Saturday, October 3, 2009

The cost of being silent

"Then I said, 'Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.' " Isaiah 6:5 (New American Standard)

"And I say, 'Woe to me, for I have been silent, For a man -- unclean of lips am I, And in midst of a people unclean of lips I am dwelling, Because the King, Jehovah of Hosts, have my eyes seen.' " Isaiah 6:5 (Young's Literal Translation)

So, I have again broken Rule Number One of Blogging: Blog regularly or you'll lose your readers. Yes, kids, it's been about a month since I've written a post, which means I'm probably back down to a readership consisting of my Dad and... my Dad. Oh well, that's ok. I'm fortunate to have him as a faithful reader and I know it.

I haven't been writing, but I have been reading, and thinking, an awful lot. I've recently gone from taking the train everywhere to taking the bus everywhere, in large part because it's far easier to read on the bus than the train. Don't pat me on the back for being a scholar, though... I have a whole bunch of books --mostly popular works on neuroscience (mad props due to Oliver Sacks for the popularization of this genre)-- that were due back at the GMU library on Thursday and I'm kind of trying to race through those, so that's a large part of the motivation.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Dead Aid and went to see Age of Stupid on the same day. I've also been reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibben... well actually I've been on the last chapter for a couple of months and I just can't bear to finish it because it's just been such an unbelievably fantastic read. So let's say I've been carrying Deep Economy around for the last couple of months and percolating on it. There's something happening in my mind around the intersection of these books and the movie that I'm going to try to explain here. And I'm going to fail, largely, but I can't keep stewing on this without taking a shot at writing about it.

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, Dambisa Moyo argues quite persuasively in Dead Aid that aid to sub-saharan Africa is actually preventing African nations from developing, and suggests that the best solution at this point is to notify African leaders that the aid is going to dry up in 5 years, and then to follow through with that. She does a good job of showing in the book how aid hasn't worked, but I was an easy sell on this point. It seems pretty obvious to me as someone who has grown up with images of starving African children and now in my 30s sees the same damn images despite the gazillions of dollars and countless hours of work on the part of development agencies and aid workers that have been poured into the African subcontinent.

However, she builds her argument for how African nations would subsequently thrive on some very questionable assumptions. I'm no economist, but using the example of Chinese investment into oil in Nigeria as an example of how to build an African nation strikes me as being willfully blind to anything but GDP. I found myself growing queasy as I read the last few chapters, and it wasn't just motion sickness from the stop-and-go of the Metrobus in DC traffic. It was that this seemed to be a purely academic exercise for Moyo. I mean, I know it's not, but her argument is based on the assumption that sub-saharan Africa can develop along the same lines as Western nations, using Ye Olde Standard Capitalist Model, and everything will be cool.

Which, frankly, is bullshit.

Age of Stupid refined my thinking on this a bit. The movie stars Pete Postlethwaite as one of the few humans alive in 2050 after the almost total destruction of the world by environmental collapse, looking back at footage from 2005-2008 (the movie uses actual news and documentary footage) to show how we could have prevented what was coming. Obviously, the movie is speculative... we don't know what the world will look like in 2050... but it bases its projections on current, widely accepted models of what will happen environmentally if there isn't a sharp change in how the U.S. and Europe gobble up energy and pollute like fiends. I know there are a lot of people who dispute the notion of global warming, but it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that we can't keep living like we're living. Oil is not a renewable resource and we are plowing through what is left at ever-increasing speeds. China and India have 2,478,040,448 people by July 2008 estimates... 37% of the global population of 6,706,993,152 if my math's correct... and they're doing everything they can to catch up with us, including consuming oil, which means plowing through the oil that remains at unimaginably exponential numbers.

So, yeah, it doesn't take a genius to see that our current energy "solution" ain't gonna work forever.

