Brexit

Why this is the wrong way, and why the populists have a point

The Brexit will be an historic milestone. It will be a marker, pointing out what not to do as humanity moves forward. It will bring the limitations of both democracy and capitalism into sharp focus. It will signal the death of the nation state.

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the populists are reacting to something real. The nation state already has less sovereignty. And the market system is rightly losing the peoples’ trust as greed and malfeasance at the top distort the market to the advantage of the one percent.

What next?

Stocks tank. The United Kingdom becomes England as the Scots, Irish, and possibly the Welsh vote to remain in the European Union. The great London financial hub goes the way of Jersey as a money magnet. If you can find a way to short London real estate, go for it.

Pretty bleak, right?

Yes – in the short term. Boris Johnson, in his clever and cynical ploy to become England’s next prime minister, was orating on the radio yesterday morning. It reminded me of Henry V’s famous speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Only . . . well, 600 years have gone by, and Boris will lose the battle for England in one way or another.

The Long View

But what is really going on here? For that we have to look at the larger and longer picture.

We have all heard of globalization and global warming. Global means global. All of us. All of humanity.

The Brexit is the result of English voters voting parochially because politicians pander to their (very real) fears in order to get or keep power. Democracy, thus bent, ceases to look good. But the idea, even after all this time, still has merit. True, England has voted what it perceives as English interests, and will suffer as a result. But the new democracy cannot be that of nation states. The new job of political leaders is to make democracy a global concern, voting humanity’s interests.

Ditto capitalism. The MBA culture has separated “management” from entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs make stuff and do stuff. They put together teams that expand the world’s knowledge and hands-on ability. The MBA culture has led to the loss of knowledge and ability. Andy Grove (the last of the great managers) called it “breaking the chain of experience.”

What do we do?

The great challenge facing humanity is no less than learning to manage our Earth as a closed system for the benefit of all the people of the Earth. It will be a damn close thing. So the challenge includes our moving into space, and managing habitats other than the Earth as closed systems.

The good news is that these two systems management problems are essentially the same. Solve one, and you are most of the way to solving the other.

For examples of the new political and entrepreneurial leadership, look no further than President Barack Obama and Elon Musk. The president draws criticism because he is acting in the larger interests of humanity and not protecting temporary parochial interests. Elon Musk is sometimes condescended to because he does not take the money and run. Instead he re-invests – in electric cars, land-able rocket boosters, and now habitats on Mars.

Who Am I?

Existential Crisis?

Who is God? We have come to accept that She is Black, but we are shocked to discover that She is also Transgender. Why does that come to mind? Because last week’s news, more than ever, reminds us that we are blaming others for what we do to ourselves, and even for what we are.

In the narthex of the church I attend, there used to be a poster of Jesus. The caption was, He came to take away our sins, not our minds. I loved that poster. For me it was a pointer to the struggle we all face: “Who am I? And how do I fit in?” It said to me, faith is a wrestling match, with myself and with God.

That poster is gone now. Others have interpreted it differently. Perhaps they felt it contradicted something they believe.

That’s the world we live in. More than ever, our world throws daily challenges our way. Our worldview, our faith, and even our view of ourselves – these are buffeted and pushed around. We can no longer get through life with a constancy of self and faith.

It is no wonder that we react with fear, and retreat into groups we hope are small enough to shelter us. Family, ethnicity, gender – can we find safety there? Some years back President Obama said we had to leave behind the “lines of tribe”. How prescient he was.

Terror in the News

The massacre last week at the Pulse nightclub adds another dimension to the phenomenon that is staring us in the face. Could it be that, at bottom, it is about neither guns nor “Islamic Terrorism”? Could it be that there is more to it? How about an epidemic of existential crises?

Who is the typical ISIS recruit?

He is a he, for a start. A young man. What do young men want? Sex. They can’t wait. But if you are a Muslim, sex is forbidden outside the family. So they have to wait. But young men want families, too – and work. Work is key, because to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?”, we must have both love and work. We must belong. We must be a part of something larger than ourselves.

ISIS fits the bill. Join, and there are sex slaves – even wives, if you want. You are instantly part of a huge movement, known around the world. You are part of the struggle against the decadent western civilization that has denied you everything: sex, family, work, love, and purpose. With one choice you fix everything.

But what if you are gay?

In the New York Times of June 17, 2016, Guy Branum wrote a piece entitled Pride after Orlando. This is a quote from that piece:

When word surfaced that the Orlando shooter had frequented gay bars and dating apps, some speculated that he might have been doing research to plan his attack. Gay people understood the other very real possibility, that the attacker might be a man with homosexual desires whom society had filled with so much secret shame that he would do anything to prove his distance from the gay world.

