Archive for December 13th, 2008

Inconceivable: Why Failure Is Normal, and Should Be Part of the Plan…but Isn't

Sharon December 13th, 2008

“He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped.  “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

…”Inconceivable!” the Sicilian cried.

The Spaniard whirled on him.  “Stop saying that word!”  It was inconceivable that anyone could follow us, but when we looked behind, there was the man in black.  It was inconceivable that anyone could sail as fast as we could sail, and yet he gained on us.  Now this too is inconceivable, but look - look” and the Spaniard pointed down through the night.  “See how he rises.”

The man in black was, indeed, rising.  Somehow, in some almost miraculous way, his fingers were finding holds in the crevices, and he was now perhaps fifteen feet closer to the top, father from death.

The Sicilian advanced on the Spaniard now, his wild eyes glittering at the insubordination.  “I have the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits.” he began, ”so when I tell you something, it is not guesswork; it is fact!  And the fact is that the man in black is not following us.  A more logical explanation would be that he is simply an ordinary sailor who dabbles in mountain climbing as a hobby who happens to have the same general final destination as we do. ” 

- William Goldman _The Princess Bride_ 

I fear that the Great Vizzini, of Goldman’s wonderfully brilliant and funny book (if you have only seen the movie, you are denying yourself a great pleasure)  may actually have to give his title of “the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits” up now - there are just so many competitors these days, most of them bankers and politicians.   Of course, it could just be that like Vizzini, they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are - and we’re starting to get a good look at what a world turned over to the corrupt and not-terrifically-bright-in-any-useful-way looks like. 

The northeast just had a major sleet, snow and ice storm.  Predictions for my area involved more than an inch of ice, followed by a few inches of snow, and widespread power outages (and, in fact, there are more than 1.2 million people in my area without power - I fielded several phone calls today from friends saying “You know, if I didn’t listen to you, I’d be a lot more uncomfortable right now.”)  The local schools closed even before the storm, in anticipation of nasty weather, so Eli was at home.  And while Eric was off giving a final exam, my kids and I convened for homeschool and set about making a list of the things we ought to do to be ready for an extended power outage.

We moved some of the firewood that sits in our mudroom into the depleted woodboxes in the house, and began moving more wood into the mudroom, so that we won’t have to try and chip the wood out from a sheet of ice.  We checked the freezer to make sure it was full, and added a few bottles of water to keep it at capacity longer.  We already keep our refrigerated food on our porch instead of using electric refrigeration, so no worries about that.  We made sure we knew where all the flashlights and the extra batteries were, put the solar lantern in the window to charge, threw on an extra load of laundry in case it was a few days before the next one could go in and generally got ready for a power outage.  We reassured the boys by changing the batteries in their LED nightlights and giving each one his own flashlight.

I was doing a radio interview as we were making these preparations, and I mentioned them to the interviewer, saying that we’re pretty ready for power outages, so that it isn’t that big a deal here.  And she asked me whether other people should do this, and when I said I thought they should prepare for interruptions in power, argued,  ”but think about all the time and money you use up getting ready to be able to operate without power - and most of the time you don’t need those preparations - after all, extended power outages for most people happen only once every few years -  is it really worth the effort for most of us?  Plus, you have to be thinking “what if something goes wrong all the time” - isn’t that depressing?” 

My interviewer was playing devil’s advocate, of course, but I think she articulates a pretty common viewpoint - the idea that thinking about failures and bad stuff is too depressing and that it isn’t worth the time and energy to prepare for most contingencies. The reasoning behind that is that most disasters - or even minor disasters - don’t happen very often.  Of course, when those disasters do happen, well, the sheer discomfort of being unprepared is pretty intense, but then we forget.

In fact, I’d go further than she did, and think that the idea of contingency planning in the US comes with a taint of superstition - that ill luck will strike those of us who actually spend time thinking  about what might go wrong.  The fact that our culture’s only vision of someone who is prepared is the survivalist curled up in a shack with his stash of guns suggests that we fundamentally think that preparation for negative outcomes is on the whacked out side.  I think this leads us to actually radically underestimate how often things go badly wrong.

