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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Being Unreasonable People

I was buying some books on Amazon the other day when I came across a title by John Elkington called 'The power of unreasonable people: how social entrepreneurs create markets that change the world". The review of this book quotes George Bernard Shaw - "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man".

I found this quote quite interesting from several angles.

From an environmental point of view, it could be argued that reasonable people are good. After all, it is our insistence on changing the world to suit us which has led to the ecological crisis we are now facing. Just think of how the first settlers in Australia wanted it to be England so much that they introduced rabbits and foxes just to make themselves feel at home.

On the other hand, a reasonable person would say that we should now fit into the world and its systems as they currently stand. It is reasonable to use the system for your own ends, but not to try and change the system for the benefit of future generations. It is not reasonable for you to deny yourself now because your children's children might need the resource you are using. It is not reasonable to give up your life in a fight for a justice that might never come. So, if we are going to save the environment, we probably need unreasonable people.

To make it complicated, maybe we need people who are unreasonable citizens of our society (in the world but not of the world), but with reasonable footprints on the earth.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, reason has become a value to be strived for and valued. Science began to be treated with a type of reverance and we are told that emotions are bad and need to be mastered by the rational brain. Now as someone who believes in the importance of science (after all, I am doing a science degree) and the undenyable advances it has made in our lives, I cannot say that this reasoned attitude does not have its benefits. Science is a great and important endeavour, and one that should receive far more funding than it does. I don't believe knowledge for knowledge's sake is ever a waste; I think you can never know too much. Especially when you consider the power and arrogance of the human race in contrast to what it really knows about the world. However, this is the root of one of the problems with the dawn of the reasonable man. While I think it is impossible to know too much, it is far too easy to know to little. Man's advances in science have been vast and important, but science has become a panacea in the the minds of the public, instead of the tool it is meant to be. A good scientist will be able to tell you how little we truly know about the world. It is my impression, and perhaps I am wrong, that it is not so much the scientists boasting that science is the solution to everything, but rather the engineers, the politicians and the laymen. A scientist understands the importance of uncertainty, and the significance of the fact that science is based on disproving hypothesis, not proving theories. A theory is simply a hypothesis that has not been proved wrong yet. This does not, of course, mean that science cannot conclude findings with reasonable confidence, or undermine the values of these findings. It does seem to create some loss in translation however. Politicians etc. seem to either believe science is infallible, so that what it says is always correct, or if it suits them, they bring up the uncertainty of science as an excuse not to believe in findings they don't want to be true or that are uncomfortable. They are aware that to the untrained public, only 100% certainty is reassuring, despite the fact that this does not exist in science. Therefore, they have manipulated science into both an all knowing idol for the public and a biteless bark when they choose not to use it.

Engineers like to borrow the credibility from science to suggest projects like putting mirrors up in the sky to reflect the sun away from the earth to help with global warming. Or dumping iron into the ocean for the plankton to eat (it might have worked if the sun had been able to reach through the first few cm of soil). Environmental engineering is a very Cornucopian style of doing everything (science has always saved us before, so it always will). Yet it makes me want to scream. What arrogance, what terrible, insane arrogance that humans think we can simply start tampering with important environmental problems we don't understand! In America, when the Californian Condor was rapidly declining into extinction, they decided to try and save it by leaving carcasses out for it to find and eat; even though they weren't sure exactly why it was declining. It turned out to be lead poisoning. And oh, opps, those carcasses they left out? Shot with lead bullets. Yeah, we are brilliant. So let's throw caution to the wind and environmentally engineer the whole world. What can go wrong? (Note: I don't mean to imply environmental engineers cannot make some valuable contributions to sustainability).

Science is held up on a pedestal because it respresents the ultimate version of the reasonable man. It is completely objective and free from human values or influences (trying to smother laughing with coughs and not succeeding). I think is is about time we all, including scientists, accept the fact that as humans, we are never truly objective, and everything has a bias in it, whether we intend it to or not. To conduct an experiment we have to choose a topic (which will be something we find interesting), we have to design hypotheses (which will be the explanations we think likely because we cannot test everything) and we have to design the experiment (which will have inherant biases because logistics limits the way we can collect data and on what). There are value judgements inherant in all of these steps. In other words, there is no such thing as a reasonable man, if this is an objective and scientific person.

In economics, the reasonable man is known as the rational man or Homo economicus (note the attempt to borrow the credibility of science by using a latin name in the traditional taxonomic form). This being is characterised by the fact that he will always act to obtain the highest possible benefit for himself given available information about opportunities and constraints in achieving his goals. He is rational because he attempts to reach his goals with maximum utility and minimum cost. The theory does not necessarily state that the man's goals are rational from society's perspective.

It is my fear that the value placed on reason and rationality is leading to a growth in social darwinism in the west. After all, it is reasonable to say that if a man is poor, he should get a job and work hard, save money and then he will stop being poor. This reasoning gives us an excuse to throw compassion out the window. If the poor are poor because they are too lazy to get a job, why should we care? Never mind that we are ignoring the many reasons why getting a job might be harder for that person than for us. If a person on the street asks us for money, it is not reasonable for us to give it to them if they are going to spend it on alcohol or drugs. Indeed it is not reasonable to give them money at all. We earnt it, so we have the right to spend it. Yet think about the hypocracy in our judgement of the poor. We are saying they have no right to drink or take drugs, yet many of us to these things ourselves. Why should the poor be held to a higher standards than we are? And surely compassion tells us that if we were stuck on the streets, homeless and cold with no food, we would want to drown our sorrows too? But compassion isn't reasonable. Social darwinism tells us that the poor are not worth as much as us, after all, they don't earn as much as we do. Yet we know this is not the way God sees the world.

I think the ideas or reasonable and rational men leave something to be desired. It is not reasonable to sacrifice yourself for another, or to reduce your own utility that others might be able to increase theirs. It is not reasonable to take the hard or the long road through suffering because it is the right thing to do or because suffering adds to character. It is not reasonable to put aside your own goals, or even sacrifice them to help others meet theirs. Basically, sacrificial love is not reasonable. It is not reasonable to turn the other cheek. It is not reasonable to forgive. It is not reasonable to be humble and meek. Frankly, it is not reasonable to have faith. After all, faith is the belief in things not seen, the proof of things hoped for. To believe in God because you have faith without proof is not reasonable. Yet we do all these things. Therefore, I suppose Christians are unreasonable people.

So next time reason tells you that you shouldn't give the $50 in your pocket to the guy on the street, or that you shouldn't stay home to spend time with your kids when you could be at the office, or that you shouldn't care about the environment when we are all going to die anyway... How about you throw reason out the window and ask what Jesus would do?

Let's be proud to be unreasonable people. Maybe it will help us save the world.

Based on the following Sermon, I think Charles Spurgeon would agree with me:

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Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+