Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Revisiting the Steady State Economy

On the heels of not one, not two, but three Republican blockades of financial regulatory legislation in the U.S. Senate this week, I thought it worth reposting the below essay on the concept of a Steady State Economy. The essay was originally posted on HH in April 2005; five years later, there's only that much more reason for thoughtful, comprehensive reform.


Environmentalism is becoming something of a religion. Those who subscribe to most or all of the tenants of the environmentalist doctrine are among the movement’s acolytes, composting and recycling, canvas bagging it and buying organic, living what they consider “healthier,” less “impactful” lives. A thoughtful environmentalist should recognize these actions to be sacraments grounded in a hybrid moral code. “I am doing my part to rectify the mess made by the sinners around me.” How persuasive is this feeling of self-worth and moral superiority? Like all religious conviction, it is undeniably powerful and fulfilling, but it comes at a cost. Too often this fetal “religion” ignores fact in favor of that which is deemed morally superior. For example, radical environmentalists demand a wilderness without humans, ignoring the fact that management (stewardship) is now an unfortunate necessity given our exuberant use of natural resources and our continued sprawl. Reason must enter into the equation. Thoughtful environmentalism of the secular variety is possible, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to become vain.

This brings me to the concept of the Steady State Economy.

I first heard wind of Brian Czech’s Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) project a year ago. My initial reaction was positive, though I feared support for the concept would be relegated to left-wing environmental groups of the “religious” variety. Surprisingly, I am hearing the term used with more frequency these days, sometimes by folks with little interest in preserving biodiversity or encouraging ecological sustainability.

I am a proponent of the philosophy (read this .pdf for an excellent summary). The front page of the CASSE website states:
Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population, per capita consumption, or both. Economic growth leaves a larger ecological footprint, causing civil strife and bringing nations into conflict.”
This simplifies, for the sake of dramatic impact, the arguments made by the economists behind the SSE. For me, the heart of the matter is touched on in the following selection.
“…Wildlife biologists know that a wide variety of social structures may produce stable populations. The same holds true for a steady state economy. For example, a steady state economy with long human life spans entails low birth and death rates. In our opinion this is preferable, within reason, to a steady state economy with short life spans, high birth rates, and high death rates. The same concept applies to capital and durable goods such as automobiles. We opine that a relatively slow flow of high-quality, long-lasting goods is preferable to a fast flow of low-quality, short-lived goods.”
The SSE will not take hold in the United States anytime soon, but in more socially-minded democracies, like Sweden or England, the approach is not so alien. The truth is, however, such a transition from market-driven capitalism to stability-driven capitalism is unlikely to occur unless the populous desires as much. In the United States, our stock market would require overhaul, making it “less of a casino,” by decreasing its volatility and demand for liquidity. This seems unlikely, especially in the immediate future. In fact, were the transition to begin today, the market would likely hemorrhage. Making things even more unattractive for the “powers that be,” implementation of the Steady State Economy requires, for countries like the United States, a marked decrease in Gross Domestic Product. As a result, I believe the SSE can not become a concrete reality in the foreseeable future, but that we should strive for it no less.

As the selection below suggests, there is much to be gained from the sustainable lifestyle.
“Nor would any cultural stagnation result from a steady state economy. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the greatest economists and political philosophers in history, emphasized that an economy in which physical growth was no longer the goal would be more conducive to political, ethical, and spiritual improvements.”
Ah, yes, ethical and spiritual improvement… So we’re back to individual action and lifestyle choices, rubbing shoulders with the “religious” environmentalists. Where do I sign up to feel superior to the rest of the heathens? I already recycle, canvas bag it, and eat only meat that I have caught or killed myself. I’m a few sacraments shy of donning a robe and shuffling off to the commune. Why shouldn’t I begin buying everything carefully and, in my own way, push for the adoption of the SSE at a local level?

Well, the truth is I should.

