Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Conserver Societies
distributed 7/6/06 - ©2006

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:

  1. a model which stresses growth with conservation, "doing more with less."

  2. the affluent or high-level stable state best characterized by the phrase "doing the same with less."

  3. the post-industrial conserver society, in which we would learn to "do less with less and do something else." The authors acknowledge that this "is the most radical of the conserver options and would require substantial value change."
The two other options are the status quo, which is described as "doing more with more," and the squander or anti-conserver society, whose creed is "do less with more."

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.

  1. Last week's Notes reflected on the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and invited our readers to contribute ideas about ways to effectively discuss the film in a church setting. We're still receiving comments, and those contributions will be distilled into a study guide. Until that guide is completed, there are some preliminary suggestions for discussion questions posted on our website.

  2. There have been a flurry of news stories recently about court decisions regarding the Navy's use of high-powered sonar in areas with large populations of whales and dolphins. For some background on the issue, I invite you to look at an issue of Notes from four years ago, Save the Whales! That column has been one of my favorite pieces through the years, and it may provide a different slant on the issue than you'll get in the newspaper. Thinking about care of the whales, too, shows why conserver model #3 -- which calls for a change of our values and our social goals as well as an efficient use of resources -- is a worthwhile and challenging goal.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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