Why We Don’t and How We Can (Care for Creation)
These reflections are devoted to citing a number of obstacles that keep us from caring for creation. Many of us are absolutely committeed to do what we can to lower our destructive impact on Earth and to behave in ways that serve to diminish our impact and generate a positive restoration of Earth. Yet we often simply do not do that. Or at least we do not do as much as we think we should. We can open our eyes by doing a Fearless Moral Inventory, as AA calls it, to all living and non-living beings we have harmed. We can also become aware of the ways our personal behavior and our public witness are blocked or prevented by various personal reasons,cultural assumptions, and religious beliefs. We seek to name some of those blocks and suggest how we might change to make a difference.
Why We Don't and How We Can (Care for Creation): Reason # 3: The Mentality of Unlimited Goods and Resources
Why we don’t (conserve precious resources)
For most of history and throughout much of the world today, societies have considered that all goods were limited and in short supply. Anthropologist George Foster has referred to preindustrial agrarian economies as “limited goods economies.” People experience the cosmos as a closed universe. It is limited in size and scope. The daily experiences reinforced this conception. In biblical times, the experience of living in a village was that there was only so much land around the village to grow so many crops to support so many people. Only so many people could live in the village. People could have only so many children. There was only so much of anything for the village to share.
The consequences of this perspective were considerable. If there is only so much to go around, then accumulation by one family meant deprivation for another. Greed was a major offense. Envy was a significant problem, because jealousy was not a matter of wanting something like another person has but of wanting what another person has. Theft was a major community violation, because recovering from loss was impossible. The idea was for people to maintain what they had and not lose ground. It was an ethic for the whole community to share rather than to compete to accumulate wealth at the expense of others. We may look at this approach and think it is unrealistic or unfortunate. However, the same must be said for our approach.
In the modern West, we have a perspective of unlimited resources. We have a vision of the universe as open and infinite. We believe that goods are unlimited and in endless supply. Our economy is based on unlimited resources. I have heard economists say that if we run out of oil or other vital supplies, human ingenuity will come up with something so that we do not need to fear limitations to our resources. Likewise, our economy is based on an ever expanding market. We believe that we can always develop new markets throughout the world to deliver products. When we talk about supply and demand, we are really convinced that we can always get all the supplies we need and we can create all the demand needed to buy the products. Supply and demand may fluctuate from time to time, but in principle we regard them as ever expanding. And there seems to be no limit to what our economy can absorb by way of national debt.
We also do not think that the accumulation by some people deprives anyone else. “Profit profits everyone,” as the economic pundits say. We no longer have a concept of greed as accumulation of wealth. Only if people engage in fraud or corruption or crimes of some kind do we cart out a concept of “greed.” Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and other billionaires are not greedy. Rather they are shrewd, even though their profits are generally based on cheap resources and low wages and high prices along with the shifting of money among elites in the markets and exploitation of human and natural resources in third world countries. We have thought that the economy can grow only if we put huge sums of money into the hands a few wealthy people. Executives can make 300 times as much as those who do the real labor; yet they believe that this arrangment is necessary to the adequate functioning of the economy—and no harm to anyone.
This mentality of a society without limits may be based in part on our American history. We have embraced a “frontier mentality” about most everything. In our early history, there was always more land and more resources. We could just move on to the next territory. Even when we got to the Pacific Ocean, there was always plenty of open space to cultivate and to develop. When we ran out of land, we moved to the “frontiers of space.” We have even addressed social issues in these terms when we dubbed the war on poverty as the “New Frontier.”
This mentality has extended to personal accomplishments. “If you just put your mind to it, you can do anything you want to do.” “You can be anything you want to be.” “Anyone can be president.” “Everyone can have the American dream if they only work hard enough.” Stock brokers advertise that “Your world should know no boundaries.” That sums it up. It even extends to personal behavior as touted on T-shirts with the motto: “No Limits.” Even the impossible is possible.
Ecologically, we have little sense of boundaries or limits. We use oil without regard to limits. We think the atmosphere in which we put emissions from the burning is unlimited. We have a throwaway society without regard to the consequences of huge amounts of garbage deposited in land and ocean. We remove trees with little regard for the health of the planet. We overfish waters and overhunt animals and overdevelop land and overmine resources. We pour toxins into the water and land thinking that the world is large enough to absorb it all. We use fresh water on the assumption it will never run out.
How we can (conserve resources because the world is finite and limited)
As it turns out, there are not endless supplies of oil and minerals. There is only so much that can be poured into the atmosphere. There is only some much we can put into the oceans without consequences to sea life and coral reefs. There is only so much trash we can discard, only so many toxic we can leach into the land and water, only so much fresh water we can use up. In fact, there are limits to everything. There are limits to growth of the economy. There are limits to what some can accumulate without damaging the whole. Profit does not profit everyone—certainly not those who are exploited to make profit happen for the wealthy. Workers now receive the same wage equivalent as they did in 1964, while executives have expanded their income by hundreds of percent. When the water rises, all boats do not rise with it. Way too many capsize and go under. The universe might be infinite but there are definite boundaries to Earth and its atmosphere. We are a spaceship with limited resources.
Maybe we need to rethink this mentality of unlimited goods. Perhaps we could learn from the perspective that all things are limited and in short supply. Can we change our idea to this one? Can we realize that we do not have a right to anything and everything just because “we can”? How can we as a country, as corporations, as organizations, as families, and as individuals take a different approach? How can we develop an economy based on limited supplies and shared needs?
How can we begin to practice an ethic of respect for limits in our daily lives? Think about everything that comes into your living space. What can you do to limit those goods and resources? Think about your use of all the things that come into your living space. Can you use them to their fullest and most efficiently? Think about all the things that go out from your living space. Can you diminish that amount significantly? Can they be reused and recycled? How about conservation and rationing as activities that will teach us and accustom us to a new perspective in life?
We need a new myth in our country and in our world, a new perspective that is honest and realistic and sustainable for life. What do we need to do to embrace that shift?
The Letter of James is an important Christian document that addresses this problem. The author “James” argues that a reality of limited goods in life engenders envy and jealousy, because people compete for scarce resources. The result is conflict and war, discrimination against the poor, and greed. The solution is not to imagine that goods are boundless, such that everyone grabs for them without limits. Rather, James argues, we can see that it is the graces of God that are the good and perfect gifts from above, from God. These goods are unlimited and fully satisfying. We will find our human fulfillment from the unlimited gifts of God—not as a way for the poor to accept their fate but as the way for the wealthy to humble themselves and seek an equitable sharing of wealth. These gifts from God bring justice and healing.
If we look to these gifts, we will not need to fight over limited material resources. We will not discriminate against the poor and defer to the rich. We will not need to exploit the poor. We will not need to accumulate wealth or power. We will share with the hungry and clothe the naked. We will speak well of one another. We will pray for each other’s healing. Without the unlimited graces from above, there is hatred and conflict due to jealousy and rank exploitation. “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” By contrast, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy. And a harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
This same mentality in relation to people will at the same time serve us well in relation to the resources of the Earth. When we find our human fulfillment from the unlimited gifts of God, we will not be driven by ambition and competition to exploit the limited resources of Earth without end in our quest to accumulate wealth. We will not hunker down to secure ourselves ecologically without regard for the suffering of others. We will seek balance and sharing. We will set limits on our human use of resources and goods. We will see that the lives of all, particularly the vulnerable, will be secured. We will share the resources of Earth with all living things, so that all animals and plants may have space and place to receive their needs in due season on Earth.