The War on Common Sense

This is incredibly sad. Muslim clerics in Kenya have agreed to campaign against the use of condoms as a means to prevent HIV infection. Over here, the author asks if it’s a war “on common sense”.

“A lot of money is being wasted to poison our community … a huge amount of money is spent on buying condoms, buying immorality,” Sheikh Mohamud Ali, of Garissa district, told IRIN/PlusNews.

The leaders agreed to actively preach against the use and public promotion of condoms as a strategy to contain the pandemic and prevent pregnancy. They also agreed to oppose the distribution of condoms in villages and educational institutions across the northeast […]

The leaders expressed their view that the best way for the youth to avoid HIV was through the observance of Islamic teachings such as fasting, regular prayer and shunning extramarital affairs. They advised men to avoid looking at women, who should dress modestly […]

“After all, we have heard in the past that the Western world is using the condom to eliminate Africans, and Muslims in particular.”

Well, that’s great, isn’t it? More religious leaders who are actively against the use of life saving contraception. Luckily for them, the rate of infection is low in their region (1.4%, compared to 5.1 nation wide). But still, can we afford to back track like this? It’s also extremely unfortunate as people
can pick up on this and assume that this is the position taken by Muslims – which is untrue. In West Africa, some progressive religious leaders are harnessing their influence to have a positive social impact. Meanwhile, there are stories pouring out of the continent on a daily basis about preachers and pastors who condemn HIV/AIDS and infected patients.

In other, completely unrelated news, I read this story about “$2.99 gas

Chrysler’s new incentive program that guarantees consumers who buy one of their new cars or trucks won’t pay more than $2.99 a gallon at the pump for the first three years they own the vehicle.

Random incredibly large SUV

And the author proceeds to tell us that he thinks it’s a “brilliant idea”. I just wrote about how Americans (and Westerners in general) have hard time getting to terms with the fact that their lifestyle and habits will have to – at the very least – be modified. The fact that Chrysler offers this (probably following massively expensive market studies) is very telling – to me, it represents people clinging on to an obsolete way of life. Isn’t it time to move away from cheap gas, precisely because it perpetuates a very unsustainable life style?

The Chrysler offer is going to appeal to people who refuse to face the facts – that the era of cheap gas is over, or nearly over (even if it happens in 20 years, that is not a very long time to contend with). Am I the only one who finds this incredibly near-sighted??

"World of $10$-a-gallon gas and $20 Big Macs?"

Hanoi – August 2006

The authors of this LA Times piece are not particularly worried about the increase of the global population and the availability of commodities.

Currently in the U.S., we consume the energy equivalent of six gallons of gas per person per day. Some rich countries manage on much less. The Danes, for example — whose public policy mandates expensive energy — use the equivalent of only three gallons of gas per person. The Danes are not suffering much from their missing three gallons a day. Reducing food consumption in our high-consumption society is equally easy: a bit more bread, a bit less steak. Given that we can easily reduce consumption when costs go up, a permanent doubling of the prices of food and energy would reduce income by less than 6%. At current rates of economic growth, incomes would recover from such a shock in less than three years. After that, onward on our march to ever greater prosperity.

However, I was just discussing yesterday how it seems unlikely that people will forgo certain privileges – refusing to let go of some degree of wealth. Even though, of course, a lot of people make individual efforts to reduce their impact on the environment (including me), I just don’t see Americans eating “a bit more bread, a bit less steak” without some serious resistance. In a sense, that means going “backwards”, and since we’ve decided to construe progress as a line along which you move, it will be hard to convince people that foregoing certain habits (using the A/C to make your house as cold as a refrigerator; driving SUVs in big cities, etc.) are neither modern, nor sustainable – but if you’ve ever watched FOX News, you’ll realize that a lot of people are not ready to make these individual changes.