I read the piece and tried to put myself in the position of the potential ISIS recruit. I tried to put myself in the position of a human being who fits that profile and who, somewhere deep within, recognizes that he desires men. He is simply out of luck. His family and his religion say, no way. His isolation increases. There is no solution.

Why do we go out?

It is true that, more often these days, we stay home and put on a special meal for someone we love. Or we meditate. Or write a long email to a friend we haven’t seen in a while.

But sometimes we go out. A meal in a restaurant. A church service. Team sports. Why?

Maybe the wait staff are rude. Maybe the sermon rankles. Maybe that egomaniacal jerk took too many shifts as center.

But . . . even so we are exposed to the delicious range of humanity. Is Chaucer’s pardoner a model for our behaviour? Do we even like him? What about Shakespeare’s characters, who are to this day the best compendium of human nature?

No, we don’t love them all. At least, we don’t love them in the facile sense of the word. But in a larger sense we do love them, and we know that we need them in some fundamental way. Otherwise, why would these authors’ works still live?

I believe we go out, attend church, play sports and read Shakespeare because we are human and we need to know humanity in its full range. Only then do we have a chance to answer the existential questions: “Who am I?”, and “How do I fit in?”.

Modern Times

We live in a time when it is impossible to escape the influence of forces which shield us from humanity. These forces take many forms, and it is not my purpose here to blame any of them. Instead, my purpose is to incite curiosity: can we cultivate a habit of critical questioning? Can we decide for ourselves whom to trust and what to believe? Can we find the strength to trust ourselves?

For example, how important are likes on Facebook? Should these be something we actively seek? And how important a blow is an unfriending?

What about the news? Do we watch PBS, MSNBC, or Fox?

What newspapers and magazines and blogs do we read? Do we think about what is on offer at any of these “content providers”, and why?

In our time most of these “content providers” pitch to a profile which is frighteningly close to who we are. What do we get out of that? Cheap self-congratulation. Perhaps a sense of entitlement. But this filtered “content” also leads us to a self-induced isolation from a broad swath of humanity, and to our utter failure to challenge ourselves intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Should it surprise us then that we are experiencing an epidemic of existential crises?

What Now?

It seems to me that the bottom line is this: we cannot appreciate ourselves until we can appreciate others.

Have you taken shelter on a veranda and watched a thunderstorm roll through? Have you stood on an open hillside and felt an earthquake move the ground under your feet? Have you acknowledged their power and beauty, even as they spared your life?

Just so will you come face to face with your own power and beauty. The shock will be all the greater because you recognize your qualities for what they are: an essential fraction of that roiling atmosphere, those sliding and buckling tectonic plates.

The Future of Our Civilization

In the New York Times of June 10, 2016, Adam Frank wrote a piece entitled Yes, There Have Been Aliens. One of the questions therein is: How much longer will our civilization last? In this fascinating article the author and his colleagues remove this question from the Drake Equation of the 1960’s. That changes the larger question from Are there aliens out there? to Have there ever been aliens out there?Together with advances in astrophysics in the last decade, this changing of the larger question enabled them to put numbers into the terms of the equation and answer Yes, there have been aliens.

But for us the first and smaller question is still vitally important. It is our civilization, after all. Will our children’s children’s children even be born? What can we do to make it more likely that they will be?

I believe that we – humanity – can and will survive. But capitalism and democracy, although they have served us well, are not sufficient for the task at hand. As a civilization, we must use more of our human capital. The difficulty of this task of survival is too great to allow the marginalization of even one of us. In religious terms, we must expand our view of who God is. God must be all of us.

And none of us can take the easy way out. We cannot find ourselves and respect ourselves and contribute our gifts if we wall off others and retreat into an exclusive community.

Each one of us is a unique individual. But that is our gift, not our purpose. To put our gifts to use for humanity we must wrestle and struggle. We must answer the questions: Who am I? and How do I fit in?

If we fail in this, we are accountable only to ourselves and God. We can blame no one.

Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.

Why?

Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.

The Life Cycle of a System

Thinking men and women design the new system. It won’t have the faults of the old one, because humankind learn from experience.

Although not without glitches, the kickoff is a success. Soon the new system is running smoothly. The people rejoice. They had grown tired of meltdowns.

The people begin learning the ways of the new system. The sharp spades dig in deep, specializing in the system’s arcana. It is not long before this aristocracy gets a handle on how to subtly tilt the system in their direction. Happy generations go by as the new nobles become convinced of their birthright.

For a while the plebeians are peaceful. Perhaps their religion asks for peace and the dignity of the person. Or maybe there is only so much you want to know.

