Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

Today, Administrator Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposed Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. Less than a year after President Barack Obama promised cuts in domestic carbon as part of his Climate Action Plan, the reduction standards released today are aguably the Obama Administration’s most significant climate action to date.

As a young evangelical who, as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, is working to encourage our national leaders to act swiftly and responsibly on climate change, you can imagine I looked forward to today with at least a little bit of eager anticipation.

Read more of my thoughts for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action here.

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Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

On Decisions

On Decisions (/) is third in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications (!), and the second was On Questions (?).

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“I’ve been really struggling with a decision lately.”

“With what?”

“Well, you know how my phone’s screen cracked last month? Lately, the entire thing hasn’t been powering on.  And so I have been trying to decide between simply replacing it with the same model, or going ahead and getting an upgrade.”

“Okay.”

“…and, you know, I’ve been really praying about this one. You know, whatever God wants for me, that’s what I want.”

“…what?”

/

The person in the above anecdote may or not have been the same person who told me “Jesus really doesn’t want me to have this Samsung Galaxy Tab III right now.”

It may or may not have been the same couple who, as they held their hands, proclaimed, “If it’s the Lord’s will that we be together…”

It may or not have been the same Chicagoan who, upon learning I’m from Oregon, tells me, “You know, I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to move to Portland.”

(To which I cynically respond, if they had read Blue Like Jazz lately, and they then take my seemingly psychic observation of their recent reading to be confirmation that it is time for them to make the move.)

Folks, welcome to the sort of American Christianity that looks less like gospel and more like a tenet of moralistic therapeutic deism. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

Say what you want, but the issue with this ethos is that God begins to seep into the everyday problems. It soon follows that many of the most passionate Christians out there are suddenly crippled when it comes to decisions that mere mortals have been successfully making for millennia. Decisions such as buying gadgets, falling in love, or moving somewhere new.

 To which I want to wave my hands and yell, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God!”

/

Unfortunately, I’m going up against one of the most oft-quoted Scripture passages on biblical decision making.

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.

At first blush, these verses appear to counsel the reader to throw the weight of his decision-making upon the divine.

But I digress — for this comes from the Proverbs. A collection of sayings where piety meets tradition meets common sense. It is a book of wisdom and, as a few verses down the road from the above passage indicate, wisdom is something human beings can grasp for themselves.

Proverbs 3:13-18
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.

We may have to make tough decisions (for, as verse 12 says, “the Lord disciplines those he loves”), but God’s will is not cryptic or overly particular. It is simple: it is for the good.

My hands are still waving. I am still yelling my jeremiad, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God. Instead, avoid using warped scales of the world to make your decisions: pride, sin, greed and instant gratification. Instead, use the measurements God has given you: love, holiness, wonder and awe. Leave foolishness behind, and grasp tightly onto wisdom.”

/

Lukewarm biblical exegesis is not the only culprit. There is another reason, and it extends beyond American Christian subculture to every corner of the globe within driving distance from an airport.

Economics is the theology of the modern age and, for better or worse, the ideology of capitalism currently reigns supreme. What capitalism has believed from the onset, and the world capitalism has created in its image, is that the “invisible hand” will do its work as long as we religiously pursue our self-interest. The gears of the world, we are implicitly taught, are dependent on us choosing to “maximize our preferences.”

Today, we sin when we don’t buy the best things at the best price; do the right work for the right reward; or match our lives to the right people, places and purposes. The corresponding spirituality to this capitalist theology is to simply live a life of no regrets.

We are to make the best decisions, always.

Which, of course, is impossible.

/

Instead of critiquing this aspect of capitalism (and there is much in capitalism to critique and to praise), we decide to bring God into our mundane decisions. We use God as a sort of anesthesia to cope with the stress of decision-making, without addressing the root cause of this stress.

When we are done praying and feel the anesthesia wear off, we find we have to make a decision after all, but now our stress has been exponentially multiplied.

