Saturday, September 26, 2009

Community Gardens and Schools

Are your kids sick of the food in their school cafeteria? Jim Diers has a suggestion for you. This Seattle community developer traveled to Havana to visit some of the 1,700 COMMUNITY GARDENS that have been planted in the city since 1992. All of these gardens are organic to avoid the costs of fertilizers and pesticides. Diers writes:

I was especially impressed with the way in which gardens were integrated with schools. A large garden I visited was surrounded by an elementary school, a middle school, a school for the deaf, and a school for swimmers. The students work in the garden for two hours each day to fulfill their community service requirement. Culinary arts classes teach students how to prepare meals from the fresh produce that is then served in the school cafeterias. I may never have eaten better tasting tomatoes, certainly not in my school cafeteria.
--Jim Diers, Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), p. 126.

Cuba certainly isn't the only place where school grounds are being gardened. It's happening in a charter school system right here in south Texas, where VERY fresh and nutrition-packed produce is nourishing kids from low-income families. Do any of you have experience with this where you live? Please post a comment and share how that is going.

Why shouldn't this be done everywhere?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ancient Tactics for Social Change

An Internet discussion group has recently been discussing how to avert the spectre of Socialism in an impoverished country. Here are a few thoughts of my own on that topic....

Ironically, it seems to me that a fair measure of "socialism" is needed to curb "Socialism," defined very informally, for the purposes of this post, as follows.... 

socialism (lower case s) -- People taking care of one another, so that nobody falls through the cracks, where people are rewarded for their effort and sacrifice, and not for the sheer lucky fact of having inherited lands and other forms of capital, and where everybody is given education to develop skills that contribute to the well-being of the society. Individual income, perqs, and social recognition are tied to the efforts and sacrifice people make, but not to an extent that it creates a class of people whose families have a permanent advantage over other classes, and who therefore have incentive to do everything in the power to preserve their advantages by means of corruption. Policies such as public education (mentioned in The Communist Manifesto), publicly funded health care, etc. are socialistic policies that most people now accept. Huge disparities of wealth and privilege are discouraged, and an effective social system is nurtured, so that people are no longer motivated to preserve unjust privileges while ignoring the needs of others, but are motivated to preserve and strengthen the life of social cooperation that is providing them basic needs and security and a modest but decent lifestyle. This kind of "socialism" takes various concrete forms, and has been implemented in varying degrees and manners in such places as Canada and Europe, where people are better off in general than in the U.S., which has implemented less of it. On a smaller scale, it is also practiced in successful co-ops, such as the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay that supply most of that country's dairy products. Now people who have a visceral reaction to the word "socialism" may want to choose a different word. But what I am referring to using a lower-case "s" is simply a consistent and thoroughhgoing advocacy of the same sorts of things that most people reading this advocate and consider normal and inevitable, thanks to the combined past successes of socialist and social democratic movements, the New Deal, etc. in shaping the societies we grew up in.[1]

"Socialism" (upper case S) -- I think what people have in mind as something to fear and abhor is this...a system in which a group of would-be elitists conspires to cut the old elite out of the game, and establish a dictatorship. Thus a new elite replaces the old elite, by subverting the democratic process which the old elite previously also continually subverted to its purposes, while also clamping down ever tighter on the ability of the rich old elite to air their opposition by means of the media they own. The new regime seeks to control public opinion with somewhat more sophisticated means than the old elite did, to wit: In addition to subsidizing or buying off media organizations, as the old elite did, they also organize the poor (something the old elite were reluctant to do, perhaps because they were afraid of getting lice or smelling bad or somesuch), and entice or compel them to participate in public demonstrations, on pain of missing handouts or losing jobs (if they have a job to lose). An even more sophisticated tool of thought control is to form a network of informants, so that if anybody is spouting less than the orthodox line, the authorities can be alerted, and send that poor soul to a re-education camp. The new media and organized poor are thus trained to parrot a party line. Of course the original intent according to the new elite's professed ideology was to indoctrinate the people and get them to parrot a line that is truly in their interests, but which they're too dumb as ignorant country hicks to advocate of their own accord; in practice, however, the party line morphs into being whatever serves the interests of the new class. In exchange for these services for and on behalf of the poor, the class of professional revolutionaries (the new elite) takes their "cut" in the form of a publicly subsidized life of amenities and privileges that the poor will never enjoy.