And this leads to a painful  reality - despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope.  They won’t have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.

 But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal.  Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal.  We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected.  Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food.

My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don’t have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) - in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn’t just personal - our society as a whole has very few contingency plans - much less strategies for adapting to failure.  We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative.  We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture - from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects - we have no contingency plans.  Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.

All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure.  Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as “Ummm…have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?”  I’m acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure - and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen.  But in fact, we shouldn’t be shocked - failure is far more routine and normal than we expect.  Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster.

For example, for a good bit  more than a decade now, a large number of voices have responded to the idea of Globalization with fears that the creation of a global economy might eliminate protections for the most economically vulnerable members of the world’s economies, erase valuable cultural differences, lead to political hegemony and environmental rape, and also make economies more vulnerable to difficulties that once wouldn’t have concerned them much. 

It turns out that anti-globalization activists were right in just about every particular. Globalization did screw quite a lot of the world’s poor, to put it bluntly, and the collapse of globalization seems poised to screw billions more.  Tying our economies together is starting to look like it wasn’t such a hot idea for a lot of folks, starting, perhaps in Iceland, and for the International Banks that bought US mortgage dept, and travelling on to China, which depended on exports to the US, and is now seeing its own economy crash - and which crash is likely to do even more damage to the US, which depends on China to buy its debt.  Oops!  Globalization did result in unprecedented ecological damage - which we now have to live with.  It turns out that the depressing people who kept saying “umm…don’t we need a back up plan just in case this doesn’t work the way you hope it will” and “shouldn’t we maybe reconsider something that works even if things don’t go well?” were right.

There have been similar groups speaking out about energy issues for decades, or asking whether it might not be safer not to degrade the ecology in the first place than to rely on our ability to fix it when problems become evident.  And they to have been accorded precisely the amount of respect you’d expect - not much.  And they too, turn out to have been right.  It turns out that we may be spending 1/5 of global GDP (according to the Stern Report)  addressing the consequences of catastrophic climate change, unless we can stop it - which means that if we fail in the almost unbelievable challenage of arresting climate change,  we’re facing a potentially permanent Depression - because no economy can bear that burden without difficulty.  Our economy may well be permanently impacted by declines in available energy supplies, and our failure to invest in renewable energies.  Ooops.  It turns out that a lot of folks pointing out overarching problems were, well, right.

But along with the “Oops”  and the enormous chorus of voices calling our current crisis unforseeable, even as Goldman’s wonderful villain Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable!” and the talk of Black Swans and unpredictability is the fact that, as Yeats put it, things fall apart.  And they do it, not once in a great while, but rather often, even when the falling apart is something we do not choose to conceive of.

Thus, the war to end all wars built the ground for the next one, and the end mechanism of the subsequent war left us with the massive and presently insoluble problem of nuclear arms.  Similarly, as Jared Diamond observes, all of our most intractable present problems have been caused by the solutions we’ve sought to other problems - peak oil and climate change aren’t just bad things that are happening to us, they are the logical consequences of our solutions to other problems - standard of living, transportation and food issues.    In many cases, social problems follow the same course - the urbanization, for example, of Southern rural African-Americans during and after World War II really did free a lot of poor southern workers from poorly paid domestic and agricultural labor, and offer short term increases in wages.  They also destroyed cultural networks, stripped farmers of land and access to natural resources,  and resulted in an urban poverty arguably may have been more destructive than the rural poverty that preceeded it.

Now it would be false to suggest that the problems that we were solving weren’t real - and that for a time, the solutions didn’t seem better to some people.  For many a Chinese peasant, eating meat twice a week is better than twice a month before globalization.  From the perspective of someone who values the Great Northeastern Forest, the replacement of coal and wood for heating by natural gas and heating oil was a real improvement over the old options.  The problem is that the period of “solution” was brief and the new dependencies and destructions make the fall back much harsher - so, for example, the peasant who left the land to work on the periphery of the big city now no longer has his job, nor his land - or if he can get the land, climate change and pollution mean that it cannot support him any longer.  Now the American Northeasterner is completely unprepared for disruptions in price or supply of their energy - and adaptation is likely to cause even greater deforestation than before.  And, of course, there are people and perspectives from which things were always worse - from the perspective of climate change, the shift from a woodstove that heats a portion of your house to central, oil-fired heating was a disaster, for the hundreds of millions of peasants around the world who got poorer, not richer as they lost their land, there was never any good in the solution.  That things look different through different lenses is inevitable - but each layer of solution and complexity seems to have more dissenters, and put us in line for a bigger fall.