Why? In addition to fearing sinning against a world tells us to make the best decisions only and always, we now fear sinning against God, for if we have not discerned the right decision, then it seems we have not truly trusted in God with all our heart.

Or worse, we reject all responsibility for our decisions, and when things turn out for ill, we blame it on the Lord.

Outsourcing our decisions to the divine explodes the possible choices into cosmic proportions.

Which is sad, because when we bring our decisions to the divine, it should put our decisions into perspective.

It is so entirely possible that in a world where God is real, the decision of whether or not we replace our smartphone with the same model or upgrade to a better one (or perhaps even downgrade to a basic phone), is not that big of a decision at all.

/

How, then, are we going to remediate decisions?

I don’t have a revolution in mind, but just some simple observations that serve as tips and tricks. Apologies for those of you who wanted something more. Feel free to add to this list:

1. The decision does not always have to be between A or B, but sometimes can be C (or D or E or F or G). 

We often get so trapped between the first two choices that come to mind that we are blinded to the whole range of options out there. This is an obvious point, I suppose, but it is a helpful reminder from time to time. Although knowing there are more decisions out there than we could possibly keep together in our head could be a source of stress, I think more often than not it will help us out of a decision-making rut.

2. When the only options are A or B, it isn’t necessarily good or bad, but sometimes simply good or slightly better. 

We are probably more familiar with the darker version of this reality, the “lesser of two evils” argument. Nonetheless, when only two respectable (or disrespectable) options are presented to us, it is not that big of a deal if we make the less than optimal decision. (It’s not, for example, worth shutting down the whole federal government to have one’s way between a private health care system that probably works and a public health care system that probably works.)

3. Every decision simultaneously comes with regret and excitement. So there will be regrets. 

After making a decision, we will feel excitement when reflecting on the benefits. Likewise we will also feel regret reflecting on the costs. While there is something common-sensical about maximizing excitement and minimizing regrets, we should not aspire for “no regrets.” The temptation then becomes not only to make foolish decisions through distorted cost-benefit analyses, but to flat-out deny that the decisions we make have real costs. Doing so might just make us sick.

4. Sometimes the “big decision” is simply one decision in a series of a thousand or more. 

There are a number of “big decisions” in our life — where we go to school, who we marry, what we believe, etc. These can be particularly stressful, simply because they are bound to shape the trajectory of our lives. But, in the long run, these “big decisions” are only one decision out of many. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” school, the more important decisions will be what classes you take, what extracurricular activities you involve yourself in, how many times you decide to get out of bed in the morning. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” spouse, the more important decisions will be every time you to choose to love, listen, and work together. Regardless of what you believe, perhaps what ends up mattering in the end is how you decide to act on those beliefs.

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Clarification: we, of course, may decide not to got to school, decide not to marry, or choose not to believe in anything. But we rarely make these decisions once and for all, for they are always subject to revision as our life unfolds.

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Confession: The person at the beginning of this mediation, the one trying to discern God’s will over a smartphone upgrade, could very well have been me.

Well, it was me, although not involving a smartphone but some other gizmo. Something basic, something I knew would be helpful but I wasn’t sure I needed.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, I have found myself praying over many a simple consumer purchase.

The answer I get, if one gets such answers in prayer, has yet to be “buy” or “don’t buy.”

Simply, “go ahead, make the decision.”

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Addendum: As a twenty-something relatively fresh out of college, I’m sometimes exhausted by the amount of consequential decision-making I find myself making.

The sort of work I do requires strategic planning, unprecedented guesswork, and taking most of the blame when something goes wrong. Sometimes I want to go to work and just pull a lever. Over and over and over again. And, even if it is not stimulating or exciting, at least I know I am creating something good.

But I don’t have that luxury. It isn’t the life I have decided for myself, at least for this year.

Every day, I need to remind myself of the joy there is in simply being free to decide.