My basic problem with Socialism (upper case S) is the top-down tactics that are typically employed. Rather than first inculcate the values and lifestyle of practical love and mutual care in the populace, and nurture the movement until it reaches a critical mass that can transform society's institutions, they put all their effort in gaining political power so they can impose change from the top down. They may think that once they get the right PERSON in power, once they quell resistance by stripping the old elite of their wealth, media organs, etc., and the new cadre of revolutionary functionaries are in charge, then everything will be easier to implement and maintain from then on. Invariably, however, the original stated intentions are subverted, as the "new class" takes over and exercises power to the advantage of their own new class interests, and as those among their comrades who insist on remaining true to original principles either defect or are purged.

To my knowledge, the top-down approach has never really worked. And its fatal flaw, it seems to me, is that it puts the cart before the horse. The theory says that once the external circumstances are changed--less disparity of income, availability of free education for all, etc.--then the internal mentality of people will change, and the tendency to cling to personal privilege at the expense of social well-being will evaporate. So the tactic is to deploy a dedicated core of revolutionaries to cajole, manipulate, threaten, indoctrinate, propagandize, cultivate and channel mass rage, by telling the truth, telling lies, and doing or saying virtually anything that furthers the goal of coming into power. This is considered necessary and justified, because, of course, once they have the reins of power they will then be in a position to effect the necessary changes of circumstances in order to restructure incentives and balance interests into a social equilibrium. But my question is, will they really?

A related flaw is that epistemological chaos often comes to pervade the entire movement top to bottom, leaving various levels of the movement with differing and conflicting understandings of what the movement is really about and where it is headed. This happens whenever a movement decides, practically speaking, that it is appropriate to counter the old elite's program of lies by propagating an equally massive barrage of lies and/or truth, whatever works to further the end of seizing power. As a result, like an Eastern mystical sect, "esoteric gap" inevitably comes to separate the various ranks of the movement, from the peasants at the lowest rung who are fed simple slogans and recruited as cannon fodder, to the mid-level ideologues who at least hope that their principles are really guiding the movement, to a privileged few in the inner sanctum at the top who may be pursuing a game plan very different from what the movement is ostensibly about.

How can we put the horse before the cart, and really get somewhere? I think we need to START by changing beliefs, values, ways of life, and the fundamental motivations of our hearts, from the ground up, rather that seek to change external circumstances and conditionings first, from the top down. Then, as people come to internalize values of social concern, we must organize ourselves into voluntary societies in which the principles of hard work, frugal living, mutual aid, and social commitment are lived out and modeled to the next generation. Then, as this countercultural movement grows and a critical mass of society comes to adopt the new mentality and lifestyle, the structures and institutions of the larger society that formerly militated against social cooperation and mutual care and that entrenched oppression by the rich and powerful against the poor masses are replaced by new and transformed structures and institutions. Epistemologically, what you see in such a movement is what you get--"This is what we stand for, come and kill us if that bothers you"--with no staircase chain of esoteric doctrines distinguishing ranks of initiation--and no smoke and mirrors of manipulative strategies. What is said to the public is what is believed by all in the movement.

To be sure, it will be objected that this approach cannot work, because it is thought that every attempt to change people's mentality and inculcate a lifestyle of social concern will be undermined and co-opted at every turn by the pervasive influence of contrary institutions that buy people off and dilute their commitment to the alternative culture. Can we really believe in the ability of the human spirit (aided by God, as I see it) to overcome these obstacles, before external institutional inducements have been sufficiently implemented?

