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Sermon, October 13 - Transience Divine
October 13th, 2008
02:58 pm


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Sermon, October 13
I want to write sermons. I'm writing them because I need to write, not because I think you'all need my sermons! But sermonizing is a tough skill, and what better place to learn than amongst friends?

    But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbor's eye, there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, we find ourselves by accident. Always before these times the bulk of people did not overeat themselves, because they couldn't, whether they wanted to or not, and all but a very few were kept "fit" by unavoidable exercise and personal danger. Now, if only he pitch his standard low enough and keep free from pride, almost anyone can achieve a sort of excess. You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred, your highest moment a mere sentimental orgasm, and your first real contact with primary and elemental necessities the sweat on your deathbed. -- H.G. Wells

I was walking through a cemetery in São Paulo last week, thinking about the lives of the thousands of bodies laid there. Many there experienced waves of depression and military rule; the world wars and their lopsided aftermaths; and life-shattering changes from the rise of capitalism and information. Even if any of them could have been sheltered from these, they no doubt had their own stories of unrequited love, self-fulfilled betrayal, lost childhoods, and nights of drinking they wish they forgot. Life is complicated, parts full to overflowing and others empty and walled shut, full of trials and hard-won wisdom, and then its over.

As with many people working in technology today, aspects of my life are deadly comfortable. I'm in debt, but not burdensomely so. If there have been weeks I could only afford Ramen, they're far-outnumbered by the times I've eat out. I can travel and live in economically stifled areas, and the only personal cost to me is in sympathy to others who don't have my privileges.

It seems that technology and economic stability also teaches us to be miserly with our emotions. So much of contemporary life is the life of an ant. Most of us are asked to behave and produce at the will of impersonal systems for our jobs. Almost every interaction we have except amongst friends is through roles we've learned to play, like the public transportation passenger and the store goods purchaser. To bring personal emotions into these situations-- that is, to act human-- would be a social crime.

But we crave more: the life of true danger and true potential. And everywhere companies are happy to oblige. Cars, sports, cruises, and beer all promise to give us the thrill we seek. They each promise to introduce us a new, wonderful god into our lives, for a price.

We're in the middle of an economic crisis. For many people, that means less opportunities to purchase outlets from the drone of life, and more time lost to patterned money-making. Money has stopped making money, so we horde as much as we can, to brace for the uncertain times ahead.

But the economic crisis is just a cog in a far more dire crisis happening now. The world-wide environmental crisis is all around us, and it promises more death and misery, more life-altering and culture-stifling changes, and longer and further-reaching ramifications.

It's likely that the world population will drop dramatically-- at least 20%-- in a generation. That means wide-spread famines, water shortages, and break-downs of civilization-- if not huge natural disasters-- across the globe. Our eco-system is falling apart, and it's getting worse fast. Last year's increase in CO2 was more than many "worst-case" projections. Half the people I've talked to who should know say that Brazil's rain forest will be gone in 50 years.

Every moneyed transaction you engage in is part of a world-wide system, and much of that system is bent to stripping the world of its natural resources. If the economic crisis means cutting corners to save money, we're going to accelerate our doom. If we direct our savings in conservative investments, it will stifle the changing action that needs to happen now.

I have friends who have been hoping for the right answer to come from a Marxist or anarchist revolution-- saying that capitalism is the problem (I agree it's one of the problems). Other friends point to improving technology as the answer.

But we can't wait any more.

These are the days told of in legends. We are knights and kings, and there is a maiden of great beauty in distress. A dragon of our own making is ravishing our countryside, and we can no longer spend our time merely preparing to fight. Every day now we will be asked to exercise deep courage and wise judgment.

The choices we make now will, in no uncertain terms, determine the fate of the world. The solutions are known, but they need to be used-- to be invested in, in the deepest sense.

Everyone of us needs to take a hard look at how our choices-- our jobs, our money, our leisure time-- are impacting the world. The world needs all our help, and all our skills. How can the institutions we work for be bent to saving the environment and promoting justice (for they go together)? How much can we afford to give to charity? The US has the strongest economy in the world, so why is it the second biggest polluter? We need to not simply pollute less, but use our power to offset developing nations. What can we do in our free time? With the amount of time people in the US watch TV, the whole of Wikipedia could be reproduced (every edit, every line of code) 2000 times a year. There are thousands of projects that need our time, and they're easy to find. The resources of the world are beyond sufficient, but they need to be better used, and we're the ones guilty of their misuse.

