Tag Archives: Dreams

Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!

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The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”

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So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

Toward A Living Economy: From Here To There

In this series I have been considering the idea of a living economy in an article by David Korten. He points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. In this last post I want to explore some ideas about how to get from here to there. Some of these thoughts are influenced by E.F. Schumacher and an article from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) “NWF adopts Key Element of Steady State Thinking” by Eric Zencey.

The first thing that must change is our obsession with GDP to some measurements of economic activity that more accurately describe and account for the totality of human life.

Every economics textbook warns that GDP is a poor measure of well-being, and yet by default it continues to be the indicator that economic policy seeks to maximize. GDP doesn’t measure well-being at all, but simply tries to tally the dollar value of final goods and services produced in the U.S. …By design, GDP also leaves out ecosystem services; if you hang your laundry out to dry, the sun and wind do the job, but if you throw it in the dryer you use electricity, increase your carbon footprint, and give GDP a bit of a bump. Ecological economists identify a dozen categories of ecosystem services, including climate stability, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, maintenance of a library of genetic diversity, pollination, purification and transport of water by the solar-powered hydrological cycle, flood protection services of marshlands and forests, and so on.

In some ways, this is a more radical shift than it appears. It’s not just that we should replace GDP with a better number and continue relying on only one measurement. At some point economics came to be commonly understood as a discipline that dealt with business and finance, which while certainly being important was not the totality of human life and existence. The reality is that economics is not somehow compartmentalized and segregated from those parts of our lives that economics accounts for and those it doesn’t.

GDP fails to measure things that concern well-being such as volunteer work and domestic production, ecosystem services, defensive and remedial expenditures. According to Zencey, “By some estimates, as much as one-quarter to one-third of our GDP consists of such expenditures.” On the other hand there are some interesting examples of things GDP counts as economic positives that most people would not.

GDP also misreads our level of well-being by treating defensive and remedial expenditures as positive economic activity. Remedial: the $12 billion that British Petroleum alone has spent (so far) in its efforts to clean up the catastrophic oil release in the Gulf of Mexico counts as an increase in GDP, though the expenditure comes nowhere close to putting things back to their pre-Deepwater state. Defensive: if someone breaks into a neighbor’s house and you decide to buy a burglar alarm, GDP goes up—but you probably don’t feel as secure as you did before the break-in.

There is an dark underbelly to the economics of our current incarnation of capitalism that depends heavily on defense spending and fancy accounting to make oil spills economically positive activities. I do see a lot of hope that economists (what little I read) seem to be moving away from the previous dependence on this one measurement. However, without a larger shift in thinking toward holistic approaches, I believe we will continue to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our society. Zencey goes on to describe what he sees as the primary problem in our current economic understanding.

The root cause of our environmental problems—our ecological crisis—is infinite planet economic theory, the rules and axioms of a discipline that tells us that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet…You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Economic production is, at bottom and unalterably, a process that relies on physical inputs. No amount of human ingenuity will ever let us make something from nothing or nothing from something. No amount of ingenuity will let us create energy out of nothing or recycle it to use it again.

In other words, economics must become more of a hard science than the soft science that it continues to be (regardless of what the mathematical geniuses that brought us the financial crisis tell you). Economics must have as its foundation in the science that is the basis for our understanding of how the world works, what is possible and what is not. If economics contradicts science in its assumptions, which one should we rely on? Should we alter the laws of thermodynamics to fit our economic theories? Sounds silly, but that’s the current state of our economic theory.

So, what’s the alternative to our current system?

The National Wildlife Federation did not specifically sign on to the steady-state vision; but by calling for an accurate measurement of the costs of economic growth, it has officially joined us on a path that can lead nowhere else.

Obviously the article comes from proponents of a steady-state economy. So, perhaps this kind of hyperbole is to be expected. I still think stating this “can lead nowhere else” is an exercise in the same narrow thinking that led us to bow down to the almighty GDP. For those not familiar with the idea of steady-state economics, it is perhaps most easily understood in contrast with the idea of a growth economy. My understanding is that a steady-state economy is not based on the growth of economic activity, but the health and sustainability of economic activity. In other words, if the economy is able to support all its members then there is no need for growth. There is a kind of recycling of funds as dollars circulate through many hands.

The main criticism that I have heard of steady-state economics is that is not a dynamic system (like an ecosystem) which is able to be flexible and adapt to a constantly changing environment. If a steady-state system simply fixes the amount of resources available to the economy at some predetermined (sustainable” level then it is not in reality the kind of living system that a living economy would demand in response to the living dynamics of the ecosystems on which all life is based.

Here are my three main conclusions from this thought exercise about what is necessary to move in the direction of a living economy:

  1. Moving from narrow measures like GDP to more complex and holistic understandings of economics
  2. Basing economics on science in two ways: First, acknowledging the implications of thermodynamics on the means of production. Second, returning to an understanding of economics as a discipline concerned with understanding human behavior and interactions more than how to do business, make money or simply understand the complicated system we have developed.
  3. Find ways to experiment with other possibilities on local and regional scales, including steady-state principles and/or the idea of a living economy explored in this series. This can be done in small groups within churches or as congregations.

To expand slightly on #2, it seems that much of the energy of economists is spent on defining, studying, analyzing and understanding the complexities of the current system we have created. With complex financial instruments like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities it’s clear that just trying to understand the economic system as it exists and functions today can easily take up all the time, energy and brainpower of even the brightest economists (and it does). The problem is that this narrow approach to the field of economics is not capable of solving the economic and ecological problems that face us. Economics must return, as stated above, to its roots as a discipline that seeks to understand human behavior and interactions.

