The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Thou Shalt Not Exploit
"Thou shalt not exploit what God has made." Those eight words make up my short "church-speak" definition of eco-justice.
I've found the sentence to be helpful on several levels when I'm talking with church groups.
My eco-justice definition lumps together both realms -- the treatment of workers and the use of natural resources -- and says that any exploitation is wrong. It is a provocative notion, and one that I've found to be a good conversation starter.
But, realistically, are those two uses of the word "exploit" talking about the same thing? How on earth can the principles that we bring to social justice be applied to our relationships with non-human, and especially inanimate, parts of the creation?
In sorting that out, let's look first at the characteristics of exploitation in the more familiar human context.
Slavery is the most glaring example. One group of people is used for the benefit of another. The labor, creativity, and freedom of the enslaved individuals are used to provide profit, leisure and status for another. It is not a voluntary relationship. Not only are there economic imbalances; slavery requires power imbalances that impose servitude on the oppressed.
Exploitation can be present even when there is a veneer of freedom. Think of sweatshop workers -- whether in urban America 50 years ago, or in 3rd world settings today. Exploitation emerges when people do that work in a setting of forced choice (it is the only job available -- work for a dollar a day, or don't work at all), and where one party (the boss or the corporation) profits far more handsomely than the workers do.
And it is important to note that a worker/employer relationship isn't necessarily exploitative. When there are real options for work, and where compensation is fair, the workers are not being exploited. Historically, labor unions have helped to even out power imbalances and have worked for just levels of pay and benefits. And in many other settings, the work that people do is freely and even joyously chosen, and the rewards are fairly divided among all involved. That sort of equitable relationship is in line with what Adam Smith envisioned in a genuinely "free market" where all parties benefit. It isn't exploitation if everybody gets a good deal.
In the human realm, we see that exploitation is a corruption of what could be a fair, responsible and just relationship. It is grounded in unbalanced power and benefits. So, how does that idea stretch to the treatment of animals, and the management of natural resources?
The key notions are of voluntary and equitable exchanges. Are all of the parties given choice or voice, and do all parties benefit? Those are tough and controversial ideas when extended beyond the human realm, but let me sketch out some applications.
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