The Rescue of Moonbase Asimov – The Real Story


If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, the story of Christian ethicist and professor Tom Killian and his presidential meeting to decide the fate of Moonbase Asimov, read it first and then come back to this post.

So, what did Tom Killian tell the president’s advisory committee? As a Christian, his worldview gave him a good reply. You may have your own ideas, but I’ll tell you what I think his reply would have been.

Clearly, the economics involved in maintaining the moonbase made for problems, the biggest of which was that the moonbase could not sustain itself without a series of expensive transports routinely bringing in food. The price spike in food that resulted led to rioting at the moonbase that had to be quelled through military intervention.

From a strictly rational viewpoint, sustainability is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. In truth, sustainability is ALWAYS a primary consideration for any human endeavor. Want to climb Mount Everest? You can’t do it dressed for the beach, with only a handful of granola bars in your pocket. Want to have a moonbase that houses multiple thousands of people? Then you must find a way to address the very simple requirements of food and water. If you can’t, then you either watch the denizens of the moonbase die or you keep shoveling good money after bad to support an enterprise that has no future.

Many spiritually sensitive people would employ the tactic of Dahlia Winters, the leader of the Phos cult. While it is a laudable idea to minister to the needs of the people at the moonbase, adding more people only decreases sustainability further. Such thinking runs counter to common sense, only accelerating the moonbase’s problems.

Sending counselors to the moonbase is especially ill advised when other options exist. Evacuating large portions of the moonbase’s population until it reaches some level of sustainability makes the most sense. If at that point a religious group should desire to minister to the remnant, then fine. The religious group would have just as many options to minister to the evacuees, too. Better to meet their needs in a sustainable environment than in a nonviable one.

Does this make sense? It should. Yet many Christian leaders aren’t tracking with that kind of sense.

Moonbase Asimov is not that far-fetched actually. In many ways, we on planet Earth have our own unsustainable “moonbases.” We call them cities. And some well-known Christian leaders are telling us we can’t be good Christians unless we consider the plight of the city.

In truth, they are absolutely correct. We must consider the plight of our cities. And we should have a Christian response to that plight. Unfortunately, the most Christian response bears little resemblance to the one being advocated by those Christian leaders.

Our cities today are like Moonbase Asimov because they cannot sustain themselves. They are bastions of consumption that fail to produce the most basic element necessary for human survival: food. Is it any surprise then that major cities across the world are seeing riots over the unavailability of food? You can’t bring millions of people into an area and eliminate all its food-producing acreage then expect people to have access to food. That’s insanity. Yet that is what we have done in large cities around the globe.

Our entire world is changing. No longer will people be able to afford food trucked into a region from vast distances. Prices of food are skyrocketing. Much of that skyrocketing comes from our dependence on factory farms displaced into regions far outside population centers. Those industrialized farms rely on massive amounts of costly energy to raise their crops and even more to ship them to distant cities.

While some would claim this to have been a successful model for years (though I would argue against that notion), we cannot sustain that model. The model of the modern city is failing and its failure will be epic.

To send Christians into the heart of an unsustainable model is akin to asking them to board a sinking ship, comfort the occupants, and then go down with the ship. Only a madman would endorse such a plan.

The wiser plan of action would see the Christians board the foundering vessel and get as many people off that ship as possible before it sinks beneath the waves. During the rescue and its aftermath, they can still provide succor, but the end goal is different because it is sustainable. Thousands of survivors beats thousand of people serving as chum for sharks.

One reality we must all face is that our food must be locally grown. In an age of skyrocketing energy costs, we can no longer afford to truck in our food. It must come from nearby sources. Unfortunately, the modern city has all but destroyed farming within or near its borders.

In Bible times and for long afterwards, civilization’s answer was to build walled cities for protection while ensuring the area immediately outside the wall stayed farmland. That made sieges hell as you were cut off from your food supply, but in normal times the food was right outside the wall. A farmer might live inside the city during the perilous nighttimes when robbers and raiders were about, but he could still walk outside the gate of the city and step onto his pasture land. While that kind of city was not perfect, it could still function.

