To Your Health
Wednesday, March 10, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” - Luke 10:36-37
The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. The Story of the good Samaritan was in response to the expert in the law asking “Who is my neighbor?” God calls us to have a special concern for the poor and downtrodden. Jesus did not give the expert a litmus test for checking whether someone was his neighbor, but instead turned it around and defined the expert himself as a neighbor on the condition that he showed mercy. The traditional definition of neighbor using physical proximity does not hold up here. Instead, we find neighbors wherever we find opportunity to show mercy. In a globally connected society, we certainly do not lack for those opportunities.
The health care debates are raging once again. Who should pay? Who should benefit? In her article on “Scarce Resources and Christian Compassion,” Ruth Bernd Groenhout notes that “when the treatment was less effective, people with kidney disease generated fairly few expenses. Now that far better treatments are available, the expenses associated with renal disease have skyrocketed. And this is true of almost every area of health care. The better we get at offering high-technology treatments for health problems, the more people will use them, and the less we can all afford health insurance.”
This is the rub for our high-tech toys. They are also highly expensive. Thus we are faced with trade-offs. Preventative care is much less expensive than reactive care. But it does not have the dramatic impact of saving a life that hangs in the balance – it is not like a new wonder drug that fights cancer or emergency surgery that spares a life after an accident. The best bang for the buck when measured by the additional number of years of life added to society in sum will be from basic health measures aimed at the young (who have more years to gain if problems are detected early). But the neighbor who desperately needs surgery, who will die without it, is the more obvious case deserving mercy.
Now it’s your turn. How should we properly balance love, justice, and mercy when there are not enough resources? We can always do more, so when have we done enough? How do we perform a society-wide triage? It is as if the good Samaritan came across not one victim, but 30 million victims lying by the side of the road. Is it enough to help the first and leave the rest?
The End of the Age of Oil
Wednesday, March 03, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
Ancient history has been demarcated by the tools humans developed and used during each era, from the stone age to the bronze age to the iron age. I imagine that there was an age of wood before that of stone, and an age of steel after that of iron, though we don’t typically call then that. Technology has always been a major societal force, a tidal wave that sweeps in new cultural arrangements and hierarchies, washing away the previous establishment in the process. These changes have come not only due to military technologies that gave one army an edge over the other, but also due to less pugilistic products, such as the clock or the printing press.
Rampant disease combined with the disintegration of a large, central government led us into the dark ages, a moniker that described not our technology, but our state of affairs more broadly. Historians labeled the following epochs as renaissance and enlightenment in recognition of the new hope produced by rational thought, organized communities, and scientific discovery. In modern times we have used labels of industrial and information to name our ages. Thus we have returned to identifying ourselves by our tools. We are homo faber, people who make and fabricate, defining our humanity by how we extend ourselves through the tools we create and utilize.
But there is another weave that threads its way through our recent history that may be equally important: the ages of energy. These eras are intimately related to our tools, in many ways dictating the alternatives we choose in designing our world. These are the eras of energy. From primeval days, humans used wood as a fuel for fire, the heat of which could produce gentle warmth or searing energy to forge a steel blade. We also tapped water and wind to drive mills, putting mechanical motion to work for us. As populations grew, we depleted large forests in our thirst for more energy. The age of wood as a source of energy gave way to the age of coal, the first in a line of fossil fuels that were attractive for the amount of energy per unit of material they could produce. Oil and natural gas took prominence in the last century or so because they were easily distributed and highly effective as energy sources.
We are coming to the end of the age of oil. The US rolled up and over Hubbert’s peak decades ago, and now we are likely over the global peak as well. In a sort of mass nostalgia, society is returning to wind and water, renewing them with the new name of “renewable” sources. At the same time, we forge ahead with exotic sources of energy such as nuclear fission and perhaps someday nuclear fusion as well. The end of oil may be fortuitous, as there is strong evidence that use of fossil fuels is the prime contributor to artificial change to the global climate.
As the centers of physical power shift, so do the centers of political power. Nations that held wood, wind, water, or coal resources in centuries past often held great political power as well. In recent times, Americans have bemoaned the undue influence held by middle-eastern nations with large oil deposits (calling them “reserves” is probably no longer accurate, since they are running out).
Let me use this brief historical sketch to make two points regarding Christian faith. First, we can praise our Creator for seeding the earth with such diverse and rich sources of energy. These resources have driven creative innovation and human well-being when used appropriately. The Lord has provided us with a bountiful earth that holds treasures within for us to discover and humbly develop.
