Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Capitalism (Page 1 of 2)

Why are Australians so angry?

“Why are Australians so angry? We’re one of the richest nations on Earth, with one of the highest standards of living. We live in a free and democratic society where political views can be expressed without fear of being jailed or gagged.”

This article starts by comparing a trip to Bali with life in Australia. As I’m currently in Bali, this really resonates. Why aren’t our enormous riches making us happy? Why do we feel so entitled to everything being done our way? Aren’t our riches and freedom enough for us?

Living life for others is what makes us happy. The pursuit of happiness in itself is a pursuit without a destination. Happiness is a by-product of living a life of service for others. Loving our neighbour, even our enemy, gives us a joy that is not dependent on circumstances.

In a materialistic society we look to externals to give us our sense of wellbeing. Externals can and do give us a level of satisfaction (like being on holiday in Bali), but they will never give us what we really desire. There is always a level of dissatisfaction with life just under the surface. Acknowledging that is a sign of emotional health.

Emptiness, including boredom at times, is a gift. It is not healthy to always seek to fill the emptiness inside us. Until we realise that, we will remain angry and seek to act it out rather than choose the more healthy option of acknowledging it and seeing how we can choose to love our neighbours. Nothing less than the survival of the planet depends on it.

Australians are among the luckiest people on earth. What are we so angry about? | Brigid Delaney’s diary

I’m driving to Denpasar airport in Bali (or rather being driven, I am still learning to drive) and it’s a nightmare. I see three near-collisions. Yet no one is honking their horn. There are hundreds of cars and motorbikes jammed into a terrible road yet the streets are actually kind of quiet.

Movie review – Money Monster

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A movie which has the calibre of actors like George Clooney and Julia Roberts is one that usually gets my attention. And the fact that I am writing a review of it means that my hunches about the quality of this movie were not unfounded.

[pullquote]Money Monster is a critique of a society that has become numb to the influences of social media and a culture of violence as entertainment.[/pullquote]

Money Monster is a critique of a society that has become numb to the influences of social media and a culture of violence as entertainment. Clooney plays TV personality, Lee Gates, the host of a tabloid-style financial advice cum game show called Money Monster.

Gates has recently given advice to his millions of viewers to buy shares in a company called IBIS Clear Capital, whose share price subsequently tanks. As a result, the people who took the advice of the popular Gates lose millions of dollars. One of those people is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who lost his life savings of $60,000 after listening to Gates.

Distraught and seeking answers, Budwell infiltrates the show as it goes live to air, pulling a gun on Gates and holding him and his crew hostage, as millions of viewers around the country watch on.

Stories like this have a tendency to follow a certain script. Generally, the loner feels ripped off, takes someone hostage, and the plot goes back and forth until the “lone nut” is taken out by authorities and normality is restored.

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Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

George Monbiot has written another insightful article, this one on the problem of neoliberalism, and the fact that most people in our neoliberal society don’t know what the term means.

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it.

Here are my thoughts on some of the points Monbiot makes:

  • “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.”

Just like communism reduced people to cogs in a machine, neoliberalism, or market capitalism, does the same. We become consumers whose value lies in how much we contribute to the ongoing efficiency of the economic machine. We are not seen as having inherent dignity in ourselves.

  • “When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation.” Think Tony Abbott and ‘stop the boats’ in Australia.

The rise of Bernie Sanders is as much a response to the current climate as is the rise of Donald Trump. The failure of the Left has been seen by them and is responding in the rise of Sanders.

“Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed”. I remember when communism fell over in the late 1980s, Jim Wallis said the same would happen to capitalism one day. It might take another generation, but we are seeing it happening now before our eyes.

  • “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.” Perhaps one option (and there may be others along the lines of what people like Bernie Sanders are putting forward) is Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.

The problem with unfettered market capitalism is that it is an amoral system. It doesn’t take into account human nature, the fact that humans are ultimately committed to their own self-interest. That’s why it needs people in poverty to survive.