Suggesting that sub-saharan Africa simply hop on the bandwagon by pimping the oil that they have to other nations makes *no* sense to me. If it worked perfectly, it would be a short term solution at best, and Age of Stupid highlights what foreign "investment" in Nigerian oil looks like on the ground right now... impoverished locals who completely fail to benefit from the profits going to foreign companies and corrupt government officials; polluted air and water resulting in even more sickness; the government wiping out villages that protest drilling near their property. Basically, the same cycle as aid, except for the part about governments killing people in order to get free access to their land. Oh yeah, and the polluted water and air.

I'm processing all of this in the context of the challenges that Deep Economy has presented to me. Deep also assumes that capitalism --particularly the capitalism that bases production and shipment of goods on runaway consumption of non-renewable sources of energy-- can't go on as it has indefinitely, but its focus is on the U.S. and on the value of investing in your local community. Again, not a tough sell for me, but it's definitely pushed me to commit more firmly to what I already held as an ideal, to really be where I am. For me, this means I shop at the grocery store that I can walk to and buy my clothes and shoes mostly from a shop run by a woman who lives in the neighborhood, and buy my produce from the Farmer's Market near the metro whenever I can, and take the bus and train everywhere and stuff like that. But those are really kind of surface-y things and the book is pushing me to think deeper about other ways in which I live and relate to my community.

Which brings me to the verse from Isaiah at the top of this post. Everytime I think about how selfishly Americans are taught to use and throw away stuff without thinking about where it came from and where it's going and whether it's fair that the U.S. has 6% of the world population but 34% of the world's wealth, this verse comes to mind. Isaiah is identifying the sin of his people as being in some sense his own sin, and in that way, it made sense that this verse would come to mind... but the specific context of the verse is of Isaiah experiencing his own (and by extension, humanity's) deep impurity in the presence of the living God, not a reflection on how his people were sinning by using up too many of the world's resources or living unjustly. However, when I Googled the passage, I came upon the Young's Literal Translation (which I've set alongside the New American Standard translation I grew up reading), and something went *click*. Isaiah is not only repenting of his impurity, but of his silence.

He's repenting of his silence. In the presence of the Almighty God, Isaiah is moved to repentance not only for his impurity, but for his passivity. He has not done his part in proclaiming the truth revealed to him. As a prophet, he still has not prophesied enough. He has remained silent, when his whole life should have been one giant shout in praise of the Almighty.

I, too, am repenting of my silence... and I live among a silent people. A people who know that they are living in a situation of vast injustice, who know they are living like kings while much of the world lives as paupers, but who can't think of a way to fix it, so they say nothing. It's easy to say nothing when you're not the one suffering, and also when you fail to educate yourself on the consequences of your behavior, both now and in the future. In other words, it's easy to remain silent when you have stuffed your ears and blinded your eyes, because then you have nothing to say.

LORD, open our eyes, our ears, our mouths. Please show Your people how to live in a way that embodies Your justice, and care for the world that you entrusted to us as Your stewards.

And give me the courage to not be silent anymore.


Mike said...

Great post, Moff. Of course.

I knew there was something I liked about you... I'm a hardcore McKibben fan from way back. I read everything he writes at least once, and Deep Economy is one of his masterworks. A clarion call to simplicity.

And I heard some buzz about that 'get-Africa-on-the-capitalist-bandwagon' meme, but haven't heard anyone take it on as forthrightly as you.

Silent no more, indeed. I'm with you, Moff.

promo75sanca said...

I haven't see you the last time I was at GMU an I was wondering where were you? You were always an inspiration and I always left your office smiling because of your laugh. Nice writing, I will keep reading your blog, I am so busy with technical things that this blog is a breath of fresh air for me.
juan c luna

Anonymous said...

Amy, this was impassioned and beautiful. Silent no more. That seems to be a constant cry for the Kingdom of God, as it must be. Thank you for sharing this with us, and for being so open and real. Jesus, that we may live with our senses alive to what you are doing in this place we call home, and that we may join in with you to bring it about.

Mike Todd said...

Great reflection. I couldn't get through Dead Aid either, and can testify to the "queasy" factor. I actually left my copy with a friend in Nairobi, a pastor who is studying economics, in the hopes that he could help me understand my reaction to it.

You've helped immensely. Thanks.