Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

distributed 1/17/02 - ©2002

News flash: The excellent new website and electronic communications center for the Interfaith Climate Change Network came on-line this week. I strongly urge you to visit, and to sign up to participate in this important national campaign.

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There is much that can be said about the recent collapse of Enron, the energy-trading giant. The case is fertile ground for those who have the strength to explore moral and ethical failures, the conflicted interests of accounting firms, the political influence of campaign finance money, and more. I'll leave most of that commentary to those with greater courage, wisdom and research time.

My reflections go to that part of the story which stirs more compassion than outrage -- the Enron workers whose pensions disappeared when the company stock crashed. We hear that employees were enticed and encouraged to stuff their retirement portfolios with company stock. Whether by unfortunate coincidence or design, they were unable to trade that stock during the critical weeks when they might have been able to cut their losses. Not only did they lose their jobs, but many lost their retirement security as well.

It is a truism in the investment world that a prudent person will have a diverse portfolio. Rather than staking it all in any one venture, it is wise to have a mix of stocks from different fields, and better yet to combine stocks, bonds and other sorts of investments. While such a blend precludes the astronomical gains that can be found over the short term through the profits of a single winner, it almost eliminates the chance of the sort of catastrophic loss suffered by those deeply invested in Enron.

A newspaper editorial this week looked at the Enron situation and suggested that a new law should enforce a degree of common sense in investments. The proposal would mandate that no more than 25 percent of a 401(k) retirement portfolio be kept in a single company. In today's complex world with enormous concentrations of wealth in a few corporations, it may be prudent and practical to require such diversification.

The wisdom of diversity holds outside the sphere of financial investments, too.

Churches wither when they become too homogeneous in age, race, income, theology or political outlook. The vitality and health of congregations is enhanced by a good dose of diversity.

Entire communities are at risk when their economic base lacks diversity. Whether it is Detroit and autos, Silicon Valley and computers, Alaska and oil, or rural Washington and logging, dependence on any single industry is a source of risk. That fear stirred by that dependence often leads to perverse efforts at protectionism, and an extreme hostility toward any challenge to the dominant business.

There is a profound loss of diversity in the agricultural realm. Through many years of life in the Midwest, I've seen the spreading dominance of monocultures. Whole counties are planted with a single strain of corn or soybeans. Rather than a mix of different crops and pasture, a crowd mentality (fueled by seed companies, land grant universities and lenders) stakes the life of farms and communities on a single crop. Not only does that uniformity raise the risk from a quirk of weather or market forces, it actively encourages the spread of damaging insects and fungal blight.

Genetic diversity in livestock is plummeting worldwide. Quirky breeds of chickens and goats, pigs and cattle used to give a distinctive character to a particular farm, or to regions of the globe. That diversity is giving way to a few omnipresent breed lines, fine-tuned for profit and marketability. The Denver Post reported this week that "an estimated 4 million Holsteins registered in the United States are related to only 36 of the black-and-white dairy cows, a narrowing of the family tree that makes the breed vulnerable to disease and environmental stresses."

The earth is encountering an enormous crisis in biodiversity. Science tells us that humanity has triggered a wave of extinction in plants and animals on a scale not seen since the die-off of the dinosaurs. The Endangered Species Act is a vital tool in the US for addressing that problem on a narrow species-by-species approach. Stronger and more effective efforts should address threats to entire ecosystems.

Nature -- God's well-ordered creation -- tends toward diversity. God's wisdom has produced a world filled with a veritable riot of species, woven into complex webs of interlocking relationships. It is not a system geared toward quick profit or efficiency. It is a system guaranteed to be stable, sustainable and creative.

As humanity has tried to stand outside of nature and control it, we increasingly have violated the core ecological principle of diversity. Whether fueled by greed, ignorance or compassion (the "green revolution" sacrificed diversity in a technological drive to feed the hungry), our imposition of uniformity to squeeze the highest yield from any species or system puts us all at great risk.

Diversity is a wise and practical goal in economics, community life, biology and environmental health. Preserving and enhancing diversity should be a central principle in our ethical toolkits. It is a matter of justice that applies to both workers and ecosystems.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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