07 April 2009

Embarrassment of riches

The Industrial Revolution brought with it an embarrassment of riches. People in the 16th and 17th centuries were initially quite concerned with the abundance the new industrial technologies were enabling for their societies.

A crisis of religion that saw virtue in scrimping and saving engulfed much of Western Europe, both in the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. They worried about the effect abundance would have on the religious sensibilities of the ordinary citizen: how to use the goods well, what abundance was for, how not to be spoiled by possessions. The revolt against technology and toward an explicit embrace of the values of 'plain and simple' was a direct outgrowth of this religious crisis.

What people in those days perhaps didn't see quite as clearly was how it was that this embarrassment of riches signified the exploitation of natural resources and the corresponding betrayal of the stewardship of God's Creation for the sake of short term gain. The riches fell to the lower classes to lift them up into the middle class but the damage was being done to the upper classes who were superintending the extraction and exploitation that this Industrial Revolution was both enabling and propelling.

The Industrial Revolution ruined the upper classes all over Europe. It was those classes who couldn't adapt to the embarrassment of riches the modern era's increase in control afforded aristocrats in positions of privilege. The upper classes perhaps knew about choq but they couldn't deal with mishpat. They didn't know how to cultivate self-restraint in their culture. They simply didn't know what to do with the surplus the Industrial Revolution was producing. It never occurred to them to deliver the surplus to God.

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