This might seem an argument primarily for contingency and scenario planning, and at a minimum, it should be.  But I’d like to suggest something else - something that works at the personal for me, and that might work at the level of societal planning.  What if we assumed failure?  What if, instead of no contingencies, or simply having a backup plan, we insisted that our society work not just when things are going well, but that the very solutions we choose operate to serve us even when they fail in reasonably likely ways?

My family uses this model in our planning for the reasonable contingencies of our lives - we aren’t prepped for everything - no bomb shelter, no SETI system to keep out alien invasion, and if the world goes into a sudden ice age, I’m woefully short on Mammoth repellent.   But we’re pretty good when we talk about things like ice storms  knocking out the power - it happens nearly every winter.  And because of that, my house works pretty well without power.  I have solar lanterns, rechargeable batteries and solar chargers, a couple of oil lamps, a manual water pump for when the well goes out, a wood cookstove, a solar oven and a composting toilet and a spare battery for the laptop so I don’t lose too much work.  Our house works great during the vast majority of times when we have power - and if it goes out, well, we flip on a few battery lights, put dinner on the cookstove to simmer and go out and bathe standing in the tub with a solar shower bag filled with water that warmed on the cookstove.  No biggie.

Now you could argue that getting my home ready to function this way took money, time and energy, and you’d be right.  So is it really worth it?  Sure - and this is why.  The very tools that I use to ensure that I’m comfortable in a power outage also serve me when the power is on.  The solar battery charger works great for my son’s nighlight, and the flashlights.  The down comforters that keep us warm when the only heat is coming from the woodstove also work great when we just don’t want to burn fuel or spend money on heating oil.  The solar lantern goes out to the barn with me, the cookstove allows me to use the wood that the ice storm is going to provide us with in fallen tree limbs.  The solar shower bags are wonderful for that outdoor sluice-off in the summer when I’m covered with garden mud.

Now these adaptations could operate as contingency plans - and then they would be costly and energy absorbing.  Having a wood cookstove that you use only when the heat or cooking facilities are out is certainly better than nothing, but it is an awfully expensive way to deal with a crisis. I certainly couldn’t blame those who are contingency planning for saying it might not be worth it.  On the other hand, a cookstove that makes use of downed wood, cuts your energy bills and also gives you an emergency backup, well, that’s not a bad solution.  By working not from the assumption that I ought to have an emergency plan for an unlikely contingency, but from the assumption that complex systems fail regularly *and* that the best system is to build infrastructure that assumes failure but also functions well without it, I get the best of both worlds - it actually doesn’t cost me very much to adapt.

How would this work on a world policy scale?  Well, let’s take energy as an example.  Let’s assume that more than 30 years ago, during the first energy shocks, we’d recognize that both absolute oil supplies (as characterized by the peaking of North American oil) and foreign supplies (as characterized by the OPEC cuts) were unstable, and subject to failure.  How would that have changed our energy and economic policy over the last 30 years?  It is very difficult to me to imagine a scenario in which we did not begin seriously building out renewable energies then - or one that did not offer improvement over our present situation.  Simply assuming that the oil supply might fail might well have reduced our overall economic growth (although that is by no means a given) compared to what we later had fueled by cheap oil.  But among the economists I know, I cannot find one who thinks that even the very short-term economic impact would have been negative enough to offset the advantages - and many doubt the impact would have been negative at all.  Similar scenarios are devisable if, for example, we were to have taken the information about global warming available to us in 1979 (copious, actually) and said “it seems pretty likely that continuing to burn fossil fuels would be a bad idea, so let’s begin a gradual phase out.” 

