Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Inside Job", Entitlement, and Deserving what we earn

I recently watched the 2010 documentary, "Inside Job", about the global economic recession. It's a great movie, and it made me indignant and angry. It makes the connection between profligate spending on the part of investment companies and bankers, and the loss of people's savings.
                What it did even better was show how the really powerful economists, the investment bankers, and those entrusted with people's savings didn't make that same connection. They seemed to feel that their staff "deserved" what they earned. Yet their earnings and bonuses were coming from taking extreme risks with other people's money, predatory lending, and so on. One core problem was this sense of entitlement, this sense that one deserved one's salary so there was no real commensurate responsibility-- even at the highest levels of these companies-- to figure out if the system fueling these crazy salaries was sustainable, responsible or moral.

It's easy for me to get very angry about the ignorant nonchalance of economists and bankers depicted in the film.

Yet most of the time, if you were watching from afar, my approach to beggars and to my finances would imply I also think I justly earn what I have. That it is right for me to have the life I have. Perhaps that's how the investment bankers felt. They hung out with other rich people and it became normal to have certain perks. They worked long hours and New York and London are expensive cities, after all. Right? Right. Along these lines of thinking, perhaps morality was reserved for later in life, when one has secured one's place in life and doesn't have kids to support or student loans to pay back. Some of my good friends were (are) right there at the big banks, investment and consulting firms- the halls of power- most of them for reasons I totally understand and respect (saving for med school, paying off school loans, experience). Which makes my story interwoven with the real-life villains in the documentary.

I don't make these connections because I'm interested in guilting myself or you, and I'm certainly not letting the companies responsible for the global financial crisis off the hook. What I am interested in thinking about is the responsibility our earnings- and our spending- convey to us.

The challenge is that in a global economy it's hard to feel responsibility to people we don't know or see. It's hard when our work is abstract and our value is whatever other people say it is. It's hard when the world is just so overwhelmingly complex. I don't want to shy away from the responsibilities involved with having an education and being one of the rich, but a lot of those responsibilities I'm totally blind to because of my perspective on the world.

So I'm wondering if earning less and doing more- being more connected to the very basic actions of feeding, sheltering, clothing myself and my family- is better for me.  I don't want to buy into the story that says that If I work enough I'll provide all my needs, and if others work enough they should be able to provide theirs. This is an economy of scarcity where we all take as much as we can in case the world implodes or whatever- this is an economy where we try to get as far away from the people we're taking from. This is not the economy I want to be a part of.

My Dad's Bees in Cape Town, and Problems with Permits

On Monday, while the kids, my mom and I were playing outside my parent's house, two policeman drove up and came to the gate. I assumed it was some kind of mistake, but no, they had police coming to the gate because a neighbor reported my dad to the police for keeping bees. My parents don't know which neighbor or why.

It turns out there is a complex permitting process for keeping bees- it's just not well known or well enforced. It's also really hard to get the permit in the suburbs so it seems like most people just go ahead and start keeping bees and hope for the best. There's some danger in people just haphazardly hosting swarms of bees in their backyards, but it feels as though the danger has been inflated and misunderstood (it's also good to note that these are not African bees, which can be aggressive, these are Cape Honey bees, which are not aggressive at all). In my parent's case, the danger seems minimal. Eli went right up to a frame of hundreds of bees and seemed safe and curious (we did move him away so that he didn't swat the bees or do things that one year olds do).

There is something wrong with an intimidating visit from the police: a missed opportunity to sit down with neighbours, listen to their concerns (for example, is there someone with an allergy?), and talk about the real value and possibility of having bees. The arrival of the police represents a disjoint: where it is considered optional and unnecessarily dangerous to raise food in the suburbs and somehow worthy of police investigation, yet there are a host of other more dangerous things where it would be absurd to involve the police.

