Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Rich and Fulfilling
distributed 1/7/11 - ©2011

Over the New Year's holiday, I looked at some old family pictures. One set shows my grandfather driving a Model T Ford along the rutted, unpaved tracks of what then qualified as a major highway in central Nebraska.

My wife's grandmother reflected to Allyson about the changes she had seen in her lifetime -- from hearing the astonishing news of the Wright Brother's first flight (December, 1903) to seeing live TV images of people walking on the surface of the moon (July, 1969).

When we lived in Iowa farm country, Allyson and I saw home movies where our parishoners were plowing fields with teams of horses, and raising sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and chickens in the diverse ecology of a family farm.

I've had a couple of conversations in the last month with folk describing their experiences growing up with party line telephones, and having eight families able to listen in on each other's conversations.

My, how times change!

Today's farm fields -- frequently owned by corporations instead of families -- are plowed by enormous tractors, and livestock are raised in the confined settings of industrial agriculture. Increasing numbers of households are giving up their wired telephones, and exclusively using mobile "phones" that are far, far more powerful than the computers that took Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. Where my adventurous grandfather spent days fighting across muddy Midwestern roads to get from Omaha to Denver, 50 million people now fly through the Denver airport every year, expecting quick and reliable travel to destinations around the world.

Generally speaking, all of these changes are matters of great pride to our culture. The rapid transformation of technology, society and economy are named as accomplishments on the accelerating flow of progress. We've come to expect, and depend on, things that were unthinkable just a few generations ago. We celebrate each new innovation.

Today, I offer a contrasting reminder. It is quite possible to live a rich and fulfilling life without all of the technology that surrounds us.

Being fully human does not require internet access. Facebook is just one expression of friendship and community. A large, high-definition flat-screen TV with hundreds of cable channels and on-demand movies is not the only (or even the best) way to experience culture and get information. Travel to a far-away tourist destination does not guarantee either enlightenment or enjoyment.

The profound musings of Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha -- all from about 2,500 years ago -- deal with questions that are pertinent and challenging today. The poetry and prophecy of the Bible provide clear guidance about the meaning of life and ethical relationships, even though the people of ancient Israel didn't have electric lights, automobiles or MP3 players. The plays of Shakespeare speak compellingly across the centuries, and to cultures far removed from Elizabethan England, with stories that tap into deep and universal themes.

The members of countless indigenous cultures -- the Pueblo people of the Southwest, the Inuit of the Arctic, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Bushmen of southern Africa, to name just a few -- have social structures and sophisticated worldviews that provide religious meaning and ethical guidance finely-tuned to their setting. Art, music, stories and ritual have flourished in every human community at every level of technology.

For many thousands of years, people have found joy and meaning in life. Our forebears were not intellectually, spiritually or socially deprived. The gadgets, technology and opportunities of our modern world do not make us more human or more insightful than those who lived before us, or those who now live in a less industrial world.

To be sure, there are advantages, comforts and conveniences to our modern way of life. Indoor plumbing and email are two examples of things that I use on a daily basis, and appreciate a lot. But we've lost a lot, too.

Richard Louv's study, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, describes how our children's lack of unstructured outdoor play reduces creativity and intellectual development. Time spent in front of our TVs and computers -- or hours spent every day in long commutes -- means less time spent in activities that strengthen neighborhoods and build community. The so-called efficiencies of modern agriculture produce food with high moral and environmental costs, less flavor, and with no ties to our local geography.

Financial profit and the momentum of cultural trends are likely to take us ever deeper into the realm of technology and mass society. There's money to be made developing and marketing the next generation of cell phone "apps". There's prestige as well as income for a city with a busy airport. Business-as-usual will tend toward greater technology.

It takes an intentional effort to connect with the thinking and groups that draw us into other ways of living, ways which are more in tune with older human experience. The presence and growing influence of those groups is an indicator that many people see the need for alternative wisdom that can challenge and strengthen our society.

"Locavores" celebrate the advantages of food grown close to home. The Transition Network is one expression of a grassroots movement that seeks less dependence on our high-energy, high-technology culture. The Voluntary Simplicity movement affirms the qualities of a different kind of good life, one with less stuff and less stress, that is rich and fulfilling.

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Last week's Notes packed the 6.4 billion years of Earth's history into the analogy of a single year. The entire modern industrial era -- the time when our global society has come to depend on fossil fuels and high technology -- fits into the last two seconds of that year. What we have come to consider "normal" is literally just a blink of the eye in that long span.

Remembering the experiences of our grandparents, recalling the diverse cultures from all branches of human history, finding religious truth in ancient scripture and tradition -- these tell us that our modern way of life is not the only way to be fully human, to live a rewarding life, or to find joy and satisfaction.

As we seek to discern how to live in a just and sustainable world, as we try to end the destructive excess and exploitation that undergirds our modern way of life, we need to remember that people of great wisdom and character got along just fine without a cell phone or a TV. With that historical perspective, it is more possible to imagine living well without the vast consumption of energy and resources that characterize our society.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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