Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Common Cause
distributed 8/31/07 - ©2007

Again this week, Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jim McBride, of Laguna Beach, California. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

My broad perspectives on environmental and social justice causes just got a boost from a surprising source. As a result, I'm strengthened in my commitments to strategies for social change that are grounded in faith and ethics.

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio program where former Colorado governor Dick Lamm was being interviewed about the new book that he co-authored, Condition Critical: A New Moral Vision for Health Care. As is often the case, Lamm's comments were very provocative. (I've written, unfavorably, about his efforts in 2004 to push an anti-immigration platform for the Sierra Club.) I was curious about how he'd deal with this hot-button issue, so I checked out a copy of this little book from the library, and gave it a quick read.

I was surprised by how familiar I was with the book's moral territory. I know very little about the details of health care policy and the complicated issues of public and private funding. (And before you write to ask me -- I haven't seen Sicko yet, so I'm not informed by Michael Moore's take on these issues.) As Lamm and Robert Blank wrote about the difficult problems that need to be addressed in providing and paying for health care in the US, I found that they were addressing themes that I deal with all the time.

At the heart of the book is an assertion that we, in the United States, don't do well in dealing with limits. Yet there is a limit to how much our society can spend on medicine. It is impossible to provide unlimited care to everyone. The entire book addresses those limits, looks at why it is hard for the US to deal with them, and proposes ways to develop a different approach to health care.

Facing limits is a core theme for Eco-Justice Ministries. It was intriguing to see that it was identified as the central philosophical issue for health care, too.

As Lamm and Blank explored the reasons why it is difficult to develop public policies in a way that deal responsibly with limited resources, they named other ethical principles and areas of concern that are at the heart of many eco-justice discussions. Their contrasts between the US health care system and those of other countries provided helpful insights into some distinctively "American" factors that also are crucial for environmental issues.

  • There are conflicts between individual freedom and the common good. In the US, our strong emphasis on personal freedom -- for behaviors that create high health risks, or that have steep environmental costs -- leads to a diminished quality of life for the whole.

  • There is a lack of concern with the ways that current policies will impact future generations. Perhaps because we refuse to admit the reality of limits, our excessive use of resources -- medical and financial, or environmental and natural -- are placing heavy burdens on those who come after us.

  • There are serious questions about whether the political system in the US is capable of dealing with such difficult and complicated issues. There is little political will to deal with hard issues, and the incentives of our electoral system favor the status quo.

  • Powerful institutions and profitable businesses drive public policy and technological change. Those same institutions shape public opinion and social values through the way they provide products and services, and through their advertising.

  • Our values and policies are grounded in distorted notions of what is good and helpful. Expensive and invasive medical procedures often don't lead to better health, either for individuals or the community. That's a parallel with the faulty expectation that ever-greater affluence and consumption will bring the good life.
It was fascinating, and encouraging, for me to see the same moral and ethical principles at stake in creating a just and sustainable health care system as we find in our work for a just and sustainable ecological world.

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I find good news in this realization that there is a lot of common ground in the root causes of the environmental and health care crises. This overlap actually makes it easier for us to envision a new and different way of structuring our society. It will facilitate the social change processes that are needed to transform how we live, because activists working on many causes will reinforce each other's work when addressing these core themes.

If we can find ways of getting US citizens and institutions to acknowledge the presence of limits -- whether ecologically, economically, or personally -- then we'll have opened the door to new approaches on many issues. Speaking about health care, Lamm points out that "all other countries set limits better than we do". That is also true about carbon emissions and other environmental limits. A cultural ability to set limits will help us deal more effectively with sustainability in all areas.

So, too, with the related themes that Lamm and Blank highlight. It will be helpful across the board if we can elevate the notion of the common good as a counterbalance to an excessive emphasis on individual freedom and rights. For health care, the environment, and many other causes, we'll do well if we take seriously the legitimate claims of future generations, the political roadblocks to hard decisions, and the inordinate power of corporations. To make real progress on any comprehensive social change, we must reshape our understandings of what really makes for "the good life."

Limits, freedom, power, government, and our notions of the good life are not just environmental concerns. They are broad ethical and cultural factors that must be addressed if we're going to deal with any of the great issues of our day.

I'm convinced that religious institutions have a critical role to play in helping us find genuine abundance within the limits of the world. Churches can challenge individualism and celebrate the common good. Our congregations can work toward more appropriate expressions of power in business and politics.

When we do that "background work", we'll be setting the stage for social change on many fronts. We'll be building the base for a just and sustainable world. The moral leadership of religious communities will be powerful across a wide range of issues -- environment, health, and many more.

I am heartened by this fresh realization of how we are working in a common cause. I pray that our churches will help shape these essential moral frames which cut across many issues and that can guide us into a better, more just and sustainable, world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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