Shopping Sickness — Paul Solman talks with Paco Underhill

Written by Steve on April 25th, 2009

It was only a five-minute interview on The News Hour last night, but it contained a wealth of great quotes.
thumbnail for PBS Newshour interview with Paco Underhill
A few gems:

“We cannot sustain the juggernaut of consumption that we have had here in the United States over the past decade….. Our houses are too big, our cars are too big, our debts are too big, our bellies are too big, and it’s time to go on a diet.”

“Sixty percent of discretionary income of people in North American is held in the hand of people who are 55 and over…. [Those of us of that age] could live the rest of our lives on fruit, vegetables, pasta, olive oil, wine, and yearly doses of socks and underwear.”

“Our basic marketing engines are in the hands of people who are thirty-something, and they like selling to themselves, and they like selling to a younger generation.”

“One of the fundamental issues that we’re trying to discover as consumers is that there are no acquisitions that are transformational. Acquiring that iPod or that tube of lipstick or that Maserati doesn’t change us into anyone other than what we were to start out with.”

A Christian Argument for Progressive Taxation – Diana Butler Bass – God’s Politics Blog

Written by Steve on April 19th, 2009

Here’s Diana Butler Bass in her typical even-handed way offering a rebuttal of the “tea-party” tax protests of the last week:

When I handed [my tax payment check] to the clerk, she said, “I hate tax day.”  I replied, “Not me.  I don’t love parting with the money, but I kinda like it.  That check is a bargain — roads, schools, medical care, social security, and the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world.  It is patriotism by checkbook.  Why should I hate it?”  She replied, “Why, I’ve never heard anybody say that  It isn’t such a bad deal when you put it that way.”

Comparing today’s tax protesters to those who resisted the establishment of the progressive income tax in 1913, Bass restates the arguments developed then by progressive Christians to show the positive social and spiritual benefits of taxation that would “increase the overall morality of society.”

Read A Christian Argument for Progressive Taxation – Diana Butler Bass – God’s Politics Blog.

Wendell Berry’s Whitefoot

Written by Steve on April 9th, 2009

Catherine Falsani, writing on the Sojourners Blog, reviews Whitefoot, a children’s story by Wendell Berry that she calls “a beautiful, subtle book,” surely in part because of Berry’s luminous writing, and also due to the illustrations by Davis Te Selle.

Wendell Berry’s Whitefoot – Cathleen Falsani – God’s Politics Blog.

As compelling as the book seems, based on the review, I was equally taken by the Berry poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” with which she ends the review:

As I read and re-read Whitefoot, I was reminded of Berry’s famous poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” In this moment when the foundations of our world economy are trembling (along with our souls), it bears repeating:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Flood Recovery in Cedar Rapids

Written by Steve on April 1st, 2009

I spent Sunday evening, Monday, and Tuesday with seven other First-Congo folks on a mission trip to Cedar Rapid, Iowa, to help with recovery efforts from the mid-June 2008 flooding that affected the Cedar River and Iowa River basins in eastern Iowa. The highest previous recorded level of the Cedar River was 19.3 feet in 1993 — the 100-year flood level. This time, the crest reached 31.2 feet, making it not the flood of the century, but the flood of the millenium!

News of this disaster flashed briefly on our television screens last summer, but has long since faded from view. Meanwhile, the people of the Cedar Rapids area are still reeling from the blow and struggling to make a come-back.

The devastation was enormous. By one reckoning, it’s the fifth-worst natural disaster ever in the United States. The total cost to the region will be over $5 billion dollars. Nearly 5,300 homes and 700 businesses were destroyed in a community with population just over 125,000.

AmeriCorps/VISTA is playing an important role in organizing, training, and supporting many of the volunteers who are working on restoration efforts. In our experience, they deserve high marks for their enthusiasm, dedication, and effectiveness. Their website, VISTA Corridor Recovery, tells the story in detail. I have a few photos to share and stories to tell, and more will be forthcoming over the next few days. Take a few minutes to review the website.

Review: Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

Written by Steve on March 22nd, 2009

Has humans’ esthetic sensibility played any role in their evolution? Is art “merely the by-product of an oversized brain,” as Stephen Jay Gould and others have held, so that it should be “excluded from the natural selection rulebook”? Or is it the case, as author Denis Dutton argues in The Art Instinct, that “aesthetics are linked at the profoundest level to our biological and cognitive prehistory, and that our ‘tastes’  emerged in the Pleistocene, and haven’t changed in essentials since then.”

Brian Morton’s short review of the book sets up this conflict of interpretations, but Morton spends most of his time sketching Dutton’s argument and supporting it. A quote:

Like our remotest ancestors, we take delight in virtuosity, we admire personal expression and novelty, we enjoy intellectual challenges that give pleasure in being mastered, and we benefit immeasurably from the sense of communion and intimacy these experiences bring us. This is art: then, now and always.

Hat tip to Arts and Letters Daily, where I found mention of the review.

Review: Art Instinct by Brian Morton | Books | The Observer .

Hello …

Written by Steve on March 21st, 2009

[Phone rings]

“Good morning” [my usual greeting]

[Treble voice on the other end] “Good morning!”

