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

The Prodigal Son
distributed 6/3/11 - ©2011

In a wide-ranging conversation with a friend this week, I backed myself into the sort of comment that I hate to make. I was forced to admit -- to myself and to Jim -- a painful reality that I usually don't name.

"Future generations," I said, "will look back on the early 21st century as a time when some people had unprecedented privilege and prosperity, on a level that will never be seen again."

I wasn't thinking just of the famous few that are the obscenely rich, with personal fortunes that are larger than the economies of entire countries. I was pondering how middle class people like me will be viewed by the not-too-distant future, and I realized that our descendents will not look favorably on how we have exhausted the planet.

Our frequent and casual travel will be seen as one indicator of that privilege. (My conversation with Jim occurred while we spent two hours and 140 miles in round-trip car-pooling to a three hour committee meeting.)

Our culture enjoys an astonishing variety and quantity of food gathered from all around the world. We routinely buy the latest generations of things designed for obsolescence and disposal: changing fashions in clothing and home furnishings, new formats of TVs and media players, fancier cell phones and computers. We demand ever-increasing levels of comfort and convenience. For example, even in Colorado's moderate and low-humidity climate, air conditioned homes and offices are now considered essential.

In every aspect of our collective lives, those of us who live in the "developed" world consume resources and have opportunities that are unprecedented. The comment is often made -- usually with pride -- that ordinary people today enjoy wealth and comforts that were unimaginable to the kings and queens of a few centuries ago. We have come to think of that privilege and prosperity as our birthright, but it is an anomaly and an aberration.

I find no joy in the realization that the wealth and opportunity which we take for granted cannot be sustained. That's why this week's conversation with Jim has haunted me.

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The image for our society that comes to mind is that of "the prodigal son". I'm sure that you know the parable found in Luke 15. But consider how the description of the errant son's behavior sounds like us.

The younger of two boys somehow talks his father into handing over "the share of the property that will belong to me." The lad then "gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living."

Don't rush ahead to the wonderful parts about repentance and forgiveness. Hold onto the phrase that speaks of our culture: "he squandered his property in dissolute living."

Just like the kid who blew the inheritance, we're thoroughly enjoying our excessive pleasures. We see our extraordinary levels of consumption as "the good life". We don't want to think about what will happen when the goodies run out.

Rather than seeing our binge as a short and unsustainable splurge, we tend to think of what we're doing as "normal" -- and even hope to do more of it. The recent global economic crisis revealed the fragility of our over-extended system, but our political and business leaders strive to get us all back on the path to economic growth, increased consumption, and ever-greater prosperity.

We face the same situation as the prodigal son. The wealth that allows our riotous living will not last. The party will be over soon, and the poverty that follows will be painful.

To sustain our "dissolute living", we're going to extreme measures to get the energy resources that we have taken for granted. Oil drilling goes into ever deeper and riskier ocean settings, and proposals for drilling in harsh and isolated Arctic oceans make the dangerous depths of the Gulf of Mexico look downright conservative. Oil is being extracted from "tar sands" in Canada at enormous ecological cost, and "fracking" is the latest technology to tease natural gas from rock formations.

Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute have been sounding the alarm for many years, through an increasingly urgent series of books describing "Plan B". His newest book, "World on the Edge", makes it clear that we cannot continue on this path.

As the world economy has expanded nearly 10-fold since 1950, consumption has begun to outstrip natural assets on a global scale. ... Yet as our human family has grown and the global economy has expanded, demand has surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity. We are overharvesting forests, overplowing fields, overgrazing grasslands, overdrawing aquifers, overfishing oceans, and pumping far more carbon into the atmosphere than nature can absorb.

We are, indeed, exhausting our rich -- and prematurely claimed -- inheritance. Our excessive living is taking us toward impending collapse.

The prodigal son of Jesus' parable had a humiliating, but viable option. He could go home to dad and beg for a job on the prosperous and sustainable family estate. That is an option that we don't have. When our excessive consumption exhausts the planet and destabilizes civilization, there's no other place to go.

Lester Brown's "Plan B" points us toward the one reasonable choice -- a rapid shift toward renewable energy, ecological restoration, and sustainable communities. The sooner we make those changes, the better off we will be.

The essential first step in making those changes is to reject the unsustainable path that our society is traveling. Rather than seeing ourselves as blessed and righteous in our over-consumption, we need to recognize that we are acting like the prodigal son, squandering everything in dissolute living.

Like the prodigal son, confessing our mistakes will allow us to discover both joyful forgiveness and better opportunities. We can make the personal and collective choices that will take us toward a healthier and more sustainable future -- but first we must admit to ourselves that we have been blowing Earth's bounty on a wild and irresponsible binge.

Future generations will not appreciate the way we have wasted that inheritance. Perhaps, if we act soon, they will appreciate our repentance and more responsible choices.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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