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Water, water everywhere…(a hopeful postscript) July 29, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Saving the World.
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A follow-up to my July 26 post about the Kalahari Bushmen’s struggle with the Botswana government for water.

Today, July 28, the UN passed a resolution declaring access to clean water and sanitation a fundamental human right. This might seem a no-brainer given that humans can live only a few days without water, but apparently some countries set about to to dispute this rather fiercely and water down the language of the resolution. (To my shame, one of those protesting most loudly and which later abstained from voting was my own. Presumably this was in the hopes of privatizing its water supply a few decades down the road – an idea I find utterly repugnant.)

Eventually it passed, thank goodness (fortunately for humanity’s collective common sense) with 122 nations voting for, none against and 41 abstentions. Canada, the UK, the US and Australia all abstained, as did – surprise, surprise – Botswana.

This resolution is very good news for the Bushmen. Sure, it’s non-binding, but any country that actively works to deny its citizens water is going to look pretty bad in the eyes of the rest of the world, which has now collectively decided (by an overwhelming majority) that water is a universal human right. Other countries will now, presumably, have considerably more diplomatic leverage in condemning Botswana’s actions if it persists in denying the Bushmen water.

All this doesn’t mean, of course, that we can sit back and Botswana will simply re-open the borehole that the Bushmen depend on. But it’s a good start.

(By the way, yesterday I picked up a copy of James Workman’s Heart of Dryness, a first-hand look at the Bushmen’s struggle and their techniques for survival in one of the most arid regions on the planet. It looks quite fascinating, so get ready for a discussion/review and another follow-up post! :D)

– Contrapuntal Platypus

P.S. Oh, and the “sanitation” part of the resolution: generally overlooked but equally important. I read today that more people in India, for example, have cell phones than have personal access to a toilet. What the heck?!?

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink… July 26, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Nature, Saving the World, Social Media, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Need enough water to fill a swimming pool for tourists on the arid Kalahari reserve? Operate a diamond mine? No problem, according to the Botswana government. But the Bushmen of the Kalahari have been denied the right to access drinking water on their own land, in one of the driest regions on earth.

For years the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana have been fighting for the simple right to live on their own land. In 2006 they won a major court battle: they were allowed to return after repeated government attempts to force them into resettlement camps were ruled illegal and unconstitutional. A victory…or so it seemed until last Wednesday.

On July 21, the Bushmen were told by the High Court of Botswana that, though they can live on their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, they cannot drink the water found beneath them. They may not use the already existing borehole or drill a new one. Even friends outside the reserve are barred from bringing them water. In one of the most arid regions on earth, its ancestral inhabitants have been told that they have no right to this most basic and precious necessity of life.

It isn’t as though there’s just not enough to go around. Oh no, Wilderness Safaris’ luxury tourist hotel on the reserve has been granted water – a whole swimming pool of it for wealthy tourists to bask in on their getaways. A lucrative diamond mine (Gem Diamonds), also located on the Bushmen’s land, has given the go-ahead for operations…on one condition: it can’t give any water to the Bushmen (in case some of its workers should be tempted by, say, basic human compassion or something equally dreadful.)

Ah, but wait, there’s one act of apparent altruism the Botswana government has undertaken: in recent years it has in fact drilled several new boreholes in the Kalahari Reserve to provide water for the benefit of…wildlife. (In other words, to benefit the tourists that come to the reserve for safaris, and hence, Botswana’s tourist industry.)

The irony and unbelievable injustice is such that this story could easily be mistaken for satire. But it’s not. Nor is it just “discrimination.” This is out and out attempted genocide, as one of my Twitter friends put it. Years of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and forced relocation, confiscation of their livestock, deliberately preventing those who have returned from hunting or gathering food, and now the denial of water to an entire people can amount to nothing else.

The Bushmen aren’t asking for much. In their own words, this is their only plea: “I want to go home.”

When the evictions happened in 2002…we suffered because they just dumped us in New Xade and left us there. We were given tents and then from there, we started building out own huts. There was nothing there for us. We didn’t know what to do. We just spent our days cooking and building huts, waiting for our food. We missed the land. We missed how Metsiamanong looked and how we knew about the land. There was nothing good about New Xade.

We were very happy about the [2006] court ruling and were very pleased to come home. Here, we know where to find food and berries, we know the land and we know what to do. I will stay here forever. It is very difficult to live here without water. If the borehole at Mothomelo is opened, everything will be fine.