I self-consciously poke fun at the problematic aspects of environmentalism only because it is so close to my heart. I am not a religious man in the popular or traditional understanding of the word. Biology, anthropology, paleontology, history: these are my holy tomes. Yet I firmly believe that through careful consideration, research, and political pressure we can arrive at a more complete conservation ethic, one which addresses not only biodiversity and “wilderness” (my principal areas of interest), but also global poverty and human rights.

Photo credit: ripped from the World Food Programme website

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Favorite Things

While I agree that "raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens" are wondrous, it is the "bright copper" Voyager 1 disc and Antikythera mechanism that I count among my favorite things, each a hopeful and beautiful item that manifests our species' exceptional capacity.

In January 2009, I wrote here that I'd been possessed of a curious "bout of optimism [that] seemed remarkable in both duration and degree." Over a year later, that eudaimonia hasn't let up. I'm beginning to believe that I've simply grown into an incredibly upbeat man. That, too, is a wondrous, happy thing, worthy of making my short list.

So here's hoping that, even in this era of relentless, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe (much of it depressing), we can keep our eye on the ball, so to speak. The possibilities are beyond reckoning. It isn't naive to think so; rather, it's naive to think otherwise.

Image credit: Antikythera mechanism image ripped from the New York Times, but was produced by the School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University

Thursday, April 15, 2010

ESPP interview posted

In conjunction with the release of my Endangered Species Print Project Javan Rhinoceros print, ESPP co-founder Molly Schafer interviewed me this past weekend.

We chat about rhinos (of course), Albrecht Durer, wildlife illustrator Keith Brockie, and the religion-science relationship. I also share a Botswana lion story.

The interview is now posted on the ESPP blog. Read it here.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Javan Rhinoceros ESPP Prints Available

Christopher Reiger
"diminishing returns"
Pen and sumi ink, gouache and watercolor on Arches paper
15 x 12 inches

My 2010 drawing "diminishing returns" has been made into a limited edition print for the Endangered Species Print Project. The drawing features the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), a species on the very brink of extinction.

From the ESPP website:
"The Javan, or Sunda, Rhinoceros, is one of five extant rhinoceros species. The species was once widespread throughout Asia but is today critically endangered. There are currently between 37 and 44 Javan Rhinos in Ujung Kulon National Park, in West Java Indonesia, and no more than 5 in Cat Tien National Park, in Vietnam. Sadly, with only two known populations in the wild and none in captivity, this rhino species may be the rarest large mammals on our planet."
As per the ESPP model, this is a limited edition of 49 prints, the number determined by the featured animal's current population. The print measures 8 x 10 inches, and costs a mere $50.00. ALL proceeds from sale of the prints will be donated to the International Rhino Foundation.

The drawing was something of a first for me. As I explain for the ESPP artist notes,
"Animals figure prominently in my drawings and paintings. Usually, however, there is plenty of photographic art scrap to use as source material. In the case of the Javan Rhinoceros, this is definitely not the case!

In order to minimize stress for the critically endangered rhino, researchers study the species via fecal sampling and camera traps; the animals are rarely encountered or observed. As a general rule, the Javan Rhino is wary of humans and retreats into dense forests when they sense our presence. When humans do approach, whether intentionally or by mistake, the Javan Rhino becomes aggressive and will often attack, stabbing with the incisors of its lower jaw while thrusting upward with its head. Of course, such wariness and aggression are good survival tactics, but it makes the rhinos extremely difficult to study. (Interestingly, some researchers contend that these behaviors are a recent adaptation to population stresses. Historical records indicate that the species was once more gregarious.)

Because so little photographic documentation is available, this drawing marked the first time I've had to work from both images and written descriptions. It was a very curious process, and I hope that I've done the Javan Rhino justice!"
Visit the ESPP site to learn more.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"Coyote Pursues" Capital

At the risk of turning HH into a platform for promoting friends' KickStarter fundraising efforts, I must draw readers' attention to Deborah Simon's terrific puppetry project. Like Olympia Lambert did last month (and so many creative people are doing every day now), Deborah and her collaborator, Matt Reeck, turned to KickStarter with hopes of generating the funds necessary to produce "Coyote Pursues," a multi-media puppet and video performance to be presented at St. Ann's Warehouse Puppet Lab this June. I dare you to look at those coyote faces and tell me that you can't contribute a little something!

