Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Not What We Wanted
distributed 1/30/09 - ©2009

By the middle of last fall, a very hard question was nagging at my mind and my soul. Within the last few weeks, variations on that question have come at me in classes and in conversations. The question has to do with the overlap between eco-justice principles and this time of financial crisis.

For a long time and for a wide range of reasons -- ecological, spiritual, sociological and ethical -- many of us who are eco-justice advocates have been calling for a shift away from the paradigm of perpetual economic growth. We have been harsh critics of the culture of consumption. We have extolled the virtues of voluntary simplicity, sufficiency and sustainability.

Now, as the United States, and much of the rest of the world, tumbles into a severe economic recession, the difficult question comes up: Is this what we were asking for? Are shuttered businesses, laid-off workers, foreclosed homes and overwhelmed food banks the hallmarks of our eco-justice vision? I'm glad to say that the answer is NO!

The difference between where we are now, and what many of us had been hoping for, has as much to do with process as with the outcomes. Even if some of the things that we have hoped for are coming about because of the recession, they are happening for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong way. I find no joy when economic collapse is the reason for reduced consumption.

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A couple of images and metaphors might be helpful.

There is a big difference between (1) driving down a well-constructed mountain highway from the ridge top to a valley floor, and (2) driving off a cliff. Both get you from the top to the bottom, but one method can be an enjoyable journey, while the other can kill you.

There are big differences in the ways that people make a transition from a large home to a smaller one.

  1. One family decided to downsize their home as part of an intentional, values-based evaluation of what was most important in their lives. Perhaps their planning related to an impending life transition point like the "empty nest" of kids moving out, retirement, or an awareness about health and mobility changes. They carefully sorted through belongings, then sold and gave away what they no longer desired. They worked out financial arrangements so that a move would allow them to save money on their rent or mortgage. They selected a new housing unit which met their needs and filled them with joy.
  2. The home of another family was destroyed by a hurricane, with the loss of all their belongings and of their financial investment. Suddenly destitute, they were forced to move into a FEMA trailer where they were unhappy, disconnected from their friends, and their health was at risk from toxic construction materials.

For all too many people, the economic realities of the last six months or year have looked like the disaster sides of the stories above. The turmoil in mortgage funding, and then the broader recession, have forced families into situations that they did not choose, and with catastrophic effects. Individuals, communities, and the society as a whole have been thrown into crisis. These abrupt and unexpected changes cause cascades of impacts: cuts in jobs reduce the tax income to cities and states, which lead to budget cutbacks that amplify the instability.

Many of the people who have been impacted by this recession have been thrown off the cliff instead of finding a gentle path into the valley -- but they never wanted to go to the valley, anyway. Hundreds of thousands of families have lost their homes who had no desire to downsize.

The most glaring difference between this economic collapse and the eco-justice vision has to do with choice, personally and collectively. For the most part, what is going on around us is not the result of plans for a more just and sustainable society. It is not structured to help people make transitions into new jobs or communities. This crisis is so painful because is not directed toward a different and positive reality. It is just chaos and disruption, taking people where they did not want to go.

Yes, there are some similarities between this painful mess and what we've looked for. On a superficial level, there are a few ways in which this time of crisis has some similarities to our eco-justice vision. People are not buying over-sized vehicles, they are making more use of mass transit, and gasoline consumption has gone down. They're buying less stuff, including ecologically (and financially) absurd products like bottled water. Appliances and electronics are being repaired or upgraded, instead of replaced. Those are some of the outcomes that we've looked for, but there's nothing graceful, intentional or healing in the way our societies have reduced consumption.

An economic recession has little in common with a sustainable and just society. Those of us who are advocates for long-term social transformation need to be able to articulate how our vision is different from the current mess. We need to have enticing descriptions of how we might decide to live differently, and we need to formulate plans for how to get people and communities to that new place without going through trauma. We need to be reassuring and convincing when we tell people that this is not what we're looking for.

I have always hoped for a gentle and joyous transformation toward a more sustainable society. I have wanted incentives and opportunities that would shape creative and responsible choices by individuals, businesses and governments -- and I rejoice at the ways in which that has happened in recent years with the expansion of renewable energy, more efficient use of resources, and initiatives for "green jobs". I grieve at the pain and suffering that have been caused in the last few months of crisis and turmoil.

The vision of sustainability didn't bring us into the economic crisis -- indeed, we're in the crisis precisely because of exploitative lending and unsustainable goals. As we look for ways out of this recession, it is the sustainable, eco-justice vision give us a positive direction to take.

Many thoughtful and concerned people are asking if an expansion of today's economic crisis is what they can expect if we move toward a more sustainable society. Let us be clear that this -- the anguish and injustice, the lack of choice and the shattered dreams, this path to reduced consumption -- is not what we're looking for. Neither are we looking for a return to the flawed institutions and values that created this crisis.

Even, and especially, in this time of recession, let us affirm our vision of what we do want: a world where sustainability and justice are freely chosen, where viable and responsible options provide all people with sufficiency and opportunity.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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