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

The Good Life
distributed 6/3/16 - ©2016

"The Good Life" is my shorthand term for a complex personal and social vision. Those three words let me point to the hopes and values that we use to evaluate our individual and collective lives.

Our notions of the good life are formed gradually, and are shaped by many sources and experiences. For most of us, the qualities of that good life are rarely pulled together into a conscious and coherent expression. Some recent conversations, though, are helping me to realize how important it is for us to be clear about what we value.

When our sense of the good life is implicit, when we haven't sorted out the contradictory pieces that have been added to the bundle of expectations, then we can easily be seduced by the parts of our vision that are least important to us. We might affirm one choice that feels good and right, only to discover that we've cut off the possibility of other options that are far more worthwhile and valuable.

The danger of seduction is especially real during this interminable election year in the US. We are being bombarded with all sorts of emotional appeals that try to snag our deep-seated aspirations. The candidates and parties -- and their sophisticated marketing agents -- are trying to get us to connect them with some compelling part of what we hold as the good life.

If we haven't thought through what the good life looks like, if we have not made those hopes specific enough that we can decide what among them is most important, then it is all too easy to let somebody else lure us toward a very partial and distorted sense of what is good personally, for the nation, the world, and for coming generations.

Take a moment, and make a mental list of some of the qualities that are important in your sense of the good life, both on a personal level, and for a larger community.

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At a wedding that I attended recently, the family and friends who had gathered for the celebration were invited to call out brief hopes for the couple. The words that were voiced are clues to the good life: laughter, friends, forgiveness, children, health.

In our consumer culture, the good life is often expressed in individual and material terms. You're on the path to the good life when you drive a powerful truck, or have the latest electronic gadgets, or live in a spacious home, or have the economic means to travel to exotic settings.

We hear a different awareness of what is most valuable in life when disaster strikes, when a fire or a flood destroys a family's home. How often the news reports have an interview with a survivor saying, "We lost everything we own, but all of us are safe. We'll replace the stuff some way." I've never heard anyone say, "Well, the children died, but I did save the best of our artwork before the house collapsed." (Obviously, living through disaster and suffering great loss isn't part of the good life! It is a rough way to do values clarification.)

In Colorado, where I live, a political fight is continuing between two opposing visions of the good life. A growing number of communities are realizing that the encroachment of large-scale fracking operations into neighborhoods is not compatible with what they value. Noise, pollution, traffic, health risks and declining property values don't fit with their expectation of a happy and healthy neighborhood. Those who support expanded drilling for oil and gas lift up other values and standards: property rights, the energy to fuel our way of life, jobs and taxes to sustain prosperity in the region. The fight over how to define the good life in Colorado is probably headed toward several ballot initiatives for next fall's election.

Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter a year ago, does a superb job of identifying conflicting values that are at the heart of the eco-justice crisis. He describes one vision of the world that is rooted in faith, and that offers hope for ecological health, social justice, and spiritual depth -- what he calls "integral ecology". Francis insists that this definition of the good life must be in active and informed dialogue with the technocratic, economic paradigms that drag us farther into crisis.

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Clarity about the good life is essential if we are going to make progress toward a just and sustainable society. Our gut feelings about the good life have to mesh with the challenging rational decisions about how to restructure technology, economies and lifestyles.

I have often made the statement that most people will not give up what they consider to be the good life, even if they are called on to do so for a very good cause. If getting to a world with a stable climate and a healthy biosphere means giving up comfort and independence, most people will consider it an unacceptable deprivation. (Listen to those who argue against dramatic energy conservation measures by invoking fears of "shivering in dark, cold houses".)

One way to work around that problem is to intentionally and strategically redefine the good life so that it fits with the needed changes. I explored that option a few years ago in terms of housing choices. "Not So Big" looked at the influence of an architect who provided images and language that highlight quality and good design instead of square footage as the best measure of a pleasant and valuable home. We're seeing a similar shift with those -- often "Millennials" -- who have decided that owning a car is an unwanted burden, and find that a mix of other transportation options is cheaper and more convenient. Being free from auto ownership is part of their new sense of the good life.

My recent conversations, though, have shown me a different aspect to the clash between social change and perceptions of the good life. When we're not clear about the most valuable qualities of the good life -- either emotionally or rationally -- choosing one quality that is immediately evident may lead to sacrificing other qualities that we'd really hold as more valuable. We might end up with painful deprivation because we were not clear enough about what is really valuable.

For decades, in the affluent world, it has been assumed that cheap, abundant and relatively clean energy is an essential component of our collective good life. But the Colorado communities on the front lines of energy extraction -- and the far more ruinous extraction in places like Ecuador and Nigeria -- show us that there are substantial costs in producing that energy. And the crisis of climate change has revealed that striving for the good life by extracting and burning fossil fuels is devastating to any description of the good life that is globally aware, considers future generations, or honors the diversity of life. The cheap and abundant energy part of the good life is incompatible with the long-term survival of civilization, but it is enticing if we're not aware of our broader hopes and values.

As Pope Francis spelled out last year, the principles of integral ecology must be brought to the table as we make urgent decisions about how to achieve the good life for all. Faith communities have an essential role to play in broadening and deepening our notions of the good life. Theological reflection, spiritual development, intense personal experiences, and honest conversation with other communities around the world can stretch us and make us more aware of what is truly important.

Pastors, educators and lay leaders can help us -- in churches and in the broader community -- to consider what the good life really looks like and feels like. Faith leaders can name the partial goods that are so enticing, and help us to recognize the greater goods that are lost when we make the seductive choices that are local and short term.

Begin with that mental list that I invited you to make at the start of this Notes. Consider the qualities of the good life that came to mind most immediately for you. Then build on that list, and join in conversation with people you love and trust to evaluate what most fully defines the good life. Then take that awareness into your community and the world as an advocate a moral and ethical vision.

Our notions of the good life are extremely powerful in shaping how we live, and the choices we make. May we be thoughtful and honest in sorting out what constitutes the good life.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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