The truth is that such obstacles were faced before, and to a large degree overcome, by an ancient spiritual-social-political movement whose precedent I think is essential for us to review today. I am referring to the anti-imperial struggles of the Christians of the early centuries of the common era.[2] Now I have to say at the outset that it is difficult to even talk about this precedent, because it is so widely misrepresented and misunderstood today. If you, the reader, are one for whom organized religion raises red flags, rest assured, the ancient social revolutionaries of whom I am speaking would be just as hotly opposed by religious and political leaders today as they were crucified and thrown to lions by the religious and political establishments of their time.[3]

To understand the anti-imperial and society-transforming dynamic of this movement, we need to get in touch with the socially and politically charged times of the 1st Century, and to recover the sense of early Christian sayings and symbols in their original context. An imperial slogan of the day was, "Caesar is Lord," and people were required to acknowledge this in a civil ritual, thus affirming the ultimacy and divine origin of the Roman social order that was built on militarism, elitism, and slave labor. In bold defiance, the early Christians proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord." That is to say, it is not Caesar, but an obscure Galilean prophet--who relied on God's power rather than a military machine, who stayed true to his principles of love and justice and compassion even to death, and whom his followers believed God vindicated in resurrection--who will have the final say. They mocked the intimidating power of Rome by holding up the cross--the ultimate symbol of Roman terror--as their central symbol, because they believed Jesus had decisively defeated it. Strangely, the early Christians did not take up arms to overthrow the pax romana. Most of them were slaves, yet they did not organize slave rebellions. Confounding the play books of other revolutionary movements of both their and our day, they renounced violence and subterfuge, but were open about their ultimate allegiances, and, when arrested, went joyfully to their deaths. In all this they steadfastly refused to acknowledge the validity and ultimacy of the Roman system of oppression, but instead proclaimed an alternative "gospel" of him who was slain and conquered death. The original defiant irony in this use of the word "gospel" tends to be lost on us today, until we realize that in the 1st Century the word was used to announce the accession (or birthday) of an emperor who was supposedly going to usher in peace and make all things well. Not Caesar, who imposes injustice by force, but Jesus, who prevails in love and faithfulness, is the true victor.

Moreover, the early Christians lived lives that affirmed absolute equality of dignity of every human being, regardless of class or background, sharing with one another according to need, staying behind in plagued cities to care for the sick, and even going to the municipal garbage heaps to rescue exposed infants and raising them as their own children. Such a lifestyle and set of values was unheard of in the Greco-Roman world, which was saturated with a cruel personal hedonism and a rigid hierarchy of privilege based on rank and power.

This story reads almost like a fairy tale to us today--were there REALLY such people as this, and really so many of them, living lives of moral rectitude and sacrifice, and being sustained by inner joy even as they were being led away to death in arenas of hungry lions? And yet everything I have mentioned thus far, to the best of my knowledge, is factual--I have purposely left out any detail that historians are not generally agreed really happened. And the result was that greater and greater numbers of people became ATTRACTED to the movement, which became the cultural cutting edge, and came to regard the old values as moribund and empty. Socially just values and lifestyle were reaching further and further across the length and breadth of the cultural landscape. The Christian movement was building toward a critical mass by which the whole structure of the world's kingdoms built on ruthless power and oppression would crumble, and a new rock, cut not out of human hands, would become a mountain filling the whole earth (the imagery comes from Daniel 2, which Jesus and his friends had very much in mind).

But then the empire struck back, in the person of Constantine, who legalized Christianity, and then made it the imperial religion. At that point throngs of people swelled the ranks of the church without really understanding what it was really about. Even though the rise of Constantine and subsequently of "Christendom" might have seemed like the fulfillment of Daniel 2, it was in many respects a counterfeit victory that arrested the progress of genuine Christianity. If the reading of Christianity and its politically-relevant origins that I am narrating seems alien to the impressions you may have grown up with, please consider whether that might be because centuries of the Constantinian legacy have clouded our vision.