[Me, recognizing the voice] “Hello, Reed. It’s good to talk with you.”

[He, equally thrilled] “Yes, it is.”

First incoming, self-initiated phone call from our older grandson. An experience to savor!

“We can’t do this anymore.”

Written by Steve on March 11th, 2009

This is an excellent commentary from Thomas Friedman on the vain and vacuous consumptionism that has characterized the American economy increasingly during the past several decades. We’re talking about a vicious cycle that seems now to have brought our economy to its knees – to say nothing of the harm that it’s doing to our planet.  There’s a theological point to be made about this, of course, but it’ll just have to wait.  Crux of the critique:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

Op-Ed Columnist – The Inflection Is Near? –

Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation — or Both | Wired Science from

Written by Steve on March 9th, 2009

An article by Brandon Keim from Wired discussing recent brain function investigations that raise tantalizing questions about the neurology of religious belief:

Whether or not God exists, thinking about Him or Her doesn’t require divinely dedicated neurological wiring.

Instead, religious thoughts run on brain systems used to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling.

The story summarizes an article by Dimitrios Kapogiannis and others that appeared in the March 9, 2009, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation — or Both | Wired Science from

A bicycle for … the farm?

Written by Steve on March 6th, 2009

Our theology reading group is working our way through Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a robust and challenging critique of consumer society and industrialized farming. In chapter 3, “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture,” Berry insists on the critical importance of how land is used, and proposes “kindly use” and “humility” as the touchstones by which our agricultural practices should be measured. (Is it necessary to say that Berry, writing in 1977, finds modern agriculture lacking in both these regards?)

The use of land cannot be both general and kindly—just as the forms of good manners, generally applied (applied, that is, without consideration of differences), are experienced as indifference, bad manners. To treat every field, or every part of every field, with the same consideration is not farming but industry. Kindly use depends upon intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility. As knowledge (hence, use) is generalized, essential values are destroyed. As the householder evolves into a consumer, the farm evolves into a factory—with results that are potentially calamitous for both.

Nolan, whose brother farms a 550-acre area in northwestern Iowa, developed the study questions for this session. They include the following information:

The fields of modern day farms are divided into relatively small grids … soils in the grids are tested for nutritional needs…with the use of GPS and other technologies manure and artificial nutrients are added to the soil in the grids as needed to avoid using too much or too little for peak production.  Wet “sour” areas are tiled for drainage. Much hilly land is contoured or strip-farmed. “Rippers” are used, rather than moeboard plows, to prevent soil compaction from heavy machinery…and to reduce wind erosion. Some farmers are planting this year’s crops between last year’s rows to lessen wind and water erosion. Farmers are paid to plant thick, tall grasses as buffer zones along creeks and waterways. Some small or “marginal” plots of land are seeded and left untilled. When possible many farmers are moving away from the use of petroleum-based fertilizers (probably mostly due to high cost!) toward more use of manures produced by food animals grown in confinement units…etc., etc…you get the point! 

So, Nolan asked us, “[D]o these types of behaviors meet Berry’s criteria for ‘intimate knowledge,’ ‘sensitive responsiveness,’ and ‘responsibility’ in land use?”

Somehow, one suspects that Berry would not be in agreement. Yet the juxtaposition of modern farming assisted by sophisticated technology with Berry’s injunction to kindly use somehow brought to mind Steve Jobs’ notion that a personal computer is “a bicycle for the mind.” In the same way that a bicycle multiplies human accomplishment through the creative application of simple machines, a personal computer multiplies human mental accomplishment by “leveraging” our ability to organize and adapt.

Jobs said this in 1981, four years after Berry published the first edition of The Unsettling of America. It seems highly unlikely that, even had Berry experienced personal computers, he would have grasped their transformative potential or believed them to be a force for good. Similarly, the earliest deployment of satellite navigation technology, which eventually became GPS technology, happened in 1979, after Berry’s book came out.

I wonder, though, whether the availability of cheap, powerful, ubiquitous information-processing technology combined with satellite navigation and software to manage the two offers the possibility for something like Berry’s “kindly use” of the land, but on a much larger scale than Berry can have imagined. If so, it would mean that large-scale, rationalized approaches to farming need not inevitably become exploitative, as Berry seems to assume. What Nolan describes as his brother’s approach to large-scale farming seems to recognize that exploitation is inevitably self-destructive, as Berry charges. So it takes an approach that is much more like nurture that can be seen at first blush.

Berry is surely right that an approach to agriculture that ignores the destructive effects of exploitation will lead in time to the ruin of the environment and the impossibility of human life on this planet. At the same time, small-scale farming of the sort that Berry seems to favor cannot feed the planet.

But perhaps a technology-mediated “kindly use”—a bicycle for the farm—where the nurture of the land is aided by the application of science and technology, offers hope for both preserving our planet and feeding our people.

Born believers: How your brain creates God – science-in-society – 04 February 2009 – New Scientist

Written by Steve on March 4th, 2009

Another interesting review article on the psychology of religious belief, this time from New Scientist. Of particular interest here is the assertion of a connection between hard times and authoritarian religious forms:

[H]uman beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Worth reading.

Born believers: How your brain creates God – science-in-society – 04 February 2009 – New Scientist.