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Posts Tagged ‘consumption’

I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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[I apologize for the delay in getting this out. Friday I was in no condition to write anything.]

“Now here [the sages] have awakened us to a great secret of secrets from the Torah… Bend your ear to hear what I am permitted to make you hear from it, in language that you will hear. And if you merit, you will comprehend…”
–Nachmanides

You may not have the slightest interest in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), which is completely understandable. You may even think of it as a primitive text filled with unconscionable violence and an alarmingly arrogant, malevolent god. Still, I urge you to at least consider that there may be some good reasons why it has survived as a major religious guide for so long. The secret Nachmanides is pointing towards is certainly one of them. Its relevance penetrates beyond any national, religious or cultural boundaries.

It would be difficult to overstate the authority of Nachmanides as an interpreter of the Torah. Known in traditionalist circles as the Ramban (from the initials of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), his commentary on the Torah has been a central text for nearly eight hundred years. Drawing from all possible sources to illuminate deeper meanings, it makes clear that he devoured the canon whole, and retained every morsel. His insights are challenging, and sparkle with fresh possibility even today.

Before looking at the relevance of his secret for our time however, we must acknowledge an innate difficulty. When the Ramban wrote that he would say what he was “permitted”, he did not have anyone sitting over his shoulder, staying his hand. In dealing with ancient Hebrew, we’re faced with a language that aimed to express the essence of a thing through the word used to describe it. This is why the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are one and that same: Davar means both “thing” and “word”—there is no separation. The situation at hand is a perfect illustration of this. In referring to something as a great secret, the Ramban is pointing towards what is in essence secret. As Akiva Tatz has put it, ‘it’s not secret because no one will tell you; it’s secret because no one can tell you.’ This is the Torah version of, ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.’

Seen in this light, the Ramban’s call to bend our ears is not hyperbole, it’s literal. I won’t be able to tell you the secret. Still, we can dance around the periphery, hoping to fall in. As the Ramban indicated, if we merit, we will comprehend. In this instance, the word for “comprehend” can also be read as contemplate, examine or study. If you’re still reading, congratulations! Apparently you’ve got some merit under your belt.

In order to investigate the Ramban’s secret, we’ll work from the outside in. First off, if we take a giant step back and look at the Torah from a distance, perhaps the simplest and fairest way to characterize it is: It’s about service to something greater than ourselves. This should come as no surprise to those aware that the traditional tally of the number of commandments contained in the Torah comes to six hundred and thirteen.

If service is the essence of Torah, then we can reasonably deduce that the Ramban is pointing towards some kind of secret about the nature of service. Even further, we can surmise that he is alluding to the deepest nature of service, the service of service.

While we’re out here looking from a distance, we also need to identify the countervailing force to service. All things in form exist in contrast, duality, so service too must have its counterpart. In biblical terms, we would call this counterforce exile. Just as there are degrees of service, so too with exile. These two forces have a dynamic, inverse relationship. The degree to which we serve is the degree to which we are no longer in exile. Ultimate service, the service of service, is the final end to exile, and vice versa.

The Ramban’s comments relating to this great secret are in large part an elucidation of the deeper nature of this relationship and its consequences. His words serve as both a caution and an alert to opportunity. Throughout his long commentary on the Torah, the Ramban draws attention to the connection between our actions and the fate of the world, the interrelationship between the twin destinies of humanity and the earth. One way to look at it is, he was anticipating climate change by nearly a thousand years (of course he was taking his cue from the Torah, which alluded to this relationship millennia earlier). In conveying the secret at hand the Ramban was pointing towards the essential choice we face: that is, which direction do we take—service, or exile?

To understand the nature of this choice we need to come in for a closer look and examine the Ramban’s remarks in their specific context. In doing so, we find that they relate to two commandments in particular—the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. Of all the commandments in the Torah, the argument has been made many times over hundreds of years that these two require the greatest degree of selflessness to fulfill. Putting them into practice requires that we look beyond our narrowly defined personal interests and subsume our individual wills to the greater good. Not easy.

The commandments relating to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years include radical prescriptions for economic freedom and ecological renewal. They require that we do more than hope that our individual actions will add up to a sustainable, healthy, peaceful, just, free world; they call on us to align our personal choices with a very clear endgame, a specific, shared vision. They call on us to give up liberty in favor of freedom.

But it goes much deeper than this, obviously, or it wouldn’t be such a great secret. The fulfillment of these commandments points to a mode or degree of selflessness that takes us far beyond any simple prescriptions for socialist economics. To realize the Jubilee, in particular, requires the attainment of selflessness in its ultimate form. And this is where words begin to fail, where we encounter the outer reaches of a new atmosphere and language starts to break apart upon entry.

