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

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
distributed 4/24/04, 5/9/08 & 6/27/14 - ©2004, 2014

I came across a brilliant image for the way our economic system is running out of control -- even if it does trigger a mental picture of Mickey Mouse.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is an ancient tale put into verse by Goethe, and into musical form by Paul Dukas. Walt Disney used the composition in his animated collection, Fantasia -- thus the problem in connecting Mickey's big ears with a serious topic.

The story has a youngster studying under a powerful sorcerer. As was the pattern with such apprenticeships, the student role includes household tasks, like carrying buckets of water. Not surprisingly, the youth doesn't like the duty of lugging buckets.

One day, the sorcerer is not on the scene, and the apprentice peeks into the book of magic, where he finds a spell that will bring an inanimate object to life. The student uses the incantation to animate a broom, which dutifully carries the water-filled buckets.

The problem, of course, is that the ever-obedient broom keeps doing what it was told to do, and the apprentice does not know how to make the broom stop its diligent work. The tank overflows, the house floods, and only the arrival of the sorcerer prevents disaster.

'Tis a fine story, an evocative piece of music, and -- as with the other Fantasia creations -- the Disney animators did a memorable job of illustrating the composition.

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In her excellent book, The Wealth or Health of Nations, theologian Carol Johnston writes, "Capitalist economies, like the broom of the fabled sorcerer's apprentice, march to give their societies exactly what they ask for: ever mounting arrays of goods that are ever more sophisticated and exciting. But the time for examining the goals of capitalism and facing up to the very urgent problems is long overdue."

Johnston refers to the crisis in the fable when the broom will not stop its tireless work. She then says, "In capitalist economies the damage to human and natural communities also grows swiftly. We have enshrined one goal for economies -- growth in production -- and we have achieved great success. But at the same time, all over the world human communities and natural ecosystems are unraveling under the impact of industrialization, and the benefits are persistently uneven."

Even as we see clear evidence of the problems generated by this economic system, the spell calls for unending growth in production. Depleted resources, polluted air and water, the unrepentant shift of traditional cultures into urbanized cash economies -- all these continue and accelerate as the economic system dutifully produces more growth.

The sodden and panicked apprentice had the sense to try and stop the spell. The leaders of capitalistic societies -- now including China with more than 1 billion people -- are still enthralled with the flood of production and consumption.

Just listen to the news anytime there is a report about the Gross National Product. The superlatives get ever more exuberant as the percentage numbers climb, and panic spreads if the rate of growth slows. Economic growth is celebrated as an unquestioned good. But the environmental and social effects of that growth are seldom named as inescapable repercussions of our chosen goals.

It is time for the sorcerer to come home and save us from this crisis of our own making. But that is where reality differs from the folk tales. No powerful wizard is going to appear and deliver us. It is up to us to find a way of undoing the powerful instructions we have given the economy.

The goal, of course, is not economic collapse. Trading the current disaster of over-production for a new one of under-production isn't helpful.

The challenge is to turn the economy from a simplistic quest for more goods and services, of whatever form, toward economic activities that are more desirable and better managed.

Carol Johnston's study hearkens back to the work of Adam Smith and other economists from the 18th and 19th centuries. As they gave theoretical shape to capitalism, increasing wealth was affirmed as a primary economic goal. Johnston proposes a different goal for this time -- healthy communities instead of wealthy individuals.

The shift from wealth to health allows consideration of social and environmental factors that are invisible within the purely economic measurements most commonly used today. Directing economic benefits to serve communities instead of individuals brings in matters of equity. That change would minimize the crushing poverty and obscene wealth that are so often the products of our existing system.

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When the broom was running out of control, flooding the house with vastly more of a good thing than was desired, the apprentice didn't know how to make it stop.

As unfettered capitalism does too much of a good thing, we don't want to bring the system to a halt. "Stop" is not the needed command. We do need to change the instructions that drive these amazingly productive institutions. We need to redirect their output toward just and sustainable ends.

May God guide us and strengthen us in the challenging task of shifting our society's economic goals. For the sake of our societies, and of the Creation, may we be both wise and effective in redirecting the vast energy of economic life toward the long-term health of our communities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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