We are really starving without water. We want to ask the world to campaign for the re-opening of the borehole and to bring our goats back. It will make us sick to go back to Kaudwane [resettlement camp]. We don’t want to be beggars. We have our own rich ancestral lands. We want to stay here, we can get everything we need here. The area [Kaudwane] doesn’t belong to us. We have no powers over that area. Being given food is not good. In Kaudwane, if you don’t have food, you have to go and beg the government for it. Here, if we are hungry, we all go out and find some food.

This is a people that simply wants to live with dignity and pride in their rich cultural heritage. They don’t want government assistance or handouts: food or education or living expenses or cash. They’re not demanding a share in the luxurious safari tourist hotel or the diamond mine (which to my mind would be perfectly reasonable, given that it’s on their land). They’re not even asking the government to provide them with water, which one would think would be a given. This, one of the oldest cultures on our earth, only wants something very simple: the right to drill for water on their own lands and to hunt and gather food as they have done for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, without being harassed and terrorized. Nothing more.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has issued a video message in support of the Bushmen.

Please lend your voice as well to share their story and protest their inhumane treatment:

1) The best way you can help is simply by spreading awareness. Please share this blog post and Survival International’s article on your Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, blog or any other social media networks.

2) Write to the Botswana government (their e-mail is currently bouncing, unfortunately, but Survival has an online letter form you can use to easily print out a letter);

3) Write to your MP or MEP (UK) or Senators and members of Congress (US) or Member of Parliament (Canada). Inform them of the Bushmen’s ongoing struggle and, specifically, the June 21 court ruling. Ask them to apply pressure to the Botswana government to reverse this unjust and inhumane policy.

4) Write to your local Botswana high commission or embassy.

5) Visit the Bushmen’s own website and read their stories. You can also e-mail them or write to them with a message of support.

If you have any other ideas for campaigns of support (online or elsewhere) please post in the Comments section!

Thank you for reading.

The Contrapuntal Platypus

Witnessing for…Humanism? July 25, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Iranelection, Philosophy, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
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A New Kind of Question, Part 3

Note: This was a personal experience, not a book, but it goes so well under my “New Kind of Question” category that I decided to post it here. πŸ™‚

I was at our local anti-stoning protest today, June 24, the International Sakine Day Against Stoning. As I live in one of the most politically indifferent cities on the continent, I didn’t expect more than the usual handful of diehards like myself to show up at our local event. When I got to the protest location, though, I was somewhat surprised to see (in addition to the small cluster of Iranians and some interested-looking passers-by) a group of about 6 people wearing matching T-shirts:


I went over to the group. Was another protest happening here at the same time? “Oh, no,” a friendly looking man around my age explained to me. “We’ve just come out in solidarity.” He explained that they were the local Humanist/Atheist Association. Seeing my interested look, he handed me a brochure about their group. “There’s all sorts of meetings if you want to join, or give it a try…”

I took it and quickly skimmed it to be polite, but told him (with more than a little trepidation) that I believed pretty firmly in God and that it wasn’t likely that I’d become an atheist anytime soon. “But,” I hurried to add, “I really admire a lot of what you guys are trying to accomplish – your goals, making the world a better place.” And then the last thing I expected happened.

*******

He smiled warmly. “What we’re really just aiming for is to get people to ask questions,” he explained. “Why do they believe in God, or not? What are their reasons? We just want everyone to think about their beliefs, so that things like this -” he pointed to the Save Sakineh signs behind us – “like a country deciding to stone a woman to death for religious reasons – don’t happen.”

I was amazed. I’d been expecting debate, arguments against God’s existence, assertions that religion poisons lives and cultures, all the usual rhetoric. Not this sort of…quiet openness. It made me think. This was, I realized, an example of a humanist group doing what Christians are always “supposed” to be doing: witnessing. And doing it more effectively than most Christians.

Often so much of the time atheists and Christians see each other, ironically, in very similar ways. As combatants. Hardcore, closed-minded fundamentalists out to beat and bludgeon the other side with any ammunition at hand into accepting “the truth.” Christians hurling verses and texts and commentaries, thumping their Bibles, blustering and ranting about hellfire and damnation and eternity, interrogating passersby with “Are you saved”? And atheists returning a volley of “scientific facts” and statistics and anti-religious rhetoric, brandishing their copies of God is Not Great or The God Delusion, demanding belligerently, “Don’t you know you’ve been brainwashed?”

I think it’s time for both sides to maybe drop our respective weapons, calm down, pick up some olive branches and just…ask questions. Like the humanist I met at the rally. Not questions designed to interrogate or intimidate or set up philosophical traps or to preach. Just sincere, real, open-ended questions. And to answer in the same spirit: not trying to “convert” the other side to our own belief system. (It doesn’t work anyway, only drives them further away.) Just…to talk.