If you liked this blog post:

I’m going to ask you to change gears real quick and consider doing me a favor. As many of you know, whether it is self-publishing essays like The Virtue of Open-Mindedness or even this blog project itself, I’m fascinated with the challenge of finding new ways of getting written ideas out there in the 21st century world.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. The Barna Group is trying out a new project in “short yet meaningful reads on top issues facing us in today’s complex culture” called “Frames.” Part of that project is something called “the 10th Frame”, where select authors are asked to develop 140-character Tweets into 1,000 word essays (the average length of my blog posts, although these mediations have been indulgently long).

Part of the formula for deciding which authors get to develop their posts into essays is the amount of retweets their concept gets (See where this is going?). There is another stage of the competition after that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Long story short: I’d love to try my hand at this challenge. And you can support me in that by retweeting the following:

In case the suspense is killing you, this involves reflecting on my life as an activist in a world of climate change, and my life as a youth minister in a world of gentrification. If you want to know more, cross your fingers this tweet gets the judges’ attention.

On Decisions

The Economy of Attention

“Title” by Dude, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licsense.
Photo Credit: Stephen Poff. Creative Commons License.

What if you had all the attention in the world? What would you do with all that attention?

(What do those questions even mean? Do they mean, “if I had everybody’s attention at my disposal” or do they mean “if I could give attention to everything I wanted to”?)

Quick economics lesson: economics is the study of a human behavior, taking as a starting point the scarcity of the factors of production necessary for humans to get what they want. The scarce factors of production studied by economics are labor, capital, and resources.

But if I may indulge myself in a thought experiment, what would our economic models look like if we factored into the mix of scarce factors, the factor of attention?

I mean, we talk about attention in economic terms already. We are often asked to pay attention. Attention deficit disorder is a thing. Information overload seems to be just another kind of surplus, something that sounds great from one perspective but, just like how a surplus of labor is really unemployment or a surplus of money is really just inflation, an information overload reduces our ability to think clearly, throws our minds out of equilibrium.

I am apparently not the first person to think of such an idea (thanks, Google, for reminding me that I am not as original as I thought I was). In 2002, Thomas Davenport and John Beck published a book called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, and in 2007 Richard Lanham came out with The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. There is a Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy — but all the sources cited are at least five years old.

Why Thomas, John and Richard and their readers stopped the conversation then and there is beyond me. Maybe because the years that followed were the years that Facebook and Twitter really took off, and they all signed up for accounts which they now are all distracted by (although, certainly those services underscore the fundamental importance of attention all the more!). Or maybe they just decided that attention, like entrepreneurship, is just another type of labor, just in the same way information is just another type of resource or perhaps even capital.

Can we have that conversation again though? It seems to me that the scarcity of attention is an important enough topic that it warrants, well, our attention.

How to Get Attention

It dawned on me on the other day that I am employed in the attention economy. Whether it is middle schoolers or influential public figures, I go to work each day trying to figure out how to influence people so that they pay attention.

I could probably write an entire post on how to get people’s attention, and it would probably get people’s attention. I could elaborate on the following tips and tricks:

Be quality. Be concise. If you have to go beyond 140 characters, write with the cadence of pop music, with plenty of lyrical hooks. Be visual. Be active. Be attractive. Use innuendo – reveal enough to spark their interest, conceal enough to keep them wanting more. Be loud. Be fussy. Be charming. Turn the lights off and on. Use suspense to your advantage. But don’t be vague or esoteric. Make lists. Make a sign. Get this guy to hold your sign. Make a list of guys holding signs. Be timely, not timeless. It is easy to get the attention of a narcissist – just make it all about them. Have you considered sending a notification?

It is important to realize, not all attention is the same. A single thing may capture a person’s entire concentration, or it may simply be a multitasker’s background noise. Attention may convey love, it may invade personal space. Attention may be given to a task of mental endurance, it may also be given to a distraction. There is a certain value in having the attention of the intended audience, and yet a different value in having the attention of an eavesdropper or a passersby.

Know what kind of attention you want + figure out how to get it = formula for success.

