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

Posts tagged “minimalism

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


A Movie Minute

…or 5.

This short film is a fantastic rendering of a poem about “How to be Alone.” I highly recommend it. Perhaps I will make going out dancing a personal goal in the next year… or two.

Friday Forum: It’s a Gift to be Simple

Today I was chatting with a good friend of mine.  In the course of the conversation, the topic of simple living arose.  The question of the week is Should we be seeking out simplicity?

Simplicity comes in all sorts of shapes and forms.  I generally try to live a simple life by having little, wanting little, and enjoying much.  But so much in life pulls counter to simplicity with the broad assertion that we should not be content with what we have.  Additionally, my position comes from an understanding that I do have a wide range of choices both in terms of what I have and what I want.  Not all people benefit from functioning choice in their lives.

Simplicity often means finding value where you didn’t see it before.  Can a friend’s laugh be meaningful?  What about a smile?  What about simple eye contact?  Pushing more and more into the minimalist representations of human life, we are tempted to scream “But that’s not enough!”  And therein, I discover the challenge of simplicity.  Right at that point, we have an intersection of our needs and our wants that calls us towards protest.  Reconciling this protest, in my opinion, gets at the heart of what it means to be a joy-filled human being.

Different people have different reflexes around the questions of contentment.  Note here: I am speaking about the issue in terms of contentment, not in terms of true need or in accommodating mistreatment from others.  A good friend of mine Brian once declared that a rich man is a person who wants for nothing.  A person can have all of the money in the world, but if he or she craves power, influence, material possessions or human relationships, then he or she is impoverished at some level.

Too often, our perceived needs function in the background of our consciousness.  We do not tend to search them out actively and consider their general applicability.  For most of us, there is simply no need to do so.  As an object illustration, today I went shopping.  I had a list, but I went shopping at a different grocer.  I took my time to consider what was available to me and spoke to the needs I had reflected in my shopping list.  Yet, shopping knowing I have to carry everything back with me definitely invites a different consideration than shopping knowing I can put everything in a car.  Having to be more strategic in my food choices only stands to benefit me in a range of measures.

So many factors compete with simple living.  I recently downsized my entire magnitude of possessions, focusing particularly on my books and my clothes.  Yet there are so many opportunities to buy new things!  I have to make rather concerted choices to maintain a simple way of life.  The adage You can’t take it with you has been so helpful for me as I attempt to navigate some of these new challenges.

I like the way my friend phrased the question: be seeking out because it hints at the active nature of choosing a simple life.  But like so many things, a simple life must be chosen, and then chosen again, and then chosen again.  Everyday offers a chance at renewal.

The Nature of Manufactured Want

In times of plenty, people easily demand things that they do not otherwise need.  Many of our demands surprise us when confronted with the logic.  I have spent several weeks reviewing literature regarding wastewater irrigation systems.  At the close of finishing up my paper, the New York Times ran an article concerning water shortages in the southwestern United States.  First I thought, “Aha! This article discusses why people should be aware of wastewater reuse strategies!”  But as I read, I saw a more intriguing picture of the nature of human needs.

Las Vegas is pursuing some intriguing options to secure its water feature.  One of the main initiatives by the city is “to encourage homeowners and businesses to eliminate their lawns in favor of the rock, grass and cactus landscaping.”  But what are lawns doing in Las Vegas, a city housed entirely in the desert?

The lawns exist because the water resources existed.  When people have ample supply, they can cultivate ample want.  They can cultivate these wants to the point where the want lacks common sense.  Having a lawn in Las Vegas becomes an issue of freedom and choice.  The focus remains on the desires of individuals rather than on consideration of the environment.

Please note the frame here: the argument rests in context.  What foliage belongs in the desert?  How can we appreciate the desert’s beauty?  How do we come to terms with living, and even with flourishing, in the desert?

Consumerism can distract us from a broader frame of contextual fit.  While the environment always requires some modification to support human flourishing, we can fit our human-built world more closely to the context.  And who knows?  We may even approach decisions that offer promises towards justice.

The Mismatch between History and Engineering

Note to readers: This post is a classic post about what I actually do for work.

I often spend my time thinking about how engineers can be better engineers.  To me, engineering is not strictly about particularly refined use of a technical tool as the technical tools come and go.  Engineering is not about a specific discipline as disciplinary domains shift over time.  Moreover, engineers need to find ways to work effectively across the engineering disciplines all of the time.  It is not uncommon to have mechanical, electrical, industrial, and chemical engineers working alongside of each other.  To me, engineering is about solving problems that have their roots in the material world.

But I have been spending a ton of time lately researching wastewater irrigation systems in a development context.  I’m interested and intrigued by the idea of creating holistic water management scenarios at the household level in a way that honors human dignity.  As I read, I’m convinced that engineers and historians have very different ways of looking at problems.

I know a little bit about being both an engineer and a historian.  I majored in the former and minored in the latter in college.  It’s hard to think about getting a history job so mostly I keep at the historical studies as a hobby.

When you are looking to piece together a story in history, there is a distinct bias towards choosing the simplest and most elegant story you can construct given the information that you have at hand.  My work situates me predominantly in the middle medieval area (Europe between AD900 and 1300).  This period of history has been widely popularized, and there is a lot of commentary to sort.  The more voices you try to add to the conversation (looking for instance at popular sources for military history, imperial records, and traces of grassroots movements), the more likely you will find a compelling and nuanced story.  Yet you come to distrust the likelihood of an impressive cover-up spanning all sorts of characters when you lack compelling evidence.  The goal is a simple, compelling narrative that accounts for the evidence you have.