Now generations have gone by and among the birthright nobles are some new spades, chips off the old block, but not quite as sharp. Or subtle. But they do manage to come up with cunning plans. Slightly insecure in their birthright, they are not to be outdone by parent or grandparent. This cadre comes to be known as the smart-ass set. Their mission in life is to game the system.

And sure enough, some smart-ass does. He takes the art of system-rigging to new heights. His rhetoric lauds the splendid robes as the emperor passes by. And for the most part smart-ass speech falls on ears willing to receive wisdom.

But plebes have children too. They come into the world fresh. They have not yet received wisdom. They can see the naked emperor.

They argue with their parents. They find that although their parents see the splendid robes, they do not like the emperor. Almost without realizing it, they have become angry. They have been losing their trust in the system.

It is a subtle aging, but a steady one. The system creaks and groans. Its life force weakens, and it loses function.

And so another system finds itself on the dustbin of history. Presently the children will probe among the ashes and build anew.

Lowest Common Denominator

At the airport, there are two security lines. There is one where you have to take off your shoes, and another where you do not. Yes, you guessed it: for the second you need elite status.

It shouldn’t be surprising that an airline, a corporation, would divide humanity into two classes. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

In today’s New York Times, Josh Barro, in Facing Elite Bloat, Airlines Move the Goal Posts, writes about his elite fall from grace. It seems that now plebes contend with not only the elite and the super-elite, but even higher orders. Remember how we used to speak of the 99% and the top 1%? And how now, more often, we refer to the top 0.1% or even the top 0.01%? Well, this elite thing has done so well for the airlines they are now facing elite bloat, where some plebes have invaded the bottom tier.

Their first response was to add classes to top the top elite, perhaps platinum, diamond, kryptonite, and unobtanium. But that didn’t fix things. As Josh Barro writes, “But mostly, (the airlines) have dealt with the problem by devaluing the lowest tier.”

Does that feel familiar? It probably does if you have a job, or if your degree is not from an elite university, or if your annual income is less than $1M. It certainly does if you are a tradesperson, or a nurse, or a teacher. You know, one of those people who has to rely on union seniority or tenure to have a chance in the marketplace.

Yes, it is as true in politics as it is in marketing – we have discovered a common denominator lower than greed: feeling superior.

So before you vote next time, ask yourself a question: do I feel superior to anyone? If you do, chances are someone has been pulling your chain.

A Gift for Humanity

Messiah

My wife and I went to a performance of Messiah last night, as we have done every year for the last forty or so. This year it was Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, at the new Montreal Symphony Hall. Perhaps it is the forty years, or my age, or my familiarity with the words after all this time. But I have never seen four soloists tell the story as these did. They were consummate actors as well as musicians and singers.

Or perhaps the evening was more emotional than usual because we learned right there in the hall that Bernard Labadie, the founding director of Les Violons, has been ill and would not be conducting. Instead Trevor Pinnock is leading the group for the rest of the year. Maestro Pinnock made a short announcement about how we have all come to love Messiah, about how something special happens when we gather like this, about how the work is a gift to humanity, and about how tonight we are all here celebrating it together for Bernard as well as for ourselves.

Perhaps that was the context for me: listening to the story, the great words and the sublime music, and musing on why this gift of George Friderick Handel (1685-1759) is so loved and so important to us.

Comfort

Comfort Ye, my people. Your warfare is accomplished. Your iniquity is pardoned. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

These words, of course, are from Part 1 of Messiah. The librettist, Charles Jennens, took them word for word from his beloved King James Bible.

New Testament? No, Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived, scholars believe, in the eighth century B.C.

Forgiveness

He was despised and rejected of men. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn.

Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort Him.

He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of Thy people He was stricken.

Who is this man? Jesus of Nazareth?

No. Once again the text is from the Torah. Isaiah and Psalms. Hundreds of years before Christ.

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? Let us break their bonds asunder; and cast away their yokes from us.

He that dwelleth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

Psalms, once again.

Halleluia!

OK, this last is from the other end of the Bible: Revelation.

Death and Resurrection

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Surely now we are in the New Testament? No. This is Job 19:25-26. For some reason I think of how a Jewish friend described a seder:

People wanted to do bad things to us. We were in great danger. Somehow, with the help of God, we survived. Let’s eat!

I admit that Comfort, Forgiveness, and Death and Resurrection are my names for the three parts of Messiah. And here we are at last, at the last of the three. Can there be such things as death and resurrection?

From now on most of the text is from Corinthians.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

What does that mean? Does it matter? Why does it give me such comfort?