How to Pay Attention

The powers that be are going to want our attention, because our attention is productive. Sometimes we will get goods and services in exchange for our attention (fill out this survey, get entered into a sweepstakes to win an iPad mini) (here are some flowers, will you go out with me?). Sometimes we can’t help but pay a fleeting moment of attention (to a billboard on the interstate) (to that provocatively dressed individual).

But then there are some things that inherently are worth our attention, but have trouble asking for it (like buried treasure) (like the one with the shy smile, sitting across the room).

Mastering the art of paying attention is perhaps our best shot at making it in the world.

Know what you want to give attention to + figure out how to give it = formula for success.

At the after school tutoring program I work to coordinate, during a day where the middle schoolers were particularly rowdy, one of the tutors gave the youth a lesson in how to pay attention. “Keep your mouth quiet, look at me with your eyes, and listen to me with your ears.”

Hopefully when they are in high school, they will learn the advanced arts of paying attention: nodding their head with an occasional “mmhmm”, choosing to pursue those who are neglected, and asking responsive and appropriate questions.

Best after school tutoring lesson ever.

On Defense

There is a lot of noise out there, some of it competing for our attention, and some of it directed at others but we can’t help but be distracted by it. Some of the noise that comes emanates from really valuable stuff – friends and family and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – but the timing is all off, the noise fractures our attention into worthless fragments.

In the rush to get attention and to give attention, we need to take an occasional breather. It sounds cliché, probably because it is common argument for anyone who is trying to get your attention, but we need to focus on the things that really matter. And to do that, we need to create the right kind of space.

I have a number of friends who have gone off to work at some sort of camp for the summer (I used to be one of them). They are off to work in places where cell phones don’t work and the news isn’t breaking, to create places that people enjoy coming to – not simply because they are fun, but because they are an escape.

These camps are defensive places, places where our thoughts can settle and the things that really do matter can rise to the top. We can give people, ideas, and tasks our undivided attention. For those who work there, they can experience the incredible thrill of doing one thing in one place for a long time – the feeling of having life flow.

What about the rest of us, those of us stuck in the city, or, rather, stuck in the routines and the noise? How are we to play defense?

I simply don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be one good, solid answer. I suppose I’ll have to give the question a little more thought.

On Devotion

Attention is ephemeral. Once you have it, you have to spend it. There is no bank, no warehouse, no armory in which attention can be stored for later use. People will have heard your point, listened to your song, done what you asked them to do. They are going to move on; you are now yesterday’s news.

But what happens when they come back? With no hand-waving, no yelling, no new signs, no external incentive of cash-back or a candy bar? Not because they are curious if you have anything new or novel or different, or because they are addicted, or because they want to squeeze a little bit more value out of what you already given, but, because, well, they just came back?

This is the phenomenon of devotion – a loyal and active (intentional) exercise of focus and dedication, directed towards either someone or something.

Devotion, in economic terms, is a kind of capital good. Devotion is durable, devotion is man-made, devotion can transform simple things into something incredible. If attention is a nail, a package, a steak, some gasoline, or a question, then devotion is a hammer, a forklift, a grill, a car, an encyclopedia.

Notice that we show devotion, we don’t pay devotion. Devotion, unlike attention, does not have an ephemeral, transactional quality. The one who shows devotion will remain devoted; the one who experiences devotion trusts that this time is not meant to be the last.

For these very reasons, devotion is powerful. The same powers that be that want our attention would kill for our devotion — if only they could. The problem is, there is no way they can get it. Because devotion is not transactional, no level of incentive (or degree of threat) could ever wrestle devotion away from a person.

If mastering the art of paying attention is actually our best shot at making it in the world, then mastering the art of showing devotion would seem to be an important part of not being overcome by the world. If we learn how to develop devotion, express devotion, appropriate devotion, we may actually end up being unstoppable.

What if you had all the devotion in the world? What would you do with all that devotion?