Is it a stretch to say that suburbs are expected to be these artificially safe bubbles of consumers, who truck in (or drive out for) everything they need? In this context, the necessary dangers and costs of daily life are moved out of sight and out of mind. Everything happens at a distance and by proxy, even fears have to be filtered through a third party, in this case the police. It would be a terrible shame for my dad to lose his bees- for the moment, he's trying to figure out his options.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Prescriptions for Health

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Mother Theresa

Marilyn at Communicating Across Boundaries linked to this article entitled "You Can't Buy Your Way to Social Justice", which I read with interest. I read some of the author's posts at Djibouti Jones, which I really enjoyed. Which I say to highlight that I really like the author and her brave life in Djibouti, so this is not a criticism of her.

What I found interesting is the debate in the comments, and the overarching question of what represents the "right" thing to do for the world as a Christian. What is "enough" to make us a good Christian? It's like we got this massive loan and though we can't ever pay it back we should probably try.

I felt like this article, and so many others at Christianity Today, place a very heavy burden on people- one that is unnecessarily heavy given our own smallness. The question in the article seems to be whether it is more important to give one's life to people in a far-off land, or figure out how to consume fairly and justly. I sometimes stray towards legalism, and I think my writing betrays that, but at bottom I believe that God's burden is light. We don't have to know how to fix the world, and when we do think we know we're probably wrong. God's burden is a doctor's prescription meant for our own health, our Boston pastor often said, not a boss's order to somehow get a better employee. The prescription is enough to make us useful and whole as part of a bigger story of redemption. For those with less of a faith-based perspective, I wonder if what I'm trying to describe is similar to the smallness we all feel the first time we worked for an NGO or tried to do something meaningful to change the world.

This is not to say it doesn't matter whether I notice strangers in need or buy fair trade. Both matter (and perhaps neither matter very much unless they get some supernatural turbocharging!). But the prescription God has for one person - to leave them healthy and make them whole - is not the same as for another. And the prescription at one stage of life is not the same as at another.

I want to move towards a deeper life of faith- whether that simply means being kinder, or praying for people, or noticing strangers, or selling everything and giving our money to those who need it. But I am  for the most part called to small things and small days- where big things might unexpectedly happen, and they sometimes do. I very seldom expect the adventure or change in mindset when it comes, so I would be wrong to tell you your adventure when I don't even know my own.

To tentatively take the "light burden" metaphor a little further, I wonder if we can happily bear more and try more as we get stronger muscles. When I was pregnant, at the end I felt like my babies were just huge and they needed to get out. They were a pretty heavy burden. Then they came out and seemed so tiny, and as they grew in the baby carrier I largely had them on me the first year or so. During that year their growth was so gradual that I didn't feel terribly burdened. I had gotten much stronger without really noticing.

That is to say that changing the world might be spirit-filled, gentle, adventuresome and at times a bit scary, with no human action so momentous that it can transform the world to Eden on its own. In this context, we need each other and we need all the years we're given here on earth. Which is really good news.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Beyond "zero waste"

A big mind-shift I'm experiencing is around waste, and I'm seeing the earth- and God's provision here- as a new kind of perfect.

I'm reading a book called "Food and Faith" by Norman Wirzba and just finished Michael Pollan's "Cooked." I highly recommend them both. Another book that I found totally inspiring and which you can read for free is The Humanure Handbook:  it made something that seems so radical if you're situated in mainstream western life (composting human feces and urine) seem like common sense, and our current complex systems for using drinking water to flush feces seem completely absurd.

When I first read about Zero Waste it was mainly about packaging and unnecessary travel: reducing packaging, not putting out the trash too often, and not going on too many exotic vacations or long drives. This is still really important and our lives are very imperfect- we still do have trash. Water down the drain and flushed toilet didn't seem terribly wasteful because for the most part, out of sight meant out of mind. And composting was great mainly because it kept things out of the landfill.

The overlap between Food and Faith, Cooked, and the Humanure Handbook is in their description of the relationships between organisms here on earth. There's this perfect cycle whereby death and life co-exist and our disassociation and specialization has meant that suddenly our leftovers- whether poop or food scraps or water from washing- is toxic rather than something valuable and necessary to keep the world healthy.