There is a state—of mind, spirit, body—where all of this makes sense. Where the Ramban’s secret is perfectly clear, and the entire Torah comes into singular, crystal focus. This is also the state where fulfilling the Jubilee not only becomes possible, but natural. It is the end of all exile, the ultimate indwelling. In this state there is no true other. We see clearly that our own wellbeing and that of others, including the earth and all its creatures, are one and the same. This state of transcendent oneness cannot be conveyed in words, but it stands as the remedy to all exile, the ultimate form of service and the destiny of humankind, should we choose it.

I wish I could say more, and hopefully I will. But for now, if we contemplate these ideas, we may come to merit comprehending them…

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I don’t know how most of you do it. I’ve been in the city a week now, and I’m just about cooked.

One thing I’ve noticed out here is how much green has become part of the landscape. It’s everywhere. Seems that the big beast of profit has figured out green sells. This is probably no news to you, but being in an urban environment full-time for the first time in a long time, I can see how remarkably this trend has grown in almost no time.

It’s one thing to label the world green, however, and another thing altogether for it actually to be so. I’m beginning to see more clearly the symbiotic relationship between concrete and ego—ego being that sense of separateness we carry around within us, that I am who I think I am, and that what I do has little to no bearing on you. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the psychological underpinning for war, poverty and destruction of all kinds.

Part of becoming awake, present, returning to god, source, the divine, one, whatever you want to call it, is spacious awareness. It’s a state where everything becomes available, where the light and color, sounds and energy of this world move through us fluidly, effortlessly. The urban world, it seems to me, is an outward projection of the state of mind where this is simply not so, our so-called “normal” state of mind. The concrete jungle is a reflection of our inner compartmentalization; it’s the planet, made rational.

Have you ever been in raw, un-manicured nature? If you have, then you know the way that something within us unlocks, lets go. Nothing is in a rush. Most of it isn’t going anywhere at all. Yet it’s astoundingly here, alive, happening. This is true green. Nature, unchecked.

I remember years ago reading about a campaign to have one square inch of silence protected in each state. It’s a deceptively simple idea, until you realize how much space needs to surround that square inch to make it possible—miles of un-peopled land in every direction.

We used to live in the natural world. Our settlements were pockets in the otherwise vast cloth of unrestrained nature. This reality has been fundamentally reversed. We banded together, in part, to protect ourselves from the forces of nature. Now, nature needs protection from us. One of the milestones on our journey towards balance will surely be the recognition of how essential the natural world is to our own wellbeing, in too many ways to be counted.

If we really want to go green, let’s actually be green, and reintegrate nature back into our lives. I’m not suggesting we all live in our own square inch of silence, but I am suggesting that we move beyond our current stage, where the natural world survives in our midst as lonesome outposts, representatives of a fallen army standing in soldierly, spindly rows on our streets. Rather, let us integrate dense colonies of green into our lives, scenes from another world we move through in order to navigate our own, until we realize that they are one and the same.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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What astonishes me, in the midst of our generalized global economic meltdown, is how shortsighted we still seem to be. Even as the spiraling fates of American industry flash us time-lapsed glimpses of our own future, we still don’t seem to get it.

Among this week’s calls to restructure the American auto industry, I haven’t seen anyone climbing atop the spire of the Chrysler building to shout, “Enough!” Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that we’re connecting the dots.

This planet is in shock, and we are the cause. Our behavior is compromising the integrity of the organism on which we live and upon which we depend, literally, for absolutely everything; we’re jeopardizing its ability to grow food, create oxygen and produce water. We need these things to survive. This behavior is, at best, nuts.

When it comes to cars, we act as if the only problematic thing about them is the gas that goes into their tanks, and the subsequent carbon they release from their rear ends. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Every time we buy a new car, we’ve got to extract all that metal from the earth, not to mention the plastics and chemicals involved. We can’t keep doing this forever.

Our desires are limitless, literally without end, and often run contrary to our self-interest in their effect. Organizing our societies around the pursuit of these inexhaustible desires, which is how things currently work, what capitalism is, is to design for certain catastrophe. It’s the antithesis of every true spiritual teaching passed down to us through the ages.