Yet engineers seem to lack an appreciation for the simple.  As I try to parse through various recommendations for irrigation systems, I see documents that value the large scale.  I have been working my way through scholarly papers and a few rather good books.  One thing remains that quaint household solutions are generally disregarded.  It boggles my mind against a backdrop of failed centralized attempts and known governmental corruption.  The story simply doesn’t make sense in that it is only an engineering solution if it is rooted in some large-scale enterprise or enables a large-scale enterprise.  But as I am doing my own research, I see a rather compelling case for how small-scale systems require some significant engineering work.

It has me thinking about engineers and their tools.  And it will also be interesting to see how development conversations unfold around a different sort of academic.

Made for Prayer

I am always on the lookout for strange things that speak to our human nature in a way that profoundly resonates with the experience of Christians throughout the ages.  Yesterday, I came across this TED talk about our natural sleep cycle.  It’s a talk that lasts for less than 6 minutes, and I really encourage you to take “the scientist’s” word for it rather than “the engineer who happens to be theologically intrigued”‘s word for it.

Over the last year or so, I have had the distinct privilege of meeting some rather fantastic monastic communities.  Their faithfulness in prayer, particularly as it relates to observing their own rule in their cells, blew my mind.  At least it did until I watched this TED talk.

Let me explain.

Jessa Gamble dropped a rather surprising sentence in her talk that observed when people live in the absence of artificial light and live near the equator, they generally go to bed at about 8pm, wake near midnight for a period of meditative contemplation, and then sleep again from about 2am until sunrise.  This natural cycle maps amazingly well to the monastic prayer cycles of Compline before bed, the Midnight office at midnight, and Matins at sunrise.  I never had any idea how monastics managed to keep with a prayer rule that incorporated the Midnight office until this TED talk introduced the idea that such a practice may be entirely natural.

Additionally, I thought it to be quizzical that our ability to observe such a natural cycle could be recreated if we avoid the artificial light in our lives.  When I contrast the compact florescent against the Light of Christ, it is pretty clear which source should have the upper hand.

But then again, it is absolutely mind-boggling to think about not living in a land of artificial light.  We schedule so much of our lives around the ability to stay in illumined spaces just that much longer to get all sorts of things done.  What would it possibly look like if we considered asking God to illumine our relationship with artificial light, both in the literal sense of the bulbs around our homes and in the figurative sense of the various idols we have?

O God, teach us to pray.

Overcoming squeamishness

We live in a world where our big problems connect with other big problems.  Challenges of food security, water, sanitation, energy and education compound together, often expressed in the incredibly large problem of poverty.  Yet, when addressing these challenges, it seems common to consider them individually rather than collectively.  Investigating schemes for wastewater irrigation underscores the point and speaks to our need to think creatively about viable engineering solutions.

Our general anxiety regarding wastewater in the developed world blocks some of our ability to think holistically about these challenges.  Environmentally-aware areas of the world such as the European Union have embraced rigorous standards for wastewater reuse as measures to protect public health.  Yet, policymakers created these regulations against a backdrop of highly-developed infrastructure systems designed to distance our communities from the reality of sanitation.  Therefore, these regulations rely on state-of-the-art treatment modalities and speak to our overall fear of waste.

The realities in the developing world are rather stark.  Open-pit defecation, carrying water gathered from questionable sources, and subsistence farming reflect normative practices.  Sources of disease transmission elude many persons trying to make community improvements because nearly every known pathway is wide-open.  Nearly everywhere you look, you can find evidence of fecal contamination, whether from humans or livestock.  The standardized systems of the developed world simply do not exist.  Moreover, the landscape littered with abandoned central infrastructure suggests the near-universal water and sanitation coverage continues as being wholly out of touch with many communities.

It strikes me as odd to assert that to change the paradigm, we must embrace reality.  Regardless of what we happen to think about the issues, regardless of how our stomach may churn with disgust when we consider what actually happens, and regardless of our extant pipe dreams, we must consider that for a large population of the world “wastewater” is a concept that simply does not exist.  The question remains: how can water scarce communities continue to use their limited resources productively in a way that improves their water, sanitation, and food security?

Within the context of development, developers tend to work on single projects with limited scope and quantifiable objectives.  Therefore, a development project might be something like place 10 tap stands in a community or construct a demonstration plot using irrigation.  Yet, agriculture projects enable developers to consider the community more holistically without losing the concrete objectives needed to complete the project.

Irrigation uses water for productive purposes.  Hierarchically, productive purposes rank below consumptive and hygienic uses for water; although some researchers indicate that pressing for irrigation-related development projects often carries a gendered dynamic of inverting the relationship between hygienic uses and productive uses of water.  Therefore, a systems-minded design of an irrigation project likely includes considerations of food security, water, sanitation, maternal and child health, and education.

Establishing appropriate procedures for water access and treatment forms a critical component of irrigation systems.  In many situations, these procedures involve questions of water rights.  However, water-scarce situations invite considerations of innovative water use, if we can consider the challenges in context.  Working with a community to design an environment mindful of locally-useful agricultural productivity changes the nature of the development project.  Inherently, developers have the options to say “What can be done to leverage this community’s resources towards agricultural productivity?” recognizing that water scarcity places many demands on the available water.

Best practices of modern farming in the developed world include regular irrigation and fertilization to maximize crop yields.  Yet farmers have also moved away from manure-based fertilizer in favor of chemical-based fertilizer.  Therefore, innovations that incorporate both human and animal manures in farming contexts meet with suspicion as these practices provide a means for feces to come into contact with food.  Additionally, insistence of artificially high standards of wastewater used in irrigation blocks irrigation all together or diverts water from more pressing human health needs.

The challenges facing developers working on irrigation projects in the developed world center upon the need to mobilize resources in the community.  Moreover, considerable efforts must be made to ensure project relevance.  Viewing the projects more broadly as an agricultural project may encourage more holistic solutions, particularly as sanitation improvements may make the community’s agriculture more productive.