Bottom-Up Intellectual Ferment in Richmond

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

by James A. Bacon

Is religion a positive force for solving environmental challenges? That was the topic of a friendly debate last night between Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, a former sustainability advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Scott Wayne, a former British diplomat and now founder of the Frontier Project creativity consulting firm.

The debate, which was moderated by Roberta Oster Sachs, a CBS producer, took place in the Frontier Project’s office in Shockoe Bottom. It was an intimate gathering. Wine and cheese was served before, during and after the debate. Every one of the 30 or so members of the audience had a chance, if they wanted, to make comments and ask questions.

Abdul-Matin, author of “The Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet,” took the position that religion is a positive force. The major threats to the environment are driven by excessive consumption, a vice that the spiritual values taught by major religions act to temper.

Scott Wayne

Wayne countered that the biggest threat to the environment wasn’t consumption per se but the extraordinary growth in the number of consumers worldwide. What the world needs is fewer people, which can be accomplished by more widespread practice of birth control. But some of the world’s religions, most notably the Catholic Church, are hostile to birth control.

OK, that’s a gross oversimplification of their viewpoints, but it conveys the tenor of the discussion. What was remarkable about the session was not that it took place between world-renowned religious scholars or literary figures but that it took place between two ordinary Richmonders. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say “ordinary.” Abdul-Matin and Wayne are far more accomplished than the average Joe. Indeed,  Abdul-Matin has written a book that broaches the topic. Yet neither of them enjoys any great celebrity.

What struck me is that nothing like this ever took place in Richmond when I first moved here some 25 years ago. The Richmond region is far more intellectually vibrant today than it once was. The love of ideas is no longer confined to the campuses of the region’s three universities, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond University and Virginia Union University. The thirst for intellectual stimulation is ubiquitous.

Richmonders have always prided themselves as patrons of the arts and culture. We have a symphony. We have a ballet. We have one of the finest art museums in the country. We have a lecture series, the Richmond Forum, that brings in luminaries from around the world. But that’s old-school patronage of the arts. You go to the event, you sit, you listen, and then maybe you talk about it with your spouse on the drive home.

People today aren’t content to simply sit and listen. They want to be engaged. They want to participate in the interchange of ideas. Events like the Frontier Project’s discussion series appeal to this craving.

There’s a larger lesson here for readers of Bacon’s Rebellion and others who share our passion for building more prosperous, livable and sustainable communities. I have written extensively about the importance of the so-called “creative class” to driving artistic, scientific and entrepreneurial innovation in a region. Creative-class people are doers, not watchers. They don’t gravitate to communities that support what economic geographer Richard Florida calls the SOBs — symphony, opera and ballet. They gravitate to communities where they can get engaged.

Thus, to members of the creative class (as opposed to the corporate class), the coolest things about Richmond bubble from the bottom up. The French Film Festival. The James River Writers Festival. The Folk Festival. The First Fridays art walk. The C3 speaker series on innovation. To that list, perhaps, we can add the Frontier Project discussion series.

(In a similar vein, while Richmond may be one of the biggest cities in the United States lacking a pro-sports franchise, it has a active and impassioned amateur sports community. Rather than watch someone else play sports, Richmond’s creatives prefer to go mountain biking, do open-water swimming in the James River or join Seal Team outdoor fitness training on Belle Isle.)

There is no metric that I know of to measure the intellectual vitality of a region. The average level of education in Richmond may have increased somewhat during the years that I have lived here but that doesn’t begin to account for the quantum leap in curiosity, excitement and engagement that I have witnessed. I love this town, and with each passing year I know I made the right decision to make it my home.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    so I’m going to utter a piling-on sacrilege….

    the Church in it’s teachings should ALSO recognize personal responsibility in one’s actions, because when individuals use more resources than they can provide themselves, that ultimately will require that other people pay for your needs. The Church itself knows that it’s ability to help people is limited by two things: 1. how many people need help 2 – the finiteness of available “charity” resources

    People in the US believe it is their “right” to have kids- no matter their financial ability – even if they know they cannot pay for them and instead depend on govt assistance as well as tax credits to pay for them. (this is not just the poor, it includes those who depend on tax credits and other “help” from the govt.

    And one could make the case also on a sustainability basis that one new kid in the US will use 10 times the earth’s resources than one new kid in Kenya.
    we are the most prolific consumers of the earth’s resources bar none.

    I know. I know. These sentiments are “anti-people”, “anti-family”, etc but the simple reality is that part of the reason we are going broke is what it costs everyone to pay for kids whose parents simply cannot afford and totally expect the govt (other taxpayers) to pay for.