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

I do not think of my self as religious, as a believer. I think of myself more as a doubter, someone more like my five-year-old grandson, who says, Oh, why?

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.

I don’t know what the words mean, but they are great words, comforting words, words that have survived because they have meaning for humanity.

Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Straightforward enough. But then:

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.

Don’t ask me. But I’ll think about it, as I do every year.

Mon Pays c’est l’Hiver

As we emerge from Place des Arts, it is snowing. When we came downtown it was 15° F and blowing. Now it feels like 30°. It always feels warmer when it snows. The city, my city, the one I have known since childhood, is beautiful.

I don’t know about immortality. But wait – in a way I do. Handel may not be here in the flesh, but I have just spent three hours with him, and I feel wonderful.

Fact and Story

Then and Now

Story is as old as language. The ancient bards sang the stories of heroes. Oral tradition mirrored the world to our ancestors, allowing them to find meaning in their rough and difficult lives. The written word was in the future.

Fact in those days was immediate, personal, and deadly. I slew the beast. I slew the aggressor. I am slain.

Today what passes for fact is omnipresent. The internet gives us access to a store of data that is growing exponentially. It follows us around on our smartphones. There is, it seems, no escaping all this. But is it fact?

Books

The Gutenberg Bible was the internet of its day, enabling a rapid expansion of knowledge, both fact and fiction. But printing presses are slower than the net. Scholarship and education grew along with libraries and the number of books. A critical intelligence questioned: Who is the author? Is this a story? History? Science? Philosophy? Fact? What is fact, anyway?

The Net

The internet is not yet a generation old. It followed fast in the footsteps of television. The written word is, one could argue, only a minor part of today’s vast trove of accessible data. Photos, audio and video, often edited for maximum punch, saturate our perception and shorten our attention span. We search for data that corroborates our worldview. Critical intelligence is rare. There is a new oxymoron: reality TV.

Worldview

Every human being has a worldview. Consciously or not, we apply meaning to our lives. It is a human skill that is necessary for survival. We tell a story about ourselves.

But the rub is this: we expand our story to embrace the world we know. We assign good guys and bad guys and even suppose that conspiracies are the reason behind this and that. Then we are surprised when others have different views. We feel threatened and go to the internet to find “proof” for our theories. Is it any wonder our politics has become dysfunctional?

OK,  So . . .

I am as guilty as the next person. I feel road rage. I harbour a grudge. I am rude, sometimes without meaning to be. Sometimes I rage (usually inwardly, but not always) against someone’s convictions which I think are JUST WRONG!

On the other hand, I love my friends and family, warts and all. Their shortcomings/eccentricities/weaknesses are part of who they are, just as mine are. How do I square love  with intolerance?

Story

I have known my friends and loved ones long enough to know their story. Not the story of their lives – their story. The one they tell themselves, as I tell myself mine. And since we are alive, these stories are evolving. Like the songs of old, they change subtly with each telling.

We could do worse than to listen.

There is No Alternative

Success!

Philae landed today!

Rosetta achieved orbit around Comet 67P after a ten-year flight. Last night there was the decision to go – to separate Philae and begin descent to landing with an unserviceable thruster. So much excitement!

With millions of others I watched it live. Or as live as it can get when, at the speed of light, the signals take 27 minutes to reach us.

Congratulations to ESA for their accomplishment and their gutsy decision to stream live from the control room. There has been nothing like this since Neil Armstrong set foot on the  moon in 1969. My sons are all too young to remember that, to say nothing of my four grandsons. Space is back! And thank goodness for that!

Co-operation

It was (if I have got his name right) Daniel Neuenschwander, the head of the Swiss delegation to ESA, who, among all the speakers after the landing, got my attention. Regarding getting into space, he said, there is no alternative to co-operation.

(Now it appears the harpoons didn’t fire, or haven’t yet. (See ESA for details). That keeps the excitement going. I (and humanity) hope Philae can cling to the surface in that meagre gravity and keep sending us information. But this is already a major achievement, whatever happens.)

Think of the history: the USSR orbits Sputnik, and then Laika (the dog). Then a human person, Yuri Gargarin.

President Kennedy leads the USA into the “space race”, and NASA achieves the goal he sets: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

In 2004 Burt Rutan (financed by Paul Allen) designs and builds Spaceship One and wins the X-Prize.

In 2013 China lands an (unmanned) rover on the moon.

In 2014 SpaceX (Elon Musk) soft-lands a rocket booster in the ocean.

In 2014 Spaceship Two breaks up when the wing/tail feather deploys prematurely.

