Saturday, February 25, 2012

on spaceship earth

Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable.
War is obsolete.
(Buckminster Fuller)

I just finished leading a three-day retreat in the most amazing place. It’s called Penang Hill, or in Malay Bikut Bendera, Flag Hill. It juts about 3,000 feet up above the island of Penang (Pilau Pinang) just off the northwest coast of Malaysia. I’ve been on Penang twice before but never to this particular spot. It is the oldest of the British colonial hill stations, dating back to the 18th century. There are at least three ways up the hilly spine to the summit. We drove up the road, which is the steepest paved road I’ve ever been on. You have to have a special permit to go up it. We drove in and left our cars in town at some kind of travel agency and were loaded up into three hefty four-wheel drive vehicles and even they seemed to be straining. It was like Lombard Street in San Francisco for 5 kilometers. There is also one major hiking trail, which I‘m told is very popular and local folks set up rest stations along the way with water and Chinese tea for dehydrated hikers. There is also a funicular railroad that dates back to 1901 but was upgraded only recently in 2010. The one piece of literature that I could find about the place said though that “the earliest mode of transport to the hill was via horses or a system of ‘doolies,’ where masters were carried up the hill on special sedan chairs. After that a system of bridle paths were cut by Indian penal servitude prisoners for the establishment of more bungalows on the hill.” Can you imagine? Many of the bungalows remain, as well as some major buildings such as the house of the governor and a convalescent home that was used so I was told, by British soldiers recuperating from the Armenian War. And one of the women who was on the retreat also lives in one, and she brought us there for tea after the retreat ended. It looks like a charming English cottage in the middle of the jungle.

The folks from the WCCM had booked out an entire hotel (11 rooms), called the Bellevue at the very summit. It is surrounded on all sides by jungle/rain forest with lots of creatures and the constant din of insects. There is also an aviary, large cages full of exotic colorful birds. Just across the road is a little amusement park, restaurant, mosque and Hindu temple. Yesterday, Saturday, the place was full of visitors.

This place was a favorite haunt of Buckminster Fuller, the American systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist, especially well-known for his geodesic domes. As a matter of fact I was given the room that proudly bears a placard stating that this was the room where he stayed on his frequent visits. It was a spacious double room, but very simple, no air conditioning (one of the reasons it was so popular is because it is considerably cooler up there) and none of those dreaded flyers and handouts you usually find in hotels.

Buckminster Fuller was one of the pioneers of global thinking, and he explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design. He didn’t think there was an energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance and he was not a big fan of petroleum. He thought, from the standpoint of its replacement cost out of our “energy budget” it actually cost nature over a million dollars per U.S. gallon to produce, so its use as a transportation fuel by people commuting to work represented a huge net loss compared to their earnings. Even though he was optimistic about humanity's future, Fuller was concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system. At the same time often criticized utopian schemes as being too exclusive. To work, he thought that a utopia needed to include everyone. He defined wealth in terms of knowledge, as the “technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life.” His analysis of the condition of what he called “Spaceship Earth” made him conclude that at a certain time during the 1970s, humanity had already attained an unprecedented state: that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities was not necessary anymore. And so, cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy for the human race. Fascinating guy, and way ahead of his time.

I always find it interesting to be leading a spiritual retreat, at that a Christian one, and to at the same time be surrounded by such prophetic and, dare I say, holy thinking coming from a secular source. This is the kind of wisdom from the world that all people of faith should be listening to, and/or leading the way. I was reminded of Pope Benedict’s message for World Peace Day this year, which everyone on the right and left overlooked as usual when he lamented that “some currents of modern culture, built upon rationalist and individualist economic principles, have cut off the concept of justice from its transcendent roots, detaching it from charity and solidarity.” Whereas authentic education teaches the proper use of freedom with “respect for oneself and others, including those whose way of being and living differs greatly from one’s own.” He went on to tie it to economic policies, which is not unusual for him, but oft-overlooked: peace-making, he wrote requires education not only in the values of compassion and solidarity, but in the importance of wealth redistribution, as well as the “promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution.”

I am noting again how the dividing lines are drawn again in our political discourse between the peace activists and environmentalists on the one side and the supposedly pro-life people on the other. Even the Catholic candidates never mention that other side of Catholic social teaching, focusing exclusively on gay marriage and abortion. How can you be pro-life and be against universal health care? (Even though the American bishops oppose the current Affordable Health Care Act, they defend in principle the right to universal health care, as does the pope.) How can you be pro-life and still support a preemptive strike against Iran (which is against the just war theory of the Catholic tradition) or excuse/condone the use of torture, for God’s sake, which the pope explicitly condemned in 2005. (By the way, Pope Benedict at the same time also issued a warning about fundamentalism. “Religious fanaticism, today often labeled fundamentalism, can inspire and encourage terrorist thinking and activity,” he said.) On the other hand I was so discouraged by President Obama’s misstep with the contraception mandate, where he had a real chance to forge some political common ground with some moderates on the religious right. Just as I wonder how so many people can be so concerned about the suffering of animals and yet be completely intransigent with regard to abortion on demand with no restrictions whatsoever. (As Speaker Gingrich last week brought up that then-Senator Obama opposed the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act” in 2008, which is really coming back to haunt him now.) It is so hard to hold these things together. We all have our agendas and blind spots. Cooperation is the optimum survival strategy for the human race. If there were to be a new political party, that would be the one––really pro-life, pro-justice, and nobody would vote for it.

This is my last day in Malaysia. I really have loved Malaysia even more this time. The blend of cultures is so unique––very strongly Indian, very strongly Chinese, all the while with the underlying Malay culture, and the curry of it all stewing together in the pot with enough European sensibility remaining from colonial days to make it all seem very comfortable. I always feel like I’m almost in India when I get here. I did my final event last night here in Penang and today spending the day at College General Penang, which is the Catholic seminary for the entire Malaysian peninsula. There are only 13 seminarians here with two priests and a retired bishop in residence as well. The rector, Fr Gerard, is also the spiritual director of the WCCM here in Malaysia, and has been a gracious host. I got a great night’s sleep in a cool dark quiet room, did all my laundry, packed up some stuff to leave behind for my return, took a walk on the beach and I’m pretty much ready to go. Tonight Gerard and “the boys” are taking me out to dinner at the local hawkers stand––Penang is renown for its food––and then my intrepid hosts and friends Pat and Joe will drive me to the airport in KL for the flight to Chennai, and then hopefully somebody will be waiting to whisk me off to Tiruvanamalai.