Monday, 27 August 2012

Space exploitation

The recent death of Neil Armstrong came soon after the launch of Virgin Galactic and the birth of commercial spaceflight. Another corporation, SpaceX, will now be running regular cargo missions to the International Space Station. There is growing interest not only in space tourism, but in the mining of asteroids and other bodies in space for valuable mineral resources. Yet the existing space treaties make all of space essentially "common land" that is owned by everyone and no one. Pressure is growing to allow the claiming and enclosure of this common land by commercial interests. It seems to me that this would be the ideal time for a discussion of the whole issue of private property and land rights, before the economic and no doubt military pressures on the treaty become impossible to resist. Have we learned nothing from the colonization of the New World, or before that from the enclosure of the Commons in England by sheep farming interests in the wake of the English Reformation? These are interesting historical examples of an analogous process; one that has had a bloody history and mixed results. Should we even be allowed off this planet before we have learned to manage it sustainably? And did the garden of Eden, entrusted to our care, include outer space or not?

An alternative economics

I gratefully receive a consistently thought-provoking journal called The Social Creditor, brilliantly edited by Frances Hutchinson. It makes me think, but I never manage to come to a conclusion because I feel I don't yet understand the issues well enough. Of course, I recognize the common concerns of the Social Credit movement of C.H. Douglas (d. 1952) and the Distributists (expressed in, for example, Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State). Novelist Eimar O'Duffy puts it satirically like this:
"Suppose a party of people were wrecked on a desert island, what do you think would be the first thing they’d do? Obviously they would look around for a man with money to employ them in gathering fruit. If there were no capitalist among them, or if he didn’t see his way to make a profit out of the business, they would all remain unemployed and starve to death, no matter how fertile the island might be.
     "If therefore we want to have plenty of employment, we must give every possible incentive to entrepreneurs – encouraging them to get as much of our money from us as they can, so that they can spend it on employing us to make more for them.” (Asses in Clover, Jon Carpenter Publishing, 2003, pp. 246-7.)
An introductory article on Social Credit is available here. According to this,
"Douglas observed, as a matter of fact and not mere opinion, that finance flows into the economic system as bank-created debt. Firms use the debt-created finance to pay their costs of production. The wages, salaries and dividends paid out by firms form incomes to households. With their incomes, households can purchase the stream of goods and services coming onto the market. As the modern economic system has developed, it has created a massive bureaucracy. Behind that bureaucracy, obscured by the very complexity of the system, financial speculation, profiteering, marketing, advertising and a whole range of growth-driven economic activities are making human existence increasingly precarious."
Hard to argue with that, but can we really shift, as he proposed, from a debt-driven economy to a credit-based one?

For more discussion of the nature of finance and money see D.C. Schindler's philosophical analysis linked here, and Philip Goodchild on The Theology of Money.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The world's biggest problem

If you ask a hundred people what is the biggest problem facing the world today, you'll get a hundred very different answers. The economic crisis (and the failure of politicians to address it). The ecological crisis, which threatens life on earth (or at least our quality of life and ability to sustain a large human population). The collapse of the traditional family. Sexual morality and the spread of pornography. Oppression of women (still). Warmongering. Under-development and inability to cope with natural and man-made disasters in the third world (plagues, floods, earthquakes, civil war). Over-development and ageing populations in the West. Centralized planning and bloated bureaucracies. Too little centralized planning. Arms spending and the proliferation of WMDs. Terrorism that just won't go away. Religion. The wrong kind of religion. Lack of leadership. The possibility that the masses will turn to strong leaders. Human selfishness. And so on.

We all want to be part of the solution, not the problem, but the solution to which problem? All of them at the same time? We can't keep all of them in our minds, let alone investigate each one in turn. Yet there are certain underlying factors, and common threads, and you'd think more people would be interested in finding out what those are. Catholic social teaching is about these underlying factors and how to respond to the multi-demensional crisis, but because it has the word "Catholic" attached, it is easy to pigeonhole and ignore. Think of it instead as an attempt by the largest, longest-surviving, and most vibrant intellectual tradition in the world to find out what it means to be human, and how all of us can live in harmony and peace with our neighbours and the environment. That, surely, is a bit harder to dismiss.

It starts not from a set of commandments, although these may be used to codify the social teaching under certain headings. It starts, really, from the question of who or what we are and what we are doing here. Call it an "anthropology" if you like. The short answer to that question is simple enough: we are made in the image of love, to love and to become happy. We all know that love is what makes life worth living. We all seek happiness. The complications come in when we try to do it. Why is life so complicated? If we were just material creatures, squabbling over physical comforts and reproduction rights, we would have to settle for that. But we cannot be content with what we can grab. We are always seeking something more. Our desires are infinite. It is that burning discontent that complicates our animal condition.

"By Nature, Man is Relation to the Infinite" was the title of this year's Rimini Meeting. To see how this can lead to a new way of thinking about our relation to Christ as the "face" of the infinite, read some of the brief talks in the "News" section. But if you are allergic to talk about Christ, you can still find something helpful in Catholic social teaching, because these are guidelines not about religious belief but about human behaviour and achieving the right balance in our lives between the personal good and the common good, between central planning and local responsibility, between kindness and economics. In other words it is about reconciling our responsibilities to past and present, near and far, old and young, friend and stranger, human and animal. If you don't believe me, read Chapter 4 of the Church's Compendium of Social Teaching, or explore all these ideas further either on this blog or on the parent site, Second Spring ECONOMY.

Saturday, 11 August 2012


Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Caritas in Đà Lạt Diocese (Lâm Đồng province, southern Vietnam) launched a microcredit plan in 2010 to help the poor meet their needs and break out of the one dollar poverty line. Most beneficiaries belong to ethnic minorities, living in difficult conditions in small communities without the necessary means to survive.

Since its inception two years ago, the initiative has helped more than 900 families "escape poverty," an internal audit found. In order to reach its goal of growth and development, the Catholic agency encouraged the establishment of volunteer groups serving the poor and the vulnerable of society. "In the beginning, participants were shy, suffering from an inferiority complex and reticent to join fully the project," one Caritas member said. Now, attitudes have changed and "greater participation" in the agency's activities has become the norm.

Microcredit entails small loans to the poor, especially from ethnic minorities living in rural areas or mountain regions, which can serve as seed money for small businesses, mutual help and entrepreneurship. [It is one of the methods recommended in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate.]

Titled 'The poor can help each other out of poverty,' the project aims to help children from poor families go to school, whilst preserving minorities' traditional cultures. For Đà Lạt Christians, the Caritas project's success in sustainable development is a source of pride. A Caritas volunteer told AsiaNews that after initial difficulties, "step by step, I learnt watching the work of nuns and other social workers." "With God's help," he noted, it is possible to find the strength and courage to promote all sorts of initiatives. "I am just a catalyst," he added, "creating the conditions for others to benefit from the microcredit project."