The Big Short is long on the human predicament

Left to right: Tracy Letts plays Lawrence Fields, Wayne Pere plays Martin Blaine and Christian Bale plays Michael Burry in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises

We all remember the Global Financial Crisis, or GFC, as it was called. It was a time when the world stood on the brink of economic catastrophe, to the point that it was being talked about as leading to another Great Depression such as the world suffered in the 1930s.

The Big Short is the story of why the GFC happened, and how a few people saw it coming but no one listened to them.

The movie is based on the 2010 book of the same name by Michael Lewis. It stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt. 

What this movie highlights is the problem of human greed at its worst, and the evil which is unleashed when people simply don’t care about anyone else but themselves.

The housing bubble of 2007/08, which led to the GFC, highlighted the problems of an economic system that is unregulated and doesn’t take into account human nature. The problem with unfettered market capitalism is that some people have to remain poor for others to get rich. It is an amoral system, which, when left to its own devices, produces unprecedented greed the likes of which took the world to the edge of the economic cliff just those few years ago.

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America the noisy

stress-CBT_1I am spending some time in the US this Australian summer. It’s my fourth time here. My first impressions this time are that, for most people, life is a daily battle to get everything done. It’s about making the bucks, working so hard that we no longer know what we’re working towards. No one seems to stop and smell the roses.

A culture that stops reflecting is a culture that doesn’t know where it’s going. This article is not a criticism of the US, because Australia, where I come from, is just the same. And even more so, I don’t spend enough time reflecting in my own life. But in this land where freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness is the guiding light that will lead us to the Promised Land, it seems to stand out more.

It has been said that we in the West have “noisy souls.” That is, we have so much going on in our brains that we are no longer able to take notice of the little things in life. We are so wired that we don’t know how to stop and notice the birds singing. Continue reading

What does the end of poverty look like?

wealth povertyA few days ago a colleague at work sent through a fascinating article by the son of Warren Buffett. Some quotes from Peter Buffett’s article are as follows:

  • “People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?”
  • “What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it.”
  • “Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

Fascinating points. When we work for a better world, are we just dragging people into a consumerist way of life which perpetuates the very poverty we want to alleviate? As Buffett says, doesn’t this all just feed the beast? What does the alleviation of poverty look like? Is it like the new society described so beautifully in Isaiah 65?

This is why just bringing people out of poverty is not enough. Changing structures which keep people poor must also take place. If there is no advocacy, then the work of development and relief is pointless.

What this reminds me of is Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without Growth, in which the author lays out a blueprint for a system that works in a world of finite resources. A book well worth a read, along with the above-mentioned article.

Thoughts on the American psyche

My wife and I recently returned from spending some time in the United States. Having been there a few times now, and having some family over there, I have decided to pen my thoughts on this country of contrasts, of opportunity and of deprivation.

We were in Florida on the 4th of July, and we spent the evening with a few hundred other people watching the fireworks and celebrations. As I watched and took on the reactions of the people, I was impressed by how much Americans love their country, and by how genuinely patriotic they are. While I do believe that Americans go over the top with their sense of patriotism, there is a reason for it, and on the other hand, I don’t think Australia goes far enough with it. And frankly I am sick of people who constantly bag America for this and other reasons when they have probably never even been there. It is easy to be judgmental from afar.

Americans really believe they are the greatest country in the world, not necessarily in the sense of being superior (though of course there are indeed many Americans who believe their country is superior than others; and that attitude is not just limited to those who believe that America is somehow God’s promised land), but in the opportunities they have in this country. Freedom is everything in this land; it is what has made it great. But it has also led to an arrogance that will one day be its downfall. For example, for Barack Obama to say, in response to the recent downgrade of the US credit rating, that “no matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country” was the height of American hubris.

But despite the claims of freedom that this country is built on, I am convinced that Australia has more freedom than the US. Our health system is not out of reach for millions of our citizens, we do not live in nearly as much fear of a major terrorist attack on our shores, and our level of poverty is generally not as high as in many places in the US.

