Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Clearcutting the Earth


Multinationals bring great wealth to society. In and around multinationals, the most amazing discoveries and inventions are made. We have to recognise that. It started with the wealthy shipping “companies” in the seventeenth century and continues today with the big data companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook. We should be grateful for the material progress multinationals have brought us. 

Many multinationals have started using ESG (Environmental, Social en Governance) criteria in deciding what to do and what to don’t do. They realise their reputation as well as the Earth’s sustainability is at stake. What they don’t seem to realise well, is their impact on the ‘small ones’, the small suppliers, customers, labourers, etc.. In the animal world, big eats little and the same happens in industry. The small or poor ones can never properly negotiate with the big one. The big one determines the conditions, just like the elephant decides where he treads. The ants have to make sure they get away in time. The negotiation process between big and little is never really a negotiation process; it always ends with little accepting the conditions imposed by big. Multinationals have to become more aware of their tremendous leveraging power in negotiations and their huge impact on local industrial and agricultural ecosystems. This awareness could have saved us from our most bitter memories of colonialism. Alas, colonialism is still going on, in a different way than before.

Negotiation should be done between equals, not between elephants and ants. Inequality induced by unfair negotiation is however not the privilege of multinationals! It would also be good if multinational shareholders started paying taxes, like we all do. All-mightiness is usually a bad thing.

See my blog on Globalisation, as well as my Dutch blog: De Kaalslag and Kwellende Rijkdom.

Picture from shutterstock.com

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

The Why of Technology


The Why of Technology has always seemed obvious. Technology was perceived to fulfil a shortage. It fulfilled a need that had been unfulfilled all too long.

This is changing. On the one hand, the basic needs are being fulfilled and the new needs are becoming ever more subtle. On the other hand, the complexity and the cost of new technologies are getting out of control. A focused orientation is needed. It becomes essential to choose well where scarce resources should be allocated to. The corona crisis forces us to stay at home and think. It encourages us to think what society could really need next in terms of technology.

The why of technology can be written as an ABC: Achievement – Beauty – Commodities. Commodities are obvious, since Homo Habilis started creating his own tools and weapons millions of years ago. Commodities are the fruit of our creativity and our industria (activity). They are still important. We need trains, we need water, electricity and Internet. We need smartphones and social media. Beauty may not be the first word we associate with technology, but for the engineer or designer, it is an important driver. Achievement is a very powerful driver. In the Middle Ages, it made superpowers invest in cathedrals. In the 16th century superpowers rivalled with maps. And in the 21st century, superpowers invest their money in satellite constellations. The eagerness for achievement made America go to the moon. It will make mankind go to Mars very soon. Technology also needs to fight its own drawbacks. We need a circular economy to keep the world sustainable. We need technology to get rid of carbon dioxide emission, to resolve the traffic tangle, to protect our data, etc.

As the possibilities of technology are endless, we really need to ask ourselves the question in what direction we want to go. What do we want to do with Artificial Intelligence, with gene manipulation, with new materials, with hydrogen fusion? How much progress could we make when we understand better how the brain works? Should we try to extend our habitat to space? These questions are not easy to answer. The mere fact that something is possible, doesn’t justify its development. The question is both collective and individual. It is both material and spiritual. To what kind of existence are we called? What is an ideal way of living? It is a scary question in postmodern times. What is our mission and what might be our destiny? We could come up with individual answers that differ very much. Can we also come up with a collective answer?

I also refer to “Homo Deus” and to "A Sea of Change".

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Resilience


Easter is the feast of resilience. Christmas is the feast of vulnerability. Life is the fruitful marriage of vulnerability and resilience. In this season where nature shows its resilience after a tough winter, our human resilience is challenged in many ways. Unexpected things happen, in the face of which we need to be resourceful and courageous. A ship got stuck in the Suez canal, and threatened our world economy. A pandemic has been plaguing the world for more than a year now, and only few people could have imagined the damage in advance. People are being hit by loss of job, loss of mental health, or loss of a loved one. 

This also happened in Palestine two thousand years ago. A mother lost her child and some disciples lost their master. Their resilience was tested a thousand fold. What do people do when they lose a loved one? They walk in the garden, between the daffodils, lonely as a cloud. They visit his grave. They weep, but they also become insurrectional. They tend to ignore the tough reality and start living in the strange delusion of a most improbable return: the return of the deceased one. It does not only require resilience, it requires a tenacious belief, against all odds, in the repair of the irreparable. Their insurrection against evil becomes a mental resurrection. Christians are still clinging to this impossible truth; they celebrate it at Easter. Happy Easter to all!

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Be resourceful and courageous


In this season, we easily feel angry and passionate about things. We are deeply frustrated about the problems of our time, the small Corona crisis and the big Environment crisis. We show our wit in the media by pointing to the political causes of the problem. In the end however, our sharp view gets lost in an ocean of views. It needs to hide our helplessness and despair in solving the planet’s problems.

In this Sunday’s lectures, Christ assembles his own self-made whip and chases all merchants out of the temple, fulfilling the prophecy: “The passion for God’s house will consume me”(*). Christ’s anger was a sign he cared and so is our anger a sign we care. His anger made him violate the local rules. The rules did not serve their purpose anymore.

When we obediently follow the rules, we may be safe at home and safe for criticism, but a lot of people will miss our compassion and companionship. We may feel very sorry for ourselves, but the Corona crisis hits the poor and the lonely most, those who live in narrow spaces, alone or with the elderly and the sick. They are the victims of the Matthew effect of Misery. Our blind obedience to the rules, without compassion, does not serve any purpose. How can we violate the rules in a smart way? When the impossible needs to be done, we need to look for virtues of people who are used to do the impossible: boy or girl scouts, engineers and entrepreneurs. Resourcefulness and courage are needed most in these impossible times. They are the basis of our resilience.