Ultimately, however, the goal of these changes is to ensure that we maintain our current way of life. Someone said “For everything to stay the same, everything must change” (Thanks, C., for that quote) In conjunction to the fact that the richest people in the world are intent on preserving their way of life, the “global South” is busy trying to become rich(er). We must ask ourselves what the goal of development is: ultimately, is development the creation of new consumer markets? People who dedicate their lives to buying things and making the money to buy them? If that’s the case, then can this planet really handle a few more billion consumers? (I know this is a bleak view, but I’m feeling pessimistic today)

Will there always be – no matter what – a “bottom billion”? Is the existence of a global very poor class of people a necessity? Or will we (and this planet) really be able to provide for a multi-billion middle class? If you construe growth as a zero-sum game in a world of finite possibilities, then it becomes clear that the richest will ultimately have to be less wealthy for the poor to gain – however, that seems a bit simplistic, since global wealth IS increasing. Nonetheless, we have to wonder if we can continue to see growth and wealth grow exponentially:

Two things allowed growth to occur from 1750 to 2000 with declining commodity prices. First, only a small fraction of the world grew rapidly…. The West was alone in its voracious appetite for raw materials and energy. Second, fossil fuels cheaply substituted for land in agriculture by increasing crop yields…. What will happen depends on the race between technological improvement and growing demand…. [N]o one can predict which force will win.

Can supply AND demand grow forever without leading us to self-destruction? I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking quote (original in French)

Le développement suppose l’apparition d’un monde nouveau, et non le grossissement quantitatif de ce qui existe déjà

Development supposes the emergence of a new world, and not the quantitative expansion of what already exists

(Jean-Marie Albertini, Mécanismes du Sous-Développement et Développements, 1981)

Religion and Modernity

I promise this won’t be a long winded philosophical post about religion in the contemporary world. I just came across different stories which discuss an interesting, salient issue – how should religious leaders respond to the new forces at work in modern society?

This week, the Vatican “provided its latest update on how God’s law is being violated with modern means.” The expanded list of sins, which includes genetic manipulation, pollution and the use of drugs, seems to be the Catholic Church’s latest attempt to adjust its “message” (for lack of a better word) to better address contemporary issues.

Of course, the Catholic Church’s position on condoms and abortion isn’t about to change, but you know, baby steps… It’s interesting to see religions who are – by definition – dogmatic and absolute in their philosophy deal with modernity. For instance, this report highlights the positive social impact that progressive Islamic leaders can have on their communities:

“The draft text of several progressive fatwas were discussed last week by the ulama [Islamic scholars] at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa.

One fatwa would approve the use of funds from the zakat (mandatory alms giving) for HIV-positive people, whether Muslims or non-Muslim, regardless of how they contracted the virus, as long as they are poor.

Another fatwa would approve the use of condoms by married discordant couples, where one is HIV-positive and the other is not, to avoid infection.

The findings are not final. As first-opinions, they will be discussed next year at regional and national consultations.”

I find both these stories very compelling – what role will religion have in the 21st century? From my own Western secular perspective, I often find myself at odds with most religious doctrines, but I know that billions around the world find solace in spirituality. I find it very interesting to see religions adapt to the modern world, as an external observer – clearly, the good, the bad and the ugly is coming out of these evolutions, but nonetheless, we should value these paradigm shifts for what they are: a move away from unshakable fundamentalism towards more progressive notions of spirituality, faith and religion, which attempt to give believers the tools necessary to deal with a changing world. This, of course remains elusive –
here is another story which discusses the disinformation spread by some Christian church leaders in Malawi about HIV/AIDS – a very different example from the previous story, but it goes to show how vital it is for religious leaders to be socially (and morally) conscious:

A pastor in southern Malawi recently hit the headlines when he told five HIV-positive people in his church to stop taking antiretroviral (ARV) medication because they had been treated by prayer. Dodgy traditional healers touting their “cures” for AIDS are also proliferating. The government has drawn up legislation, currently before parliament, to muzzle anyone claiming they can cure AIDS. “

Food for thought, really.