Second, as God’s stewards of creation and as his agents of renewal in this world, I believe we are called to keep a careful watch for injustice, especially as we shift from one source of energy to another. Such shifts can result in economic, cultural, and political upheaval. For example, while economics in the long run can be a great leveler to ensure we are using resources in a stewardly fashion, in the short term, it can displace workers and families and whole communities. As oil prices rise over time, the oil-powered transportation technologies we depend on individually and communally will become obsolete. Christians are called to care for those that lose jobs in the wake of these major changes. Employment is important because it provides the means to food and shelter for a family. It is also a warranted source of pride and respect for humans that are made in God’s image. We are made to work. When work is not available, humans suffer. I believe we are called to care for that suffering neighbor. We are called not only to help individuals in need, but also to plan together so that we can make the shift more smoothly from one era to another. Rather than waiting until the last moment when oil becomes scarce (and thus exorbitantly expensive), we should be devoting effort to development of replacement sources. Anticipating the change will allow us to better handle the transition. That might mean a little pain now in order to avoid a larger hurt in the future. For example, rather than propping up easy use of oil, perhaps it is time Americans accept some small increases in gasoline tax, which could fund more intensive research into replacements for oil and at the same time encourage conservation.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
I had the chance to catch the freestyle ski competition at the winter Olympics in Vancouver the other night. The athletic prowess and simple beauty of skiers hurtling their bodies end over end in graceful spins and turns was incredible to behold. Jump after jump, my family exclaimed “oohs” and “ahs” of astonishment. It got me thinking about the technology of world-class sporting competitions. The athlete hones their skills, endurance, mental focus, agility – tuning every muscle to precisely perform the necessary responses. They study and practice techniques to give them an edge over the competition. Their equipment is also critical to their success. The skies, the poles, even their clothing is carefully designed and fabricated to contribute to the athlete’s success. These are tools of the trade. Like all technology, their purpose is utility, a means to an end. Some of the best technology, in sports or elsewhere, goes almost unnoticed, staying out of the way and doing its job.
One design norm that we might use as a guide in developing technological products is transparency. I mean this in two senses. The first is the idea I mentioned above, that the technology is practically invisible. As a tool, it is meant as an aid in reaching some goal. It is an extension of ourselves (as skis extend the foot, poles extend the arm, and ski goggles extend the function of the eyelids). Technology that amplifies our abilities is at the same time transparent when it stays out of the way except when needed, when it keeps the focus on accomplishing the task. The second aspect of transparency is that we can see into the technology (at least figuratively, if not literally). It does not hide operational details. It is intuitive, understandable, and predictable. We should not be surprised by the tool and if it fails, it should be easy to see what went wrong (and even better, we should have some warning that a failure is imminent). For example, some automobile brake pads are designed to emit a squeal when the lining is wearing thin, warning the driver that the pads need replacement soon. A counter-example might be the obscure messages one sometimes gets when a computer crashes, providing no warning and little understanding. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World we have a dark picture of sports technology that encourages outrageous consumerism, where the technology of obstacle and electromagnetic golf makes the game complex and the tools vividly obvious. In this light, the norm of transparency also encourages simplicity.
Why should Christians care about transparency in technology? Because transparency itself is a mean to ends that we value. Transparency is a means to love and care for our neighbor who uses the product. It is a form of honesty and truth by revealing inner workings. It is a confirmation of trust and respect between the provider and the consumer. Most would agree to the ethical principle that the ends do not justify the means. But the positive side of this principle is then that we must justify both our ends and our means. As we explore and design and deploy and use our technological tools, transparency is one way we can gauge whether those means are worthy and right.
Help for Haiti
Wednesday, February 17, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
Why does it take a disaster before we take action? The massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti on 12 Jan 2010 was but the latest example. The world sprang into action soon after the shaking subsided, sending aid workers, food, water, peace-keeping troops, and money to the impoverished nation. With over 200,000 confirmed deaths, this was certainly one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. However, calling this disaster natural is not altogether honest. Perhaps we have some collective responsibility for this catastrophe. Preliminary analysis suggests that many of the deaths could have prevented if better construction practices had been used in the region. It is easy to lay the blame for this tragedy on the earthquake itself (and surely many of the deaths would have occurred no matter the construction standard), but some responsibility lies with us too. We have the technology to build dwellings and buildings that are reasonably resistant to earthquakes.
I can identify at least two reasons why we didn’t fix the problem even though we knew the solution. First, as a society, we find it quite difficult to be proactive. We habitually ignore the prophets who predict doom around the corner unless we change our ways. Until the doom is upon us, we prefer to turn a blind eye, hoping that we will somehow avert disaster by luck or fate. Robert Hoeksema, an American expert on the civil engineering of flood protection in the Netherlands and author of the book Designed for Dry Feet, has examined the long battle of the Dutch people to claim land from the sea. He has noted that every major flood protection project throughout the modern history of the country has been undertaken in the aftermath of a flood disaster. No matter the warnings beforehand, the community could not bring themselves to commit the time and money and resources necessary to build a new and better dike until a major flood had caused large numbers of casualties.