I think most of us will find we’re not nearly so far apart as we tend to think on what really matters: helping others, fighting for human rights, making our world a more just and equitable and peaceful place. After all, we’re all human beings…who can have different beliefs on religious matters and still be kind, sincere, caring people. Not lost souls doomed to unending hellfire. Not brainwashed peons hypnotized by primitive superstition. Just people. πŸ™‚

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Pantyhose, Planned Obsolescence and a Pampered Puss July 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, How Many Earths? (Adventures in Ecological Living), Nature, Saving the World.
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yawning catHow Many Earths? (Part 3)

This tale began with a job interview yesterday, for a position as choir accompanist and pianist for a local church. Not knowing anything about the church in question or how conservative its directors were, I reluctantly decided that, yes, a skirt and pantyhose were probably the safest bet. Reluctantly I dug into the recesses of my sock drawer for the little-used and dreaded nylons, searching for any pair that (1) fit comfortably and (2) didn’t have a run yet. (For any men reading this post, this is a far greater challenge than it sounds.)

Though I took two pairs of intact nylons with me, regrettably neither pair survived the experience (the humidity was a complicating, and very aggravating, factor). While fortunately for my interview I was able to rescue one with a well-placed dab of nail polish, the other was quite clearly doomed. I stuffed it into the bottom of my bag, hoping I could find some use for it later.

It was earlier this afternoon that I pulled them out again and stared at the run. I hate planned obsolescence. The whole idea of intentionally designing something to be flimsy and breakable (and spending time and money to engineer this into the design!) to me is an utterly perverse one. It embodies everything I hate about our buy-more, don’t-fix-it, toss-it-when-it-bores-you-and-get-a-new-one societal mindset. There’s been a meme floating around for decades that pantyhose manufacturers know how to make pantyhose that won’t run, they just won’t for fear of cutting into their sales. Whether that’s actually the case I don’t know, but I must say I don’t have much trouble believing it.

For years before I’d dumped worn-out pantyhose straight into the garbage can in resigned disgust. But given my new goal of trying to live as ecologically as possible I didn’t want these ending up in a landfill. There had to be something constructive I could do with them…

Enter one spoiled cat.

Rumi had been looking rather bored ever since his laser toy burned out two weeks ago (speaking of planned obsolescence! No way to replace the battery, of course) and when I hopefully waved around his fluffy pink lure, his little feline face more often than not took on an expression of ennui. “Been there, done that, can’t you find anything new for me to chase?” I could hear him saying.

I grabbed my scissors and got to work with the pantyhose.

Half an hour later I had created three toys:

– a little round pantyhose ball stuffed with catnip:

– a slightly larger toy (two pantyhose-stuffed lumps separated by a knot):

– and a long lure, made just by tying consecutive knots in the leg of pantyhose and stuffing the end with, you guessed it, more pantyhose, then tying the whole thing to a string.

…He LOVED them. I have never seen Rumi go after any toy with such enthusiasm, except for the laser. When I handed him the first two toys his eyes lit up and (especially the second one) he did not stop batting around and pouncing on until I came along with the knotted lure. Then he really went wild.

There was something about the pantyhose fabric that really appealed to him. He could sink his teeth into it as much as he wanted and it would invariably pop back into shape the moment he dropped it. (I still can’t figure out how my pantyhose developed runs in five minutes and yet withstood half an hour of determined kitty attacks, but whatever…) I still have half the pair left so I’m going to try stuffing the next toy with pennies to make a rattling noise, and then one with tissue paper. But I’ll wait on those until the next time he gives me one of those bored yawns. πŸ˜€

Take that, planned obsolescence.

(Oh, and the job interview went quite well, by the way.) πŸ™‚

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

The Divine Conspiracy (A New Kind of Question, Part 1) July 17, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Saving the World.
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Question: By following Christ’s teachings, can we make an observable, profound, positive change in both our inner lives and our day-to-day interactions with the people around us?

“Imagine, if you can, discovering in your church letter or bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting on you…or how to quit condemning the people around you, or be free of anger and all its complications. Imagine, also, a guarantee that at the end of the seminar those who have done the prescribed studies and exercises will actually be able to bless those who are spitting on them, and so on.
In practical matters, to teach people to do something is to bring them to the point where they actually do it on the appropriate occasions. When you teach children or adults to ride a bicycle…you don’t just teach them that they ought to ride bicycles, or that it is good to ride bicycles, or that they should be ashamed if they don’t…Imagine driving by a church with a large sign in front that says, We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves To Jesus How To Do Everything He Said To Do.”
– Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Let’s face it: the vast majority of us are not living the sort of lives we’d like to. Much of the time we find ourselves behaving in spiteful, angry, deceitful, selfish and deliberately hurtful ways when ideally we would like to be calm, generous, honest, and caring individuals. We resolve to take control of our own actions and to live as better people, but somehow the combined forces of habit and societal pressure always seem to pull us back into “default” mode. The consequences to ourselves (our health, our relationships, our happiness), the people around us, our society, and our planet are all too obvious. Can Christianity offer a practical solution?

