"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “book review

E.F. Schumacher and Small is Beautiful

After reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher this week, I think the book gets roundly misunderstood and misappropriated by various concerns. I read the book for its discussion around intermediate technology as Schumacher’s book established rhetorically the “appropriate technology” movement.What I found in the book is a much broader discussion about human concerns around production. His book is a rather scathing critique to advance an unpopular thesis: we have not solved the problem of production. For the clearest articulation as to where we have failed relative to production, I quote Schumacher:

To use the language of the economist, [the modern industrial system] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Looking at Schumacher’s thesis positively, Small is Beautiful positions production within a broader metaphysical argument. Specifically, Schumacher longs to see an orientation towards technology that embodies both non-violence and permanence. He differentiates between mass production and production for the masses. The articulation of production for the masses is likely the predecessor to “Bottom of the Pyramid” style businesses.  When you connect all three of Schumacher’s exhortations about tools and methods, the Bottom of the Pyramid connection becomes clear:

Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man’s need for creativity

Schumacher’s articulation that technology needs to be of a human-size is an important realisation. His discussion around long-term feasibility studies offers some value over forecasting documents. “Does this strategy have long-term feasibility given a range of conflicting demands on the resource base?” differs considerably from the forecasting question of “What will happen in 10 years?”

The book runs into some challenges around scale. Schumacher understands and appreciates that population density is something to celebrate in as far as it enables cultures to flourish. However, he also suggests that city size should not exceed 500,000 persons. He argues for a vision that makes rural life sustainable, simultaneously acknowledging that some communities might be suffering from too much migration to justify revitalisation. He discusses at length the necessary tension around a human need for order and a human need for freedom. Both needs establish a space for structured flexible thinking. Schumacher owns and embraces the paradox, but I am not surprised to see how Schumacher’s adherents have really focused on small-scale technologies in rural areas after reading the book.

Given that Schumacher wrote in 1973, I’m impressed to see a discussion of the human substance. Current frameworks about human well-being have some interesting things to learn. Arguably, Schumacher concludes that meaningful work represents a core component of the human substance.

The book is dated in a few places, but I think that many people citing from this particular volume do so at the expense of the overarching argument. Schumacher acknowledges that accepting the triad nature of his argument is not necessary. While each place of his argument stands firm on its own, I would like to see an increased pick up on the tolerance margins of nature apart from raw ecological takeback

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Book Review: Everybody Communicates, Few Connect

John Maxwell attempts to demystify communication principles in a way that enable people to actually make a connection.  He focuses on a range of audience considerations, investigating how to communicate one-on-one, in small groups, and with a large audience.  The book features two sections around principles and practices of connecting.  The main principles of connecting involve realizing that connection is not fundamentally about you; the main practices of connecting involve concrete actions.

Overall, I found the book to be accessible and about as interesting as a book on communication can be.  I wasn’t looking abundantly forward to reading this book, but Maxwell did a solid job at presenting some fairly new ideas.  In particular, his discussion about the role of simplicity in communication stuck with me.  As an academic, it’s my job to appreciate the nuances of complex phenomena; but it is equally my job to make the topic transparent.  Additionally, I picked up some valuable insights about why it is a bad idea to retreat immediately after class.  Connection with my students needs to be about them.

This book isn’t a book for everyone.  If people constantly praise your connection skills, you’re probably not going to get a lot out of the content.  Yet, it is a clear presentation of accessible pointers for connecting if you are the type of person that has some more difficulties.


Finding Solutions to Unattractive Problems

As an engineer interested in development, I cannot escape the realities of solving problems rooted in human needs.  Yet, one quickly observes that these problems are far from attractive to solve.  Treating wastewater does not immediately rise to the surface as a problem inviting innovative solutions.  After all, we have grown absolutely comfortable with the idea of flushing our problems down the toilet.

With. potable. water.

Conventional wastewater treatments use drinking water as the sewage solution.  Additionally, economic issues lead to extreme water scarcity as clean water is hard to come by owing to developing water sources and distribution infrastructure.  People spend full working days gathering water.

I really enjoyed reading Sustainable Wastewater Management in Developing Countries as the authors really took conventional paradigms to task.  In particular, they presented strong arguments regarding the benefits and limitations of on-site systems and a fantastic primer on more developed systems that bridge the gap between “septic tank” and “water-flushed sewers.”  I appreciated the case studies coming from their own consulting experiences, which highlighted successes and failures.  The three opening chapters situate the paradigm the authors advocate.  Really solid locally-driven focus on sustainability.  Definitely a find for my professional library.


Book Review: Cradle to Cradle

When it comes to relevant professional books, I have a stack of titles I would absolutely love to read.  Unfortunately, this stack tends to become taller than I am quite quickly so certain titles wait longer than they should to be read.  Yet, occasionally, I find enough time and space to read a full book-level volume.  This summer, I had a chance to read (finally!) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  Good gosh, this book came out in 2002 but it has been a bit of a touchstone for the sustainability movement (although I didn’t hear about it until 2007 when I started thinking a little bit differently about how things are made).

The book seeks to be a paradigm shifting agent, leading by example.  The preface is all about how the book’s paratext (new word I learned this summer which refers to everything about a book that is not the text on the page) lends itself to a new way of thinking about books, and really to a new way of thinking about stuff.  In particular, I was encouraged to see an emphasis on local, quality design articulated concurrently with a vision where wastes from one process can be fuel for another process that still acknowledges that “wearing out” may not be such a bad thing after all.  The authors go to great lengths to discuss how things from the manufactured world can return to the natural world.  The book contains many ideas that strike me as slogans to guide sustainable design choices in the future.

