The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
All In It Together
Now and then, a question comes up in my conversations with church folk that makes me reevaluate my core principles. Often, I'm afraid, my thinking has to be challenged several times before I abandon my easy answers, and begin to reconsider my assumptions.
Within the last few months, a theme that I'd previously dismissed has come back to chew at me. Hard questions and disturbing news reports are making me take a fresh look at the ethical principle of "solidarity".
Solidarity is the fancy word that speaks to the reality that "we're all in this together." It is the most enlightened form of self-interest, reminding us that the way we treat others -- even those who seem far removed from us -- comes back to impact our own welfare.
A strong sense of solidarity motivates action to minimize global warming. Concerns for the millions of people in Bangladesh who will be flooded by rising seas, or for Peruvian farmers whose irrigation water will disappear along with melting glaciers, is not just kind-hearted compassion. In our interconnected world, the plight of those far-away people will have an impact on our close-to-home communities. The threat of great waves of refugees and of shocks to global agriculture reveal that we're all in it together.
Solidarity crops up, too, when I'm talking with church groups about voluntary simplicity, and how we find a more meaningful life when we consume less stuff. In this world of limited resources, our choices that leave sustainable levels of fish in the oceans, or that slow the depletion of oil and gas reserves, help shape a world that is more just and more stable for all of us. It is not just a better life for me. We're all in it together.
Explicitly or implicitly, solidarity is a pervasive theme in much of my speaking and writing. Precisely because the people of this world are tied so closely, I often stress that it is important for those of us with the most wealth and the highest consumption levels to reduce our impact.
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I was caught off guard recently when some serious questions were raised about my teachings on the need for the wealthy "us" to cut back. To my ears, those comments had a tinge of self-serving justification that argued against change.
Some people asked: if we buy less stuff, won't that eliminate the jobs of swarms of Chinese factory workers? Others said: if we don't take our eco-tourism vacations, won't that demolish the economies of poor nations which depend on our visits?
My focus on the ecological damage that's we're doing now made it hard for me to pay attention to the future economic harm that might come from changing our over-consumptive ways. I found myself deflecting the concerns. "Well," I admitted once, "I don't see such a huge shift to voluntary simplicity that I think the global economy is being threatened. As these ideas about reducing consumption take hold, we'll have plenty of time to adapt to the changes." I also suggested that the economy is supposed to serve us, not us serving the economy. Buying things or taking trips just because it is necessary to keep the global economy healthy distorts our priorities.
The questions nagged at me, though, and I felt that I wasn't really addressing the legitimate concerns that were raised by my conversation partners.
Some recent news stories have opened my eyes to the way we're all in this together. I've been able to broaden my sense of solidarity by hearing from other parts of the world. Voices from Mexico and Kenya broke through my defenses and brought fresh clarity.
The United States -- addicted as we are to fossil fuels -- is making some progress in developing renewable energy sources. One approach to "greening" our transportation is by using ethanol to replace gasoline. But most of that grain alcohol is being made from corn, and this new demand for corn is elevating grain prices on the world markets. Tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.
Solidarity has inspired many of us to advocate for alternative fuels, but solidarity also calls us to address those in neighboring countries whose staple foods are now unaffordable. This isn't a future problem -- it is happening today.
In England, a major supermarket chain is introducing "carbon friendly" measures. Those include reducing by half the amount of produce shipped by air. The decisions in Great Britain are raising fears in East Africa. Fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables make up 65% of Kenya's exports to the European Union, and half of that goes to British supermarkets.
African farmers, who have geared their production to an export economy, face a sudden drop in sales. They have no domestic market for luxury vegetables like baby corn. Solidarity with the poor -- including African farmers who face severe drought in a warmer world -- is a strong motivation in addressing climate change. But reducing air freight may hurt those same farmers right now.
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The hyper-consumptive ways of the affluent world are causing real harm to the Earth community. We are depleting essential resources, and we are warping the climate of the planet. Solidarity with the poor of the world, and with other species, calls us to reduce our harmful impacts. This is a morally sound truth.
At the same time, though, economic globalization has created a world where we are all tied together. Reducing our consumption, or changing our fuels, or minimizing our travel does have a direct and immediate impact on others. Those with the least power and the least control in the global economy are the ones who will be hurt most when the wealthy cut back. Solidarity with the poor also calls us to respond to this injustice.
We must not allow our solidarity with the poor to be used as an excuse for continuing "business as usual." Our damage to the global environment is not acceptable. But neither can our good faith efforts to reduce that damage blind us to the impact that we have on the poor and marginalized.
In solidarity with the poor of the world, we must find new ways to reduce and transform the complex entanglements of globalization. We must build economies that are more localized, stable, and not so dependent on the exploitation of workers or the earth. That's good for the poor, and it is good for all of us in the long run.
The recognition that we're all in this together demands that we both empower the poor and diminish the damage of the rich. That is a richer, and harder, sense of interconnection than I had been sharing in my classes. I am grateful for the questions and the reports which have led me to deepen my sense of solidarity.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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