Unfortunately, as Willard discusses, most Christian institutions tend to skirt the problem. Generally, they give one of two unsatisfactory answers:

Answer 1: We can solve the problem of evil by making sure we have eternal life in heaven (this involves believing that Jesus has died for our sins and accepting him into our lives.)

Answer 2: We can solve the problem of evil by working to create a just and peaceful world for everyone (this involves eliminating poverty, hunger, racism, disease, discrimination, and violence from our society).

These solutions, Willard argues, are not so much “wrong” as incomplete. What’s the point, after all, of “getting into” a perfect paradise for eternity if we remain the same selfish, quarrelsome, and discontented individuals? Shouldn’t accepting Christ have a real, positive impact on our inner lives and our actions now? Likewise, how can we hope to create a just and peaceful society if we, internally, are not just and peaceful people?

We can see there is an essential practical step entirely missing from both approaches: how can we become individuals capable of – both now and for eternity – living in harmony with those around us, with ourselves, and with God?

*******

Well, Willard asks, how do we learn *any* practical, hands-on skill – such as swimming, piano, carpentry, or speaking French? First we find a good teacher who knows the discipline and has experience passing it on to others. Then we repeatedly practice the skills required (butterfly stroke, playing scales, cutting and sanding wood, conversational drills) until they are part of not only our conscious knowledge but are ingrained, automatic actions which we can perform without thought. We are not learning isolated facts (“the capital of Portugal is Lisbon”) or purely abstract theories (such as atomic theory or free-market economic theory). Rather, we are learning various patterns of behaviour which we can reproduce and apply in our own lives.

One of the things I most admire about Willard’s approach is his recognition that evil (or in Christian terminology, “sin”) is mainly unconscious habit. Most of the time when we gossip or put others down or exaggerate the truth or are carried away by an explosive blast of furious anger, we do not deliberately choose to follow these behavioural patterns (who wants to become angry, after all?). We do so because we have no others in our repertoire, or none ingrained enough to be automatic; we are like a computer running a “default” program. We may intellectually recognize that there are more positive ways to interact with others, but unless we have previously made a sustained, conscious effort to put these principles into practice, we are like a music theorist trying to give a concert without having ever touched a piano; our abstract understanding simply won’t help much on a practical level.

Much of the dimension of personal blame and condemnation (which many find the single most off-putting aspect of contemporary Christianity) is thus removed. We are not “bad people” but rather, simply, human beings who through observing others and reproducing their behaviour have copied these patterns of interaction into our own lives. In a very real sense, we “don’t know what we are doing”; once we have a clear insight into its destructive effect on our own lives and those of others, we will not choose to live that way. This is an extremely empowering message; we don’t have to (indeed it is pointless to) sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for God to magically transform our personalities. Rather, we must learn a better sort of existence through focused, applied effort on our part together with his guidance and help. Which leads to the next point…

*******

If we are to learn to live in peaceful fellowship with others and our own selves, Willard proposes, the first thing we must do is to find a teacher. (Otherwise, for all our good intentions we probably won’t get too far). In the Christian tradition (obviously there are others!) the ideal teacher of this skill is Jesus himself, as reflected in his life on earth and his words that others have recorded. Only by consciously following his instructions and by consistently, deliberately applying his principles in our own relationships with others and ourselves will we become the kind of people we want to be.

Next Willard gets down to the the “nuts and bolts” of the matter, which makes up the core of his book. Taking the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer as the two most unified, detailed records of Jesus’ teaching available to us today, he outlines the basic principles of Jesus’ approach. This begins with the recognition (the “Beatitudes”) that the ideal life – one of love, forgiveness, and infinite potential rather than hatred, condemnation and self-limitation – is available to all, right now. It doesn’t have to wait until some idealized future utopian society or a bodiless after-death state. This is the essence of Jesus’ “Gospel” or “Good News”: realizing that the sort of life God intended for us is open to every human being.

Next Jesus outlines the behaviours that prevent us from living this sort of life and which cause conflict within ourselves and our society: anger, contempt, revenge, hatred, condemnation, and manipulation of others for our own ends. (Willard discusses each in detail and why it is so destructive.) If we are to become the sort of beings we were meant to be, we need to step by step, consciously remove these factors from our interactions with others. Setting aside time for interacting with our teacher (God) through prayer, meditation, solitude and careful study of Christ’s own words is an important part in this process (it’s impossible to learn a skill if you never meet with your teacher!) In a larger sense, by applying these principles of active discipleship to Christian churches and communities, Christianity can be a relevant, powerful force for change within our society and our world.