As I watched the fireworks and was impressed by the love of Americans for their country, I was equally impressed by the view that America does not have a right to impose itself on the rest of the world. No country, however powerful, has that right.

Martin Luther King once made the point that a true patriot is one who loves their country enough to criticise it. He was responding to those who said his criticism of America came out of a hatred of its ideals. King though, loved his country, and wanted it to be the best it could be, to live out its ideals of equality and freedom for all. His criticism did not come out of any resentment or an attitude of judgmentalism or superiority. It came out of a dream he had for his country.

Any criticism must come out of a motivation of love. Otherwise it is tainted with self-interest. I tend to think that there will be many people gloating over the problems America is facing at the moment, looking forward to the decline of the American empire. I have to admit I struggle win that myself at times, but it is not the way of Jesus.

It is easy to be seduced by America and the very consumer culture that is the source of many of its problems at present. The ideal of freedom of enterprise, private ownership of property and individual opportunity are the unshakable bottom lines of this nation, and they have provided both opportunity and heavy costs over the years.

My relationship with America is one of both love and anger (as opposed to hatred; I don’t believe in hatred). Having a brother who has lived there for half his life, and having been there myself a few times, I see both sides of what, in my limited opinion, is both good and bad about this country.

One of the privileges we had while in the US recently was watching in person the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, the final launch of the shuttle. The word ‘awesome’ is bandied around everywhere these day to describe things which are really incredibly mundane. But watching this live was, for me, truly awesome. To watch as people are blasted into space was to realise, as my brother who was with me at the time said, that this is the very frontier of exploration. It was estimated that 750,000 people lined up on the Florida coast that July morning. It was a sight to behold, seeing the enormity of what a country can do in terms of technology. No wonder the patriotism on that day was so strong.

It must always be remembered though that, while this technological brilliance of America has certainly driven its innovation, it has been at the expense of social safety nets for the millions of less fortunate and less free, those who miss out because of billions of dollars spent on the space program.

Perhaps my response to the shuttle launch was also linked with my thoughts on the cultural hegemony of this nation. When we were in America, it hit me about how much we are infiltrated by American culture through television. It is so constant that we aren’t even aware of it. This cultural hegemony is largely what makes America so powerful. Through television, American culture has for years been exported around the world. The idea of American freedom and the American way of life has been shown to billions around the world, non-stop, 24/7, and, quite simply, it is part of our identity. That is why, when many people visit certain parts of the US, it feels familiar, they feel like they know the place; there is a level of comfort with the surroundings. Such familiarity also gives America more power. Image and perception is everything, and the America that is exported around the world is the America of Hollywood and dreams, whereas the other side of America is often hidden, for instance the side that has 46 million of its citizens living in poverty. This is one example of the lack of liberty that many people experience in the land of the free.

A final word must be taken from the Gospels. America was founded on the belief of many that they were a nation blessed by God, a light on a hill. And the constant refrain we hear from American Presidents at the end of every speech is ‘God bless the United States of America’. Well, my word toAmericais “be careful what you pray for.” The God in whom the Pilgrim Fathers placed their faith said “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The way of Jesus is inevitably the way of suffering. And this is the tension with which America lives. It is truly a remarkable nation, one that has given much good to the world, but it is also one which has inflicted untold suffering on innocent millions in the name of the very freedom which it proclaims to the world.

The psyche of America is indeed a wounded one. Today of all days the nation will be feeling this. The Founding Fathers seemed to have great motivations for the new country, but it has been greatly misguided over the years, leading to equally misguided hatred on the part of those who would destroy it.

On the statue of Liberty in New York harbour, the sign proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. And in Matthew 25 when the nations are brought together, it will be those who treated these very people as Christ did who will go into the glory set aside for them. Will America heed the call? On this day when many are mourning, may God truly bless the United States of America.