There is a space race here, but it is a competition of ideas, not ideologies. A communist country pulls ahead into orbit. A democracy provides leadership and technology to land a man on the moon. A generation and a half goes by. Private entrepreneurship invents and demonstrates the badminton bird re-entry. Ditto the re-useable booster. Bravo Burt and Elon! And today a loosely joined bunch of nations has landed on a comet, opening a window onto the formation of our solar system and perhaps life itself.

Diversity

What is the takeaway here?

For me, it is what Daniel Neuenschwander said. There are huge challenges facing humanity. Will we address them adequately before our planet joins Mars in its fate?

There is so much to do.

Can Burt Rutan’s badminton bird re-entry be extended/combined to handle the much higher energies required for a recovery from orbit? Can we invent self-sustaining environmental systems? Can we move beyond the rocket – incredibly wasteful as it throws mass out the tail, accelerating through Newton’s Third Law?

I am an optimist. I know we can do it. But it will take everybody. Not just this or that system of government. Not just private enterprise. Not just one visionary human.

Mr. Neuenschwander got it right today: there is no alternative to co-operation.

Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That’s our Chartres.

History

The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.

Belief

It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today’s passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that’s what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today’s received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA’s twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA’s). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today’s selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Job 19:25

Learn or Die

The Race for Survival

It is time to stop fussing over religion, money, and politics, and to ponder instead what we must do to survive. I am not speaking of selfish, individual survival in the mean marketplace of today. I am speaking of the survival of the human race.

I have long felt that our fate comes down to a race between space travel and managing our planet as a closed system. Which will we learn first? Will we learn in time to survive?

We have become cynical about space travel since the triumphs of the 1960’s. Why should we spend money on frills when we have more pressing needs here at home?

Why indeed. What are these pressing needs? Are they more important than survival?

Ebola

It is encouraging that the USA is mobilizing doctors, nurses, and soldiers to help with the Ebola threat. It is good that we recognize that this threat knows no borders. What is less good is that we are not prepared with medication to fight the disease. The marketplace had decided that a few thousand deaths would not constitute a clientèle worthy of research. Belatedly we must mobilize our resources and make medicine.

Climate Change

Think about the contrast: Ebola strikes fear into our hearts; Climate Change is our recent euphemism for Global Warming, in itself an understatement. But Ebola is the rehearsal, the sign, the foreboding. It is undeniably here – now – in spite of the stigma and denial that encourage its spread. Is it not also a metaphor for the larger puzzle that faces us? Do we have to individually travel to the Arctic to see ice melting? Or head south to Miami as witness to the spring and fall tides backing up through the storm sewers and flooding the streets? Or perhaps this year some will instead head south to Arizona. They will see flood damage in the desert.

Odile, Polo, and now Simon, the 13th Eastern Pacific hurricane of the 2014 season, mark the profound change in the weather. Or the Jetstream sitting in Northern Canada for the last two weeks of September, cuddling an unseasonable bubble of warm air half a continent wide. In my forty-five years of flying and weather-watching I have never seen anything like it.

Change and Learning

As a label Climate Change has something right. The world is indeed changing. And as any teacher must, our world is challenging our assumptions. It is saying, I am not static, I am alive. And indeed, what is life but change?

Is our universe alive? The more we learn, the more evidence we find that everything we see is in flux, in living change; and every discovery further displaces mankind from its center. The universe is not about us.

But we can learn. The human race has the ability to learn, communicate, and record. Galileo could read Aristotle as well as observe the planets. Newton, born the year Galileo died, could continue his work forward into the Calculus, the Laws of Motion, and the foundational equation of gravity. Cannot this gift of learning lead us toward our own survival?

All Hands

The problem we face is not insurmountable. It would be embarrassing if we did not prevail. But neither is it a sure thing. It is a call for all hands on deck. And all hands does not mean the privileged, the connected, the fortunate. It means use the gifts of every soul aboard.

It does not mean indoctrinate our children with our certainties. It means lead our children out of ignorance into the fullness of their gifts, wherever it may take them.

Education takes more than a curriculum and a system. In the end it is a communication between human beings. It is a two-way conversation where the goal is to move the student beyond the teacher, into an understanding where only he can go.

So let us use our fear constructively. Let us not sit, afraid, trying to hang on to the present. The world has already moved beyond our understanding. But our gifts have not expired. Let us use them, such as they are, to encourage the gifts of others. And if every soul is engaged we will will survive.

Who Wins the Race?

It doesn’t matter. Managing the planet and space travel are essentially the same problem: reversing the great frontier mentality and approaching our environment as a closed system. We can cut down the forests we grow. We can eat the food we produce. And we can breathe the air we replenish.