In subsequent history there were various times and places in which the radical social implications of biblical faith made a comeback, not least in the movement of Whitefield, the Wesleys, the "Clapham Sect" aristocrats (e.g., William Wilberforce, whose personality and battle to end the slave trade was depicted with reasonable accuracy in the film "Amazing Grace"), and others. The legacy and achievements of these people were enormous--they ended the slave trade, introduced education for women, reformed prisons, reformed the East India Company, introduced schools that prepared India for modern democracy, etc. In their personal lives, they opened their homes to the poor, practiced an ethic of modest personal consumption that would scandalize most middle class Americans and American expats, and gave liberally of their time, money, and relational energy to help others.

In all this their modus operandi was persevering love. But in times and places where reform was rebuffed and corruption entrenched, a vacuum was created for movements that despaired of such means, and resorted to rage, violence, intrigue, and a cold "scientific" manipulation of the masses....

Which means that the choice is ours. Either we will change the world in one way, the way of the early Christians, the way of Wilberforce, the way of radical persevering love, the way of personal concern and involvement in the lives of the excluded, the way of personal spiritual transformation to become people motivated and energized by love. Or we will remain complacent in our short-term comforts, until the pot boils over into violence that in the end makes things as bad or worse.

Some may say that what I am proposing is too radical and idealistic for the real world. Honestly, my friends, get real! The early Christians were real. Wilberforce was real. Unspeakable injustice and oppression and social and environmental degradation are real. And unless we start living in a new way, there may BE no real world for us or our children or grandchildren to enjoy!


[1] Lumping such diverse social-economic arrangements as these under the one label "socialism," for the informal purposes of this essay, is not meant to color over the differences between them. On the other hand, the term is becoming remarkably broad even in formal academic discourse. My purpose here is to emphasize the commitment to cooperation rather than competition as the guiding principle of social and economic relationships that these diverse arrangements share.

[2] The brief historical survey below is written to the best of my knowledge, though I am not an historian myself and would invite anyone who has relevant training to correct any deficiencies in my telling of the story. I am emboldened to do this because I believe the story has such rich meaning for our lives that it deserves to be grabbed ahold of and told and re-told by children, teenagers, and everyday women and men, not just the professional historians. But why should I care whether I have the facts straight? If myth were what we were after - that is, a story that gives meaning to our lives when lived out or enacted ritually but which may or may not be based in historical fact - if we had to settle for such as the only means at our disposal to create a sense of meaning in an otherwise apparently meaningless universe - then this story would serve the purpose well, though not necessarily better than other fabricated tales. The remarkable thing - what gives this story its special power and classes it in my mind as the story of stories - is just how historical AND relevant it really is! C.S. Lewis saw Jesus as the Myth who became Fact. That is why I CARE about whether my understanding of the story is accurate and invite correction of others, because a story that is both historically true and gives meaning to our lives if true, is a priceless treasure. If the conclusion that God has acted in Jesus Christ in time-and-space history can hold up to historical investigation (even though historical investigation by itself cannot draw such a conclusion), then that is extraordinary confirmation that our lives are unspeakably significant and infused with divine meaning. It therefore also loudly proclaims how much acting justly toward our fellow human beings and the life systems of our planet really MATTERS. And it empowers me to resist the lure of rival myths that claim to be rooted in fact, such as the dominant American myth which exalts competition and individual material consumption as the highest values over against the cooperation in love and justice which Jesus modeled and enjoins.

[3] It is also important to note, contra some Marxist interpretations that make out the early Christians as supporters of violent revolution, that in fact the early Christians were persecuted in part because they did NOT support violent revolution. They were opposed from all sides, because they believed that neither deification of the Roman social order nor involvement in resistance movements built on human rage and violence was an acceptable way forward. My own historical understandings in this regard are informed by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, and others.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sowing in Tears...Reflections on Van Jones' Resignation

Van Jones, who resigned as Special Advisor on Green Jobs over questions about past political involvements and his choice of vocabulary in describing Republicans, is the latest victim of what Beau Friedlander calls partison politics' policy of "mutually assured distraction"--where the welfare of the nation takes a back seat to the project of scoring cheap political points at any cost.