But, of course, hindsight is always 20-20 - what would such a policy look like right now?  Well, in economic terms, having a policy that planned for failure would mean assuming that the economy is not going to rebound in 2009 or 2010, and that our investments in infrastructure must be concentrated on mitigating the suffering of people who are going to be poorer, not shoring up financial institutions bound to failure.  Thus, we’d be putting our billions into small businesses, not huge ones, into basic things like food and insulation, instead of big luxury items that bring in profits in good times, but are useless in bad ones. 

But the funny thing about this is that just like the example of the energy build-out 30 years ago, I think there’s a compelling case to make that we would be richer in the long run, for example, if it took only a little energy to heat our homes, if we didn’t have to buy health care and if we invested in small scale agriculture.  I’m not going to sit down and make it point by point today - but I’d suggest historically speaking, the boom and bust cycle doesn’t necessarily result in net improvements over a more stable model - there’s a detailed analysis of this in Thomas Princen’s marvellous book _The Logic of Sufficiency_ that is a superb starting point for this case - and I will write more about it.

What about climate?  Well, you will remember my argument with George Monbiot - Ruchi, over at Arduous pointed out, quite rightly, the major issue with both of our approaches - that both of us are offering strategies with a substantial likelihood of failure implied.    She makes an engaging case for a third alternative.  I disagree with her analysis of how to approach this, because fundamentally I think climate change will exceed our capacity to mitigate, not to mention our capacity to manage mitigation and any kind of functional economy,  but I think the larger observation - that at this point we simply can’t afford any strategies for adapting to climate change that don’t include a full repetoir of mitigation strategies.  What this might look like is another issue - and one I intend to play with in the New Year, once I’ve shaken the book monkey off my back.

I wonder if it is possible to imagine a world in which failure is normalized, part of the narrative, expected and in which we choose our strategies to return positively even when things, as they say, fall apart.

By the way, we lost power for about 12 hours - drank cocoa, played with the boys, I worked until my laptop battery ran out, then went out and milked and hung around.  The power came out, but many of our friends are without power into next week - we’re hoping they’ll come have a sleepover party here! 


Why the IPCC Report Has To Go

Sharon December 13th, 2008

Are you sleeping too well?  Do you find yourself suffering from symptoms of happiness, a sense of security and contentment that the future will be good?  Well, I’ve got the medicine for that condition:

“There was a line in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s fourth report that didn’t get the attention it deserved:

‘Dynamic processes related to ice flow not included in present models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea-level rise.’

The media picked up on the projected rise in sea levels of 18 to 59 centimetres by the end of the century, but they didn’t question the models’ limitations.

Many climatologists fear the gradual melting of ice will be replaced by ice break-up, causing a sudden huge rise in sea level. Such a scenario increases the necessity of rescuing our climate.”

Besides giving us all another reason to spend our time clutching our teddy bears and sucking our thumbs, to me this is the final straw.  Right now, one of the great difficulties we face when addressing climate change is simply this - we’re not scared enough.  Climate change commentators regularly observe this - generally speaking, the public gets terrified about something (avian flu, terrorism, etc…) and the experts are generally more moderate, particulary scientific experts.  They’ve been taught to moderate their statements, been taught to include plenty of caveats.  This is not the case in the subject of climate research - those who know most about it are far more frightened than the average American.  They are worried about a world in which our ability to grow food, to live where we have been living, to sustain our population is radically undercut by climate change.

Even before the IPCC report came out, we knew that it suffered from a combination of scientific reticence, excessive consensus building  and political manipulation by governments who didn’t want to be pushed too hard.  And within months or weeks of its release, we knew that the IPCC report had not just understated what *might* happen sometime in the future - it had wildly understated what had happened already.  For example, its emission projections were based on older data - emissions concentration in the early 21st century were dramatically higher than anticipated.  Within months, we saw that the end of Arctic ice might come in 5-10 years, rather than the 100 years projected in the report.  This alone should have been enough to shift the public discussion of climate change - to say that the IPCC report cannot operate as the primary public account of what is needed to address climate change.  Unfortunately, and despite the heroic efforts of people like James Hansen, Joseph Romm, George Monbiot, and the people at Climate Equity, the IPCC report has continued to dominate and misshape discussion of climate efforts.