    At some point, the Church has to ask ” Would GOD want us to be responsible?”. I do not think I’ve heard much of that from religion but personal actions that impose costs on others … and you are aware of it – is taking something that does not rightfully belong to you.

    The whole idea that we should “help” people with kids presumes that someone is going to “help” pay for them.

    Don’t get me wrong here. Kids and families make the world go around but in our efforts to affirm that universal principle we have excused responsibility for paying for them.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Dear Lord, Bacon – what shameless hucksterism for Richmond. In an MSA of 1.5M, 30 people attended an intellectual debate. Perhaps in all the great learning that is happening in “Athens on the James” a smidge of time should be dedicated to learning statistics. A gathering of 30 people chugging white wine and scarfing down brie cheese proves nothing.

    You wonder why I accuse you of being a “Richmond apologist”. Go re-read your post. You’ll wonder no more. Funny that I can’t remember you writing an article like that about Charlottesville or Newport News or Fairfax. Richmond’s elite white wine and brie class has always been seen as self-absorbed and only too willing to meddle in everybody else’s affairs. It seems that nothing has changed.

    Your misplaced belief in the wonderment of Richmond and Richmonders typifies THE PROBLEM in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Please – drink your wine, eat your brie – but also, get the hell out of everybody else’s business. The citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia neither want nor need the self-declared elite of Richmond making decisions for us. Drop the state’s love of Dillon’s Rule. Return political power and personal freedom to the people of Virginia by empowering the localities to do what their citizens want. If you did that, your next white wine and brie party could be dedicated to patting yourselves on the back for actually living the life of personal freedom envisioned by America’s founding fathers.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    After reading Bacon’s “I love Richmond” screed and noting that he announced the article on his Facebook page with, “One more reason why I love living in Richmond…” (lest there be any question that this was about religion or the environment), I decided to take an inventory.

    You see, Catnip, Smeds, Snookless Joe, Norse Jimmy, TwoPop and Bull Dog are all coming over to my house tonight to watch the Nats play the Braves (miserable outcome last night). Given the crowd, I needed to take stock of my Pabst Blue Ribbon and Old Dominion supplies (I always keep a good supply of Virginia Gentleman on hand for those who prefer whiskey). I also expect to run down to Ben’s Chili Bowl or the Hard Times Cafe for some eats.

    Anyway, while getting ready to host some real guys watching baseball, I thought back to when I first met these guys. Some are my sons, some I knew from high school, some I knew from college, some I met in the mid eighties at work.

    The mid eighties … that was when the rest of America was wasting its time doing what has been recently discovered in Richmond – attending white wine and cheese parties to conduct pseudo-intellectual conversations in the hope of convincing people how smart the attendees are. However, as you might expect, people with names like Rip Dog and Catnip didn’t burn a lot of cycles at such meetings – what with the Redskins being repeatedly in the Super Bowl and all during the 80s.

    In fact, I remembered a little ditty from 1984 that suddenly seems appropriate given Bacon’s new found love of white wine and cheese parties …

    Stone Wheat Thins
    Wheel of Brie
    Keep those Yuppies
    Away from Me

    This is more of a chant that rhymes than a poem. For all the real people who read BaconsRebellion – feel free to chant this in order to ward off pseudo – intellectuals with wine breath and small bits of brie stuck between their teeth.

    Also – anybody who is in the Northern Virginia area is welcome to stop by and watch the Nats battle the Braves. However, you’ll need a nick name. Hydra – fine, LarryG – needs work. James A. Bacon – fit for purpose.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Jim Bacon’s hallucinations haunt me. I keep seeing his Obama-esque misrepresentations in my mind as I go about my business. Then, I feel compelled to run to the computer and catalog the flights of fantasy that exist in Jim’s mind.

    Here are a few:

    1. Bacon-based fantasy: “Rather than watch someone else play sports, Richmond’s creatives prefer to go mountain biking, do open-water swimming in the James River or join Seal Team outdoor fitness training on Belle Isle.”.

    Reality: Richmond was rated in 2012 as America’s second fattest city. Washington, DC is routinely rated as one of America’s Top 10 fittest cities.

    2. Bacon based fantasy “… open-water swimming in the James River”.

    Reality: The Virginia Department of Health lists four species of fish that should never be eaten if caught in the James River (around Richmond) due to PCB contamination. In addition, there are 22 species of fish that the Virginia Department of Health advises not to eat more than twice a month when caught in the James River (around Richmond) due to PCB contamination. Swim away, Richmond creative class. However, if you drown, your funeral will require attendees to wear haz-mat suits.

    3. Bacon based fantasy: “Rather than watch someone else play sports, Richmond’s creatives prefer to go mountain biking…”.