Will Work for Attention” by Stephen Poff, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The Economy of Attention

President Obama addresses our warming planet, and scores

One of the more poetic visuals of the speech was Obama wiping his brow because, well, it was so freaking warm outside. Quite the clever touch, Obama speech team.
One of the more poetic visuals of the speech was Obama wiping his brow because, well, it was so freaking warm outside. Quite the clever touch, Obama speech team.

President Obama revealed his Climate Action Plan earlier today to a crowd of students and reporters at Georgetown University. For those of us in climate activist circles, this has been a much anticipated moment, a speech that if anything exceeded expectations, although it still fell short of putting our minds at ease as we consider what the planet in 2050 and 2030 and, heck, even sooner than that, will look like.

As the President made clear, climate change is a reality: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” Accordingly, his Climate Action Plan includes major investments to American infrastructure, agriculture and emergency response that will help us cope with a world where even +1°C has set off some major dominoes.

In addition to these “adaption” measures that fortify America’s infrastructure against a changing climate, the President also laid out “mitigation” measures that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted nationwide. Of these mitigation efforts (which do include strategic clean energy investments), it looks like the most significant will be establishing carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.

Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to protect the American public from pollution known to be hazardous to human health. Seeing that global warming, which presents a major threat to human health (for example, by making infectious disease increasingly difficult to contain by normal geographic boundaries), is caused by carbon dioxide, the argument is that the President has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as power plants.

There may be some resistance to the regulations. After all, for some, using the Clean Air Act to control a greenhouse gas (as opposed to, say, smog) may require a new way of thinking. But the logic is sound, and the Supreme Court actually ruled as such back in 2007.

That all said — the EPA regulations and other executive actions, while bold, are far from being a full and complete solution to nip global warming at the source.

We still are unsure of the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project to transport the incredibly dirty tar sands oil of Canada, a danger so severe that it drew 40,000 activists to Washington D.C. this February to protest its construction. Many of us were encouraged to hear that the pipeline was even mentioned in the speech — that means the President hears us — and the logic he is using to make his decision is sound: “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Knowing how horrific the tar sands will be for the climate, the only way I can imagine the Keystone XL being acceptable is if Congress passes some sort of carbon tax immediately beforehand.

While the President did mention the value of natural gas as a transition fossil fuel, there was no mention of the fracking boom for natural gas here in the Midwest, a sinister 21st-century gold rush that is recklessly extracting valuable natural gas at a rate so increasingly fast, nearly a third of it is being wasted on the spot, making it nearly as bad for atmospheric carbon levels as the other fossil fuels it supposedly is replacing.

And, at a personal level, I noticed that there was no mention of the coal lines running through Pacific Northwest, the place I consider home. Even if with new regulatory guidelines, we get our domestic coal power plant emissions under control, we potentially could still be exporting this dirty fuel source to be burned in a different place, only to enter the same atmosphere.

While the promo video for the speech led me to expect that the President would tap into religious sentiments by talking about protecting God’s creation here in America, he actually went as far as to reference Genesis — you know, God saw all that he made, which included much more than just America, and saw that is was very good.

The President accordingly deserves praise for his tact tackling of the moral ambiguity of climate change in developing countries. It is worth quoting at length:

Though all America’s carbon pollution fell last year, global carbon pollution rose to a record high. That’s a problem. Developing countries are using more and more energy, and tens of millions of people entering a global middle class naturally want to buy cars and air-conditioners of their own, just like us. Can’t blame them for that. And when you have conversations with poor countries, they’ll say, well, you went through these stages of development — why can’t we?

But what we also have to recognize is these same countries are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are. They don’t just have as much to lose, they probably have more to lose.

Developing nations with some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution are going to have to take action to meet this challenge alongside us. They’re watching what we do, but we’ve got to make sure that they’re stepping up to the plate as well. We compete for business with them, but we also share a planet. And we have to all shoulder the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable, or we’re going to suffer the consequences — together.