Jones wrote in his resignation letter:

On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide. I have been inundated with calls -- from across the political spectrum -- urging me to 'stay and fight.' But I came here to fight for others, not for myself. I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future.

If the worst that has been told is to be believed about Jones' background, then he was at one time a "communist" and has made common cause with Maoists. But for several years he has been promoting constructive eco-friendly business initiatives and jobs programs that employ low-income people of various racial backgrounds to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels--arguably a practical step toward defusing one of the greatest factors leading to war and terrorism and instability in our world. So then, if indeed the darkest possible spin on his past is true, then it is a story of transition from ways of fighting injustice that give inordinate place to a natural and inevitable rage, to an older and wiser approach centered around win-win constructive engagement. Precisely if that is the case, then it is a story that should be celebrated, about a person to whom we should be listening.

But his assailants in conservative media--straight white males who have never seen life through lenses other than those of a complacent dominant culture--are selling a very different story, a story that contains two morals that could prove exceedingly poisonous for our nation and planet:

1) Nothing ever justified the rage, because everything is really OK.

2) Overcoming evil through persevering love is a strategy that doesn't work.

The same message lay at the root of conservative outrage over Sonia Sotomayor's having dared suggest that life experience as a Latina woman might make her more sensitive to the reality of injustice--an observation that I think has obvious validity. I think it is important to stress at this time that, while they may have won one battle (toppling Jones) and lost another (blocking Sotomayor), the venom of the underlying narrative must not be allowed to seep into hearts and minds and kill the spirit of those who would seek justice in love.

Conservative media organizations are after ratings, as conservative politicians seek to win the next elections--neither seem to care about the dangerous long-term backlash their actions could provoke, as they seek these short-term goals through cheap shots, instead of promoting healthy and substantive national dialogue over policies. Let us hope that defeats of worthy opportunities for constructive change in the Obama era do not lead people to give up on nonviolent win-win strategies, and turn to the despair and futility of violence.

And here is where I believe that Jesus and his death and resurrection--if understood in the context of the remarkably similar 1st Century political and social conflicts in which the story was originally told, and not in the moulded-to-white-suburban-ideology way it gets told today--give hope and strength to carry on....

"Human anger does not produce the kind of justice that God is after." (James 1:20)

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with love." (Romans 12:21)

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (Galatians 6:9)

"Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Hebrews 12:3)

"Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy." (Psalm 126:5)

The grace Jones demonstrated in his resignation letter, and his willingness to put personal political advancement aside, suggest that he has no intention of giving up fighting the good fight of love.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Anti-Environmentalism as "Christian heresy"

I have occasionally heard opponents of the environmentalist movement accusing environmentalists of being modern-day "Gnostics," and, indeed, there are varieties of environmentally-minded people today who consciously identify with that label.[1] It is arresting, then, to read ecological economist Herman Daly turning the tables on anti-environmentalists, by exposing their resistance to taking environmental constraints into account in policy-making as a functional current-day expression of that ancient "heresy."

Daly concludes a highly critical review of Peter Huber, Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (A Conservative Manifesto), as follows:

"What I personally learned from reading Huber is that the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism (salvation by esoteric knowledge that allows transcendance of matter) is still a perversion to be reckoned with. The salvific knowledge is now less spiritual and more technical, but the heresy of human transcendence of the material Creation by esoteric knowledge is the foundation of Huber's book, and that, unfortunately, will appeal to many readers."
--Herman E. Daly, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2007), p. 183.