*******

To sum up: this is the sort of “self-help” book we need to see more of: one that consists not of comforting statements and feel-good rhetoric, but a practical “how-to” manual that teaches us how to really make a difference in our own lives. Which is, when it boils down to it, the essence of what God wants for every one of us: to “have life and to have it abundantly.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Post 1 of the “A New Kind of Question” series. For an Introduction click here.

* C.S. Lewis’ novella “The Great Divorce” provides an insightful and compelling glimpse into what such an existence might be like.

** As Willard describes: “We hear cries from our strife-torn streets: “Give peace a chance!” and “Can’t we all just get along?” But you cannot give peace a chance if that is all you give a chance. You have to do the things that make peace possible and actual. When you listen to people talk about peace, you soon realize that in most cases they are unwilling to deal with the conditions of society and soul that make strife inevitable. They want to keep them and still have peace, but it is peace on their terms, which is impossible. And we can’t all just get along. As a major part of this, our epidermal responses have to be changed in such a way that the fire and the fight doesn’t start almost immediately when we are “rubbed the wrong way.”

Is God a Taoist? July 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Flights of Fancy, Saving the World.
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…And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of having to have free will!

*******

A couple of days ago I was debating with a friend online (one from a contrasting religious background to my own) about free will and whether the existence of evil serves any constructive purpose in our world. Much of what we said reminded me of a delightfully quirky dialogue by one of my favorite philosophy writers, Raymond Smullyan (available online and highly recommended.) Entitled “Is God a Taoist”?, it takes place between just two characters: God and a Mortal demanding an explanation for free will.

Mortal: And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of having to have free will!

God:You reject the greatest gift I have given thee?

Mortal: How can you call that which was forced on me a gift? I have free will, but not of my own choice. I have never freely chosen to have free will. I have to have free will, whether I like it or not!

This is one of my favorite pieces of religious philosophical writing and I find its playful and (at times) tongue-in-cheek approach quite refreshing. (It reminds me of the various times in the Old Testament when Abraham or Moses would argue with God and God would very obligingly argue back, just like another person and not at all like the Creator of the Universe…)

*******

I love the conclusion that Smullyan draws about two-thirds of the way through the dialogue:

God: The only difference between the so-called saint and the so-called sinner is that the former is vastly older than the latter. Unfortunately it takes countless life cycles to learn what is perhaps the most important fact of the universe — evil is simply painful. All the arguments of the moralists — all the alleged reasons why people shouldn’t commit evil acts — simply pale into insignificance in light of the one basic truth that evil is suffering. No, my dear friend, I am not a moralist. I am wholly a utilitarian….My role in the scheme of things…is neither to punish nor reward, but to aid the process by which all sentient beings achieve ultimate perfection.

To me this is one of the best explanations for “Why does evil exist?” and echoes Julian of Norwich’s approach as well: “Sin was necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” It may be simply an unfortunate truth that, in order to beings to become capable of freely choosing good, they have to make a large number of bad choices first and experience the unpleasant consequences. (This is, after all, the way in which children learn math or writing or music or a sport: by making mistakes until they learn what “works” and what doesn’t.) Yes, this may result – for a while – in a vastly imperfect world like our own, but would a universe full of mindless automata without will or freedom be any better?

*******

Towards the end, Smullyan makes an interesting assertion:

Mortal: You said a short while ago that our whole discussion was based on a monstrous fallacy. You still have not told me what this fallacy is.

God: Why, the idea that I could possibly have created you without free will! You acted as if this were a genuine possibility, and wondered why I did not choose it!…Can you honestly even imagine a conscious being without free will? What on earth could it be like? I think that one thing in your life that has so misled you is your having been told that I gave man the gift of free will. As if I first created man, and then as an afterthought endowed him with the extra property of free will. Maybe you think I have some sort of “paint brush” with which I daub some creatures with free will and not others. No, free will is not an “extra”; it is part and parcel of the very essence of consciousness. A conscious being without free will is simply a metaphysical absurdity.

This sounds compelling, but when I think about it I begin to wonder. I am quite sure my tabby cat Rumi is conscious – I think any pet-owner will agree with me on this one – but would stop short of stating categorically (pun not intended!) that he has “free will”. Might consciousness be a prerequisite for (rather than consequence of) free will? Or perhaps neither is binary but rather lies somewhere on a continuum. Rocks presumably have no consciousness or free will, fish and birds and reptiles may have some vague traces of both, certain mammals such as dogs or dolphins or chimpanzees may have significantly more, and humans most of all…Which leads to a very interesting question: perhaps there is an even higher level yet to reach above the human level?