The word resourceful doesn’t exist in Dutch. We say ‘finding-rich’ (vindingrijk) but this word actually means inventive. The meaning is close however. Resourcefulness is the ability to recognise hidden resources and combine them in a smart and courageous way to achieve the impossible. In the overdose of news we get, I sometimes discover wonderful stories of resourcefulness and courage. The question is whether you can cultivate these abilities or whether you need to be born with them. It is a bit of both. Resourcefulness and courage are powerful blends of virtues and talents (so-called ‘gifts of God’).

(*) Footnote: there is a growing tendency in the catholic church to interpret God’s house as our planet Earth. The lecture can therefore also be understood as a teaching not to mess with the planet.

Inspiration from an article by J. Haers, Kerk & Leven 2021/09.

Picture: Water mill at Arenberg Castle, Leuven ©Wim Lahaye


Tuesday, 9 February 2021

We are Our Injuries


When we look at fellow human beings who have been hit by a physical disability, the impact on their lives is usually extreme. So extreme, that if we don’t know the people well, we will completely identify them with their disability, as if their personality could not reveal anything more important than their disability. We will finally refer to them with their disability, as if it were their name: the muco-kid, the softenon-baby, the old blind man, the guy who lost his hand, the lady in the wheelchair. It is as if the injury defines the person. The reason we do this, is because we are perfectly aware of the impact. Our brain is trained by millions years of survival to know that a serious injury can provoke exclusion from the tribe, and therefore death by starvation.

Being ‘normal’ people, we think we may escape from the stigma of injury, but we forget the trauma of mental injury. We know what it means to be excluded. This grows worse when we get older. Think of the elderly people you know. They all have their obsessions. They repeat them all the time. They often become zealots of a single cause that particularly hit them in the past. We know we will also become a caricature of ourselves - we already are. As the Dutch writer Adriaan van Dis once wrote: “Your character doesn’t wear off. It boils in. We all become a beef cube of our own soup.”

Yet there is also something beautiful about this. Our injuries are the most recognisable things about us. They are the grips through which other people hold us and cherish us. They make us who we are. 

I refer to my blog You are your Time and to my Dutch blogs The King’s Speech and to Lof der Zotheid.

Picture: Bernardo Strozzi, Tobit healed from his blindness by Anna, Rafaël and Tobias. This is a freely licensed work, as explained in the Definition of Free Cultural Works.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

A New Year's Resolution: Stop the Blame Game

If I were to choose a suited collective New Year's resolution, I would choose stopping the eternal blame game in our society. If something bad happens (e.g. a home for the elderly gets infected by Covid-19), the press immediately indicates potential scapegoats. Something few people seem to understand is: in a complex society like ours, things go wrong and it is not necessarily anybody’s fault. As a leading manager in a large organisation, you may be forced to take decisions, the consequences of which you can’t entirely foresee. What happens in the end, may be the result of a complex interaction between different unpredictable events.

When we think of the Middle Ages, where disease was believed to be caused by witches and devils, we tend to think we belong to an enlightened era, where such nonsense could not prevail. Yet if we look at our daily reactions to bad news, we immediately start with the gallows installation. Sin and guilt are considered obsolete remainders of an all too Christian society, yet sin and guilt have never been more at the centre of attention than now. Confession and penitence on the contrary are no longer permitted. Our mediocracy loves hanging the few excellent people in our society who feel accountable.

The truth is we judge too fast. We can’t imagine being in someone else’s position. Therefore, let us practice mildness. Read my Dutch blog: Het principe van de goede huisvader in een technocratie.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

“Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?”

I remember our local schoolteacher warned us +45 years ago against Christmas consumerism, and in favour of a more thoughtful lifestyle. Consumerism was presented at that time as a new evil, something that would soon go away, if we all made our efforts. The funny thing is, it didn’t go away and I’m still doing my best to promote the idea of our schoolteacher. The message I hear now is not different from the one of 1975. Our society is filled with noise. People buy a lot of stuff. They chat, but don’t listen to each other. All news is about the search for Corona scapegoats. While everybody is longing for a warmer and closer society, we only seem to talk about the future realisation of this. Instead, we need to reflect and be patient. It is a very typical Christmas message. You would expect this Christmas could be different, as we are clearly discouraged by the circumstances from engaging in too many superficial activities. Why couldn’t we experience a more spiritual Christmas in 2020 and realise our schoolteacher’s dream?

It struck me while I was listening to Händel’s Messiah: the answer is very simple. The schoolteacher’s wish is exactly the reason why Christmas exists. Händel's Messiah sings “Why do the nations so furiously rage together and why do the people imagine a vain thing?”. Christmas is inherently our yearly spiritual message against the vanity that is inevitably part of our life. For our survival, we humans have no choice but to chat and fight and not-listen and buy fancy stuff. The idea of a serene Christmas is just our yearly counterweight to this chaos. Our spirituality is not meant to destroy our hyperactivity, but rather to compensate for the extreme effects of it. Our life will always be balancing between vanity and humility. We don’t need to change this. We even need vanity to survive. Let us go shopping! We only need to continue paying attention to our Christmas spiritual messages as well. Banning them from newspapers, television and internet would be a bad idea. But in the huge data stream we have today, do these messages still get a fair chance to reach everyone?

Picture: De profeet Jeremia door Rembrandt - www.geheugenvannederland.nl : Home : Info : Pic, Publiek domein, Wikipedia