Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Workable Alternative for the Future?
distributed 8/3/12 - ©2012

I have a wonderful job. Within the faith-based environmental movement, I get to be a generalist, not a specialist. That meshes well with my long-ago training in ecology and biology, where I learned to see the connections and interplay among a multitude of organisms and systems.

Through Eco-Justice Ministries, I try to stay on top of emerging trends in theology and ethics, as well as practical matters in local churches about worship, education, buildings and pastoral ministry. I also try to stay on top of the latest stuff in environmental sciences, a wide range of public policy issues, economics, sociology and social change movements. These weekly Notes are one way that I share my observations and suggestions with faith communities.

I love the opportunity to be in the middle of such a fascinating mix of topics, but I have to admit that "staying on top" of them all often feels more like "keeping my nose just above the water". There's a lot going on, and it is easy to get swamped in the details. The big picture can get lost in the swarm of specific issues, problems and policies.

So every now and then, I find it helpful to step back and take a conscious look at how those many pieces fit together, and whether or not we're headed toward a workable future. In this election-year summer, my reflections keep coming back to how "the economy" is a part of that big picture. (A month ago, Greed and the Market Society dealt with an aspect of that theme.)

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Periodically, I go back to a book that reminds me to think very big. "The Conserver Society: A Workable Alternative for the Future" is a 1979 report from a Canadian think-tank team charged with suggesting steps Canada and other countries might take to become "conserver societies".

The authors say that they tried to avoid a "partial view" of the problems involved, which might -- for example -- see energy, inflation and employment as separate issues. In the view of the authors, the conserver society "is a 'package-deal' concept. It is a comprehensive (or near-comprehensive) set of scenarios reflecting the multidimensional nature of the human species." They set out to envision strikingly different forms of society, not just offer a few new policy suggestions.

The book describes five very different social options, three of which are seen by the authors as hopeful and helpful, and two of which are rejected as the wrong sorts of directions to pursue. It is fascinating to me, more than thirty years after this book was written, to see how well these five options still describe the values and worldviews which drive much of our public debates.

The three positive descriptions are:

  1. a model which stresses growth with conservation, "doing more with less."
  2. the affluent or high-level stable state, which is best characterized by the phrase "doing the same with less."
  3. the post-industrial conserver society, in which we would learn to "do less with less and do something else." The authors acknowledge that this "is the most radical of the conserver options and would require substantial value change" -- and it is the option that they see as most hopeful.

The two other options -- that are not seen as helpful in any way -- are the status quo, which is described as "doing more with more," and the squander or anti-conserver society, whose creed is "do less with more."

When I apply these five categories to current headlines and political talking points -- whether about national energy policies, broad economic goals, or an "aerotopolis" to spur urban growth in Denver -- it seems to me that almost all of the debate seems to be between the status quo (which expects to use more resources in continued growth) and conserver model #1(which wants to continue trajectories of growth, but with better efficiencies in resource use).

Tragically, I see that there is a significant "squanderer" component, too, where planned obsolescence in consumer electronics, for example, drags us down with unending cycles of hardware and software that consume time, money and resources with few real benefits.

The clarity of the 40 year old list of social options helps me to recognize that almost no one in today's political realm breaks from the ideology of perpetual growth to advocate for conserver model #2, a steady-state society.

I do see a growing and increasingly vocal constituency standing up for conserver model #3, which not only tries to reduce consumption, but also seeks to live by a different set of values and social goals. Historically, the "voluntary simplicity" movement has been the most coherent and affirmative expression of this genuine and intentional path to change. The Transition movement is a more recent expression of this worldview, and it brings a more institutional perspective of social change in local communities.

These five "big picture" models are helpful for us because they let us get a handle on guiding principles and overall perspectives for an entire society. We can see that models which demand continuing growth -- the three options of "doing more" or using more -- are poorly suited to real sustainability.

Although it isn't the point of the old report, we can apply the five "conserver" models on a personal level, too, to help us to see how hard we're pushing ourselves in caring for God's creation. Where do your values and goals seem to fit among the five models? What sort of "conserver" do you seem to be?

I invite you to bear these five models in mind as you listen to this year's political campaigns. How are they reflected in the social and economic visions of the candidates? Do they call us to squander resources for the sake of economic growth, look for conservation or sustainability, or are there hints of a shift toward a genuine "conserver" mindset?

This summer, join me in reflecting on big pictures, broad strategies, and overarching social models. It can be a refreshing and enlightening exercise!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This Eco-Justice Notes revises a similar commentary from July 6, 2006.

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