Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Forced Choices
distributed 11/9/07 - ©2007

A few days ago, a friend showed me a questionnaire that she received in the mail. It came from the fundraising arm of one of the major political parties.

There's nothing surprising about self-serving "surveys" that come with a donation envelope. In this case, though, the party that sent the mailing is not the one that has my friend's allegiance. As a result, the leading questions and the limited set of answers -- carefully designed to inspire commitment from the faithful -- made Allyson very angry.

Now, Allyson is a feisty soul, so rather than tossing the whole thing in the recycling bin, she filled out the survey. When she could, she marked the choices that came closest to her own values -- most of which were way, way down on the list of options, and which obviously did not reflect the preferred views of the party that sent the mailing. She added comments in the margins when none of the options were even vaguely acceptable.

At the end, she was invited to check a box for the amount of her donation. Instead, she wrote in something along the lines of, "This is the most biased, misleading mailing I have ever seen. I'll never support your party or vote for your candidates. Take me off your mailing list!" She found great joy in using their postage-paid envelope to send it back.

Allyson knows that her wild answers won't make any difference in the platforms or strategies of that other party. She did find that it was a great way to vent some frustration. She also discovered that it solidified her own commitments to an opposing set of values.

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A political survey with highly biased questions and forced-choice answers is a revealing image for a much larger experience in our lives.

Distorted, forced choices apply to the messaging that is put forth by political candidates. Implicitly, they're always asking us, "Which do you prefer: my vision of a glorious and prosperous future, or my opponent's path to failure and disaster?"

They know that, when given an either-or choice with such sharply defined options, most of us will grab onto the one with a positive slant. It takes a remarkable level of awareness and initiative to re-evaluate the assumptions and values which shape the available choices. Few of us will say that the other candidate's alleged "failure and disaster" really does reflect a better future.

In electoral politics, and in many other sectors of our communal lives, we're often given an artificial and misleading set of choices about some of the hard decisions that face our society. We're frequently presented with a forced choice between two sharply different options -- one wonderful, and the other terrible. When those are the only choices offered, then we're being set up to reject realistic options, and to favor impossible ones.

This is what I hear from politicians of both major parties, from business leaders, and even from many "environmental leaders." Which would you prefer: (a) a future where you are deprived, and forced to sacrifice things that you love, as we try to forestall an environmental crisis, or (b) an environmentally healthy future where you can have anything you want, whenever you want it, surrounded by ever-increasing prosperity and opportunity?

For many politicians, by the way, option (a) describes the way most voters reacted to Jimmy Carter's famous presidential address about turning down our thermostats and conserving energy. Needing to wear a sweater in the winter was perceived as an unacceptable sacrifice. Because of the way the public turned on President Carter for that suggestion, no politician is going to suggest anything like it, especially while campaigning. What we hear instead are two shadings of option (b). One promises a rosy future because everything is really just fine right now, and getting better. The other looks to innovative new technologies so that we can have all that we desire -- we'll just have to use different energy sources or transportation systems to have it.

What we almost never hear is a forced choice between two unattractive options. Seldom are we, as ordinary citizens, forced to decide between a few possibilities, when none of them represent our deepest hopes and dreams. That sort of choice, though, is what we must face when we take seriously the distressing state of the world.

Here is the question that I think we really need to wrestle with, including a background statement.

Many indicators reveal that human societies have placed unsustainable demands on this planet and its systems -- global warming, conflicts over scarce fresh water supplies, the skyrocketing price of oil, the depletion of ocean fisheries, the great wave of species extinction, etc. In the face of this situation, would you prefer: (a) an intentional, international approach where considerations of justice and compassion minimize both the environmental problems and the extent of deprivation or constraints that human communities will have to accept, or (b) an unmoderated pursuit of 'business as usual' which will take us toward large-scale social, economic and environmental collapse?

However much we might like to have an optimistic and cost-free option (c), that really isn't a realistic choice. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to live with the affluence and freedom of modern societies really must choose between two options. We can continue as we have, and watch while pollution, the over-consumption of scarce resources, and the great disparities between poverty and wealth tear the world apart. Or we can choose to turn away from some of the privilege that we've come to expect and try to re-balance the distorted and disrupted systems of the world -- both environmental and economic.

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When Allyson worked her way through the political survey, she didn't play be the rules. She refused to limit her thinking to a simple set of "good" and "bad" choices. She critiqued the options and perspectives that shaped the design of the questionnaire, and asserted different possibilities.

For all of us, it is not helpful or realistic to accept simple "good" and "bad" choices for the future of our civilization. We need to ask ourselves, and our political/ business/ social leaders, about the difficult, but realistic, decisions that we must make. Will we constrain ourselves, or will we charge on into disaster?

If that is a politically impossible question, and one that is untenable for business, then churches and other religious communities may be the best place to wrestle with the forced choice what we must make. The sooner we start facing those choices, the better off we'll be.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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