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Eco-Justice Notes
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Entitlement
distributed 2/11/11 - ©2011

"Entitlement" is my current word-of-the-week. It is stuck in my head, and I'm finding it cropping up all over the place.

A recurring word could be annoying, but this one has a wide range of implications and contexts. Running into it over and over again has stretched my thinking about justice, ethics, and everyday behavior.

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Among many definitions of "entitlement", I find this broad one the most useful: "The legal right to benefits, income and property that may not be reduced without due process under the law." There are echoes of that principle in the biblical instruction that "The laborer deserves to be paid" (1 Timothy 5:18 -- which also includes animal laborers: "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.")

This positive side of entitlement, as an imperative of justice, was highlighted for me in a speech that Maude Barlow gave last fall to the Environmental Grantmakers Association. She develops a wonderful case for a global ecological commons as the foundation for law, ethics and policy. "The Commons is based on the notion that just by being members of the human family, we all have rights to certain common heritages, be they the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, or culture, language and wisdom." We all have legitimate entitlements to those heritages and resources.

She spoke as a leader in the global water justice movement, addressing issues of water privatization in a world where fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. She tells the story -- one that I had not heard through US news sources -- about a remarkable vote taken last April at the United Nations. Building on the 2010 World People's Conference on Climate Change in Cochambamba, Bolivia, the Bolivian President challenged the UN: do you or do you not support the human right to drinking water and sanitation? Despite strong resistance from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, 122 countries voted for the resolution which recognizes that human right; 41 abstained, and "not one had the courage to vote against."

In a time when the World Bank and complicit governments are ceding community water supplies as private property to powerful corporations, "entitlement" is an essential reminder that all people and all creatures have rights to share in the basic resources necessary for their survival.

World Water Day on March 22, 2011, is a great occasion to address these issues of justice and sustainability in your congregation or community. Many denominations also have materials for education and advocacy addressing the justice issues related to water privatization.

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The appropriate definition of entitlement is often distorted in our affluent society by an unjust and unwarranted sense of entitlement which claims rights and privilege for those who already have much.

My friend and colleague Betty Goebel, executive director of Colorado Interfaith Power and Light, is the one who planted "entitlement" in my head. She started a recent newsletter with these paragraphs.

I've made two signs for my house. They each say "Challenge Entitlement." Whenever I hear myself thinking "I'm entitled to ...," my signs remind me to challenge my thinking. Here's how it plays out: I keep my daytime heat set to 60° (50° at night) in the winter. Most of the time, I'm fine with that. Lots of layers of clothes and a good comforter keep me adequately warm.

But sometimes, I feel sorry for myself. I think, "All my neighbors have warm houses. Surely I'm entitled to have a warm house, too." That's when the challenge kicks in: Am I entitled to have a 70 degree house, knowing that the extra greenhouse gases from those 10 degrees will make life more difficult for people around globe and for my grandchildren and their grandchildren? No. I'm not entitled to. And then I feel better about my choice, put on another sweater and stop my whining!

In last week's Notes, I quoted my friend Ted's thoughts about visiting exceptional places to say goodbye before they disappear or are destroyed. Several of you wrote back with words like Gerry's: "Those who've written 'I want to see the Great Barrier Reef (or whatever) before it dies' have missed the point: Flying to Australia is killing the Great Barrier Reef. We have no entitlement to see it; we just think we do because our culture has cultivated tremendous narcissism and arrogance."

That attitude where power and privilege are perversely claimed as an unquestionable entitlement is described and critiqued by Derrek Jensen in an Orion Magazine article, The Tyranny of Entitlement. He links the environmental devastation of a growth economy to the mindset of individuals who practice physical and psychological abuse. "Entitlement is the abuser's belief that he has a special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner." Jensen sees that belief -- rooted in both religious and scientific perspectives -- as the foundation for claims of human entitlement to "exclusive rights and privileges to work our will on the world." Jensen's article then turns to studies about controlling abusive behavior for insights about how to limit ecological abuse from those who claim such entitlement.

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Legitimate claims of entitlement call us to protect the interests of the entire community of life, and especially those who are most vulnerable and threatened. People around the world are entitled to fresh water and sanitation. Future generations of all species are entitled to a habitable planet. Their entitlement places appropriate limits on the claims of others who would restrict or take away what we all deserve.

Those legitimate claims are a corrective to the illegitimate sense of entitlement held by those of us who have too much and who want more. Those of us who feel a right to warm houses and unlimited travel need to join in Betty's efforts to "challenge entitlement." The false entitlement of individuals and corporations who claim title to part of the global commons must also be challenged, both morally and legally.

I'm grateful that I've had "entitlement" running through my mind this week. I pray that we will all keep the best aspects of entitlement in our minds and hearts at all times.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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