Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Breaking Even is not Enough
distributed 4/17/09 - ©2009

My very good friend made a helpful suggestion that he hoped would resolve my quandary of environmental responsibility. It was a very nice thought, but it didn't deal with the depth of the choices that I face, and that our society faces.

"Bob" was visiting Denver for a few days, and we took a day trip up into the Rocky Mountains that rise to the west of this city built on the high plains. Less than an hour's drive away from our home, peaks along the Continental Divide soar more than 8,000 feet above Denver's "mile high" flatlands.

Our relatively short drive into the hills took us into a whole different world. There are rugged canyons with tumbling rivers, many kinds of forests adapted to changing elevations and soils, meadows and rocky tundra. Roads lead to sweeping views, and time outside of the car reveals intimate details of beautiful sites. The day we took our trip, we climbed from warm lowland weather into mountain chill. It was a delightful, relaxing trip for both of us.

At one point on the drive, I commented that I very rarely get up into the mountains, because I can't justify the fuel use and the carbon impacts of a 100 mile jaunt for a day's worth of personal recreation. Bob listened carefully to my concerns and convictions, and then suggested an option. If I could cut back on my environmental impact in other ways -- ride my bike around town more, for example -- then I could offset my occasional mountain travel.

Implicit in Bob's idea was the sense that my current environmental impact was OK, and that a responsible goal was to keep from adding to it. Bob's suggestion meant that I would be able to head to the hills on occasion, while breaking even on my carbon footprint.

I think Bob's off-the-cuff comment -- that we're doing a good thing when we don't make things worse than they are -- reflects the perspective of many people in the United States. Our everyday experience of the world does not feel like a crisis. We don't feel an urgent need to do anything dramatically different. As people who care about the environment, we do some things that will nudge us in the direction of conservation or efficiency, and we try not to make things worse. We feel like we're doing our part for the Earth when we meet those fairly modest targets.

My foothills drive with Bob came back to mind as I read the important new book by James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Right at the very start, on the second page of the preface, Speth puts forth a vivid assessment of where we stand -- one that is profoundly at odds with Bob's perspective:

How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gasses at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in. But, of course, human activities are not holding at current levels -- they are accelerating, dramatically. ... We are thus facing the possibility of an enormous increase in environmental deterioration, just when we need to move strongly in the opposite direction.

Speth -- a wise and learned man who knows what he is talking about with his economic and environmental analysis -- labels Bob's suggestion for "breaking even" as a prescription for destroying the planet. I agree, and as a result I don't often take those refreshing drives to the mountains. As much as I would like to take frequent trips, I also rejoice in living responsibly.

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On an April Saturday exactly two years ago, the "Step It Up" grassroots movement held thousands of rallies and events across the US with a unified political message: Reduce US carbon emissions 80% by 2050. I know that many readers of these Notes organized and took part in those rallies, and were adamant in naming the 80% figure as a necessary target for change. Today, as new scientific findings reveal the rapidly advancing crisis, climate change experts see an 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses as the minimum action in working for a stable climate.

Stop for a moment to ponder the difference between the popular sensibility that "holding even" is a good thing, and the scientifically-grounded imperative to "reduce by at least 80%". Those are not even in the same ballpark.

Achieving an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions will require new technologies, and it will require large changes in the ground rules for the globalized economy -- such as a carbon tax, or a strong "cap-and-trade" system. Just as important will be a change in our individual and collective mindset. We must realize that "business as usual" is not an acceptable option. We must think very differently about how to live in a just and sustainable relationship with the whole Earth community.

The technological and economic parts of the change will be led by scientists, politicians and business leaders. I am convinced that the relational and philosophical change must be led by religious leaders. Four pages from the end of Speth's book, in a section on "Seedbeds of Transformation", he writes, "Religion can help us see that the challenges we face are moral and spiritual and that sin is not strictly individual but is also social and institutional, and it can call us to reflection, repentance, and resistance."

Religion that does provide leadership will deal deeply with eco-justice as a moral and spiritual perspective. It will dare to speak of sin and evil, repentance and resistance. Religion that is relevant and transformative will make it clear that we are not meeting the moral and practical challenges of our time if we are satisfied by "holding even" with our environmental impacts.

Over the next two weekends, many congregations will observe Earth Day. As you take part in those activities -- or as you read the environmental commentary that will be published around Earth Day -- remember Speth's words of truth: all we have to do to destroy the planet is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today.

In your church and community, family and job, speak up about the need for real change. Be a leader in the religious part of this urgent movement. Spread the word that real transformation is needed, and is possible.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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