I don’t think the Dutch are unique in this characteristic. In part this may be a character flaw, an unwillingness to pay for prevention until the penalty is absolutely certain (closing the door only after the proverbial horse has already left the proverbial barn). There may also be another factor at work. Henry Petroski, a civil engineer by trade, has studied engineering failures throughout history and concluded that much of technology improvement is not a monotonic progression, where each new version is better than the next. Rather, we refine the design of a bridge, for example, making each new bridge with less expensive materials, or thinner materials, or fewer cables. Our goal may be reduced cost or increased aesthetics. Each refinement brings us closer to the line of risk, until we cross it and a failure occurs. We then learn from the failure and continue to refine.
A second reason we didn’t take preventative action in Haiti may be that while the knowledge of good earthquake-resistant building techniques is widely available, those techniques require additional resources to implement. The Haitians have no money. As the poorest country in the hemisphere, they are the “have-nots” who could not afford the technology that would save their lives. This is an issue of justice. While I would not claim that everyone in the world deserves (has a basic right) to own a yacht or a plasma HDTV, I do believe that there are certain fundamental human rights that place an obligation on all of us. As a sort of global and innate good Samaritan law, those of us with sufficient resources have a moral obligation to share with those in need. We don’t owe our neighbor an HDTV, but we do owe them clean water. We don’t owe them an SUV, but we do owe them safe shelter. Who is our neighbor? The one next door who is in need. The luxuries of today’s global networks of communication that we enjoy also make us aware of neighbors further away. Haiti is our neighbor – have we offered a technological hand of help?
Wednesday, February 10, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
I have a lot of keys. I have a key to my car and a key to my wife’s car. I have the spare key to my son’s car. I have a key to my house, to my office door, to the Engineering Projects Building at Calvin (which is keyed differently than the Science Building where my office is located), an electronic key fob for entry to the DornerWorks building where I am a partner and also a physical key in case the electronic system fails. I have a key to my desk, a key to my laptop security cable, a key to the file cabinet, a key to my home safe where we keep important papers, and a couple keys that I no longer recognize (but I don’t dare discard them, in case they unlock something important). I have several electronic identity cards (some of which are paired with an additional passkey in the form of a PIN that I must remember), a couple credit cards that are a sort of financial key, and a surprisingly large number of computer passwords that I juggle in my head to keep straight.
This morning as I was leaving the house for work, throwing on my coat, grabbing my lunch bag, and heading into the garage, I noticed my shoe was untied. I put my foot up on a bench we have near the door step, just in front of our two vehicles. As I leaned down (which incidentally positioned my head just in front of the hood of my car), unbeknownst to me, the keys in my pocket must have squeezed together just right so that the panic button on my car key fob was depressed. The horn wailed out – right into my ear! I quickly fumbled for my keys while the horn screeched a couple more times. The acoustics of the room with the garage door still down are quite impressive, practically knocking me over with blasts of sonic energy.
The searchable online Bible site, biblegateway.org, reports only ten instances of the word “key” in the NIV version. The first two are literal uses of the word. In Judges 3, when Ehud killed the obese king Eglon with a two-edged sword and fled, locking the doors behind him, the servants waited “to the point of embarrassment, then had to find a key to enter the room”. In 1 Chronicles 9, the Levite gatekeepers in charge of the rooms and treasuries in the house of God are given charge of the key.
The other eight instances of the word are figurative. Isaiah twice prophesies about a key: speaking of the key to the house of David and later exclaiming the fear of the Lord as the key to salvation, wisdom, and knowledge. Two more keys appear in the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus promises to give Peter the keys of the kingdom, telling him “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In Luke, Jesus berates the experts in the law because they “have taken away the key to knowledge.” The final four references to keys come in the book of Revelations. Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades and the key of David. A star fallen from heaven to earth is given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. Near the end of the book, an angel with a key to the Abyss seizes the dragon and locks him in the Abyss.
Keys are a technological instrument of power and identity. A physical key allows entry into a locked room to access the treasure inside. A key card signifies the identity of the holder. A digital key decodes apparent gibberish into a meaningful message. Our computer passwords are keys that allow us to pass by the guards at the gates of our online accounts and keep out all others. Keys are so important that we are thrown in a panic when we lose them, even for a moment. More figuratively, a key concept is an idea that unlocks the entire topic, the one insight that decodes all the rest.
We must note carefully what the Pharisees lost as the key of knowledge (preferring status in the eyes of men rather than pursuing justice and mercy). What keys are you guarding in your heart? Are you holding on to that central key of the “fear of the Lord” so that you might find salvation, wisdom, and knowledge?