Don't ask yourself what you can't afford to give. If you give more than you can afford, the gods will provide. If you don't, they may leave you dead even if they keep you alive. It's time to stop the life of "fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never [being] really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred" or you'll lie on your deathbed, wondering why you didn't do more.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:October 14th, 2008 01:47 am (UTC)
I always enjoy reading your posts. They typically provide a good perspective, even if they are sometimes opinionated and do not encompass everyone's views (of course there is no rule, written or unwritten, that says they must). That was my first thought.

Second thought: few people can control absolutely how their hours at work are spent by their employer. The limited few that are in control of their corporations or their farm stands are subject to similar rules, though - in order to accomplish A, you must do B, which may negatively effect company or economy C. As far as I'm concerned it is an impossible dream to have a company with a significant impact on a market not have any negative effect. And if you have no impact on the market, you are liable to be punished by the market and its rules, and you will likely have a smaller chance of producing an amazing positive. I think of the hippies in the commune in the middle of the woods - they have very little effect on anything outside of their circle, positive or negative. To live this way is to have a neutral existence - while it is better than many, it is less than some. To increase standards of living, to remove fear - these are things that we should work towards. Technology is used in an attempt at these, but of course like any skill it can be applied to a negative net benefit.

I agree that wasting your life is bad. I see that TVs are useful transmitters of culture, news, and a method of relaxation - but imho, there are better means to the same ends. That's why I, as a technophile, don't even own a tv - I would rather spend my money on other things. One could argue that I'm somewhat hypocritical, though, as I do use a computer monitor and laptop to occasionally watch a Joss Whedon tv series or select movies - but I would think more than twice if I had to purchase said laptop + monitor instead of pulling them out of a company's recycle/trash pile. I hate to see technology go to waste. :) Books, art galleries, socializing with strangers, and live music - now those are what I'm talking about!! :)

The problem is that most people cannot see an effect of their good intentions. I think that if you travel to a place where people do not care about something (be it safety, education, etc), you will most certainly notice its absence - and perhaps everyone should, in their lifetime, visit such places to understand the effect their choices have had. The world is changed by small miracles, by the integrated sum of everyone's contributions - that's why you have to have faith. I call it faith in man; others call it faith in a god. So long as your faith does not permit you to be lazy.

Speaking from another perspective, there is a scenario in which the US of A's inefficient usage of resources to rapidly develop an educated society of technology is warranted: catastrophic world-changing events. If the human race were at risk of being destroyed at once by a significant event - would that justify our years of pollution and pain?

A similar view would be that such an event is inevitable, and that the earth is destined to eventually be destroyed, be it by man or by nature. In such a case, it is only by racing the clock to develop planetary protection, restoration, and inter-stellar travel capabilities that we may survive. Does it matter if we survive? Does it matter if the earth survives? Does it matter if our knowledge and our history survives?

My little brain tells me that I should just worry about making my world a happy place and to make the world a happy place for others so that they will in turn make my world a better place. I think that somewhere in there an instinct is telling me to make it a better place "for the kids", too, but I haven't yet been able to determine the relationship between instinct and the human purpose.
[User Picture]
Date:October 14th, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
I don't mean to suggest that everyone has an obligation to redirect their company, but I do believe that people have the ability to refocus their jobs. I know I've been very priviledged in work, but I have always been able to approach my boss and say, "I think this is important, and here's what I want to be doing differently to work for that important thing." In general, I think the power people have to decide what they do for their company far exceeds the power that their contract describes, and that flexibility goes all the way up. Even if, for example, it's just to ask if you can purchase from greener suppliers, and the company flat-out refuses: as more and more people express the sentiment that it's important, the company will change, greatest-profits be damned.

I definitely agree about the difficulty of seeing results from your actions, but the nonetheless importance of working toward them. We all need to work on two levels. One level is close at home, where we can see our actions making others happy. That's important, it's not enough-- but it re-invigorates us to do the harder work of the other level: systemic work against forces that we alone cannot change.

In general, I think world-wide catastrophies are a red herring. The natural catastrophies that are actually happening: record huricanes and floods and droughts, rapid desertification of forests and impending collapse of iceshelfs, are all of our own making. The likelihood that our technology will destroy us far exceeds the likelihood that the natural world would on its own.

But I'm not againt technology. I love technology. It's the rules of the race that I'm against. There's no point in inveighing the technological advances we've already made. Besides, they include a world of green solutions that weren't possible before. So now, let's drop the bad technology and continue with the good.
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