The (un)Happy Planet Index 2.0

Back in 2007 I wrote an article on the decay of western culture, in which I mentioned the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. This is an index that addresses the relative success or failure of countries in supporting a good life for their citizens, while respecting the environmental resource limits upon which all our lives depend. Australia was ranked 139th out of 178, which suggested that Jesus was right when he said that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

Photo by Craig JewellWell, the NEF has published its latest version of the Index, and it is indeed quite prophetic in its call for a new way of living in a world in which the earth’s resources are being depleted at a simply alarming rate. The report begins by stating that,

“In an age of uncertainty, society globally needs a new compass to set it on a path of real progress. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) provides that compass by measuring what truly matters to us – our well-being in terms of long, happy and meaningful lives – and what matters to the planet – our rate of resource consumption.”

It goes on to say that “we are still far from achieving sustainable well-being, and puts forward a vision of what we need to do to get there.”

Some of the interesting results to come out of the study we as follows:

  • The highest HPI score is that of Costa Rica (76.1 out of 100). As well as reporting the highest life satisfaction in the world, Costa Ricans also have the second-highest average life expectancy of the New World (second only to Canada). All this with a footprint of 2.3 global hectares. Whilst this success is indeed impressive, Costa Rica narrowly fails to achieve the goal of ‘one-planet living’: consuming its fair share of natural resources (indicated by a footprint of 2.1 global hectares or less).
  • Of the following ten countries, all but one is in Latin America.
  • The bottom ten HPI scores were all suffered by sub-Saharan African countries, with Zimbabwe bottom of the table with an HPI score of 16.6 out of 100.
  • Rich developed nations fall somewhere in the middle. The highest-placed Western nation is the Netherlands – 43rd out of 143. The USA comes a long way back in 114th place. Australia comes 102nd, a slight improvement on its 139th in the original study.
  • Many of the countries that do well are composed of small islands (including the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba and the Philippines).
  • No country successfully achieves the three goals of high life satisfaction, high life expectancy and one-planet living.
  • It is possible to live long, happy lives witha much smaller ecological footprint than found in the highest-consuming nations. For example, people in the Netherlands live on average over a year longer than people in the USA, and have similar levels of life satisfaction – and yet their per capitaecological footprint is less than half the size (4.4 global hectares compared with 9.4 global hectares). This means that the Netherlands is over twice as ecologically efficient at achieving good lives.
  • More dramatic is the difference between Costa Rica and the USA. Costa Ricans also live slightly longer than Americans, and report much higher levels of life satisfaction, and yet have a footprint which is less than a quarter the size.

What this study clearly shows is that our way of living in the (still) affluent west is unsustainable, as if we needed reminding. Brian McLaren calls our way of living the ‘suicide machine’, because it is a way of living that is literally killing us and the rest of the planet. His brilliant book, Everything Must Change, explains this in more detail.

The study also highlights what many people have been saying for a long time now. Consider this quote from Thomas Friedman, a long-time advocate of growth and globalisation:

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more'”

Jesus was indeed right when he warned of greed which is idolatry. Our whole way of living is based on greed and it is not just a doom-and-gloom killjoy remark to say that it is killing us. It is an undeniable fact. T. Jackson, in a NEF publication called ‘Chasing Progress’ has said that “every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth.” The Happy Planet report has an excellent section on this myth in which it discusses the history of the philosophy behind economic growth and how it came to prominence.

Photo by Ramiro PérezMany respected social thinkers have long put forward the argument that a religious outlook on life is beneficial to a peaceful and harmonious society. A society that places ethical values and a positive outlook for the future, often based on a religious faith, is a society that is based on a solid foundation. The Happy Planet report echoes this by saying that even a magazine such as The Economist says that 

“attempting to explain why well-being does not keep rising in line with consumption, [The Economist] suggests that ‘there are factors associated with modernisation that, in part, offset its positive impact.’ Specifically, it argues that alongside consumption growth, [a] concomitant breakdown of traditional institutions is manifested in the decline of religiosity and of trade unions; a marked rise in various social pathologies (crime, and drug and alcohol addiction); a decline in political participation and of trust in public authority; and the erosion of the institutions of family and marriage.”

