The “medium chill” and keeping Sabbath

Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.

In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.

But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.

And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).

Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.

He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.

All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.

Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,

[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)

This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.

In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)

This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.

Pre-Christmas odds and ends

The ATR household is off to visit family for the better part of the next week, so blogging will be light–well, even lighter than usual.

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been reading ’round the Web lately:

Christopher has several posts on l’affaire Rick Warren that are, as usual, very much worth your time. (See here, here, and here.)

Congrats to John Schwenkler, whose blog Upturned Earth has been absorbed into the ever-expanding conservative media empire that is Culture 11.

Lynn reflects on the movie Milk and how different the atmosphere for gay rights in California has changed since the 70’s (n.b.: a couple of f-bombs).

I thought this article on St. Joseph at Slate was neat.

Jennifer reminds us that it’s T-minus one month till the Lost season premiere! (And don’t forget Battlestar Galactica on January 18th!)

Alan Jacobs and Noah Millman discuss intereligious dialogue at the American Scene. This is something I haven’t given as much thought to as I’d like. (See here, here, and here.)

Tom Engelhardt writes on publishing and reading during a downturn. Also see this: “The Tyranny of the ‘To-Read’ Pile”

George Monbiot on peak oil.

This is interesting: Meat Consumption and CO2 Emissions

Not surprisingly, beef has the highest CO2 emissions per pound, but surprisingly high also are cheese and shrimp. I wonder if transportation was included in the figuring.

This talk
from the E.F. Schumahcer Institute was delivered in May, but it still seems entirely relevant to our current predicament.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring you Christmas wishes from Ronnie James Dio (along with the rest of the Dio-era Black Sabbath line-up).

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

 Conrad von Soest, Nativity (1404)
Conrad von Soest, Nativity (1404)

My only post on the financial crisis

I hope you do not, dear reader, come here looking for informed commentary on economics and high finance. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve found Andrew Leonard’s column at Salon essential reading in recent days.

It seems we have a plan, but with many of the details left to be revealed. Last night–again for what it’s worth–I talked to a good friend who is also a corporate lawyer at a major DC firm and he convinced me, more or less, that some kind of bailout is probably necessary, though one with significant oversight and protections for citizens and homeowners. (Granted, I had had a few drinks at the time.)

We also agreed, though, that the American Way of Debt is the root of many of our present evils. See this piece by Daniel Koffler for another take on that.

UPDATE: No deal! Is this the height of political irresponsibility or a courageous stand on principle? I don’t know enough about the details to say if the proposed bill was a good one, though some smart people said that it was as good as we’re likely to get. I guess the question then becomes whether the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of acting. The progressive Left seems to think shooting down the bailout was a good thing, but will more progressive measures emerge in its place?

I do have to say, I was watching CNN this afternoon and was put off by the way that it was taken for granted by Wolf Blitzer, et al. that the bailout simply must be passed and that Congress was being crazy. Anytime you have that kind of consensus among the elite political and media class I get suspicious (see the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq war, inter alia). I guess time will tell…

Consumerism and social justice

Gaius makes a fair point: cries against “consumerism” can ring hollow when there are people who are genuniely struggling, even in the land of overstuffed plenty.

But this doesn’t solve the problem, that, given resource and environmental constraints, an economy devoted to ever-expanding consumption is unsustainable. And “we the people” bear some responsibility for it.

Individual virtue isn’t a substitute for political action, of course. Political change is necessary and can make it easier for people to alter their lifestyles. For instance, national health insurance could enable people to step off the getting-and-spending treadmill by working part-time or at a more fulfilling or service-oriented job, one where they might not traditionally get benefits. A carbon tax could direct resources away from wasteful consumption toward alternative energy development, creating “green” jobs. Better planned communities could cut down commuting time. Etc. Social justice and environmentalism shouldn’t be at odds and can work in tandem.

I’m just trying to learn about this stuff, and I’m not going to pretend I know what all the answers are or that there aren’t trade-offs involved. But it seems to me that we need to think about it if all 7 billion of us living at the level of the American upper-middle class is going to wreck the planet.

Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t struggling as much can think about parts of our life where we’ve let an excess of stuff take control. Modern research and ancient wisdom seem to agree that what both the New Testament and Plato call pleonexia is not only a vice, but it doesn’t make us happy either.

