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

Crazy Truth
distributed 12/7/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Thomas Pakurar, of Midlothian, Virginia. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

When I first read what the columnist had written, I was horrified. On second reading, I thought, "Well, at least he's being honest about where he stands." As the months go by, I'm becoming aware that I can't discount those offensive words as a fringe opinion.

The columnist is economics professor George Reisman. I saw one of his articles that had been distributed last March by the Free-Market News Network. It said, in part:

If one values the benefits provided by industrial civilization above the avoidance of the losses alleged to result from global warming, it follows that nothing should be done to stop global warming that destroys or undermines industrial civilization. That is, it follows that global warming should simply be accepted as a byproduct of economic progress and that life should go on as normal in the face of it.

The professor's textbook prose is not very crisp, so let me summarize. If we love our affluent way of life a lot, then we shouldn't let any efforts to stop global warming diminish our wealth and privilege.

Earlier in the column, he acknowledged that "global warming may indeed be a fact. It may also be a fact that it is a by-product of industrial civilization". He also wrote, "The foundation of this civilization has been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, the use of fossil fuels."

Yet, he says, let's barrel ahead with a fossil-fuel driven global economy, even if it causes global warming, because "the benefits provided by industrial civilization" are worth it.

That's the assertion that horrified me. I'm glad that he was honest about it, but, yikes!

As one who tends to look at the world ecologically, rather than economically, I don't see how Dr. Reisman's approach can work. I don't know how we can have a wealthy human society without the natural systems which sustain us -- and those systems are being devastated by climate change. I don't know how "life should go on as normal" in the face of global warming, no matter how creative and extensive the efforts to adapt.

Because I find Reisman's perspective to be utterly unrealistic, I'm inclined to write it off. I want to discount it as so extreme that we don't need to address it. But it is important for us to realize that Dr. R is not a fringe voice. He's not seen as a total kook. There are many who -- on a more implicit level -- do believe what he says.

We've heard it from President Bush, who has spoken often about his commitment to preserving the American way of life. In September, Secretary of State Rice, speaking at the United Nations, said that the US would take strong actions on global warming -- if they didn't disrupt our economy.

This winter, as the US Congress debates legislation on energy and climate, there's an implicit awareness -- among virtually all legislators, of both parties -- that nothing can be proposed that would really change our way of life. We do love "the benefits provided by industrial civilization."

This week, delegates from 190 nations are in Bali for a UN conference. They are trying to find common ground in strategies to address climate change.

The US still refuses to talk about binding commitments for reductions of greenhouse gasses. Developing nations, too, refuse to make firm commitments, insisting that the developed countries must take the lead. And the majority of the developed nations end up in a position very close to that voiced by Condi Rice -- they'll set challenging goals and do what they can, as long as it doesn't hurt their economies.

When all the rhetoric is stripped away, we have to ask about the real commitments to preservation. Not only for the US or China, but pretty much across the board, it sounds like George Reisman really nailed it. When push comes to shove, everybody wants to preserve the wealth and comfort of "industrial civilization." Maintaining, or gaining, those benefits is a higher priority than preserving a functioning ecological system.

It sounds crazy when the professor put it so bluntly in his column, but I guess he was speaking the truth about how decisions really get made.

That crazy truth won't change, I'm afraid, until we name it openly, and critique it harshly. The nations of the world will not be able to address the reality of accelerating climate change until the unquestioned value of industrial civilization is questioned.

That challenge may need to come from communities of faith -- from Christian churches and other religious bodies. Religions, drawing on their ancient and respected values and traditions, may be one of the only communities that can ask those very hard questions.

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One of the optional readings for December 16 in the Revised Common Lectionary is the well-known Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke. (In 2003, Notes looked at a misreading of the Magnificat.)

Mary, full of wonder about what God is doing, looks beyond the miracle of her own pregnancy, and describes her understanding of how God works in the world. As her "soul magnifies the Lord", she proclaims that God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Mary's understanding of God meshes with the long-standing, pervasive beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. What is good and right is sufficiency -- "enough". Poverty and hunger are not good, and neither is wealth and power.

If we -- a great collective "we" that extends from the privileged of the US to the aspiring masses of the developing world -- insist on wealth, then Mary's prophetic words will be true. If climate change causes the collapse of ecological systems, and if it brings war and conflict over scare resources, then we, the powerful, will be brought down from our thrones. All of us, not only the rich, will find ourselves empty.

"The benefits of industrial civilization" cannot exist apart from a thriving Earth. As people of faith, we must challenge the notion that our own comfort and privilege are the ultimate good. In our congregations, and in the political forum, let us reject Dr. Reisman's crazy truth, and demand that the ecological sustainability of the planet be given priority.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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