However, today’s cities have no nearby ring of farmland and none inside its incorporation zones. Productive acreage has largely been relegated to far-off outposts hundreds or thousands of miles away from the cities. You simply can’t walk to the gate of the city and step outside it into farmland. And that’s a serious problem. A Moonbase Asimov kind of problem.

I firmly believe the answer to the unsustainability of the modern city is for us to rethink the small family farm. I also think that rather than sending Christians into the city to live, Christians should be helping city-dwellers get out of our unsustainable cities. It only makes for further stress on the system if Christians add to the unsustainability of the city model by moving into it rather than living elsewhere and helping others get out of the cities.

Helping people transition out of our cities rather than moving Christians into them has no negative effect on our ability as Christians to minister to those people’s souls and to share the Gospel with them. If anything, it helps: We show the foresight and desire to “rescue those being led away to death” by offering a radical response to a very real and quite terrifying problem. As many people ministering to those in the city know, city-dwellers are facing enormous pressure on their incomes when it comes to food. Again, riots are breaking out in major cities all over the globe due to this issue. And the problem of food prices and availability will get far worse before it gets better (and that’s IF it gets better).

I believe it is possible to find ways to improve the sustainability of cities, but the entire concept of the city and how it is laid-out for food production will have to be rethought. And that will take decades, time many in the city may not have if the course of our world continues as it is. Sadly, wise urban planners of the past who attempted to build-in food production greenspace were often shouted-down. In this case, though, no one wins when those insightful planners are vindicated.

One famous Christian leader (who shares his initials with Tom Killian) has repeatedly bashed those who believe that a return to agrarianism is our best solution. I would contend that it’s not only our best solution, it may be our only solution in short order. In fact, it’s the only solution that epitomizes the Gospel’s desire to lift people up out of their dilemma into a life of abundance.

Because it’s very hard to be spiritually-minded when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.

Deep Economy, Part 2


A look at Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

I’ll start with two words that may end all your interest in Deep Economy:

Global warming.

McKibben’s an activist for fixing the issue. As for me, I’m not convinced that global warming is, indeed, a man-made phenomena. I’m not even convinced that we’re experiencing a warming at all. Many blogosphere pundits who jeer at the whole idea of global warming got a hoot this last week when NASA corrected some temperature readings from the last decade and it showed that we were slightly cooler than previously reported.

Stay with me, though.

Deep Economy begins with energy. McKibben argues, quite forcefully, that energy makes the modern world possible. And the main sources of energy that created our world as we know it are coal, oil, and natural gas: fossil fuels. The amount of power we glean from just a gallon of gasoline shames the power found in some Old World farmer’s entire menagerie of beasts of burden. Hydrocarbon-based fuels replaced muscle power by an order of magnitude. They, in turn, led to the burst of invention that gave us new forms of transportation, the miracle of electricity, long distance communication, and thousands of other modern conveniences we take for granted.

Before fossil fuels, the idea of fantastic economic growth escaped us. But with their dynamic ability to reduce labor, those fuels made consumerism and unbridled growth possible.

But, as McKibben rightly notes, growth may come with an enormous price tag in terms of ecological fallout. We in the United States were forced to deal with our growth’s deleterious effects back in the 1970s. Those of us born before that time can remember the waters around Cleveland catching on fire. You don’t need a chemistry degree to know that fire and water don’t mix unless something is very, very wrong.

I live by one of the small tributaries of the Little Miami River. Thirty years ago, that river was one of ten most polluted waterways in the United States. McKibben would argue that growth had much to do with the downfall of that river system, and I totally agree.

Today, though, we’ve restored the Little Miami, if not to its Edenic glory, at least to a level higher than “cesspool.”