…But that’s a topic for another essay. πŸ˜‰

The Contrapuntal Platypus

A New Kind of Question (An Introduction) July 12, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Saving the World.
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I’ve decided to begin a new series of posts highlighting a number of excellent books I’ve read in recent years dealing with Christianity as expressed in our contemporary world and our lives. These are all great, thought-provoking reading for people of any background: Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, atheist…”non-religious”… None of them are antagonistic, polemic or have as their goal winning converts to Christianity. So keep reading, whoever you may be πŸ™‚

I titled this series “A New Kind of Question” after Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” trilogy which has had a large influence on my own way of thinking (and which I’ll cover in a few weeks’ time). More than anything, these books ask new questions – try to open up new avenues of thought and new issues that Christians should consider and apply to their own lives.Β  (Sometimes they’ll venture possible answers as well, but stating opinions or defending intellectual positions is not at all the point. They want to get conversation going if possible…not shut it down.) As a “recovering debate-aholic” πŸ˜‰ and someone who loves using the Socratic method (ask questions and then more questions!) in both teaching and my own discussions with others, I find this approach an refreshingly open and accessible one.

One could say that all the books I’ll be discussing here present different facets of a single, essential question: How can we as Christians be relevant to our society and our world today? How can we be a force for positive change, both in our own lives and societies and all over our planet? How can we avoid falling into old patterns of disagreement, debate and antagonism and instead work together to create the sort of world in which God’s ideals of justice, peace and love for one another are continually reflected?

So, here goes. Feedback and discussion is, of course, extremely welcome!

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

18 Tir: A Tribute July 9, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Iranelection, Saving the World, Social Media.
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To the tweeter known only as @Change_for_Iran

*******

…You’ll probably never read this.

I don’t even know if you’re still alive, although more than a year after you tweeted for the last time, I continue to pray for your safety. I don’t know if you’re still in Iran, or were forced to flee as many students were, or perhaps lie imprisoned somewhere in the depths of Evin. I can only hope against all odds that you are safe.

Today is 18 Tir, the 11-year anniversary of the brutal 1999 invasion of the student dormitories. I find myself thinking of you today, because it was your tweets the night of June 14 – the night history repeated itself and students were again attacked and killed in their dormitories – that brought me to #iranelection and to the Sea of Green.


******

I had been following the leadup to Iran’s 2009 election for weeks before on various news outlets: the buildup of support for Mousavi, the crowds of people – both young and old, male and female, religious and secular – all wearing green, the color of hope. The unpredecented voter turnout on election day. The excitement and anticipation for a new future: one of tolerance and openness rather than repression and secrecy.

And then, of course, the result, hastily announced and incomprehensible. The backlash of disbelief and shock. Then the protests began, building day after day.

As the crisis escalated, I read on the Guardian website that the best sources of breaking news were the Iranian students posting updates on Twitter. I was intrigued, but held back from investigating first-hand. It was, I vaguely sensed, something that I could far too easily spend hours doing. Besides, I had always heard that Twitter was a pointless, egotistical social medium good only for navel-gazers intent on telling the world what they had for breakfast. Far better to get my updates sifted through the convenient filter of a news website.

Until the night the dormitories were attacked. Then I knew I couldn’t bear to remain at a “safe” distance any longer. I had to see the confict as it unfolded for myself.

*******


I quickly opened a Twitter account and spent the next little while getting a feel for the medium. It wasn’t hard to identify the most reliable sources, and within hours I was hooked. Here were people my age posting news, videos, and pictures of the protests all around them. I saw clips of people targeted by Basij rooftop sharpshooters, or overwhelmed by teargas, as they walked and chanted for freedom. Others bravely ran back into the path of gunfire to help the injured. And every night the cries from the rooftops spread wider and wider throughout Tehran: Allaho Akbar! Marg Bar Dictator!

But it was your tweets above all that drew me in. The stories of you and your friends – ordinary students caught up in a situation far from ordinary, which you faced with courage and determination. There was one who could find the humour in anything, even when the dormitory attackers returned. I laughed out loud when you said he had given the Basij leader the nickname “King Kong!” And another who, dedicated and serious, went on studying for exams in every spare moment between protests.

I was supposed to be practicing for a music academy the next week. I couldn’t practice. I could barely sleep. My whole mind and heart was caught up with the unfolding story in Iran, the scenes of courage and determination I had seen.