At issue here is whether there are any hard limits imposed by our natural environment that constrain healthy human economic and population growth, or whether we can assume that the application of human knowledge and ingenuity will always overcome such limits so as to justify perpetual unfettered economic activity and reproduction. Daly believes that the ability of humans to use ingenuity to alter the carrying capacity of our environment to sustain healthy and happy human beings, while far greater than, say, a snail's, is nevertheless finite. Daly's position, then, is really a common-sense middle position between two impossible extremes--one extreme denying our unique capacities as human beings to comprehend and work intelligently within environmental parameters, and the other extreme saying we are like gods (cf. Genesis 3:5; 11:1-9) who are not subject to such limits of creaturely finitude. This reminds me of the late Francis Schaeffer's thesis in his book Pollution and the Death of Man that fundamental to any authentically Christian approach to environmental questions is the need to recognize that humans, who are created by God in his image, are at once a part of the creation as well as, in a very limited and qualified sense, above the creation. (Schaeffer understood this hybrid position of human beings in contrast to God, who is entirely above creation, and to animals, which are entirely a part of the creation. I do not know whether Daly himself would share Schaeffer's rendering of the biblical metaphors, but that is beside the point I am making.) It follows from Schaeffer's point that human beings are capable of reflecting upon and taking into account in their decision-making the fact of their own creatureliness and the properties inhering in that creatureliness, and taking rational action as stewards under God. Thus, unlike snails, humans are capable of conceiving the very notion of "carrying capacity" and can seek to assess (imperfectly, of course) the extent to which that can be tweaked in the case of humans and other creatures via human action, as well as the limits to that ability. And I for one certainly can see no biblical reason to suppose that humans, who have been blessed to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) are not endowed with the capacity to assess what "fill" means and therefore when "fullness" has been reached, and to "subdue" by means of rational constraint and technology their own creaturely instinct to reproduce and thus avert calamity by means of "Malthus's preventive checks (lowering the birth rate) rather than the positive checks (high death rate)" (Daly, 117).[2][3]

Daly says that Huber, on the other hand, like many liberatarians I have read, believes that "the natural environment is entirely unnecessary" (Daly, 180), and quotes Huber as follows:

Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers... There is not the slightest scientific reason to suppose that such a world must collapse under its own weight or that it will be any less stable than the one we now inhabit.

Daly understands Huber as arguing for Teddy Roosevelt style conservationism purely for aesthetic reasons, and not because it is necessary for human survival and well-being. "All we need is knowledge," Daly says Huber believes, "and that is unlimited."

Daly, as he argues in all of his books, believes that the multiplication of human beings and artifacts has already exceeded a point beyond which additional growth yields diminished rather than enhanced well-being for humanity and the rest of creation as a whole. We therefore need, Daly insists, to replace long-prevailing "empty-world" assumptions in our economic models and policy-making with "full-world" assumptions. The problem is that the ongoing quest for unfettered growth continues to bring CERTAIN human beings comforts and advantages in the short run, at the expense of the long-term well-being of humans and other species in the long run. And since it is these particular people who have the most money and political clout, we are faced with the "conflict of a physical impossibility (continual growth) and a political impossibility (limiting growth). But in the long run the physically impossible is more impossible than the merely politically impossible. One hopes that growth will not prove politically impossible to limit, once we come to accept that growth can be uneconomic. But we may have to suffer a bit before that becomes clear." (Daly, 11)

The application of the concept of "Christian heresy" in this context is interesting, and perhaps a bit daring of Daly to invoke given currently prevailing misconceptions of what that means. Historically, when Christians have labeled a given belief "heresy," what they meant was that an essentially un-Christian idea had taken root within the Christian community and was threatening to re-define Christian faith in ways that were irreconcilably opposed to the intentions of Jesus and the apostles. But the legacy of Constantinianism and the resulting practice that eventually took over the church of executing (or otherwise suppressing by means of the power of the state) rather than debating alleged heretics has associated the very notion of identifying "heresies" with oppression in the public mindset. Yet when it is realized that that very same Constantinianism and resulting state repression is itself one of the greatest heresies from which the church has yet to fully extricate itself, then we can see that Daly's intended use of the concept is a salutary one, concerned with opposing the subversion of faith to serve narrow selfish interests. Such corruption is surely lethal to healthy spirituality and human well-being.

