Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Worthy Services
distributed 2/1/02 - ©2002

The question seems crass: What is a wife worth?

But that question was a hot topic 30 years ago in a time of shifting roles and social structures. The debate was stirred by many factors, but the most important was divorce.

By the early 1970s in the US, divorce was becoming more common and more socially acceptable. What had been seen as a shameful process became more public and more assertive. In negotiating alimony and the division of property, fresh questions were raised about the economic contributions of "stay at home" housewives to the marriage.

The assumption in law and practice was that the husband made important contributions to the family through his paying work. The wife, however, was just there -- a helper, but not a significant contributor to the household economics. Thus, she was seen to have little claim to the family's assets like the house or bank account.

In those early days of feminism, advocates for women voiced a different economic view. Although no paychecks were issued, the work of a housewife must be seen as having value. In addition to her immediate domestic service (cleaning and administering the household; raising children), she frequently provided services essential to her husband's career advancement (hosting and appearing at social functions; volunteer service in the community). However routine, invisible or involuntary, her work was essential.

Women asserted that their unpaid work must be taken into account when allocating the family assets. Interestingly, some men countered with the claim that they could not afford to share their wealth, because after the divorce they would have to hire housekeepers, nannies and caterers to replace the "free" work of the wife.

In 2002, it is still hard to calculate a value for household work. But I hope that the need to consider those calculations has settled into our awareness.

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What is nature worth? A forest, or a wetland? The invisible work of insects and bacteria?

Our valuing of the natural world is as ignorant and unjust as what took place in divorces of the 1960s. Nature does things that we have taken for granted, and assumed will always be there. Just like "the wife" could be counted on to cook the meals, raise the kids and be a sexual partner, we've assumed that we can count on nature to provide us with clean air and water, food, fuel, and innumerable "housekeeping" services. We don't have to pay for nature's work -- it just comes as an expected parts of our life on Earth.

But that assumption blinds to the real worth of nature's service.

According to an estimate published in the journal Nature, every year humanity uses around US$33 trillion worth of natural resources and ecosystem services. That figure includes the obvious physical resources we use (trees, water, and land). It also assigns value to the capacity of the earth to clean air, store water, control climate, pollinate crops, provide habitat and deal with pollution. By that estimate, the value of nature is nearly twice the value of the global gross national product of US$18 trillion.

The "housewife" is contributing twice as much as the "wage earner." Two thirds of our global economy is invisible and unmeasured. And like the complaining husbands of 30 years ago, we are discovering that we can't afford to pay to replace the services that we have always taken for granted.

Increasingly, humanity is divorcing itself from the natural world. (Actually, we're killing off our loving partner, but that confuses the imagery!) We're eliminating natural systems, and we're oblivious to the costly effects of our actions. A more honest accounting would call us back into a healthy, reciprocal relationship.

There are theological, spiritual, moral and practical reasons for humanity to live in a sustainable relationship with the natural world. But it also makes basic economic sense to acknowledge, treasure and preserve the marvelous systems that God has created.

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For the next 10 weeks, Eco-Justice Ministries is blessed with the presence of Mark Schofield as an intern on our staff. Mark is working with us as the final project in his Master of Science degree in Environmental Education.

In addition to his educational expertise in environmental issues and theory, he's deeply committed to justice, and comes from a Lutheran church background. What a guy!

Mark will be working with churches in Colorado -- teaching classes, leading workshops and helping with curriculum development. He is also eager to connect with our friends beyond this area to explore how churches and church leaders can communicate environmental and eco-justice perspectives to their members and broader communities.

To tap into Mark's knowledge and skills, call our office (303-715-3873), or send e-mail to I hope you'll take full advantage of his brief time with us!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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