The “monstrous hybrid” serves as one illustration.  The authors consider a conventional running shoe where the soles are totally synthetic and rather nasty to the environment when they break down and the uppers tend to be manufactured from natural materials such as leather that can be (arguably) safely returned to the earth.  The authors contend that smart design would reverse the choice of types of materials to use for the sole and for the upper so that a biologically-safe sole would safely and responsibly degrade with use and the upper could be made of more robust synthetics that would enable the material’s recovery as still a shoe-upper, effectively rendering the shoe with the ability to be resoled.

The book differs from most key works in the sustainability discourse in that the authors go to great lengths to suggest that ecologically-intelligent design makes ecologically-intelligent consumerism.  If designers can be smart enough, then Americans can continue with whatever sort of consumer choices they want.  While I understand the argument (especially when you consider that consumer choices at best constitute less than 20% of the dynamic control of the industrialized system), I think that maintaining a systems approach is vital to continued understanding of sustainability.  This observation holds especially true when placed in the triplicate of economic-environmental-social sustainability (or as McDonough and Braungart prefer economy-equity-ecology).

Generally speaking, I applaud McDonough and Braungart for delivering a fairly rigorous critique of current industrial practices while showing how shifting our thinking during design stages represents an available (and obtainable) path forward.


“The Jesus Manifesto” by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola

The Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola is generally not a book I would pick up on my own volition.  I participate in Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program that lets me read books for free, provided I write up a review afterward.  Since I figured my friend Aideen would like reading the book herself, I decided to give it a read.  (It’s soon in the mail to you, my friend.  I told you would like my most recent plotting.)

The book attempts to articulate Jesus Christ as the sum total of the Christian faith.  The authors long to see Jesus Christ as the center and head of His Church.  They would like to see Christians dwell deeply in the mystery of the person of Christ, becoming people of the Person in a living, dynamic relationship with the Truth that can captivate like only Love Incarnate can.  For this the authors can be commended.  They consider the life of Jesus in its totality.  In particular, they exhort Christians to yield to the life of Christ within every child of God.

This book is risky for sure, especially among Protestants.  The authors cannot discuss Christ as Incarnate God without considering the role of Mary and the Church as the Body of Christ.  While Mary gets scant mention (4 out of 179 pages), the fact that she is mentioned at all is impressive for a book written by Protestants.  The authors express a desire to provide razor-sharp cut-glass clarity on the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore it is worth mentioning that the book hints at adoptionism when discussing that Mary spent 3 years watching her son become the Son of God.  Yet, that one small observation aside, I do think that this book is absolutely valid reading.  Additionally, the authors discuss the need for a properly functioning Body of believers.  The discussion in the chapter called “The House of Figs” is incredibly wonderfully constructed.  Oh that Christ would empower a fruitful Church that receives Him as Master of the house!

The authors totally nailed the truth that Jesus Christ is the Rosetta Stone of the Scriptures.  Everything in the entire Bible testifies to Him and must be read in light of Him.  To put Christ at the absolute sum and center of the Christian’s obsession is to place Him in His rightful place.  Christ is to be received on His own terms as master of the house.  Many, many, many Christian leaders of all stripes would do well to focus exclusively on Christ.  Whether we have our eyes fixed on our culture or words on a page, we have fixed them elsewhere than Christ.

I do think that Christians everywhere would do well to seek Christ as revealed to us in the Gospel — the One who came, dwelt among us, made visible the image of the invisible God, called to us, revealed the nature of the Law to us, healed the sick, proclaimed good news to the poor, liberated the captives, suffered alongside of us and for us, poured Himself out in the unimaginable love made manifest fully on the Cross, trampled down death by death, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, sits in glorified human flesh at the right-hand of God, prepared a place for us, and redeemed the whole of creation.  May we have a Person-driven life, fully transfixed on God who is.  May Christ implant Himself in us, taking up full residence within us.

And may we discover that in asking Christ “Who are You?” we encounter a question that has no last words.


A brief review of “The Hole in our Gospel”

Author’s note: I know I’m breaking a bit with my Wednesday tradition on the blog, but after reading this book, I’m considering devoting an extended series on the Apostles’ Fast in the Orthodox Church.  We’ll see, but I think the Apostles’ Fast relates strongly to the Church responding and relating to a world in need.

Richard Stearms takes an unflinching look at the status of global social involvement within Protestant Churches in “The Hole in Our Gospel” to challenge American Christians to extend their work among the global least of these.  Through five sections, Rich offers his story of becoming the president of World Vision, insights into his personal faith journey with Jesus Christ, the challenges associated with global poverty, the failures within the American Church, and an invitation to action.  The constant awareness of the personal remains an absolutely essential theme throughout the book.

I offer general endorsement of the book, with some important caveats.  Rich offers meaningful insights to the nature of poverty owing to his insistence to look poverty straight in the eye, recognizing the humanity of the other in the process.  He also provides a very helpful “Spider’s Web” metaphor to understand the interconnected lives of people in poverty.  The book maintains a realistic but positive outlook that we can make a difference in the experience of the least of these, one person at a time.

Where I must offer strong disagreement with Rich is that he asserts that visiting the sick or elderly and helping local food banks are “totally unrelated to global poverty” while also defining that meaningful service to the poor can only happen overseas.  Poverty can and does occur everywhere on the globe, even in American communities.  The Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is among one of the most poverty-stricken communities in the world.  Less people exist to raise awareness of poverty in the United States, but we have a lot of distressing statistics in our own country.  The question of “Where is the Church?” often applies just as much to these situations we find on our own soil.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com <http://BookSneeze.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”