The President is responding by establishing free trade in clean energy tech, ending public financing of the unsafest coal plants overseas, and spearheading The U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative that will unlock nearly $1 billion in clean energy financing, along with a similar project in the Asia/Pacific region that will unlock nearly $6 billion!

Nevertheless, the challenge of global warming remains severe. It certainly lacks easy or convenient political answers. It is something that any President, even with the ridiculously incredible powers of the Executive Branch of government, is able to solve by himself or (perhaps someday) herself.

In the big picture, what President Obama’s plan chalks up to is a great gift to all of us — the gift of more time.

For us, it is more time to figure out what the reality of climate change means for how we go about practicing sustainability and resilience within our own personal lifestyles, our communities, our churches, our schools, and our workplaces. For those of us who are better off financially, we need to figure out how to best stand up for the poor not simply abroad but here in America — those whose fossil-fuel-generated electricity consumption makes up bigger proportion of their tight budget, and those who live in places like the Lower Ninth Ward (devastated by lives lost in Hurricane Katrina) as compared to those who live in places like the Jersey Shore (devastated by property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy).

President Obama’s plan also means more time for the Republican Party. In the sportsball that is politics, it looks to me that it is now the GOP’s turn to respond. The ball is in their court. They can throw it out of bounds (that is, continuing the practice of climate denialism), they can just drop it (display utter apathy for anything but the status quo), pass it back to the other team and let them score (follow Obama’s leadership), or score with a trick shot of their own (suggest a market-based approach to addressing climate change, instead of a heavily regulated bureaucratic solution).

(Confession: I was a bit reluctant to use this sports metaphor. Because, in reality, shouldn’t the Democrats and Republicans be playing for same team, the same common good?)

It may be hard for any single one of us to influence the President in any profound way. Any single letter you or I send or phone call you or I make is really just a drop in a way too big bucket. But we might have a shot at influencing the Republican Party, a party that is hurting for relevancy after 2012 and has to be growing open to good ideas. If we can’t change the minds of establishment GOPers like Senators Jim Inhofe or Mitch McConnell, we can at least support our GOP state congressmen and governors as they work to implement the EPA carbon regulations in their particular state contexts.

It is worth our effort because, ultimately, the problem is not that the President is not doing enough. Even if Obama could do more on climate, and as much as I care about climate, I am not a one-issue citizen, and do not want Obama to spend all of his political capital in one place. Rather, the problem is that the country is not moving forward together on this issue. Barack Obama has done his part. Now it is time for the rest of us to figure out, in our own spheres of influence, how to follow suit.

Disclaimer: The reason I talk like I know something about climate change is because I serve as the Campaigns Assistant and a Steering Committee member for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. That said, nothing here necessarily reflects any official position of Y.E.C.A. whatsoever. Just my own thoughts that I want to contribute to public discussion.

To read other reactions from young evangelicals regarding President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, head over the Y.E.C.A. website.

Other posts on this blog where I talk about climate change: What if the church were to save the planet?Building a Movement Stronger than the WeatherUpward Trends Got You Down? Climate, Debt and FutureBig Oil and Matthew 5:43-48, and the 5-part series the Gospel > Global Warming.

President Obama addresses our warming planet, and scores

Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief

Finances are spiritual issues. Budgets are moral documents. Are economic beliefs, then, theological statements?

In the introduction to their book How Much Is Enough?, a critique of systems of political economy geared towards blind growth, father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky admit that their entire vision of a better society ultimately rests on “a declaration of faith” (p.10, emphasis added).  They claim that “[t]o go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another” (p. 123, emphasis added). They praise Catholic social teaching  for moderating “against [both] state socialism and unrestrained capitalism” (p. 186), in addition to further comments on Christian Scripture, the Dharamsūtras of Brahman India, the Confucius and Tao philosophies of ancient China, and the contemporary pseudo-religion of Gaia.