The “green consumer” revisited

Via Russell Arben Fox comes a terrific post by Laura McKenna taking a shot at trendy “green consumerism.” Rusell adds his thoughts here. I blogged a bit about this phenomenon here.

It’s interesting (and maybe significant) how much conventional political wisdom is frequently at odds with common-sense (and traditional) wisdom. For instance: the idea that we can buy our way out of problems, whether that be “green” consumerism or economic “stimulus.” We’re familiar by now with the idea that private vice may become public virtue (thank you, Adam Smith), but one has the hunch that it’s just not sustainable.

Crunchy cons, Pollan, Scully and meat-eating

Rod Dreher of Crunchy Cons fame reflects on the morality of meat-eating, prompted by a discussion with a Christian friend about The Omnivore’s Dilemma (permalinks don’t seem to be working – scroll down to “Re-thinking the meat guzzler”). He also refers to Matthew Scully’s Dominion, an indictment of the factory farming system (and other practices of animal exploitation) written from an explicitly conservative point of view (Scully is a former speechwriter for President Bush). He also links to this interesting article by Mark Bittman.


I finally got my hands on a copy of Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy and I’m tempted to call it my non-fiction book of 2007. It manages to be both troubling and hopeful as it paints a bleak picture of what our present obsession with “growth” is doing to us and to the planet, while holding up examples of alternatives to full-speed-ahead globalism that actually seem to work.

McKibben has written about environmental issues for years, publishing the first popular work about global warming back in the late 80s. But here he offers a critique of our entire modern economic system and its effects on body, soul and environment. His argument is actually very straightforward: conventional economics which seeks growth as its ultimate aim is failing us for three reasons. First, it breeds inequality, something which has acheived fairly staggering proportions. Second, it’s bumping up against the physical limits of the planet, both in the effects its having on the environment and its depedence on resources that are rapidly dwindling. Third, it’s not making us happy.

It’s this last argument that offers a somewhat novel twist on an assessment that will be familiar to many. To critique go-go capitalism for creating inequality or ravaging the earth is nothing new (even if we still haven’t really accepted it). But the idea that all that stuff isn’t making us any happier flies in the face of some of the most fundamental assumptions of our political and economic system.

His contention is that, for a long time, More and Better have come as a package deal. As we get richer we get happier. Someone who shares a tiny room with five other people, doesn’t get enough to eat, and works long hours of drugery isn’t likely to be happy. So, an increase in wealth can make a real difference for someone like that. The problem is that we in the prosperous West have largely overshot the point of diminishing returns: more isn’t better anymore. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that Americans, for instance, are less happy on the whole than they were in, say, the 1950s despite tremendous increases in wealth.

I tend to agree with Caleb Stegall who, in his review in the American Conservative, lamented McKibben’s reliance on the trendy new “science” of “happiness research,” but I suspect that McKibben is drawing from deeper wells than that. Virtually our entire religious and philosophical heritage has told us that riches aren’t the path to lasting happiness and satisfaction, and, in fact, are often obstacles to it. If “happiness studies” provides some measure of empirical verification of this tried truth, great. But I don’t think much in McKibben’s argument really hangs on it.

Part of the problem, McKibben thinks, is that our greater wealth has come at the price of the erosion of our communities. Getter richer has meant working longer hours, being willing to move frequently in order to climb the ladder of success, and generally maintaining tenuous relationships with those around us. A recent Washington Post piece illustrates the point: busy professionals are actually outsourcing the tasks of daily life to professional “lifestyle managers.” McKibben calls this phenomenon “hyper indvidualism,” the way our wealth insulates us from the demands, but also the support, provided by community.

McKibben recognizes that wealth and its attendant individualism has benefits, but he thinks the pendulum has swung too far away from community. Socialism was a failure, and the market works. But we need markets that are “embedded” in social contexts that tame and humanize them. McKibben’s favorite metaphor for his vision is the farmer’s market, a place where people come to buy and sell, but which is knit together by thicker relationships than those at the supermarket (or on the Internet).