I do not mean to criticize the IPCC scientists as a group or personally.  I agree that their own efforts have been remarkable. Many of them are also fighting the battle to help people understand exactly what the real situation of our climate is.  But it is not enough - the IPCC report operates a text with Biblical weight - all the rest, as they say, is commentary.  And as long as they IPCC report retains its power, those who do not wish to act, or those whose primary concern is not preserving a really inhabitable planet for the future, will be able to point to the IPCC narrative and say “but your own account of things says that things are not that urgent.”  Right now, this is a strategy being used by conservatives in the US who have been forced to believe in climate change, but who still want to put business first - and it is a strategy that will probably gain more, not less traction as the realities of our economic situation hit us harder.

The next IPCC report will not be released until 2013 - around the time we anticipate all the Arctic ice will be gone, and very close to the end of the narrow window of time that we have to perhaps - and at this point it is only perhaps - address climate change.   Right now, the talks in Poland are struggling - again, we are locked in a global game of chicken, with poor nations refusing to consider making cuts until rich ones do, and every nation terrified of the economic consequences of making moves that address even the IPCC account.

I do not think we will break this impasse while the IPCC report offers a comforting, even if recognizably false narrative in which to leave one’s faith.  As long as the largest portion of the population believes we have until 2050, that sea level rises will not be a problem in our grandkids’ lifetimes and a host of other misconceptions, and can find a document of authority to back them up, they will not be afraid enough. 

Ideally, the IPCC participants themselves would speak out - and some of them, to their enormous credit have done so.  But we need a concerted narrative pointing towards the real information - the idea, for example, that an appropriate target must be 350 ppm, rather than the 450 or 550 ppm numbers that are more politically expedient, but less real.  And we need to say over and over again - the IPCC was wrong.  It understated things.  Our metrics must be based on cutting edge knowledge, and cannot be undercut by scientific reticence.

Who knows, maybe the IPCC should hire me - I’m no scientist, but those they have - what they need is the Stephen King of climate change narration ;-) .  There is no way that an IPCC report written by me would describe the danger of sudden sea ice break-off causing rapid sea level rise in terms that no would notice, right ;-) ?


The Welcome Table

Sharon December 13th, 2008

I’m going to sit at the Welcome Table - hallelujah!  I’ll sit at the Welcome Table one of these days.

I’m going to feast on milk and honey, hallelujah! I’ll feast on milk and honey one of these days.

All God’s children gonna sit together, hallelujah! All God’s children gonna sit together one of these days. -  Traditional Spiritual “River Jordan”

I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that a lot of us are feeling powerless right now.  Most of what’s going on in the world is not something we have power over.  Most of us rightly try not to let that stop us - that is, we try to claim what power we can as often as we can.  So even though we know it might not help, we talk to our representatives, we give money, we demonstrate.  But at some level, most of us are living through events that we are powerless to control, through a history that will sweep us along with it.  Frankly, this sucks.

All of us need to devote some energy to fighting battles that will probably be lost, simply because we have an obligation to fight the good fight.  But most of us can’t live on a steady diet of tilting at windmills - we also need to do work where we know we can accomplish something, and where we know we matter.  That’s why I talk about ordinary, simple things like dinner - which, of course, has already ceased to be simple for many people.  We need to win some, even as it seems like we are overwhelmingly losing much of what we value.

And here, I think is something that we can win, and desperately need - the recreation of the welcome table.  I think one of the things that most surprised me once I became an an adult with a table of her own and the capacity to put some food on it was how rarely most of us actually sit down and eat with our friends, our extended family, our community.  Heck, most of us don’t sit down together even as a whole family that often, much less invite guests.