After you've helped out Deborah and Matt, visit her website to view her paintings and drawings, or read the essay I wrote about her work some time ago.

Image credit: courtesy Deborah Simon

Saturday, April 03, 2010

"Ouroboros" at ISE Cultural Foundation

I'm intrigued by the many positive reviews of "Ouroborus: The History of the Universe," a six-screen, 3-D video installation by biochemist, philosopher, and video artist Ali Hossaini and the collaborative duo of Blake Shaw and Bruno Levy, aka SWEATSHOPPE, currently on view at the ISE Cultural Foundation. Many write-ups of the exhibition describe the installation as meditative, and excitedly relate the artists' intent to "[tell] the history of cosmic evolution - from the Big Bang to Lady Gaga - by animating over 30,000 images."

In fact, although "historical spiritual illustrations of the cosmos, from vedic yantras, buddhist mandalas, and sacred geometry," are prominently featured on three of the installation's six screens, the effect is less mindful (and certainly not meditative) than it is visually assaultive and superficial. And, though the triptypch "cosmic evolution" might incorporate over 30,000 images, it is best described as a pastiche of generally significant forms rendered insignificant in presentation. As a gallery companion remarked to me, "This isn't communicating anything; it's just a 'Clockwork Orange' brainwashing machine." It's a shame that's true, as Hossaini's accompanying artist statement is insightful and important. I include the full text of his statement below.
"Nowhere is the fragmentation of the human psyche more evident than in how we treat the environment. We know we're pillaging our habitat, but we can't make the leap from knowledge to right action. I attribute this disconnect, and many others, to the factionalizing of culture that began with modern science, industry and art.
I'm not saying we should turn our backs on the Enlightenment. But neither should we take it as dogma - we need to rethink its foundation, integrating our psyche into the cosmos in a way that builds on premodern wisdoms as well as modern science. The Enlightenment freed physics, astronomy and eventually art - think 'art for art's sake' - from tradition, spawning remarkable advances along with deep alienation.

It's time to produce culture in a more holistic, organic way. For now science, art and religion - and I use 'religion' here to mean a generalized psychology - lie in private tracks, each requiring extensive knowledge for appreciation let alone practice. How can these disciplines work together more effectively?

The answer doesn't lie in the rejecting, merging or reconciling science and spirit. Instead we need to create a framework for integrating our experiences of these different realms, and this is precisely what artists can do. Art needs to step out of its self-referential confines, the safe house of galleries, museums and markets. It needs to be Saturday night and Sunday morning, be the new church, and it needs to invade pop culture. Mass appeal is critical.

Most of all art needs to rejoin itself to science. Both embody urges to explore, understand and create, and both have become specialized, mechanized and self-absorbed, given to destructive irony. Art cannot be science, but it can convey the sense of wonder that drives scientists. It can visualize the worlds of science while honoring our sense of self as beings that transcend the mundane.

Our experiences of spirit and matter cannot be reconciled, but they can be represented. And they can be represented in a way that sheds light on the complexities and responsibilities of being self-aware. Artists can rise above the dilemmas of modern life: they can comprehend the contradictions, integrating them into new levels of experience where knowledge, desire and energy meet the limits of human freedom."
I agree completely, but Hossaini's collaboration with SWEATSHOPPE has neither shed "light on the complexities and responsibilities of being self-aware" nor integrated contradictions into new levels of experience. Their intent is laudable, but their effort lacking.

Yet Hossaini's statement resonates and, as I left the ISE Cultural Foundation, I recalled Ron Fricke's tremendous film "Baraka." Hossaini and SWEATSHOPPE have inspired me to revisit Fricke's beautiful, moving tribute to transcendent oneness, and to eagerly await the long-awaited sequel, "Samsara." It's hopeful to recognize that sometimes art does step outside "its self-referential confines."