    Reality: Yes, Richmonders are riding their mountain bikes on the snow capped peaks of the Western Henrico Range no doubt. I give up – what is the highest elevation in the Richmond MSA? Oh, mountain biking has nothing to do with mountains? I see. Another Richmond hallucination.

    As for Richmonders preferring to perform sports rather than watch them – Richmond has pro sports franchises. For example, the aptly named Richmond Flying Squirrels is a professional Double A baseball team. Bypassing Bacon’s erroneous comment about Richmond “lacking a pro-sports franchise” we come to the question of why major league professional sports has bypassed Richmond while finding long term homes in much smaller places like Green Bay, WI. Bacon wants you to believe that Richmonders eschew pro sports so that they can exercise their way to being America’s second fattest city. Not quite. Richmond had a number of failed attempts at major league professional sports. For example, Richmond once hosted the professional Virginia Squires basketball team. Despite having both Dr J and George Gervin on the team mis-management led to the Squires downfall. Not only did the team manage to bounce payroll checks, it failed within a month of being compensated in the NBA – ABA merger. On May 11, 1976—only a month after the end of the season—the ABA canceled the franchise after it missed a $75,000 assessment. This cost the Squires a chance to be compensated as part of the merger, which closed only a month later.

    Richmond’s elite also couldn’t manage to keep its Tripe A baseball franchise in town since it couldn’t find a way to renovate the stadium beyond third world status. The team is now happily playing outside Atlanta.

    Richmond’s lack of a major professional sport franchise has nothing to do with public interest – it is a simple matter of civic incompetence.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      That’s Drop Dead Hysterical!

  5. larryg Avatar

    I think the piece would have been received better if Bacon had left out the part about wine and cheese!


  6. scottxwayne Avatar

    Loving these comments.

    I had no idea wine was so inflamatory, especially white. Our apologies. We’ll ship the office stash of Sauvignon Blanc back to New Zealand on Monday.

    To reassure upset readers, I was drinking only red (Tempranillo I believe) and Ibrahim gave up drinking a few years ago. No brie, it’s a little too sweaty. Like some of these comments.

    I’ll pass on the generous baseball invitation, am more of a rugby guy. But you can hear Ibrahim’s sports views most weeks on WNYC:

    The next session is on healthcare, on which, like sustainability, we’re pseudo-experts. There’ll be plenty of Newcastle Brown Ale on hand. Looking forward to seeing you there.

    Seriously, loving these comments. I didn’t believe people read blogs anymore. Great to be proven wrong.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Scott – get yourself of garbage pail of iced Dog Fish, several packets of Red Devil, and a few spittoons, to balance out the Brie and white wine.

      Then you’re in legitimate business with both the Far and Near Sides, both in substance and in bluff, irrespective of whether the former elect to show.

      Surely, in any case, Richmond needs the stimulation. From small seeds great oaks grow.

  7. DJRippert Avatar


    I am a little old to play rugby so I live vicariously through my sons. One plays at Gonzaga High School and the other for Clemson University. I started watching when they started playing and I almost, sort of, kind of get it.

    Newcastle Brown Ale is a decent brew if sometimes a little “burnt corky”. If you’re going to meet in Richmond, maybe something from Hardywood? Anyway, if you are going to discuss healthcare with Jim Bacon around you might want something stronger on hand. Somewhere between Xanax and heroin.

    As for food, Bacon knows where to get some healthy-sounding meat pies in Richmond.

    Since all Richmond institutions are sacred to Jim Bacon, please don’t mention Phillip Morris in your healthcare discussion. Don’t ask him about areas of the state where smoking is rare subsidizing areas of the state where smoking is more common – on healthcare costs. Don’t ask him why Henrico County has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the US while Northern Virginia had the good sense to double the state’s rate of taxation on a pack of butts.

    Anyway, I have to go play some golf. I need to win back some of the money I lost last night betting on the Nats.

    Have fun with the healthcare talk. Maybe hand out cartons of cigarettes as door prizes? I understand cigs are cheap down there. As for health consequences – don’t worry. Tidewater and NoVa will pay for Richmond’s “light ’em if you got ’em” attitude.

  8. accurate Avatar

    Jim –
    Portland Oregon thought/thinks it wanted/wants the ‘creative class’ too. Far too many of them appear to have no skills beyond sleeping in past 11AM and aggressive panhandling, it has made the downtown area of Portland an area to avoid at all costs. The next higher level of the ‘creative class’ are the ones who end up as barristas or waiters; while they persue their ‘art’.

    Portland had the same utopian vision that you are painting. But the reality is far from the ideals that are sought. Better to go for some industries and businesses, yes it mundane, but it pays the bills and in many respects it is a better ‘class’ of people.

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