And then came June 20, the first huge crackdown. A day of teargas and clubs, relentless, mindless brutality. And you stopped tweeting for the first time.

I couldn’t believe it. I feared you were dead, and yet my heart refused to accept that somebody so young, so vibrant, so full of life and determination and hope for the future, could just vanish from the world. Day after day, in minutes snatched between classes, I scanned for any sign of your tweets and watched in horror as the crackdown intensified and one by one other tweeters vanished. Sleep was impossible. On the fifth day there were reports of a massacre in one of Tehran’s central squares, and I gave up all hope. How relieved and overjoyed I was when you reappeared that afternoon with the news that you and your friends were safe.

Three days later your tweets stopped again and then…nothing.

*******

Over a year has passed since that date, and yet I go on hoping, for you and all the students of Iran. I, along with so many others who were caught up in your story during that fateful week in June, am still here and doing all I can to make the world aware of the Green Movement. As you made us aware, despite the risks you took and the unthinkable price you may have paid for it.

Thank you for speaking to us despite all the danger. For reaching out across oceans and cultural barriers to bring your story to us in our own language. Thank you for opening our eyes and our minds to the struggle of a people – one many of us had mistrusted and viewed with suspicion, but came to realize had a thirst for freedom and peace as great as our own. Thank you for breaking down the walls of our comfortable lives and showing us, first-hand, how much we can do simply by lending our support and our voice to those who are alone.

It is because of you, and the others who reached out, that #iranelection is not merely the story of the awakening of the Iranian people – but, even more, my awakening, and that of our world.

Thank you – now and always.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Of Fans and Air Conditioners (How Many Earths?: A Postscript) July 8, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, How Many Earths? (Adventures in Ecological Living), Nature, Saving the World.
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For much of the past week my area, together with large regions of the continent, has been hit by a scorching heat wave. For the first day or two it wasn’t so bad, but last night my apartment didn’t cool off at all, and my little bedside fan wasn’t doing the trick. I wasn’t affected so much as my poor Rumi, who went dashing around from one end of the apartment to the other panting and looking for some cool air. (I finally swabbed him down with a cool, wet cloth and that seemed to work.) Needless to say it’s been difficult to practice, or write another blog entry, or do much of anything…

So this morning I went looking for something that would, at least, help the situation until the promised cool front moved in this weekend.

*******

The problem is, I didn’t want to jump on the air conditioning bandwagon. I have a fundamental antipathy to air conditioning. There’s something wrong with the idea of it: we already condition our lawns, our water, the food we produce, our bodies…anything that we see as dissatisfactory in its natural state. Is nothing to be left alone? What kind of society needs to collectively condition even the air it breathes?

Not to mention that, the more we go around running our air conditioners, the more pollution and carbon dioxide we’ll generate – heating up our Earth and reducing our air quality even more and making it necessary for us to run our air conditioners more often. It’s a vicious cycle, and a dangerous one. Air conditioning, with our current level of technology, is fundamentally unsustainable and and only worsens the problem in the long term.

Also, I grew up without air conditioning – none of my friends had it either. Our region wasn’t especially humid, but reached searing temperatures in summer, sometimes 40 C or higher. It was hot, but we lived with it. It was just part of summer, like intense cold was part of winter; no point in complaining about either. There was a time when nobody had air conditioning and we seemed to do just fine as a society. Have we collectively gotten way more whimpy, or are we just so used to continual comfort we can’t bear to give it up?

*******

So, with these thoughts in mind, I resolutely headed out in search of a fan. After checking three or four places, I found the model I was looking for in a discount store, which had dozens of fans while all the rest of the city seemed to be out (kudos to Giant Tiger!) Interestingly, though some stores still had air conditioners in stock (indeed, on sale!), the fans were sold out pretty universally. I suspect this has more to do with the far cheaper cost of buying and running them than a wave of ecological consciousness spreading throughout our city, but it’s a hopeful sign in any case…

(Speaking of which, the local Shoppers Drug Mart started charging for plastic bags this week. Another excellent step in the right direction!)

How Many Earths? (…A Personal Experiment) July 3, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, How Many Earths? (Adventures in Ecological Living), Nature, Saving the World.
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“…The world has too many people.”

*******

It was late one night and a friend from #iranelection and I were having another online chat in our ongoing discussion of: What is Wrong with Our World And How To Save It. Or whether this is even possible, under the circumstances.

She didn’t seem too optimistic. “There aren’t enough resources to go around. We’re doomed to fight over what’s left. There’s no way the planet can support us – there’s just too many people.”