Localism becomes the key virtue in the alternative economics that McKibben is encouraging us to build. Not only are local economies more ecologically durable (globalism as we know it is probably dependent on what will turn out to be a one-shot binge of fossil fuels), but they enable communities to flourish and individuals to find contexts in which they can be at home. McKibben is at his best as a reporter and storyteller, and much of the book consists of his descriptions of local economies in action: a farmers’ co-op in Vermont, a community department store created as an intentional alternative to Wal-Mart, local radio, Cuban farmers forced to turn to sustainable agriculture once they could no longer depend on industrial subsidy from the Soviet Union, experiments with local currencies, and other attempts to live outside the channels of the global marketplace.

To me one of the most important chapters is the final one, “The Durable Future.” The moral trump card that defenders of mainstream globalization inevitably use is the poor people of the Third World. Farmers markets and localism may be well and good, they say, but fast-paced industrial growth is the only way to lift the millions and millions of desperately poor people in the world up to a decent standard of living.

McKibbon concedes that growth is necessary for the poorest people in the world. As we saw before, below a certain point misery and poverty certainly go together. But, he points out, there’s good reason to believe that the earth can’t handle everyone living like Americans. If everyone in China drove a car, for instance, the CO2 emissions from China alone would exceed the rest of the world combined. Not to mention soil erosion, pollution, water shortages, and the rest of the environmental strains that go along with rapid industrialization, which are making themselves felt in China now. It’s also not clear that the rest of the world can even absorb all the goods the Chinese (not to mention everyone else) need to produce in order to “grow” themselves out of poverty.

Furthermore, growth in the developing world often occurs as a result of mining natural resources and converting peasant farming to commodity farming, both of which have severe negative “externalities” ranging from the degradation of ecosystems to mass unemployment and migration from the countryside to urban slums and shantytowns. Overall it’s far from clear that the tide can rise fast and furiously enough to lift all boats without drowning the people unable to climb aboard.

Part of the problem is that the West is exporting through its cultural products a picture of the good life that is unattainable by all the world’s people, and which would likely result in diminishing returns in happiness even if it were. But what’s the alternative? McKibben argues that “developing” countries can benefit from a turn to the local just as “developed” ones can.

What should that development look like? It should look to the local far more than to the global. It should concentrate on creating and sustaining strong communities, not creating a culture of economic individualism. It should worry less about what’s ideal from a classical economist’s view of markets, and far more about what’s ecologically possible. It should aim not at growth but at durability. It should avoid the romantic fantasies offered by the prophets of endless wealth in favor of the blunter realism of people looking out for each other, much as they have over the millennia of human existence. In other words, it won’t be all that different from what we need to acheive in the rich world, though we begin so unimaginably far apart that for a very long time North and South will continue to look very different. (pp. 197-8)

McKibben offers a variety of examples of local economies in the developing world that depend on intermediate technology, local know-how, community enterprise, and ecological sensibilites. “The point is not ‘Old ways good, new ways bad,” Rather, each locality, instead of relying solely on Adam Smith as filtered through the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, needs to figure out what its mix of tradition and resources and hopes allows” (p. 217). Western models of “development,” operating from decidedly mixed motives, often assume that the goal should be to make poor people just like us.

At the end of the day, though, the biggest problem is us. We have so much (as a society; there are of course pockets of inexcusably poverty even in the richest countries) and want more still. To imagine less, not to cheer when the economy grows, would requrie a transvaluation of values that would make Nietzsche blanch. Christians, in particular, ought to be receptive to this message since our theological tradition is nearly unanimous in commending frugality, and even downright ascetical lifestyles. It’s hard to imagine an ethos more at odds with the One who told us not to lay up treasure on earth than our modern American prosperity gospel. The irony is that it’s apparently not even making us happy, but like an addict we can’t even admit we have a problem.

McCarraher on capitalism, consumerism and the declining American empire

Interesting interview with Villanova University prof Eugene McCarraher (via Eric) on consumerism, capitalism, and the decline of the “American empire.” McCarraher’s always a delight to read, even if you don’t agree with everything he says. He pulls no punches and isn’t shy about calling out trendy theological shibboleths.

For more from McCarraher, see here, here, and here.

Book review: Small Is Still Beautiful

Joseph Pearce is a noted English Catholic writer who has written books on G. K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis among others. In Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered, Pearce seeks to update the wisdom of E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful for the 21st century.

