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

Limits & Abundance
distributed 3/20/09 - ©2009

During Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes is highlighting four theological affirmations that are foundational for our work. So far, this series has discussed shalom as our first guiding principle, relationship as an inherent quality of God's creation, and churches as transformative communities.

4. The world is limited -- and we find abundance within those limits.
There are limits to what the world can provide for humanity, and what sort of wastes the world can absorb -- and humanity has passed those limits. Theologically and practically, we find abundant living when we discover how to live joyously and sustainably within what God has provided.

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For three weeks, our affirmations have been clean and timeless assertions of theological principles. On this fourth and final week, we get murkier. This statement has two interdependent parts, and -- for the first time -- a factor has been included which is unique to our contemporary situation: "humanity has passed those limits."

I've found that this fourth affirmation is very difficult for many people to grasp or accept. It goes against the grain of so much that we've been taught, and contradicts much that is at the core of modern societies. So let me ease into the topic from a pastoral approach.

There are only 24 hours in a day, only 365.25 days in a year. Nothing that any of us can do will change that. "The world is limited." We can't mine or manufacture more time.

Trying to cram more activities, more responsibilities and more tasks into the limited number of hours works for a while, by displacing "free time" that is totally discretionary. But there comes a point when there is no more grace on the calendar. Additional hours at work mean less hours with the family. Kids scheduled into sports and clubs don't get unstructured play time outdoors -- creating the problem that Richard Louv calls "nature deficit disorder". Too many things on the daily schedule means less hours of sleep, increased stress, diminished health, and a life that isn't happy.

We find abundance (so I hear -- I live an overloaded life, too) when we get our priorities in order, cut back on commitments, and learn to live reasonably and responsibly within the 24 hours that God and Earth's rotation have provided. That's a truth that is painfully obvious in the frantically busy 21st Century, but it has always been so. Jesus said, "can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Luke 12:25)

Paying heed to limits is not only a psychological concern, nor is it exclusively human. The well-researched concept of "carrying capacity" sees the same truth in ecological settings. An area of pasture can only sustain a certain amount of grazing, whether by wild deer or domestic cattle, or a herd of triceratops way back in the Cretaceous period. When the numbers of critters are below the carrying capacity, everything is fine, and the land is probably healthier than if nothing was feeding there. But if too many animals are grazing on that pasture, the plants are harmed, the soil erodes, and the pasture is damaged for years to come. When an area is over-grazed, it can sustain less life than before. Abundance, the sustainable health of the land community, depends on living within the natural limits.

(Before you write back to me -- yes, irrigation and fertilization can increase the carrying capacity of some land. Candles and electric lights can add to the number of productive hours in the day, too. But those interventions can only extend the limits, not remove them.)

The truth of limits is fairly indisputable at the personal and local level. Until recently, it was less obvious, and less of an issue, on a global scale. For the hundred thousand years that humans have been roaming Earth, our collective impact has been relatively small. 2,000 years ago -- at the height of the Roman empire, or during the Han dynasties in China -- the total human population on the planet was relatively stable at around 300 million. With that number of people, the fish in the oceans were effectively inexhaustible, and the atmosphere so vast that it was absurd to consider any measurable human impact on it. The world seemed unlimited. Many people today still believe that.

Now, though, the human population is 21 times what it was when Herod ruled in Jerusalem. Those numbers, multiplied by powerful technologies, have changed the equation. As Daniel Maguire wrote, "For the first time, our power to destroy outstrips the earth's power to restore." Within the last hundred years, our species has exceeded Earth's carrying capacity. Through the centuries, people have often overwhelmed a local setting and caused small-scale catastrophes. Now we're doing it to the entire planet.

The world is limited. There are only so many fish in the sea, and if factory trawlers take too many of them, populations collapse and ecologies are disrupted, and we're all worse off in the long run. There is only a limited amount of fresh water -- a fact that has been denied here in Eastern Colorado by piping the stuff over the mountains and pumping from the ground at unsustainable rates. But there is no more "surplus" to be shuffled around in the western US. Aquifers are depleted, and we're competing with Southern California for access to water in the Colorado River. Similar water shortages are evident in many regions around the planet. There are limits, and we will find long-term benefit and satisfaction only when we live within those constraints of what the world provides.

There are limits, too, in what the world can absorb. This good and gracious planet has finely-tuned systems for dealing with "waste" that recycle discards into resources. Grasses and trees decay into new soil. Dead bodies are food for scavengers, insects and bacteria. Carbon dioxide -- given off by decaying plants, breathing animals and burning fuels -- is reclaimed in life-giving ways by oceans and plants. But there are limits to what that planetary carbon cycle can handle. We humans, within just a few centuries, have burned vast quantities of fossil fuels that were built up over hundreds of millions of years. We have overwhelmed the system, and exceed its limits. Just as an over-grazed pasture erodes, an overwhelmed carbon system -- one with more that 350 parts per million of CO2 -- leads to catastrophic effects like global heating and ocean acidification. Within the last 25 years, we have exceeded that limit, and the whole planet is paying the price.

The world is limited -- and we find abundance within those limits. Theologically, there is a profound difference between affluence (having lots of stuff), and abundance (having enough). Christianity, along with most other historic faith traditions, has affirmed the spiritual and practical wisdom of abundance. Ethically, it is embodied in the principle of sufficiency, of enough to meet basic needs for all.

Except for the incoming flow of solar energy, our planet is a closed system. It is, by definition, limited -- even as it also is verdant and fairly resilient. We will live within the limits of Earth, or we will die when we exceed them. Those are physical and biological realities. The good news, theologically, is that living within constraints is not something that is evil or wrong. We do find joy and abundance, satisfaction and sustainability, justice and harmony, when we learn to live within the limits around us. That is true about the hours in the day, the water we drink, and the fragile atmosphere around us.

Our economic system and the mindset of modern culture presume unlimited growth and opportunity. Limits are a heresy in that belief system. Those who deny limits will tolerate almost any cost to maintain the illusion of an inexhaustible world. But they are wrong, and they bring suffering to themselves, all people and the planet.

Hear and believe the good news of truth. The world is limited, and we will find joy and abundance when we live within those limits.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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