These books have also helped me to understand some of the ways that the convenience of the city can blind me to the high cost of these conveniences.

So what to do, here in the city, in a really imperfect world? I'm trying to think beyond reducing plastic waste and packaging waste in general, though I think that's hugely important.

  • I can't compost feces safely in the space we have, but urine is fine so I've started doing that by putting the potty in the toilet and emptying it into the worm bin when I remember. Noah pees directly onto the lemon trees. I read that a year's worth of pee has enough nitrogen for a year's consumption of wheat. I found that remarkable.
  • There wasn't a simple way to catch rain water (yet) or reuse our greywater for the plants via pump or pipe, but I've started watering the garden exclusively with reused water. This means a little work: taking the water from the bath down to the plants, waiting for the pasta water to cool before watering the plants with it. 
  • To my surprise, in just a month this meant saving R80 in water/sewage costs. We pay less than R10 (about $1) for both per month. The savings may seem like a pretty trivial amount, but it's 4 trays of seedlings, or around 6 packets of seeds, or the difference in costs between a month's worth of organic, free range eggs vs. caged eggs! Isn't that pretty amazing? These are all things that are sometimes hard for me to buy because they seem expensive, but it's mainly my frame of mind. 
  • Attempting to reuse potting soil (after cycling it through the worm bin) so that there's pretty much a closed system- no fertilizer, no purchases necessary. It's by no means perfect and I'm no farmer yet, but I'm amazed by the possibilities.
  • We don't use non-solar energy for water heating. This means fewer showers in winter, which kindof makes sense because we're not as sweaty.
This isn't about becoming more radical or feeling more self-righteous. I'm just excited that there are real, meaningful life alternatives in the space between living here in the city and living an agrarian life off the grid. Join me in these dreams!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Abundance shifts

When Eugene and I did a course called Lazarus at the Gate about six years ago, it was transformative for us. The course was about economic discipleship and learning what Jesus' approach to money might be. We learned a lot about fair trade consumption, as well as trying to decrease our consumption. For Eug and I, entering our second year of marriage, we suddenly had to make a budget and confront our debt. Rather than simply confront our spending and budget in terms of necessities and extras, we got to look at our budget as a moral document, and at our money as a potential vehicle for blessing others. At the end of group, with the other members we pooled our money and gave to groups that we had all researched.

One of the tenets of the course is that "wealth is a blessing" and the second is that, as a blessing "wealth must be justly distributed." I don't mean to conflate wealth and abundance, but I've been thinking of how the two relate and are similar and different.

Since finishing the course and going on with our lives, abundance has at times meant being able to do things that were financially possible because of our relative wealth. Travel. Good food. Giving away stuff. This sense of abundance was real and has its moments.

But there was another sense in which abundance is in tension with just distribution. I sometimes will say things like "I can handle anything, but I need [fill in the blank]" Whatever filled the blank provides some tension for me, because the reality is that, for example, flush toilets for the whole world isn't sustainable. Cars for everyone is not reasonable or helpful or attainable. So to the extent that I measure blessing by having those "needs", I'm claiming an exclusive blessing for myself that doesn't fit with the kind of God I read about and connect with. If blessing is experienced as house or going on a beach holiday, then how is God blessing or loving the poor? I don't mean this in a legalistic way. I drive a car and flush the toilet. What I'm trying to grapple with is that these 'blessings' are not what abundance means. As such, if we do give these things up, we won't be giving up abundance or blessings in favour of a negative kind of austerity.

Rather, we'll be entering into a new type of abundance, not mediated by luxury. I get glimpses of this kind of abundance when I bake bread or cook something simple or take some spinach from our garden and cook it: at a very basic level providing my sustenance is beyond my control, it is a gift (as I learn every time the slugs come). Perhaps financial wealth is the opposite of this, where we work on abstract problems and buy anonymous things and it feels like our livelihood is proportional to our striving.

