Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Average Awareness
distributed 6/3/05 - ©2005

Surely you've had this experience: your church or club needs to raise $1,000, and there are 100 members. A leader suggests that "if everyone gives $10, we'll be in great shape!"

So the appeal goes out, urging one and all to make the average contribution of $10. The most loyal and generous donors comply with the request, and send in their modest checks. Unfortunately, many others only chip in $1, $2 or $5, and quite a few don't give anything at all. The drive falls far short, because most gifts are not "average."

Experienced fund-raisers know about the "donor pyramid". They know that, to raise a thousand bucks, somebody is going to have to pledge a hundred dollars or more, and quite a few folk will be needed at the $25 and $50 level. The relatively few big givers balance out lots of small contributions, so that the average finally works out to $10.

Not everyone is average. Indeed, almost no one sits right at the average, no matter what is being measured -- charitable giving, family income, height, weight, or ecological impact.

We don't -- and shouldn't -- try to deal with all situations by suggesting what would be good for the average. It is important to know how each person or setting differs from the calculated midpoint, and to respond appropriately to the uniqueness of each context.

A doctor should suggest one mix of diet and exercise for someone who is 25 pounds below the average weight for people of their height, age and build, and a different mix for someone who is 50 pounds above that average.

The international "cap-and-trade" strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are being established to meet the Kyoto protocols -- and that would be implemented in the US under the Climate Stewardship Act -- recognize that the costs for reducing emissions are not the same for all sources. Cheap and easy reductions are maximized, instead of asking all polluters to make equivalent average reductions.

So, too, many cities have found that they can solve urban air quality problems -- not by trying to get all cars to be just a bit little cleaner -- but by getting the worst oil-burning, smoke-belching clunkers off the road. The dirtiest 1% of the cars cause a surprisingly large amount of the total pollution. Targeting those few vehicles is a cheap, easy and effective way to clean the air.

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Last week's Eco-Justice Notes dealt with the thorny question of population as a concern for ecological sustainability. In a single-sentence lead-in to the topic, I wrote, "The explosive growth in the number of human beings on this planet -- in tandem with the average person's ecological impact -- is why the earth is now stressed in ways that have never been seen before."

As one reader promptly reminded me, that mythical "average person" is not the one who has to make the changes that are needed to move us toward sustainability. The problem is located in a the relatively small group which is placing huge demands on the resources and systems of our beleaguered planet.

The researchers of the Worldwatch Institute have categorized the most affluent 20% of the world's population as the "consumer class." We, the consumers, are described as people who regularly eat meat and processed foods, travel widely, live in climate-controlled and appliance-filled buildings, and who surround ourselves with a profusion of short-lived, throwaway goods. We, the richest 20%, take home 64% of the world's income, and have a similarly disproportionate ecological impact.

The challenge is not to reduce the world's "average" consumption and pollution by 20%, but to reduce the impact of the consumer class to perhaps half of what it is now. If we, the wealthy, make those sort of changes, then the global "average" impact shifts way down, and humanity as a whole is far closer to long-term sustainability.

But that brings us back to difficult parts of last week's question, which looked at the interrelationship between the number of human beings on this planet, the average person's ecological impact, and the ways in which well-intentioned liberal/progressive values add to the problem.

Our progressive values have affirmed the levels of health care and nutrition that have led directly to the population explosion of the last century. So, too, our values may affirm a quality of life that requires a moderate degree of affluence -- not the excesses of the consumerist lifestyle, but more comfort and freedom than comes with bare subsistence.

Once again, we have a difficult question. What happens if our values lead us to hold up a certain level of affluence as morally right for the human community, and we determine that the Earth cannot sustain us at that level with our current or projected numbers?

Somewhere along the line, we need to do the math, look at what we consider to be an appropriate average standard of living, define an ethically acceptable range around that average, and then see if the Earth can sustain the human population at that level.

We can ignore population if we are willing to ask all people to live at very minimal levels of comfort and freedom -- and if we think we can actually get the rich of the world to make those dramatic changes! But if our values tell us that The Good Life requires more than bare subsistence -- if we ethically and culturally affirm somewhat moderate lifestyles -- then we also have to talk seriously about the problem of "overpopulation".

In our churches, our families, and our political conversations, may we probe the realities of how much this planet can provide, and how that can be divided justly among us all. As we accept the limits of the Earth, may we also strive to find a hopeful vision that balances population with a joyous, fulfilling way of life.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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