Small Is Still Beautiful is one among a recent spate of books re-thinking what it means to be conservative in light of the apparent triumph of global capitalism and the preeminence of America as global hegemon. Fans of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons (review here) and Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America (review here) will find much to like here, as Pearce upholds the small, familiar and local against the forces of globalized homogeneity.

Pearce doesn’t break much new ground in terms of fundamental ideas; this book is more of an update of Schumacher’s original. But this actually works well since Schumacher’s ideas seem just as timely now as they did thirty years ago. The issues that this book grapples with – our insatiable appetite for growth, environmental despoilation, and the plight of local communities – have gained a new resonance in recent years.

If you had to boil down Schumacher’s (and Pearce’s) message into a pithy maxim, I think it would be that “Economics was made for man, not man for economics.” Schumacher’s vision was rooted in a view of humankind as having transcendent worth, but also part of an ordered cosmos that has its own beauty and integrity. For Schumacher, much of the problem of conventional economic thinking was that it subordinated the ends of human life to the means of economic production – a complete reversal of the proper order of things.

Pearce sees both cause for worry and celebration in the events that have transpired since Small Is Beautiful was originally published. On the one hand, many of the worrying trends Schumacher identified have only accelerated: neoliberal globalization and its attendant monoculture, skewed theories of development that privilege intensive industrial production and agriculture, and, of course, the worship of centralization and “giantism.” On the other hand, a counter-movement of organic farmers, craft brewers, proponents of local economies, co-ops, and movements for political decentralization have also made a surprising amount of headway.

The underlying premise of Schumacher’s work is that unlimited economic growth in the pursuit of meeting a never-ending stream of consumer demands is “unnatrual” in the deepest possible sense. It goes against the grain of human nature in that it won’t satisfy our deepest longings, and it threatens to destroy the fragile biosphere upon which we and all other life depend. Only a reorientation of our economic and political life toward proper human ends – joy, wisdom, peace – can stave off an ecological disaster.

This view is both radical and conservative in that it requires a massive re-thinking of the political and economic status quo, but does so in the name of a very traditional, even religious, view of human beings and their destiny. Schumacher’s less-known work, A Guide for the Perplexed, actually presents the key to his thought here. His aim in that work was to recover the traditional metaphysical view of humanity and the universe that underlies what Huston Smith calls the “wisdom traditions” of the world. This philosophia perennis stands in stark opposition to the materialism of post-Englightenment modernity.

Pearce, like Schumacher, is a practicing Catholic who combines what we’d call social conservatism with economic positions well to the “left” of most Democrats, much less Republicans. He opposes “free trade” and thinks government policy should favor small businesses and local producers. He takes the issue of climate change and environmental degradation with the utmost seriousness, seeing them as direct consequences of growth-oriented and inequitable economic policy. He excoriates the World Bank and IMF and their regimes of “structural adjustment” programs for developing nations. And he opts for organic farming as the only way to save the land from destruction at the hands of intensive agriculture.

Somewhat confusingly, and despite the subtitle, Pearce says little directly about families. There are a few asides about the ways in which market capitalism breaks up social bonds, leaving atomized individuals in its wake. But very little is said about how families in particular are affected. For instance, it seems to me that Pearce could’ve made a lot of hay out of the way that our current economic practices force parents to work long hours, depriving them of the opportunities to spend time with their children as well as to participate in their communities.

I have to say that this book likely won’t convince anyone who isn’t already at least somewhat familiar with and somewhat sympathetic to Schumacher’s original arguments. But Pearce has done us a service even if the only effect of his book is to send people (particularly the more conservative-leaning people likely to read this) back to Schumacher’s original works. And beyond that, it’s nice to see Schumacherian principles applied to the current scence, giving us a picture of their continuing relevance.

Dear Publishers: I would be happy to review books like this when they come out instead of waiting till they’re available at the library. Please feel free to send review copies. 😉

How much of a planet-wrecking consumerist are you?

Find out with this fun quiz a friend of mine sent me.

My score was 2.5, which means it would take 2.5 earths to support everyone in the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.

I scored the worst on food (6 earths!), which I think may have something to do with the superhuman amounts of coffee I consume.