Yet while we can claim that success, our unlimited desire for more is only shifting environmental disaster elsewhere. The fall of the Iron Curtain shocked many Westerners when they discovered the toll keeping up with the West’s growth had taken on the Communist nations. One hellhole after another sprouted up out of the countryside in places like Romania and Russia. Entire cities succumbed to chemical production plants, metal smelting plants, and more. Iridescent rivers filled with mercury, cadmium, and arsenic ran through towns. Hello, China, goodbye, sun.Diseased residents, like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, stumbled around in sunless wastelands wreathed in smog.

And lest we think those days are a thing of the past, India and China stand ready to re-enact them.

We live in the richest nation on Earth, and the gospel of growth requires we export it elsewhere. Shareholders must be satisfied, cheap goods must be had, and growth must continue.

But what will be the impact of 2.5 billion people acquiring cars? With 300 million in population, the United States (according to 2004 DOT estimates) contains 243,023,485 registered vehicles. We live and die by our cars here. Worse, we export that same desire to the rest of the world. Car ownership in China increases exponentially and shows unlimited growth potential. What would happen if the 2.5 billion people in China and India buy into the “need” for a car? What does it mean for the health of our world if keeping up with the Joneses becomes keeping up with the Wus and Patels?

Consider the amount of energy needed to simply build a car. Estimates vary, but a healthy figure would be roughly 35 barrels of oil (or 1,470 gallons) per car. With an average lifespan of about 15 years, that car will consume an additional 19,500 gallons of gas.

Now ask where what will happen if India and China demand cars at the rate we Americans do.

Oil experts in the West can’t get the Saudis to fess up to the state of their oil fields. Some believe their Ghawar bed is fast declining. When even the pro-growth The Wall Street Journal writes about “peak oil” and the sucking dry of oil beds around the globe, people need to wise up.

And folks, this is before India and China demand cars.

Our lust for more growth requires energy. It also screams for raw materials. Many of the the carelessly purchased signs of the Good Life™ we buy without thinking come from plastics, and, therefore, oil. We trucked those trinkets from far away, burning energy in shipping them. As McKibben so wisely notes, what is the point of air freighting Danish-made sugar cookies to the United States while simultaneously shipping American-made sugar cookies to Denmark?

Due to complex chemical binding processes, one gallon of burned gasoline (at 6.25 pounds) puts nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. I read recently that we now have 200 more parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air today than we did in the 1950s. And the results? It’s hard to know them all, though thousands surely exist. One comes to mind right away. Beyond the disputed global warming process, no scientist disputes that poison ivy’s more potent today than in yesteryear. Scientists found out why, too: the more carbon dioxide the ivy absorbs from the air, the more potent the toxic oil in its leaves. At last count, 75 percent more toxic than when I was a kid.

What else will we be forced to learn too late? Will it be worse than super-poison ivy?

Now no matter what you think of my opening comments about global warming, even if you forget environmental issues, profligacy sits rotting at the core of growth at all costs. When it takes seven times the caloric value of a box of cereal to ship it than can be derived from eating it, aren’t we profligate with how we use energy? When our houses are twice the size they were thirty years ago, but with smaller families, aren’t we profligate? When it’s all about the individual and what we can consume, haven’t we lost our souls?

Eugene Peterson says this:

The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “deny yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.

So apart from the environmental impact of growth, something truly awful happens to us on the inside as we participate in a consumeristic culture obsessed with more.

McKibben begins Deep Economy with a story of a young Chinese girl experiencing the reality of two economic truths: More and Better. He’s not against improving people’s lives by providing the poorest of the poor with some of the blessings of modern technology. Sometimes More and Better go hand in hand. (Obviously, technology gave us improved medical care and less drudgery.) McKibben tells of the Chinese girl’s backbreaking life in the rural countryside and notes the opportunities afforded her by small blessings brought by growth.

But More and Better fail when a society reaches Better and can’t add to it. At that point, More grows insidious. More becomes the be-all and end-all of life.

In the next installment of my look at Deep Economy, we’ll examine the toll on communities and individuals wrought by More.