I think part of the problem is that we are so terribly intimidated by the idea of “entertaining” in the Emily Post/HGTV sense.  All you have to do is to read the magazines in the supermarket check-out line around this time of year (the one month of the year we actually do have people over)  to realize that “entertaining” is one heck of a project - you have to have little bits of smoked salmon in cream puffs shells with lemon-thyme creme fraiche.  You are supposed to have fancy dishes and multiple courses and serve meals that cost enough that you have to take out another mortgage on your house.

Now there is a real place for the occasional lavish feast - it isn’t something we invented yesterday, the idea that you might save up the best foods for a celebratory display has a long history.  But so too does something other than “entertaining” - the sitting down together at a meal with others to whom you are tied. - just a plain and ordinary meal, which is celebratory not because of what’s in it, but because of who is at it.  And the more we watch famous people show off their homes, cleaned by underpaid minions and their elaborate buche de buttercreams (and yes, I think it is fun to make this stuff sometimes too), the harder it becomes for a lot of people to imagine eating a simple meal together.

They say that everyone has a mitzvah (Jewish good deed) that comes naturally to them - for me, hospitality is one of them.  I like nothing better than a crowd of people eating from my table.  But part of this is because I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be fancy or complex - real hachnaset orchim (the mitzvah of hospitality) isn’t the creation of the most fabulous meals or the perfect environment - it is simply being welcoming.  The most perfect practitioner of this I know is my friend Joe, a synagogue friend.  I once joked that we were invading them, but at least we hadn’t all arrived at their home at 3 am, demanding food.  Joe knew I was joking, but looked at me with absolute seriousness, and said “If you did, we’d do our best to make you welcome.” 

All of us have different lives, and the creation of a welcoming table can take different forms.  Kathy Harrison uses “Another Place at the Table” as the title of her lovely book on foster parenting, on the project of welcoming children in need.  That’s one possibility.  And there’s a real place in the world for opening the welcome table in a world of need - I used to pack extra sandwiches when I worked in downtown Boston - it wasn’t much trouble for even a graduate student living on a pittance to make another peanut butter and jelly or hummus and pickle sandwich.  There were always homeless folks out, and it was a gift to be able to offer them a sandwich.  The park bench I used to sit on most often was transformed - it became a table at the moment that I was able to offer food to another person.

The welcome table can be as simple as inviting an elderly neighbor to dinner, or making sure that you really sit down with your sister in law once in a while and drink tea and eat something.  It can be welcoming an army of neighborhood children in for milk and cookies, or setting the church table for an army of people in need.  It can be dropping that extra casserole or pie over at the family that just had a baby or lost their job.  It can be taking the risk and asking someone to come eat with you - that step in a casual friendship that opens you, perhaps frighteningly, up for more.

We’ve lost the habit of the welcome table.  I once taught a Hebrew School class of fifth graders about Passover, and I asked them how many of them, when the Haggadah commands them to cast open their doors and call out “let all who are hungry come and eat” actually do so?  What, I asked them, would they do if someone actually tried to come in and sit down?  Overwhelmingly, these children in a comfortable suburb told me that they would never really open their doors, and that if a stranger tried to enter and eat, the would be afraid.  And there are perhaps some legitimate reasons for fear - but some even greater reasons for overcoming it.  We are people who have learned to fear the idea of casting open our doors to others.

There are things we can only understand about one another by sitting together for a meal.  Seated together, we learn about each other’s food culture - in fact, we create a food culture.  Until we eat together, there are intimacies we cannot share.  Eating together is a powerful way of tying our lives together.  Building community depends upon it - and because so many of us are too busy, or too afraid or intimidated or simply not in the habit, we lose community and intimacy in precisely the measure that we do not share food.  It is a starting point for most human connections.

Every faith that I know of has elaborate laws of hospitality, and it is worth remembering that these faiths - and the secular moral identities (for example the anarchist movement _Food Not Bombs_ takes this as a basic principle)  that share their basic ground grew up not in worlds of wealth and privelege but in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, when we were far poorer than we are now.  These moral systems do not emphasize hospitality because they are concerned with minutia, but because these are not minutia - the welcome table is simply the basis of strong communities and humane society.  The welcome table is a source of power of which we have control.  It is time to invite someone - or someone new - in to sit and eat.