Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Reflection: Living Memorials and Buddhist Economics


The other day, in a small piece about death and forgiveness, I mentioned my admiration for the inspiring action lessons of the Amish people in the way they dealt with what, for them, was and is a community 9/11.

Now for a little follow-up. On Thursday morning, the schoolhouse—where the atrocity occurred that ended in the slaughter of five little girls—was razed. The Amish folks brought in high-powered demolition and earth-moving machinery and they erased that building in a matter of minutes.

So, what are they going to do next? Erect a magnificent granite monument to honor their dead? Build a towering skyscraper of steel, glass, and corporate opulence as a stiff reminder to the world of their lust to remain first and highest in the eyes of the world?

Er...no. They're turning it into a pasture. Already have, in fact, by the time you read this. That is, a field of grass, with small plants, maybe a tree or two.

That's why I say that the spiritual strength and wisdom of these people is a marvel to me. In the era of the Hollywood televangelist, the Mercedes Benz guru, and the crystal cathedrals of 8-figure prophets, these Amish are the living example of a genuine spirituality.

For nearly five years now, corporate heads, politicians, architects, and advocacy groups have fought among themselves to get and claim credit over various competing plans for a monument, memorial, or building at the site of what was the World Trade Center here in New York.

What if they just poured some earth into the hole left behind and planted grass and a few trees in the spot where such an aimless act of carnage occurred? What if by now, tourists and natives alike could come and walk around in the meditation space created by soil, grass, and plants; enter the quietude of Nature, perhaps taking a picture and leaving a flower? What if there were a natural altar of remembrance there instead of a garish, dirty, and noisy construction site surrounded by T-shirt salesmen ("I've Been To Ground Zero") and conspiracy advocates?

The Amish have so very much to teach us, if we will only open our hearts and listen from within.

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Once again, our only correct response on the banner quote came from the amazing Miss Bitty, who identified our author, E.F. Schumacher, and the book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

Schumacher has a lot to tell us, some 33 years after the publication of Small is Beautiful. His book is deservedly considered a classic today, having sold something like a million copies and influenced countless students and professionals in arts as diverse as economics itself, religion, sociology, and urban planning. Schumacher taught "consilience" before E.O. Wilson became recognized for the notion; Schumacher said that "all subjects, no matter how specialized, are connected with a centre; they are like rays emanating from a sun." To see how topical he is on economic matters of today, check out this commentary from today's Progress Report:

When President Bush took office in 2001, he inherited a yearly budget surplus of $284 billion. At that time, he predicted a $516 billion surplus for fiscal year 2006. Yesterday, the Bush administration announced that, in 2006, the federal government ran a deficit of $248 billion, missing its projection by $764 billion. President Bush considered this a smashing success. In a speech yesterday, Bush said the numbers were "proof that pro-growth economic policies work" and an example of "sound fiscal policies here in Washington." Although the deficit declined from $318 billion last year, "the long-term outlook remains bleak." If the President is successful in implementing his economic agenda -- including making his tax cuts permanent for the wealthy -- "deficits will total nearly $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years."


Now, compare this with Schumacher's writing:

The conventional wisdom of what is now taught as economics by-passes the poor, the very people for whom development is really needed. The economics of giantism and automation is a left-over of nineteenth-century conditions and nineteenth-century thinking and it is totally incapable of solving any of the real problems of today. An entirely new system of thought is needed, a system based on attention to people, and not primarily attention to goods—(the goods will look after themselves!)...What was impossible in the nineteenth century is possible now. And what was...neglected in the nineteenth century is unbelievably urgent now. That is, the conscious utilisation of our enormous technological and scientific potential for the fight against misery and human degradation—a fight in intimate contact with actual people, with individuals, families, small groups, rather than states and other anonymous abstractions...

What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realisation, fulfilment? Is it a matter of goods, or of people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can be themselves only in small conprehensible groups. Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units. If economic thinking cannot grasp this it is useless. If it cannot get beyond its vast abstractions, the national income, the rate of growth, capital/output ratio, input-output analysis, labour mobility, capital accumulation; if it cannot get beyond all this and make contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, alienation, despair, breakdown, crime, escapism, stress, congestion, ugliness, and spiritual death, then let us scrap economics and start afresh.

Are there not indeed enough 'signs of the times' to indicate that a new start is needed?

1 comment:

Miss Bitty said...

I guessed right, woot woot! Except I feel a little silly, since I didn't realize that his book was considered such a classic or that it had been recognized in so many other diverse fields -- I just read it a few years ago on a the recommendation of a friend. Did my answer give you a laugh? :)

Well anyway, I've often wondered since I read it why his philosophy hasn't gained greater traction within the business world. Well, I mean other than the obvious reasons (greed, shortsightedness, etc.). The idea that it's not profitable or attainable is obviously bunk, since we see companies like Google that, for the most part, seem to follow his philosophy of not doing harm. (I know they're not perfect, their actions in China being a good example, but they seem to follow their motto of "don't be evil" fairly well. Hell, at least they have such a motto.)

I've often thought how much time we waste with our adversarial relationships between employees and employers. How much better might we all benefit if we could truly implement his idea that work and leisure must go together hand-in-hand, that we shouldn't be living to work, but working to live?