Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Fixation on Freedom
distributed 9/27/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota. . Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

It is a familiar contrast, but still a disturbing one.

  • In Stockholm today, the world's top climate scientists formally embraced an upper limit on greenhouse gases for the first time, establishing a target level at which humanity must stop spewing them into the atmosphere or face irreversible and potentially catastrophic climatic changes. To meet that limit, carbon emissions need to be reduced dramatically, and vast quantities of potential fossil fuels need to be left in the ground.
  • In this week's business news, airplane manufacturer Airbus is predicting that the number of jet planes around the world will double in the next 20 years. Over 29,000 new jets will be built by 2032, with about 1/3 of that number replacing less fuel efficient models. The company said there are many factors behind the increase, such as economic growth, a bigger global middle class, migration and tourism.

To minimize the impacts of climate change, we need rapid and wide-spread changes in technology, behaviors and policies. But the trajectory of our global society is moving relentlessly in the other direction. A doubling of jets, for travel and freight, is just one of innumerable indicators of a culture on the wrong track.

Almost a decade ago, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker, "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

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There are many factors involved in the disconnect between environmental health and societal trends. Clearly, "the invisible hand of the market" can't handle a situation where costs are hidden and catastrophic impacts are far in the future. Self-interested and short-sighted players motivated by concentrations of power and wealth fight to preserve their privilege. Ignorance about our dependence on the ecological web of life -- whether innocent or willful -- conceals the need for action.

But there is one subtle factor at work that I rarely see mentioned. There is a powerful and pervasive bias in our society -- especially in US society, but spreading around the world -- that works against an appropriate response to the climate emergency. It is a topic where churches and other religious communities can open up a conversation about our social values, and restore a better balance in our beliefs.

We are suffering from a fixation on freedom.

A bedrock cultural presumption is that individuals can do pretty much whatever they want. There are some exceptions -- generally in cases where one person's action would cause direct harm to another -- but for the most part, the right of people to make their own choices and act on their own values is pretty much sacred. (That's part of the right-wing fight against "Obamacare" and the requirement that all people have health insurance.)

When we put freedom at the center of our values, then strategies for dealing with climate change lean heavily on consumer choices and personal ethics. We work hard to convince people to make climate-responsible decisions, and that is an uphill battle when so many other voices are marketing other options that are enticing.

To build on the contrast that opened today's Notes, in a world with some degree of affluence spreading into a growing middle class, millions and millions of people are choosing to fly for tourism and business, and billions participate in a global economy where goods are shipped by air. Personal choices, which are on many levels completely rational and reasonable, are pointing us toward a doubling of the global fleet of aircraft and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. And, once those jets -- valued at $4.4 trillion -- are put in service, they are not likely to be grounded in order to cut carbon.

An unswerving commitment to freedom is a losing proposition for the planet. The notion that "if you want it and can afford it, then you can do it" stacks the deck against good climate policy. That's true whether we're talking about jetting off for vacation weekends, eating more meat (which the emerging middle class around the world definitely enjoys), or having the latest versions of consumer electronics.

Before you send that angry email back to me, please remember that I hoped that we can "restore a better balance in our beliefs." I'm not against freedom and choice, but the presumption that freedom is the primary value is out of balance. A greater consideration needs to be given to the contrasting value of the common good. In our setting of unprecedented ecological disruption, when do considerations of long-term community needs trump the personal freedom of individuals?

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"Progressive Christianity" in the US loves freedom, and we have often fought long and hard to extend freedom -- in civil rights for race and gender, for choice in sexual relationships and reproductive choice, for freedom of thought in politics and religious doctrine, against apartheid and economic oppression, and for voting rights. The liberal branch of the church that has been my spiritual and vocational home has made freedom the ethical centerpiece of great work for justice and equality, and I celebrate much of that heritage.

But progressive Christianity has often struggled to embrace Earth-honoring causes. In a church that believes in freedom, it is hard to balance that core principle with realistic choices honoring the common good for all our neighbors. We need to hold onto both the personal and collective, the immediate and long-term. We need to keep individual conscience in conversation with shared discernment about what is best for people around the world, in future generations, and for all of creation.

In this matter, the progressive church may be more informed by Enlightenment notions of freedom than by our biblical and theological traditions. Judaism and Christianity have often looked at freedom as the choice we all must make about who or what to serve, not about a wide-open, day-by-day license to do what we want.

The familiar text from Deuteronomy 30:19 says "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." When Paul wrote that "the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free" (Romans 8:2), he was discussing the freedom to choose adoption as people of God, the freedom to choose to suffer with Christ.

The eco-justice crisis of our age -- climate change, accelerating extinction, resource depletion, toxic waste, and so on -- are a challenge to the church about how we understand freedom. Have we bought in to consumer culture's seductive notion that we are individuals who look primarily to meeting our own wants and needs? Or do we remember the theological perspective that we have the freedom to choose who we will serve: life or death, community or self, Christ or the powers and principalities of the world.

Let me know what you think.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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