Rather than a car industry, what we need is a far industry (couldn’t resist); that is, a transportation industry that looks deep into the future. Currently, industry thrives on incrementalism. Changing things bit by bit allows the corporate world to sell us more, but it doesn’t make sense when we look at the size of the planet and the number of people we’ve got. Every material good we have comes from the earth, and it needs a rest. So what I propose is that we bypass hybrids altogether—at best a transitional technology, think peak oil—and go straight to electric. But rather than go out to build and buy fancy new electric cars, we simply convert all the cars already on the road as they come of age.

Converting a combustion car to electric is a rather simple procedure that can be done within a day or two. If we were to dedicate the remains of the auto industry to this pursuit, including all the labor already familiar with how our cars are built, we could probably make the turn around even quicker, and certainly cheaper. Electric motors, once in place, run for years without need of repair; some say they can pass the million-mile mark without need of replacement. They do need their batteries swapped every so often, but as we move in this direction battery technology should catch up pretty quickly, especially if we make it a priority. Any way you cut it, it’s a lot cheaper than buying a whole new car. For most people, the 150 – 200 miles that an electric car can run on a single charge is more than enough. We can fill in the gaps for the remaining 5 percent of us with plug-in hybrids or some other technology.

Rather than give the auto industry a facelift, we should be giving it a heart transplant. Same body, different motor. In order to get our money, Chrysler, along with any other manufacturers who may follow suit, should be required to reorganize at least some of their plants to get up to speed with a massive fleet conversion. There are roughly 150 million cars on the road in the US. Think of how much we would diminish our impact on the earth if we simply re-use them.

Taking this route would be far more responsible. We fetishize the new, but how much hipper would it be to know that our great-grandchildren will look back and think of us as a generation that finally woke up to our duty? Let’s choose the future with our eyes open, not our wallets. We have the opportunity to leap forward; the more we lag behind, the longer we have to smell our own gas.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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Welcome UrbanMan-ites. I just posted this site about a month ago. Being somewhat reclusive, and just a bit gun-shy, I’ve yet to do much publicizing. The Urban Man’s radio essay describing me as a bearded Jeremiah figure has certainly boosted traffic.

So what are you getting yourself into? Jeremiah? Maybe. The point is, yes, as the Urban Man reported we’ve got to slow down as a species. Our current lifestyles are unsustainable. Physically and spiritually. We can print more money and pump it into the system to boost the economy, but that’s not going to make the earth a bigger place. It’s not going to create more wood, steel, land and water. Our monetary fiction will just become increasingly dissociated from the world as it truly is.

Ultimately though, this outer disconnect is a reflection of something deeper, something we all carry around with us. We’re not truly living to our potential as a species. And that potential, that gap between where we are now and where we could be, can best be described as a spiritual, rather than a technical gap. We have everything we need to create the world that deep down most of us truly yearn for—a world without hunger, violence and ecological destruction. We have all the information and know-how. What we need is the desire, the will, the vision.

I am not, as the Urban Man suggested, aiming to have everyone keep the Sabbath as it has traditionally been kept, with a day off every week from driving, money, work…But I am hoping that we can begin to live by some of its deeper principles, principles that encourage us to slow down, stop and reflect. And, once we’ve taken a deep breath and had a clearer look around, to share the gifts of this planet more fairly, to recognize that we all came into this world naked and crying and that ultimately, this gift is here for all of us.

This, this sense that the earth is here for all of us to enjoy, and that to truly enjoy it we’ve got to slow our consumption and cultivate a little contentment with what we’ve already got, is the essence of the Sabbath. This site, globalsabbath, is dedicated to exploring how we might integrate these principles into our lives and world. We’ve got some big plans for globalsabbath. I hope that you urbanites will find some resonance here, maybe subscribe, and come along for the ride.

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The Sabbath is a powerful metaphor for how we can heal this planet and build a better future for ourselves as a species. The chronicler of the book of Genesis, far from simply reducing the origins of this world to a manageable sequence of events, was tapping into a truth that resides deep within the human subconscious. Part of the reason the biblical creation story is so memorable is not just thousands of years of effective marketing, but because it speaks to a core dimension of who we are and what we’re doing here on earth.

This is why the Sabbath is at once breathtakingly simple, so straightforward even a child can understand, yet at the same time vastly multi-dimensional, so much so it can take a lifetime to fully comprehend its depths and meaning.

This forum, this space on the web, is devoted to bringing to light some of those deeper dimensions. Regrettably, most of us seem to have settled with the six-year-old version of the Sabbath and dismissed it as mythological fantasy. This is deeply unfortunate. Perhaps the clearest way to see why is to step back and take wide-angle view of our world, to look at ourselves not as nations and economic unions, but as a species. In doing so, we can begin to see that the solution to all of the great challenges we face as a species—climate change and environmental destruction, war and other forms of violence, poverty and hunger—can best be understood not by what we need to do, but by what we need to stop doing.