Out in the Country



Whenever I need to leave it all behind
Or feel the need to get away
I find a quiet place, far from the human race
Out in the country

Before the breathin’ air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the night-time
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone and take back somethin’ worth rememberin’

Whenever I feel them closing in on me
Or need a bit of room to move
When life becomes too fast, I find relief at last
Out in the country
—”Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night (lyrics by Paul Williams)

Rev-Ed over at Attention Span wrote a piece that brought tears to my eyes. That doesn’t happen too often, but as I reflect on what he says in “God Speaks in the Country” all I can say to that post is “Yes and amen!”

It will be five years this July for us in our country home. We’ve adapted to a slower pace (though it’s not that significantly slower anymore), grown our own food, put in an orchard, and dreamed big dreams about growing herbs and wine grapes using permaculture methods. Call me converted, but I agree with the new agrarians who believe that our divorce from the land has led to spiritual impoverishment. Or as Neil Peart of Rush once penned:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
—”Subdivisions” by Rush

Sadly, the country is evaporating, the sprawling “mass production zone” creeping in on us faster than we would have hoped. Field after field within ten miles of our home sports a “For Sale” sign. Last week we found out they’ll be putting in a hospital about three miles west of us. Just more lights to obliterate our starry sky. The previous hospital we used is only twenty minutes away, twelve if you speed to it, but someone decided we needed something even closer despite the fact that ten miles east of our home another medical facility is going in. The handwriting’s on the wall. Somewhere a strip mall is being blueprinted by people who never saw a Painted Lady alight on the pale blue chicory.

I look up in the night sky and every year it’s a shade lighter. The rim of the western sky glows continually now, drowning out the light of the celestial spheres, the stars obscured by wasted parking lot light tossed carelessly upward. I look at the Orion telescope catalogs we get and I wonder if I’ll ever have enough money to buy that telescope before the creeping suburbs make it out our way and render our sky the same blank slate I see in the city.

What annihilates the meadows that once teemed with butterflies and wildflowers? The aforementioned strip mall—upscale, of course, because we all know that country people like to shop at Saks. But then we realize it’s not really for the country people, it’s for those fleeing the rotting cities relegated to urban blight and violence, another gunned-down black youth a signpost leading out of town for whites looking to put some distance between themselves and the senseless hate. Meanwhile, the bright suburb of 1970 has passed into its decrepitude and its residents are no longer “our kind of people.” So some flee to the next plot of ex-farmland and create another suburban hell that thirty years from now will be in its own doddering years.

We bought an existing house, so we didn’t add to the problem. Our deed said that our property was first surveyed in 1763. Pioneering men stood at the tops of the rolling hills and scried out a plot of land that would one day hold our 13.2 acres. Almost 250 years later and the feeling in the heart of those men is the same one that captured us. To get back to the soil and coax from it the fruits of the earth. The joy of the harvest. The rich bounty of God’s provision. The connection to the life He breathed into Creation.

We’ve lost our sense of wonder in the Church. We’ve packed the Lord and His glorious Creation away in one of Bloomingdale’s Little Brown Bags and let our imaginations be filled with the perishing for no other reason than because we can. Isn’t it easier that way?

As for me and my house, we want to serve the Lord by never forgetting that the trees speak, the stars proclaim, and the rocks, rivers, and rills shout. I hear their music and never want to endure the day where my ears strain to hear their song because they are long gone. Yet too many Christians believe that their chorus has nothing to teach them. And that is one reason why we are so far from where we should be.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
—Psalms 8:1-9 ESV

Dominion does not equal license, no matter what we think. If we pave paradise and put up a parking lot, what sense will our own hymnody make to a future generation?

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
—”This Is My Father’s World” by Maltbie Babcock

Or, as Rev-Ed points out, how will “How Great Thou Art” survive should most people never wander a forest glade?

When we lose the country, we lose so very much. It’s where I want to be because I feel like I’m closer to God out in the forest, out in the meadow, than in any church building.

Some Christians look at me and laugh because they know it will all burn some day. But when I stand in Glory, I’ll have the confidence to say to the Lord, “Jesus, I heard the trees sing your name and I joined in their song.”