The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
It is part of my job to stay on top of the environmental news. But even though I get paid the big bucks to make sense out of it all, I still find that it is easy to get swamped in the details. The big picture gets lost in the shuffle, and the focus shifts to specific issues, problems and policies. It is the old problem of "not seeing the forest for the trees."
That's why, every now and then, I find it helpful to step back and take a conscious look at how the pieces fit together. I step back from the headlines -- the latest science on climate change, the current disparities about toxic waste and race, or whether the Arctic Refuge is dramatically at risk this week -- and try to get some historical and philosophical distance.
When I did that recently, I turned to a little-known volume on my bookshelves. The Conserver Society: A Workable Alternative for the Future is a 1979 report from a Canadian think-tank team charged with suggesting the steps Canada and other countries might take to become conserver societies. It is a book that reminds me to think big.
The authors say that they tried to avoid a "partial view" of the problems involved, which might -- for example -- see energy, inflation and employment as separate issues. In the view of the authors, the conserver society "is a 'package-deal' concept. It is a comprehensive (or near-comprehensive) set of scenarios reflecting the multidimensional nature of the human species." The set out to envision strikingly different forms of society, not just new policy suggestions.
The book describes five very different social options, three of which are seen by the authors as hopeful and helpful, and two of which are rejected as the wrong sorts of directions to pursue. It is fascinating to me, now almost thirty years after this book was written, to see how well these five options still describe the values and worldviews which drive much of our public debates.
The three positive descriptions are:
When I apply these five categories to the headlines that I see and the discussions that I hear -- whether about urban growth strategies, national energy policies, or broad economic goals -- it seems to me that almost all of the debate seems to be between the status quo (which expects to use more resources in continued growth) and conserver model #1(which wants to continue trajectories of growth, but with better efficiencies in resource use). Tragically, I see that there is a significant "sqanderer" component, too, where SUVs and ever-larger houses do less for us, personally and especially socially, while consuming more.
Seeing the list of social options helps me to recognize that almost no one breaks from the ideology of perpetual growth to advocate for conserver model #2, a steady-state society.
I do see a fairly vocal constituency standing up for conserver model #3, which not only tries to reduce consumption, but also seeks to live by a different set of values and social goals. The "voluntary simplicity" movement is the most coherent and affirmative expression of this genuine and intentional path to change.
These five models are helpful for us, because they let us get a handle on guiding principles and overall perspectives for an entire society. We can see that models which demand continuing growth -- whether economic or physical growth, "doing more" -- are poorly suited to real sustainability.
On a personal level, too, the five "conserver" models help us to see how hard we're pushing ourselves in caring for God's creation. Where do your values and goals seem to fit among the five models? What sort of "conserver" do you seem to be?
I invite you to take a break from the headlines for a while this summer, and find some time to reflect on big pictures, broad strategies, and overarching social models. It can be a refreshing exercise!
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Even though I just told you to take a break from the headlines, let me add two "current events" tidbits.
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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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