Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Change Lanes or Change Direction?
distributed 5/16/08 - ©2008

It has been a very distressing couple of weeks. In rapid succession, the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China have caused almost unimaginable death and devastation. In the face of this double catastrophe, some people are raising theological and pastoral questions which are quite similar to those that surfaced after the powerful tsunami in December, 2004.

I refer you to my Notes from three years ago, Earthquake, Tsunami and God, as one starting point for faithful reflection. The profound moral difference this time, of course, is the unconscionable way that the government of Myanmar is excluding the international relief workers who are ready and eager to provide help.

In our churches and through all available channels, may we provide help to those who are in great need.

The regular readers of this commentary are an enlightened and informed group. Y'all are aware of the many and substantial problems which are often clumped together under the heading of "the environment." You have an "eco-justice" sense of the inherent connections between matters of social and economic justice for humans, and the health and stability of the rest of creation.

You know that we are, by many measures, in a time of great crisis. You know that change is needed. Many of you are working diligently for that change in a variety of areas. Because this newsletter is directed to a faith-based constituency, many of our readers are focusing their work for change in and through church communities. Bless you for those good and diverse efforts.

Let me ask a simple question that will, I hope, help to inform or shape our work for change. It uses the all-to-familiar experience of driving down a highway.

Do we need to change lanes, or change direction?

Are the needed changes in this time of crisis fairly minor -- like changing lanes to avoid a hazard in the road ahead? Or do we need to exit from this highway, and set our course in an entirely different direction?

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In the discussions about global warming, many people are now referring to the 15 "stabilization wedges" described by Princeton University researchers Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala. Their detailed analysis about "solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies" does involve some very substantive changes. One of the wedges, for example, is "stop all deforestation" -- hardly a trivial matter. But even so, the rapid implementation of each of the proposed strategies would leave the basic structures and values of our culture intact. We'd do some things more efficiently, and the power plants that generate electricity might use different technologies, but the basic direction of our individual and collective lives wouldn't be all that different from what we see now.

The 15 stabilization wedges, or legislative proposals for cap-and-trade systems to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and conversations about "the new energy economy" are all in the "lane change" category. Within those frameworks, our society would be sticking with the same social goals, and the same definitions of progress. We would still headed to exactly the same place -- we'd just moved from the high-emission passing lane into the more modest lane on the outside of the highway.

In the political realm and in most business contexts, the discussion about how to deal with the environmental crisis is primarily about technology and economics. It is about lane changes that don't alter our general direction or goals. (As I noted a few weeks ago in relation to the "gas tax holiday", even those options are a challenge within the US political system.) You might not be surprised, though, that I don't think a lane change is adequate.

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In a long (and, in places, down-right depressing) talk that I gave at an ecumenical conference last fall, I spelled out a case that the technical and political approaches to the ecological crisis are necessary, but not sufficient. Even if everything went according to the most optimistic projections of the stabilization wedges, they still would not be enough to deal with the crisis. No matter how substantially we change lanes, it won't help when the entire highway disappears into a chasm.

On purely practical grounds, we need to change direction. I am convinced that an honest response to the global ecological crisis -- a crisis which includes climate change, but is not confined to it -- requires a substantial change in our goals and our values. "Changing lanes" to minimize some of our impacts is only the first step. Then we need to find an exit from the highway that will put us on a more sustainable, and a more satisfying, path.

One major element in that direction change has to be a shift from affluence (a never-ending quest for "growth" and more) toward abundance (sustainability and sufficiency, "enough"). We must do more to balance personal freedom with social responsibility for current and future generations. We must start to see ourselves as part of the fragile web of life, instead of separate from it. Those sorts of shifts lead us toward real and long-term changes in direction which provide hopeful new options for avoiding the catastrophes of climate change and ecological collapse.

The good news that I proclaimed to last fall's conference -- and that is at the heart of Eco-Justice Ministries -- is that a direction change toward sustainability is both a practical possibility, and a spiritual blessing. The path of eco-justice leads us toward God's shalom. It is not a road to suffering and deprivation, but toward a more just and fulfilling life. I do believe that there is good news, but only when we are willing to look at significantly new directions for our personal and collective lives.

Many concerned people in our communities are looking at "lane change" strategies because they have not believed that there is another viable direction. One of the great gifts that faith communities can offer -- drawing both on the best of our deep traditions, and the rich wisdom that we can find through the ecumenical web of international faith relationships -- is to describe those new paths. We can point to successful social and economic structures that are more sustainable. We can define worldviews and values that are relevant and attractive. We can sing songs and tell stories and move together toward hope and healing.

I am convinced that our society is on a path to disaster. I am also convinced that there are options that will lead us toward ecological health, social justice, and personal fulfillment.

What do you think? In this time of crisis, is it enough for us to change lanes, or de we need to claim a better road that takes us in a new direction?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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