Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Subordinate Clause
distributed 8/12/11 - ©2011

In the fall of 2007, US Secretary of State Condoleza Rice made a statement that was remarkably candid. Looking ahead to the next round of negotiations on climate change, she said that the US would take strong actions on global warming -- if they didn't disrupt our economy.

That was somewhat more nuanced than an earlier declaration from President Bush II that "the American way of life is not negotiable", but the basic assertion is the same. Any action on climate or other environmental issues is contingent on maintaining the nation's economic prosperity, and sustaining our expected levels of comfort and convenience.

Bush and Rice were blunt in naming their priorities, and they took a fairly narrow approach to how our economy should be preserved. What they stood for, though, is really very common -- among politicians and policy makers of all sorts, among our friends and neighbors, and even (ouch!) for many of us, most of the time.

Many of us genuinely care about the health of God's creation. We want to do the right thing -- if it doesn't disrupt us too much.

I'm remembering political statements from four years ago because of some correspondence with a thoughtful and honest reader of last week's Notes. Last Friday, I urged you to take action to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring more oil-like "gunk" into the US from Canada's tar sands. Chuck's email included this comment:

What do we pipeline skeptics offer instead green energy?  Everything I read says that green energy is nice, but we need oil to bridge the next 2-3 decades to get us to green.  I want green and I want clean, but when the gas tank is empty and the house is cold, folks are not going to be comforted by eco-justice and high biodiversity. They'll be really upset if there isn't a green alternative.

Chuck recognizes that most folk agree with Condi Rice. Doing green things is just fine -- as long as there are alternatives that don't cause any pain or inconvenience. But if gas is hard to get and the thermostat isn't set fairly close to 70, well, that's not acceptable.

+     +     +     +     +

In my reply to Chuck, I suggested two almost identical statements that -- with a simple rearranging of words -- could speak for either me or for Condoleza Rice. Those statements indicate that we all recognize the importance of both environmental protection and a viable economic life. We disagree on which has the ultimate priority.

Those two statements might be expressed as:

  1. I will do what I can to preserve our way of life while I work for the health of the planet.
  2. I will do what I can to work for the health of the planet while I preserve our way of life.

In each case, the last clause is the dominant one, and it expresses the point of ultimate concern. The first part of each sentence may be sincere and heartfelt, but it is subordinate to the commitment at the end. "I will do what I can" is conditional, but the final clause is solid.

When push comes to shove, which set of goals are the most compelling and motivating? Are we most committed to ecological health, or to our standard of living? Which consideration is going to frame our planning and commitments, and which will act to modify the dominant consideration?

I claim statement #1 as an expression of my values and commitments. The quote from Condi Rice is a reflection of the second statement. It makes a big difference which half of the sentence is dominant, and which is the subordinate clause.

My vocation, my decade of work with Eco-Justice Ministries, is rooted in my belief that the health of the planet must be our central consideration. The core principles of eco-justice affirm that care for human communities is an essential part of our concern for all of God's creation. But I don't believe that the preservation and enhancement of our particular way of life can, or should, rise to the level of ultimate concern.

Indeed, our society's wealth and privilege are primary causes of the extreme ecological crises that we face. Our current levels of consumption and pollution are unsustainable, and are driving the forces of climate change.

What we have come to see as normal and essential in the last few decades -- homes and businesses that are kept at constant temperatures, the freedom to travel whenever and wherever we want, food of the highest quality from all around the world -- are luxuries unknown to previous generations. We can survive without them. But we cannot survive, our children cannot survive, if we devastate the planet.

As we work to make a rapid transition toward a sustainable society -- as we cut our use of fossil fuels by 80% or 90%, and as we refuse to tap into yet more high-carbon fuels like the tar sands -- we must address genuine human needs. There must be jobs, and food, and safe housing with reasonable amenities. It will be wonderful if we can find ways of maintaining the way of life that we have found to be so pleasant. We do not want to cause pain and suffering for our friends and neighbors. But the way we meet those human needs must be guided by the ultimate commitment to preserve the health and vitality of the entire Earth community far into the future.

Most public policy in the US and in other rich nations subordinates ecological health to economic considerations. That "business as usual" approach cannot be sustained. Maintaining our way of life cannot be the central or ultimate concern.

We will move into new and more appropriate directions only when we recognize our absolute dependence on Earth's web of life. Our focus must be on the long-term ecological health of the planet. The health and comfort of human communities is also essential, but the way that we meet those needs is subordinate to an absolute commitment to the whole of God's creation.

I invite you to join me in claiming the appropriate balance of primary and subordinate commitments: to do what we can for a safe and fulfilling way of life while we work passionately for the health of the planet.


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