financial Collapse, Peak Oil, Global Warming, or the being Left Behind, we love being scared. We can take any problem, and make it seem insurmountable and inevitable. In our darker moments, we become fatalistic about it. Before we understood anything about genetics, we saw our fate in the stars, the bumps on our heads, the creases on our hands, or the lay of the the cards. Now that we have genetics, we look at that superstitious thinking and laugh. Instead of saying “It’s in the stars” we say “It’s in my genes.” This apocalyptic fatalism means the end keeps coming — but it ain’t here yet. We live in with visions of impeding doom — What will I do when the oil runs out? when the oceans flood? what if I am left behind? — or we convince ourselves there is nothing to worry about, putting our faith in Man’s ingenuity, assuring ourselves that the science is junk, or simply believing our belief makes us immune. Its a wonder our civilization has kept going for so long — that we haven’t all gone mad already. I suppose its the competing visions of apocalypse that keeps us whole. As long as we don’t all believe the same thing, we can keep asking “Is the end here yet?” And the answer will continue to be “Not yet.”

Are we ready to spend?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend money right now. In fact, for the past few of years, I’ve been relatively thrifty (compared with my previous, debt-building, ways). For a while, I imagined I was unique, that I was somehow getting ahead. But a couple of years ago, at the beginning of 2007, I started reading articles that said that people were starting to save more. A significant amount of people had begun to feel uneasy, it seems, about all the debt they were accruing and starting to save more. Of course, two years and a couple of stimulus bills later, people are feeling even more skeptical of debt. I don’t know about you, but debt is one of the scariest bits of the possibility of losing my job. How am I gonna handle this mortgage!?! I can hear my inner-breadwinner screaming. And with layoffs and unemployment growing at substantial rates, I’m sure many people are looking for ways to set aside something “just in case”. Certainly they aren’t likely to be building even more debt. Further, I’m in line with Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, more than our politicians, when he says:

… over the last period of time, the balance has really shifted. Instead of innovation and productivity driving growth, it’s really been unsustainable levels, particularly of private debt, that have been a key driver of economic growth. (emphasis mine)

He continues: “In my view, what we now have will be a fundamental economic reset.” A fundamental reset. Nudges to “free up cash” will mean I have more cash to put in the bank, to help stave off what seems like an inevitable doomsday scenario, not that I’m going to spend more just to get a newer, larger TV. So politicians don’t want to give us money, because we won’t spend it. Instead, they give it to banks and dying car companies. Strangely enough, it seems to me that, of the two, the car company is the best way to get money into the economy — especially if no one is buying cars — since the car company will have to spend, spend, spend just to stay afloat. The banks, it seems, can’t help but reward themselves with tax-payer-funded bonuses in obscene amounts. But what do I know? I’m just a freetard. I don’t have a degree in economics. And I certainly want to increase the liquid assets I hold right now and fill in the the debt hole I’ve managed to dig for myself. I can’t imagine others feel much differently. And giving bailouts of billions to banks will just aggravate that feeling, no matter how much they need or deserve it. Update: I love this bit from winterspeak: The US household has gone from an unsustainable level of negative saving to a sustainable level of positive saving, as we all knew it eventually would, and this is only triggering the Apocalypse because academic economists have no idea how money works.

Rice costs WHAT?!?!

Today, on the way home from church, we stopped by the Asian Market to pick up some rice.  A woman was there buying 20 bags.  When we walked into the tiny store, rice was $13 for a 25lb bag.  By the time Alexis bought her rice, it was $15/bag.  When we looked for identical bags of rice online, we found prices at $25/bag.  The store owner said she didn’t know when she was going to get another shipment — Malaysia wasn’t exporting any more. We’ve all groaned as gas prices have climbed steadily in recent months.  But other prices have been rising steadily as well.  And not just in the U.S. Rice is a staple of much of the worlds population.  India had banned exports, then relented, but has since more than doubled the minimum price for rice export from $450/tonne to $1000/tonne. of non-balsamic rice.  Vietnam, third largest rice exporter in the world, was hit with a rice virus. Meanwhile as the Chinese are consuming more rice and exporting less.  These countries are, next to Thailand, the top rice exporters.  Thailand is not cutting exports. Even if you don’t eat much rice, you still have to face rising food prices. Wheat is going up in price. And, as I’ve written before, so is corn. I haven’t even mentioned the food riots that are beginning to crop up around the world. And governments aren’t sure what to do. What is this all about?  The usual: the falling dollar, the rising cost of fuel.  What to do? The tried and true freak out seems less than productive. Last year, Alexis started looking into locally produced meat, dairy, and poultry products.  Locally produced and produced without using factory farming methods that are so dependent on corn.  And she started a kitchen garden which we’ll expand this year. If the world continues to go to Hell in a nicely woven hand basket, maybe we can subsist on rice and veggies from our garden.