The origin of the word economics is the Greek word oikos, meaning “household”, which incidentally is also the root for the word ecology. In other words, these concepts of economics and ecology encompass all of life. Therefore if economics doesn’t account for a more holistic picture of human life and activity, particularly as it relates to the ecosystems on which we depend, then it has ceased to have an authentic relationship to its roots. Instead of segregating these fields of economy and ecology we must recognize their fundamental relatedness. With a broader scope environmentalism and business would no longer need to be mortal enemies, because both will recognize that they are kindred spirits and both are interdependent.

I tried to be as practical as I could, but this still seems somewhat abstract and theoretical. I’d appreciate any suggestions for practical application of these thoughts.

The Dream

I have dreams when I am sleeping that I cannot understand and are not publishable for a family audience. I also have dreams for my life and the world, visions of the way things should be. In the poem “The Dream” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry the poet imagines the convergence of both kinds of dreams. There is the dream of the world as it was before all of our meddling. Then he tries to imagine the world as it should be, rebuilt anew with what we know now. Finally, he realizes the impossibility of his dream, because of the way that the world, including himself, is in reality.

Berry begins with a dream that removes “our flocks and herds, our droves of machines” from the landscape to imagine the world as it existed without all of our tinkering, as it did for millions of years when we were hunter-gatherers, not apart from our existence, only our domination.

Like the afterimage of a light that only by not
looking can be seen, I glimpse the country as it was.

It seems that this leap of the imagination, this dream, is a difficult one. As I look around me, even in rural Bolivia, where a Guarani village recently got electricity for the first time a matter of months ago, it is hard to imagine the landscape without the trappings of civilization and settled agriculture, the power lines, food wrappers, plastic bottles, buildings, cars, railroad tracks and street lights. Our imaginations are dominated by the world as it is, making near impossible the ability to imagine the world without what we see around us, the things that our lives and lifestyles depend on every day. The poet suggests that only by closing our eyes can we begin to imagine this other world.

This world exists in our mind, in the realm of dreams. This is not a memory that we have from experience, but one we must reconstruct with our imagination, even if we use the details and facts that sciences like anthropology and archaeology can tell us. There are those that choose to paint an idyllic scene of the perfect harmony and leisure of hunter-gatherer societies, while others paint the other historical (and racist) picture of an existence that is “nasty, brutish and short”. Somewhere between these two we must imagine that world of pre-history (which is to say, pre-agriculture) in more realistic detail. From this imaginative leap backwards, the poem then leaps forward to a future that might have been or perhaps could still be.

The poet then begins “putting back what I took away”.

to build all that we have built, but destroy nothing

This is the summation of the dream for which Berry yearns. This is the fulcrum of the poem on which the worlds of what was and what is hang in the balance. The question that haunts me is what it means “to build all that we have”? What do we have that can remain and “destroy nothing”? Is this dream of the world as it is except without the destruction even possible? As if waking up from this dream of the way the world was and then building it anew, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, his “hands weakening” and feeling “on all sides blindness” that permeates that fuzzy state between sleeping and waking, Berry is struck by the reality that always waits for us with the sunrise.

I see that my mind is not good enough.
I see that I am eager to own the earth and to own men.
I find in my mouth the bitter taste of money,
a gaping syllable I can neither swallow nor spit out.

The crushing insight of the reality of the world and our own culpability come rushing in to the dream world where we can see both the distant past and future. The things that we despise about the way the world is must be things that we are willing to recognize in ourselves. More and more I agree with Jared Diamond and others that the way forward involves moving beyond the blame that we love to pass on to corporations, governments, religion and other institutions and recognize that it is only our consent to this state of affairs that continues to make it possible. I am the one that desires domination of the earth, animals and my fellow humans. I am the one that “can neither swallow nor spit out” the money system at the root of our modern arrangement. and “of all kinds of evil”. We are the ones that fail to imagine a new world into being.

Where are the sleeps that escape such dreams?

Berry begins the poem by saying, “I dream an inescapable dream.” This reminds me of dreams I have had that I did not want to wake from, like the one where I could fly. There are dreams from our sleeping hours that grip us with some elusive feeling and/or glimpse of meaning to which we cling. There is a leap of our imagination that happens when we are not awake that occasionally perceives something imperceptible in our waking life. Yet our waking life is also full of dreams. For many these are simply consumer daydreams about a big house, nice car or other accessories of the consumer lifestyle (which may also include relationships with particular or imagined friends or lovers). For Berry and many others this is a dream of greener grass, not in suburban lawns, but in the vast prairies of the Midwest that have disappeared.

Berry plays with this dual meaning of the word dream. Indeed, as we have seen, these dreams are also related and intertwined as ways of seeing things that are not empirically available to our senses. If these dreams of the way the world was and is are “inescapable”, then how do we dream the dreams of the way the world should be? The building of this world that could or should be, the poet suggests, must involve the “pain of foreknowledge”. This is where these dreams converge. While the poem travels in a linear fashion from the dream of what was to what could be and then finally returning to the world as it is, there is a cyclical pattern embedded in this movement. Indeed, the dream of what was begins by an act of forgetting the reality of the world as it is, making an imaginative leap. In other words it begins in the same place that it ends.

Perhaps the poem leaves us, finally, with the idea that our dreams of other worlds, both that was and that should be, must be in ongoing conversation with the reality of the world as it is and particularly our place in that world as co-conspirators against nature in order to have any hope of these dreams becoming reality.