Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Expanding the Toolbox
distributed 7/20/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Village Presbyterian Church, in Prairie Village, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

We celebrate, too, their strong Sustainable Sanctuary Program.

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." -- psychologist Abraham Maslow

My friend Bob, a dedicated peace activist, uses that saying often in critiquing US foreign policy. When the military is our only -- or our strongly preferred -- way of dealing with threats, then every threat looks like an army to be defeated. Diplomacy, economic sanctions, education and non-violent resistance don't get considered as viable options when the "toolbox" is too small.

In a Common Dreams essay four years ago, commentator Roger Arnold used the hammer/nail idea to reflect on the errors of US military engagement in VietNam, and drew parallels to the then still-young war in Iraq. Decades ago, when he was a draftee serving in Southeast Asia, he found the military to be "exceptionally competent. What it was designed for, however, was smashing an identified enemy force on a field of battle. It was not designed for winning the trust and support of foreign villagers who only wanted to be left alone." He notes the essential problem of using the wrong tool for a job: "You can't cut a board with a hammer; you can only splinter it."

Relying on one perceptual tool, instead of having a diverse toolbox, creates problems in many areas of our lives, whether in church relations (when your only leader is the pastor ...), criminal justice (when your only punishment is a jail ...), schools (when your only tool is a standardized test ...), or environmental policy -- which is where I'll finally get centered in my comments for today!

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My pondering of conceptual toolboxes was stimulated by an e-mail conversation between two environmental activists that was forwarded to me by a friend. They were debating which words to use as they opposed the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The two key terms in their discussion were "efficiency" and "conservation."

One of them wrote that "it is commonplace for people to use 'conservation' and 'efficiency' interchangeably, and they are not." He continued, "if we are to stop the growth of coal consumption, we need to be intimately familiar with our tools. Words are my tools. And I don't know how to talk about conservation in a way that will produce a rapid halt in the growth of energy use. I do know how to talk about efficiency that way."

I agree that there is a very important distinction between conservation and efficiency. For someone like Ned -- dealing with electrical generation facilities -- efficiency is certainly going to be a primary category. But for most of us, we'll get into trouble if we allow our environmental thinking to be shaped too strongly by the single conceptual tool of efficiency. Tightening up our definitions, and claiming other, more expansive concepts will be helpful in diversifying our toolbox.

Efficiency has to do with getting "the most bang for the buck" in our use of resources. Usually, it is not hard to make an economic calculation about whether one process is more efficient than another. A compact florescent light is far more efficient in turning electrical energy into light than is an old-fashioned incandescent bulb. In a dramatic contrast of relative efficiencies, 100 calories can power a bicyclist for three miles, but it would only power a car 280 feet. Obviously, increasing efficiency is a good and important thing to do. Note, though, that efficiency is generally approached through technical means, and doesn't look at changing our behaviors or values.

Conservation is a bigger category. It can include efforts to increase efficiency, but it also addresses non-consumption. Conserving energy involves changing light bulbs, but also tells us to turn off the lights. Drive an efficient car when you must, but bike, walk or take the bus instead of driving when you can. Remember to "reduce and reuse" before you recycle. Conservation broadens our range of options considerably, by opening the possibility of not "using" at all.

The conceptual tool of efficiency is all about using resources. It tends to make us look at every situation in terms of things that can be used, and applies a rational evaluation of how effectively it is being used. If we ground ourselves in the mindset of efficiency and use, there are some issues that we'll get completely wrong, and others that we won't be able to see at all.

By economic measures, it is more efficient to raise chickens in small cages within a huge factory farm, than it is to have them wandering around a farmyard. To claim that efficiency, though, means that the chickens have to be seen as a resource to be used, rather than as creatures with rights. The efficiency model makes us see every problem as one of use, and blinds us to other considerations.

Conservation can draw us toward preservation for the sake of the inherent worth of the "thing" -- a creature or the land. There's nothing "efficient" about saving polar bears, and the costs and benefits of doing so are almost impossible to calculate. Dealing with endangered species calls for a moral and ethical approach, not an economic one. Conservation equips us with a much more diverse and flexible toolbox than we get if we limit the options to efficiency.

Within the language of faith, a helpful word (which sometimes gets a bad reputation) is "stewardship". That refers to the management of, and care for, that which belongs to another. When we see ourselves as stewards of God's creation -- or the ecosphere held in common by all life, or of the resources that future generations will need -- then we can start to see the interconnection between the efficient use of some resources, and the conservation of others.

If we ground our environmental work in the conceptual tool of efficiency, then every problem seems to require an economic evaluation of use. A toolbox of stewardship gives us the option of measuring efficiency, but it also lets us pick strategies of conservation, of non-use, and of preserving those things that have inherent worth.

In our churches -- as in all the places where we consider how to live appropriately in relation with the whole creation -- we need to be careful about relying on the efficiency tool so much that we misunderstand the problems. May we affirm stewardship as an approach that opens many faithful and responsible options.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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