It wasn’t a conclusion either of us relished, but I was particularly reluctant to accept it. For most of history, I argued, there have been far fewer people on the planet than there were now, and yet those people scarcely behaved better towards one another as a result. Looking at the historical record, there have been more wars, more genocides, more atrocities in the past than now – despite today’s vastly increased population. Were we truly doomed to have this trend catastrophically reverse?

Still, I had to admit she could be right. Logically there had to be some number of people which the planet simply could not support. How could I know for sure that this threshold hadn’t already been crossed?

*******

I wasn’t about to capitulate the point so easily, though. “Too many people for what, exactly?” I asked. “To support at a minimum level for survival, or at the standard we’re used to in the West?”

“The minimum for survival,” she clarified.

I spotted a contradiction. “That doesn’t make sense. Our society is already using far more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources, so according to your statement the majority of the world’s people shouldn’t be able to survive at all. But obviously they are somehow. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there, they would be dead.” (And, as I realized later, the population would hardly continue to increase…)

“Well,” she conceded, “I guess I should distinguish between ‘surviving’ and ‘healthy’.”

…The conversation moved on to other things, but over the next few days my mind kept returning to this question. If we could take the planet’s resources and divide them equally among all the people on Earth, what sort of living standard would result? Would it be one just barely adequate for survival, which few in the West would ever accept given our current luxury? Or, even if we couldn’t each own three cars, a sprawling house and an SUV, would it be moderately comfortable at least?

*******

About a week later I sat down at my computer and did some research. A bit of web-surfing revealed the ecological footprint calculator as the most practical tool to answer my question. By analyzing my consumption habits, it would tell me how my own lifestyle compared to the Earth’s carrying capacity: if everyone on the planet lived as I did, how many Earths would we need? Ideally, this number would be 1 or less (an answer of over 1 would mean that my lifestyle was unsustainable ecologically.)

After glancing over a few I settled on the Ecological Footprint Quiz by the Center for Sustainable Economy (user-friendly, but comprehensive enough to give a meaningful result.) I plugged in five pages’ worth of personal data, clicked the “Next” button and waited…

“If everyone on the planet lived my lifestyle, we would need: 2.11 Earths.”

*******

My reactions, in order:

1. Ouch. “Pride goes before a fall,” I thought resignedly to myself. I had always viewed my own lifestyle as quite ecologically conscious (was vegetarian, recycled almost everything, used public transit or walked…). And yet I was using over two times my fair share of the planet. Was it even possible, in our society, to lead a “1-Earth” lifestyle? Maybe even the best of us have “sinned and fallen short of sustainable consumption patterns”? It didn’t look good.

2. Reflecting for a moment, though, I grew rather more optimistic. After all, my own lifestyle was nowhere near a “minimum survival” state – it was relatively simple, perhaps, but comfortable and healthy. I was satisfied with it, at any rate. Could my own consumption of resources simply be made more efficient to eliminate the extra 1.11 Earths?

3. …Probably not, I realized, looking at the “Take Action” webpage. There weren’t that much I could personally do make my footprint smaller. I could, perhaps, switch to fluorescent lightbulbs (which I did), consume fewer dairy products, buy more local foods, and install a low-flow showerhead. But, let’s face it, that wouldn’t cut my resource consumption in half – at the most it would make a dent in the total. Was there any way out of the problem?

4. Over the next several months, I began to realize there was. But it wasn’t a step I could take alone. Many of the survey questions had dealt with factors I couldn’t individually change, either as a renter (low-flow toilets, solar panels on the roof, the temperature of our apartment building) or a citizen (the source of our electricity, availability of light-rail public transit, and so on). At the same time, these were the “biggies” that had the largest impact on my society’s collective footprint. If these “constants” could be made more efficient, then everyone in my area would automatically have a far smaller ecological footprint – best of all,with no effort required on their part!
Obviously I couldn’t just go install a solar panel on my apartment’s roof, or singlehandedly run a light-rail transit system through my city’s downtown core. But I could certainly join a municipal citizens’ group that worked to bring such changes about – and it would undoubtedly have a much larger impact than driving myself nuts trying to drink soymilk or take two-minute showers. πŸ˜‰

If we can make it easy, convenient, and “the norm” for people to “be green”, they probably will be by default…

So I found my local group and joined it. (It’s actually quite an agreeable coincidence that a municipal election is approaching in any case, so there are quite a few opportunities to take action…)

I recommend that everyone who really wants to help save our planet do the same. Oh, and take the quiz. It’s quite eye-opening. πŸ˜€

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

P.S. A footnote to the story: my friend also took the quiz, and ended up scoring 2.35. As others pointed out, this is really not bad considering the average for North America is 6 (!!!) Earths. This obviously doesn’t mean that either of us can sit back and feel smug. But it’s hopeful, anyway…