Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Great Economic Crisis
distributed 10/2/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Lynn-Palevsky Family of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.
Eco-Justice Ministries has taken stands for and against many of the initiatives that will appear on Colorado ballots this fall. These positions are described on our website.

In 1992, Bill Clinton's presidential campaign kept its focus with the now-famous saying, "It's the economy, stupid!" In 2008, the presidential and congressional campaigns don't need a slogan taped to the wall as a reminder to talk about the economy. This fall's far-reaching crisis in financial institutions is the number one issue in political campaigns.

"The economy" that is being discussed in the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail, the one that ripples back and forth between "Wall Street and Main Street", has to do with money. From an eco-justice perspective, and as a matter of survival, it is important to think about the bigger economy in which that financial economy exists.

The important financial discussions that we're reading on editorial pages and hearing among politicians deal with just a small piece of the real global economy -- the economy of nature. That far larger economy is in deep trouble, too, with even more dire consequences than the financial prospect of another great depression.

The transactions that we humans do in financial markets, in commodity trading, and in our everyday lives as consumers are only a small part of the trading that goes on within the realm of natural systems. The services that ecosystems provide in storing and cleansing water, in generating oxygen, and in pollinating plants have been calculated to have a value -- just to humans! -- that is more than double the value of our entire monetary economy. There are "economic" transactions which occur in predator-prey relationships, and in the exchanges of energy and materials through the vast and complex web of life. These transactions in the natural world are all part of an economy which is much greater, and more real, than the things that we do with our investment portfolios.

In this week's financial news, the Dow Jones index dropped 777 points after the US House rejected the first option of bailout legislation. As an editorial in the Denver Post described that event, "almost $1.3 trillion was erased from the value of US stocks in the wake of Congress' failure to act". The next day, when stock values rebounded (temporarily), something like $700 million was written back into existence. If shifts in public confidence can erase and create such wealth in the daily flailing of markets, it seems to me that much of the financial system we call "the economy" is a construct that exists only because we give it reality. When our confidence in the financial markets declines, then the wealth that exists only on paper or computer files goes away.

In the larger economy of nature, the wealth and the exchanges are not in the imaginary realm of "commercial paper". In the web of life, the exchanges are in real things. The important and frightening economic news, in that larger economy, is that we humans are using up the real capital of the system. We're depleting the savings accounts, and going into debt in a way that is far more dangerous than the financial debt of the US mortgage crisis. Our collective irresponsibility is just as great as the evil corporate tycoons who are villainized in this financial crisis. We're exploiting vast wealth from the economy of nature, and our greed threatens to collapse the systems that sustains life.

A few brief examples, I hope, will confirm this point.

  • Around the world, the topsoil that sustains agriculture is being lost at far greater than sustainable rates. Poor farming practices lead to erosion by wind and water which is diminishing the productive capacity of farm land. The over-use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation water sterilizes soil, and disrupts the life-giving processes that regenerate new soil.

  • Global fisheries are in catastrophic decline. Overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution are causing devastating damage to fish populations. That is a threat to human food supplies, and to the greater stability of ocean habitats. In September, the cover story of Smithsonian Magazine dealt with "saving our oceans", and had an emphasis on coral reefs. "Though coral reefs cover less than half a percent of the ocean's area, they host more than 25 percent of it fish species. The first worldwide assessment of coral reefs, released this summer, showed that a third face extinction due to climate change, disease, pollution and overfishing." Our plunder and neglect of the oceans is creating poverty and instability within those ecological systems.

  • Climate change can be considered as a disruption of the natural economy. Through long periods of time, there has been a rough balance in chemical exchanges that shape the global climate. Carbon dioxide that comes from animal respiration, fires and organic decay has been balanced by photosynthesis and other processes. Our use of fossil fuels has "flooded the market" and overwhelmed that part of the economy of nature. Just as too many foreclosures crash the housing market, too much carbon crashes the climate.

This fall, the presidential campaigns are trading claims and charges about who did, or didn't, act on warnings about the looming mortgage crisis. Failure to act, when that crisis was becoming clear, is being seen as a failure of responsibility. The crisis in the economy of nature is much better documented than the troubles of investment banks. Is anybody taking sufficient action to deal with the evident crises of ecological health?

Bill Clinton's slogan of "It's the economy, stupid!" is a powerful reminder. The dis-ease and distress caused by of this season's market meltdown is real. Families, businesses and national governments are shaken when economies have even partial failures.

Watching the tumult that comes from the failure of segments of the financial economy should be a warning to us. We also need to keep a close eye on the larger economy of the natural world which sustains us all. We need to exercise fiduciary responsibility and seek appropriate regulation to ensure the health and prosperity of those ecological systems.

There is a great danger that efforts to stimulate the financial economy will cause even greater damage to the economy of nature. Increasing our exploitation of soils and oceans, and adding to the burdens imposed on the global climate, threaten to collapse the economic systems of ecology. Just as we demand proper responsibility from executives, mangers and legislators in the financial realm, we must also demand responsibility in the management and care of nature.

In our churches and communities, may we use this time of financial crisis to broaden understanding and action toward the care of the economy of nature.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form