Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Not Equally Culpable
distributed 10/10/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt of Fulton, Missouri, in honor of Seamus Doyle. Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

I use the word "we" a lot in these weekly Notes. It is a helpful shorthand when talking about common beliefs and behaviors. I confess, though, that it is not a very precise pronoun.

Sometimes my "we" is pretty small -- referring to those who are committed to transformational action. Other times, it is a very big "we" -- lumping together all of us who are part of modern cultures and economies.

I try and give context for the kind of "we" that I'm writing about, but it is confusing. At times it is simply inaccurate. I had that pointed out to me in a recent email from a good friend of Eco-Justice Ministries. She had a lively and candid rant (only part of which gets quoted here):

It is so feel-good saying "we" when accusing us all of the wasteful ways in which we live, are "addicted to oil," trash out the planet and the oceans, are doing all these sinful environmental things. Yet: pardon me, but I am not doing any of this! Ok, yes, I admit, I drive a car and burn oil ... and generally spend about 90% of my life violating the environment, like everyone else. But let's be clear about who is steering this mess, and then let's name names! ... This sickening "we are so bad blablabla" is misleading and deceivingly comforting. There is no democracy in killing the planet. There are order givers and there are executioners. The two do not mix in the same social circles. The Kochtopuses and other sociopathic power-wielders are the order-givers. ... 1% of "us" (haha--not me) spend billions over billions of dollars and power to keep the rest of the world compliant in the destructive ways. So, let's do some re-examining and some good ole fashion class warfare in who is ordering the killing here and who is forced into indentured servitude in that earth killing business.

Good heavens! What harsh and judgmental words! I'd say something about how that attitude can't be "Christian" if it were not for the words of Jesus: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Matthew 12:30) Jesus teaches the crowds "The greatest among you will be your servant" (Matthew 23:11), and then our Lord and savior launches into his own rant, seven times announcing "woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" -- each time with scathing details about how the esteemed community leaders get it wrong.

Yes, "we" all participate in a society that is devastating the planet, but we are not all equally complicit.

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Floy's email diatribe made me think of a poorly-written but intriguing book from 2002, "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop Them All." One reviewer of the book summarized:

Czech defines the top one percent of consumers as 'Liquidators,' those who liquidate capital for their own excess. Liquidators are the most conspicuous of consumers. In Czech's hierarchy of consumers, 'Steady-Staters' represent the bottom eighty percent in terms of personal consumption spending. Steady-staters are those who are largely responsible in their consumption patterns and are concerned about preserving the environment for future generations. This includes all of the poor, most of the middle class, and some of the rich. The remaining nineteen percent of consumers are what Czech calls the 'Amorphic class.'

Brian Czech's plan to stop the most excessive hinges on attractive women expressing disdain for the liquidators. (His analysis is pretty good, but his plan is painful to read.)

Way back in 1992, Alan Durning wrote "How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth." He divided the global population (then just 5.5 billion!) into three consumption classes.

  • 1.1 billion are the poor, who have insufficient diets, get around by walking, and make things out of "local biomass."
  • The large middle of 3.3 billion have grain-based diets, travel on bicycles and buses, and own durable goods.
  • The top 1.1 billion is consumer class, eating meat and packaged foods, drive private cars, and have throwaway goods.
Durning sees the consumer class -- which he does call "we" -- as the problem.

Durning has a very different perspective than Floy and Czech, whose emphasis is on the exceptionally wealthy 1%. He wrote, "Still, on a global scale, the rich are best taken as a subset of the consumer class, because, in terms of ecological impacts, the greatest disparities are not between the rich and the consumers, but between the consumers and the middle-income class."

Good arguments can be made for how far up the scale of wealth and power to place the blame -- the top 20% who are consumers, the top 1% who are the liquidators, or the 1% described by Floy and the Occupy movement as "power-wielders." But blame does need to be placed.

"We" are not all equally culpable in the planet's distress. That is one of the most evident realities in descriptions of global climate injustice. It is the "developed" nations that have created the problem, and the poor nations that are experiencing the worst impacts. Climate negotiations hit an impasse over where to place the responsibility for change. Are China and India part of the "we", or not?

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Many years ago, I put forth my own rant, urging my readers to name excessive consumption as "obscene." The poster child -- literally -- for my outburst was a Denver family that built a $30,000 playhouse for their kids. The newspaper story had a half-page photo of the brick and stucco building, with cherry floors, a kitchen sink in the loft, and slate shingles. An interior designer had been hired to coordinate the curtains with the furnishings. I still think that kind of excess is obscene.

My old words from 2002 speak to the challenge for faithful and responsible people, where we need both to "name names" and be confessional. I wrote:

Theologically, I believe that there are times when we are called to announce moral judgments that are grounded in the ethical norms of our faith. Some things are a moral obscenity. I would suggest that nuclear war, genocide, slavery, pornography and child abuse fit that category [along with extreme disparities between rich and poor]. But theologically, too, we need to remember that "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8) Even as we label the behaviors of others as "obscene," we must be confessional about our own failures and shortcomings. Our ability to see dramatic wrong in others does not confer some moral righteousness on us.

When we pretend that "we" are all the same, and that there is no moral difference between wildly divergent behaviors, we hide real sin and we make strategic effort for change impossible. It is necessary and appropriate to say, with Jesus, "woe to you!" to the worst offenders. But we must always be honest and confessional about our own sin, too.

It is a difficult dance -- and one that we must learn to be effective.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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