A couple of weeks ago, Eli started to walk, and I thought I got a little glimpse of abundance in first steps, and his steps even now. Eli has had a very simple life. He's been carried, breastfed, and loved, but he's just sortof slipped into our life. Yet in the course of a year, he went from a floppy little blob to a walking, talking, laughing boy. The process was deeply natural and beyond my control, and witnessing it seemed as close to a pure gift as I could imagine- like my own very personal sunrise or sunset.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Cooking in our Household- sharing some recipes

The last few weeks have seen a few winner recipes- some new, some old favourites.

One challenge with trying to cook sustainably and healthily is that my tastebuds are not what you would called refined. I'm simple. I like good chocolate. I like good coffee. I like good bread. The rest is negotiable. (For the record, I don't think there's anything wrong with chocolate and coffee and bread.)

My transformation towards really enjoying fruit and vegetables has been gradual and is certainly not complete, but I've been discovering that making something from scratch really opens up a whole new world of tastes, and just a few new recipes can change the way I view a vegetable.

In the from-scratch world, this is the first year I've made various kinds of jam, canned tomatoes, ketchup/tomato sauce and hot sweet sauce to get us through the winter. It's been a revelation.

Zucchini fritters continues as a major breakfast hit with the kids, as are sourdough pancakes with my dad's honey. I've started a new sourdough starter and gone back to sourdough loaves- in addition to being pretty healthy and full of wonderful flavours, baking with sourdough here in South Africa saves you around R3/loaf in yeast packets, because of the absurd single serving yeast packets here. But the time without a starter was good for me, because I started to bake dinner rolls. Rather than feel I always needed to know ahead of time when we would need bread, these are very quick - almost as quick as a run to the store. And they turn out fine with brown bread flour, too.

Eug has started to make creamy Korean beef broth (Seolleongtang) and as we are heading into winter, this has quickly become a part of our lives, with rice and maybe some strips of beef. On the subject of beef, sirloin lasts three weeks (well, three meals) rather than one if you slice it up into bulgogi. Having bulgogi marinated and frozen has allowed us to have bibimbap on quinoa or millet instead of rice without a lot of work. I sprout mung beans and we've just been having them fresh on the bibimbap, but it's also pretty simple to make sookju namul.  It's pumpkin season here, so life has been full of pumpkin- roasted as a pasta sauce, seeds as a snack, pumpkin humus. Eggplant/brinjal is in season and we've been cooking a variation of this river cottage favourite almost every week. We've found that anything with tomato sauce and cheese is a hit with the kids, including cauliflower pizza.  We've also tried and enjoyed amarula creme brulee, graham crackers, and pomegranate white chocolate chip cookies.

Whew! That was a little breathless, but thanks for bearing with me. Do you have recipes that you'd like to share?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Birthday Party at the Park

This year Eli turned one and Noah will turn three. In celebration, we decided to invite friends and family to join us at the park this past Sunday. We focused on Noah, since Eli couldn't care less about whether it was his party.

We made Eli wear Hanbok before the party, and he didn't like it one bit. So we quickly took it off, after trying to take 100000 photos.

The afternoon was lovely.  The kids could just play and the adults chat and play and eat, depending on their preference. People seemed fine with bringing their own cups, and we shared spoons to eat the ice-cream (though they might not have known it). I have never tried to organise a party without (with less?) waste, and I found that it was not too difficult- food in glass jars, drinks in deposit bottles or reusable glass, compostable paper napkins for holding food if necessary.

South African parks would be illegal in the U.S. Here Eli climbs a slide that's about 2.5 m tall, made of metal, with large dangerous holes everywhere to freak me out.
But he made it to the bottom fine. 

Eli has started walking but he still prefers to crawl.
We just laid out all the food on the ground, and had a cooler fill of drinks and ice cream. 

Noah gets ready to blow out candles.
Later, after it was cooling down and getting dark, my mom managed to get this picture of both of them.