In the case of climate change and environmental destruction this is self-evident. We need to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gasses, stop tearing down forests, polluting rivers and pumping harmful chemicals into our soil. Sure, we need to do some other things to offset the costs of stopping these activities, but evidence indicates that even with alternatives, such as new forms of energy, we’ll still need to reduce our activities, our human industry, to a significant degree. In other words, either way we’ve got to slow down, and in many instances eventually stop altogether.

When it comes to war and violence, the principle of stopping is similarly straightforward. We’ve got to stop killing one another. Certainly we need to address the underlying sources of conflict, but these too can best be addressed not by doing, but by undoing, as we shall explore.

In the case of poverty and hunger, it may be less clear-cut to see how not doing is any solution, but it is no less true. Roughly 80 percent of the people who suffer from chronic hunger in our world live in rural areas where agriculture is the main occupation. In other words, they live around food. The problem is, the poor have been pushed off productive land and into the margins. They have, by and large, been cast aside by wealthy landowners. People who suffer from hunger are not lazy. They are more than prepared to feed themselves. In order to end the lion’s share of hunger in our world, we need to stop preventing them from doing so. Again, we will obviously have to do something to offset some of the costs of shifting from our current inequitable system, but the underlying objective remains to stop denying the poor access to productive resources.

Okay, so there’s a lot we need to stop doing. But how can a paradigm that’s thousands of years old possibly help us to achieve this? So “God stopped”, what’s that got to do with us?

[For more, please see: The Revolution will be Spiritual—[basic overview, part two]]

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[Note: I’ve used the G-word in this post. This is simply to explore the meaning of the first Sabbath and its relevance for today. No belief in God is necessary or encouraged.]

According to tradition, the Sabbath is the culmination of creation, the destination. Like any good designer the divine began with the end in mind. In other words the Sabbath, far from being an afterthought, can be seen as the very purpose for the world’s existence. The way I like to put it is, “God wasn’t pooped.” Like any good parent, the divine was modeling behavior. Just as parents who want their children to grow up looking both ways before crossing the street will do so themselves, so too the divine was showing us that it is essential for us to stop one day, that stopping is part of the makeup of the universe.

But what does this mean? How does the Sabbath work in a deeper sense? What would it look like in practice and how is it relevant today?

These are some of the central questions that I hope to address in this forum. For now, let’s take a quick look at what “God” actually did on that first Sabbath. Not surprisingly, “Shabbat” (the Hebrew origin of Sabbath) is the word used to describe the divine’s activity or condition on that day. Shabbat has three primary connotations: to sit, to dwell, and to return. Okay, so God sat and dwelled. But returned? Where was there for God to return to after only six days of creation?

As I said in my first post on this site, the Sabbath unfolds in three primary layers—the daylong weekly Sabbath, the yearlong Sabbath, and the Jubilee—that express the underlying principles of the Sabbath to increasingly intensified degrees. There are two primary dimensions to fulfilling these ideals: The actual practice of them, and; the spiritual state necessary to do so. The Sabbaths, slowing down and eventually stopping our harmful impact on this world and one another, will ultimately entail an incredible degree of selflessness on the part of each of us. These visionary standards cannot be actualized by rote. The only way to attain them is to undertake the spiritual transformation necessary for their fulfillment.

Further, for those of you who may worry at this point that I could be steering towards some kind of proselytism, the benefits of these principles are not limited to any particular set of beliefs or customs. It is we, us humans, who are the common root to all of the crises we see in the world. To transform our world and realize our true potential as a species, we must transform ourselves, all of us. What was God “returning” to after only six days? In creating the world of form, God was creating the possibility of mistaken identity. With form came the risk of thinking that this is it, that there is no more going on in the world than meets the eye. God was returning from multiplicity to a state of transcendent oneness, returning from the dangers of the illusion of separateness. Whatever name you wish to apply to the oneness, it is the central delusion of our separateness that keeps us locked in a world where some live in wealth that surpasses that of some nations, while others have so little they die daily by the thousands from simply not having enough food to eat.

Ultimately, healing our world will require healing the spiritual misapprehensions we all share. The central message, vision and method of the Sabbath are designed to bring about this very transformation. It may be difficult to imagine our world organized around Sabbath principles that aim to slow us down enough to achieve true selflessness. As members of consumer society, it’s probably not even the world we’d choose. But it may just be the world we need.

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