They mention the theological bearings of great economists. They note that while John Maynard Keynes’ work focused on the gears and whistles of capitalism, Keynes always had “religion under the surface,” holding onto the hope that reckless capitalism would eventually pass away and usher in “the heaven of art, love, and the quest for knowledge” (p. 17). They reference Adam Smith’s rather detached view of God, (aka: “The Great Director of the Universe”), who “has merely set the machinery [of economics] in motion, leaving it to self-love to work its benefits” (p. 50).

With those quotes from How Much Is Enough? in mind, I want to make what may seem like a surprising turn to An Altar in the World, written by Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Like the Skidelskys, Taylor is interested in questions of what the good life looks like, but she comes to these questions through the lens of personal spirituality rather than political economy.

Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.
Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.

Humor me this and read this quote of Taylor’s on the “spiritual practice” of paying attention to the “sacrament” of a mail-order catalog:

“First, there are the people who produced the catalog—the designers, the photographers, the models, and the copyeditors—along with the people who produced the goods inside. Some of those people live in Mexico and others in the Phillipines. In China, where cashmere goats are bred to produce sweaters for American consumers, traditional grasslands are so overgrazed that thousands of square miles turn to desert each year. If you could lay a laminated map of the world on the floor and put a pin in every place where something in that mail-order catalog came from, you might be amazed at how prickly the map became.” (p.31)

Got that? Good, because now compare that to this excerpt from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, where, instead of pins on a map, he is dropping exclamation points over his description of the assembly of a piece of clothing:

The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! (I.1.11)

Save for Taylor’s reference to nature resource overuse, both Taylor and Smith are saying the same thing, that there is an incomprehensible economic wonder caused by the division of labor.

In fact, Taylor probably did not do this intentionally, but throughout her chapters discussing various spiritual practices, she has a coherent (although not systematic) economic doctrine of her own regarding the concept of work, the factor of production sometimes called labor.

“Work,” Taylor says, “connects us to other people,” using the examples of the customer service agent and the oft-overlooked school custodian (p.114-115). The idea here is that the fruits of our labors are not often for us to enjoy; and, if I may run away with the text, the implication is that the whole purpose of economic theorizing is less about making a profit and more about understanding the fabric of human relations to each other.

But while Taylor affirms the value of work, she also moderates this claim. She laments the loss of Sabbath culture in the American South, starting in the 1960s when “gross domestic product had become the foremost indicator of the nation’s health and well-being” (p.128). With her elegant prose, she explains her logic: “[b]y interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying in picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart.” (p.131).

Taylor goes even further, describing when a blizzard ripped through town and stranded her and her husband on their Georgia farm. With no road and no electricity, the author had to put down her pen and become a physical laborer for the sake of her survival and the survival of those around her (p. 143). The lessons learned from those days become a two-pronged reflection on the value of physical labor and on exceeding one’s self-interest, admitting that “the people who do these things for a living are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If American culture admitted to caste, then these laborers would be the shudras” (p.146).

There is much more to say on Taylor’s concept of labor, but I have to stop there for the sake of bringing my thoughts full circle. Suffice it to say that Taylor could not talk spirituality without stumbling upon economics. And while this seems to happen mostly in the background, Taylor does at least once bring it straight to the forefront, claiming that “[i]f Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex” (p.131).

I don’t know what to make of the sex piece, but if Taylor is claiming that God is interested in economics, there are economists who are quite interested in (some sort of) God. The Skidelskys, in the second-to-last paragraph (so, rhetorically speaking, they really do mean it) of their entire book on money and the good life, write the following personal ad, albeit in reserved academic prose:

The basic goods…are not logically dependent on any single religious doctrine, but their realization is probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide. Most of the liberal reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Christians; others were among those who, as Keynes said of himself, “destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.” Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it. (p.218)

It may seem like a match made in heaven, but I think Christians need to pause for a moment and realize the implications of such an opportunity. How can we frame this not so that the church is a pawn of human progress, but rather that a healthier economics is the consequence of the church living into its mission of being a foretaste of things to come, being the salt of the earth?

Continue reading “Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief”

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