The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Extinction and the Good Life
A confession: I was a bit deceptive at the end of last week's Eco-Justice Notes. As an enticement to have you read this final installment of a difficult series on the crisis of extinction, I quoted a hopeful-sounding bit from the IPBES report, which affirms that "Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals ..." You'll notice that I did not complete that quotation.
The full sentence says, "Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change." Those extra words are essential as we grapple with the "what can we do" implications of the report.
We can't stem the dramatic loss of biodiversity with some simple policy fixes. As one commentary noted, "If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world's legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately."
The scientists who assembled the report on biodiversity and ecosystem services are adamant that transformative change is essential. Their challenging agenda can be seen as an opportunity and an invitation to faith communities.
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The IPBES report made headlines at the start of May with its shocking news that around 1 million species are threatened with extinction within decades -- about 1/8 of all species on Earth. That is a huge threat to the stability of the planet's biosphere, and it is a direct threat to human societies because "Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life."
The scientists identify multiple direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss. At the top of the list, "land-use change has had the largest relative negative impact on nature since 1970." That category includes agricultural expansion ("over one third of terrestrial land surface being used for cropping or animal husbandry"), and a doubling of urban area since 1992, at the expense of forests, wetlands and grasslands. Third on the list of drivers is climate change, which is a crisis in its own right.
Addressing any one of those factors is a profound challenge. Dealing with the interaction of multiple drivers reaches a level of complexity which cannot be handled directly, by any specific list of policies and behaviors. So the scientists call -- over and over again -- for transformative change. (I found more than 25 instances of the word scattered through the 39 page report.) The chair of the IPBEC, Sir Robert Watson, said in a press release, "By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values."
It is in that call for transformative change that I find hope -- in both senses of the word: as a cause for optimism, and as a grounding principle. It is in the call for transformation that I see the opportunity and the necessity of engagement by faith communities.
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There is a complex graphic on page 28 of the IPBES document which makes me think of the saying attributed to Archimedes: "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."
The illustration shows 8 people leaning on a long lever (not very efficiently!), which sits on a fulcrum (marked as leverage points), and seeking to move the direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss. The full graphic is reproduced at the bottom of this email, and a simplified version of the image is used for today's Facebook post.
The leverage points at the center of the graphic are essential for achieving transformation. The report "recognizes that complex global systems cannot be managed simply, but that in certain cases, specific interventions can be mutually reinforcing and generate larger-scale changes towards achieving shared goals." The eight leverage points are interventions that can trigger and reinforce change.
All eight are important, but the first of those leverage points struck me most powerfully: "Embrace diverse visions of a good life" is the bullet point in the graphic. A longer version fleshes it out a bit: "enabling visions of a good quality of life that do not entail ever-increasing material consumption."
The need to redefine "the good life" has been a central and recurring theme for Eco-Justice Ministries. 18 years ago, I wrote:
Churches can make an important contribution in the quality of life debate. There's more to the good life than energy consumption. The religious community can challenge the simplistic, materialistic and individualistic vision that is behind the [Bush] energy plan.
In 2016, writing explicitly about that theme, I said that
'The Good Life' is my shorthand term for a complex personal and social vision. Those three words let me point to the hopes and values that we use to evaluate our individual and collective lives. ... Pastors, educators and lay leaders can help us -- in churches and in the broader community -- to consider what the good life really looks like and feels like. Faith leaders can name the partial goods that are so enticing, and help us to recognize the greater goods that are lost when we make the seductive choices that are local and short term. ... Our notions of the good life are extremely powerful in shaping how we live, and the choices we make.
We are in a crisis -- of biodiversity loss, of climate chaos, of social injustice and inequality -- because our culture is pursuing flawed and impossible visions of the good life. It might be helpful if we can get people to care about Monarch butterflies and orangutans, if we can get them to love the natural world which is being lost. But it is essential that we name and challenge how our cultural goals force us into those paths of devastation. If we are to make a dent in the extinction crisis, we need to claim new visions of the good life -- of a just and sustainable world, of shalom -- that will entice us and guide us toward planetary healing.
If there is one thing that churches and other faith communities can do in this time of crisis, it is to enable visions of the good life that don't depend on so much stuff and so much wealth. Christianity -- at least the forms of that faith that I'm willing to claim -- tells us that the good life is one of right relationship, of love and justice, and of sufficiency. The faith that I claim rejects excessive acquisition, gross inequality, and the exploitation of creation. Christianity and other faiths -- and the IPBES highlights the deep wisdom of indigenous traditions -- have guiding principles that are desperately needed to bring about change in human culture and institutions.
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A less materialist vision of the good life is one of eight leverage points, to address six direct drivers of the global decline in biodiversity, and those interact with four indirect drivers. The scientists of the IPBES paint a picture of an ecological, interdependent world. There are no simple answers, which is why transformation is essential.
But there are many "things to do" which are more specific than redefining the good life. Toward the end of the report, there is a chart with "possible actions and pathways to achieve transformative change." The chart -- which runs for 3.5 pages -- has 12 specific approaches, each of which lists multiple options by to be pursued by specified key actors.
An article in the National Catholic Reporter reflecting on the IPBES says, "How we eat food is a critical way pastoral leaders and people of faith can facilitate the kind of transformative change necessary to care for the fruits of God's creation." The article quotes another report that "global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent."
There are many specific things to be done -- political policies, economic and legal changes, new technologies, changes in personal and community lifestyles. Those things have to be done vigorously and immediately.
For my target audience of pastors and church leaders, I pray that you'll apply the distinctive gifts and perspectives of faith communities to this time of crisis. I strongly urge you to put efforts to redefine the good life at the top of your to-do list.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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