An article in The Age a few years ago showed that, if all people in the world lived like Australians, we would need 4 planets to maintain our lifestyle. And of all the states in Australia, my home state of Victoria was the worst of the lot. That is mainly due to our  reliance on brown coal to create electricity. We have a lot to change, but happily, there are signs that change is happening. The Happy Planet report tells of incidences such as a community in Scotland sharing ownership of a new windfarm with developers, a ‘Big Lunch’ being arranged on streets across Britain to bring neighbours together, a community in a council estate in Luton partnering up with tea-growers in Southern India to ensure trade that is even fairer than fair trade. Things are happening. As Gandhi famously said, we must be the change we want to see in the world.

Jesus said the kingdom of God is among you. Through Jesus, the kingdom is invading history, and the good news is that all are invited to be a part of it. Heaven on earth will only happen when the resurrected Jesus returns to put the world to rights. But in the meantime, we have the absolute privilege of laying the building blocks. That is why everything we do matters. Every act of kindness, every act of justice. It all matters because when we do it in the name of Jesus, it has cosmic and eternal implications. As Ross Langmead sings,

“the kingdom is coming, a kingdom of peace. Beat swords into ploughs for fighting will cease. Justice will prosper, love will be king. Peacemakers will be able to sing that this is God’s earth and it has been worth all the pain.”

The Happy Planet report is a huge step in showing us how our current way of living is not of the kingdom, but it also shows some of the things we can do to help fulfil Jesus’ wish that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

More greed and more loneliness…and more brilliance from Leunig

A prophetic article from the brilliant Michael Leunig on the insanity of our obsession with economic growth. Leunig is one of those rare individuals who has the ability to speak truth into a culture, to go straight to the heart of a matter and speak it like it is. Following a previous post of mine on our addiction to growth, Leunig tells the story of a childhood friend of his working in Papua New Guinea whose hosts in PNG were fascinated and pained by our way of life and how it lacked any semblance of community. The quote which haunted her when she explained that her family home had separate rooms with private bedroom for each of her daughters, was when they responded “”How sad for your children. How sad for your family. Everyone lost from each other in such a big house with so many walls.”

‘The lonely crowd’ is a term friends of mine sometimes use to explain the loss of community and the feeling of lostness and aloneness despite living in a city of millions of people. To the ‘primitive’ people of PNG with their apparent superstitions and strange rituals, our lostness was bewildering. Leunig then goes on to explain our own superstitions and rituals. The question is then, who are the ‘primitive’ ones? He makes points which seem so obvious but blind us in our desperate search for more and better. His points, which are so pertinent in today’s climate, are:

“Yet surely an economy, as well as our personal lives, are doomed to malfunction if greed and its subsidiary behaviours and consequences are not factored in and collectively acknowledged as a central scientific reality. Just as we all have a heart, we have natural greed, and unacknowledged is uncontrolled. For economics to bypass it would be like the aviation industry refusing to acknowledge the fact of gravity or the Catholic Church refusing to accept that the Earth is not the centre of the universe.

We are asked to believe in eternal economic growth (upon which we have become dependent) when we know in our hearts and minds that such growth will destroy the Earth. This is worse than any cargo cult. It is a massive, absurd, depressing conflict.

So when the economy has a “downturn” we might think to look further and wider than new regulations or the replacing of cogs and washers and wheels. Underlying the financial dysfunction is the possibility of a conflicted, dispirited human culture that has consumed so flagrantly and ruthlessly that it has grown sick and ashamed of itself, to the point where it has lost its meaning and vitality: a society sitting exhausted and faithless in its own poisonous bathwater, regurgitating its worn-out gestures, stuck in its jaded, reactive modes, and generally incapable of sufficient originality, courage, innocence or honesty to make a healthy life.”

We have much to learn from our brothers in sisters in poorer parts of the world. What St Paul said many years ago still seems to hold true today, that the things of this world are foolishness in the eyes of God.

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