So then, when the hard limits kick in and ecological catastrophes that could have been prevented alter life on the planet as we now know it, and a future generation bitterly recalls the rapacious consumption and missed opportunities of our day, is there any doubt that those 20th/21st C. "Christians" who opposed taking environmental constraints into account will be seen as having been guilty of a perversion of the faith they espoused? And will it not be evident that environmentalists (be they Christians, atheistic humanists a la Carl Sagan, pantheists, panentheists, gnostics, Wiccans, or however else they sought to articulate their vision of ultimate reality) who took practical steps to preserve the well-being of humanity and the rest of creation in the light of environmental constraints were acting more Christianly, and thus better embodied the biblical notion of God's intent that we reflect his image by stewarding his creation for the benefit of all?[4]

And is it really too late for those of us who operate consciously within the biblical and Christian conversation to recover the univocal testimony of Scripture and ancient Christian tradition on matters material--namely, to be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8), to eschew the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5), to pursue equity of burden (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)--and face the facts of our ecological circumstances squarely, unfiltered by the wishful thinking by which we imagine that we can maintain our present lifestyles of consumption without degrading the prospects of future generations?

Can we not rise up and take appropriate action, drawing inspiration from the story of Esther, who made common cause with the oppressed against the self-serving interests of elite schemers bent on genocidal extermination, and seized the opportunities God gave her to act "in such a time as this"? (Esther 4:13)


[1] The Gnostics of old sought to transcend matter by uniting with pure spirit, an idea that seems to clash, at least formally, with biblical conceptions. And Vishal Mangalwadi has pointed out--revealingly, I think--that, historically, similar anti-material ideas in the East have emphatically not led to care for the material creation or for social justice (cf. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India). Moreover, as the renowned New Testament historian N.T. Wright has pointed out, it was not the gnostics but the readers of Paul and the canonical gospels whom the Romans considered a threat and threw to lions, precisely because the latter understood Jesus Christ as the climax of the socially-concerned, anti-imperial, politically-relevant telling of Israel's story in the Jewish Scriptures, while the former's philosophy was abstracted from any such narrative of a divinely-influenced quest for shalom and justice in time and space.

The irony is that disaffected Westerners of our day who search far and wide for spiritual nourishment, after having been abandoned to starve by expressions of Christianity that have abetted environmental and social degradation, and Christians who seek to recover the social-creational concern that pervades the biblical conversation beginning to end (cf. Genesis 6:11; Revelation 11:18), may have far more in common with one another, on a practical if not formal conceptual level, than is commonly supposed, even as other Christians, whether through ignorance of our present circumstances and/or the recent influence of unbiblical notions of unlimited expansion of material wealth, deny the reality of that degradation and oppose steps to reverse it.

[2] Just as I am concerned in this essay to show that certain recent and localized expressions of Christianity have lost touch with the general drift of the whole of that ancient conversation as touching economic matters, Daly is concerned, in this chapter entitled "The steady-state economy and peak oil," to show where sound thinking in a centuries-long conversation among economists went off the rails, as neoclassical economics favoring perpetual growth replaced the view of classical economics that a steady-state economy was inevitable, and, in the case of John Stuart Mill, desirable. Writes Daly:

In classical economics (Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill) the steady-state, or as they called it the "stationary state" economy was a real condition toward which the economy was tending as increasing population, diminishing returns, and increasing land rents squeezed profits to zero. Population would be held constant by subsistence wages and a high death rate. Capital stock would be held constant by a lack of inducement to invest resulting from zero profits thanks to rent absorbing the entire surplus which was itself limited by diminishing returns. Not a happy future--something to be postponed for as long as possible in the opinion of most classical economists. Mill, however, saw it differently. Population must indeed stabilize, but that could be attained by Malthus' preventive checks (lowering the birth rate) rather than the positive checks (high death rate). A constant capital stock is not static, but continuously renewed by depreciation and replacement, opening the way for continual technical and qualitative improvement in the physically non-growing capital stock. By limiting the birth rate, and by technical improvement in the capital stock, a surplus above subsistence could be maintained. Mill also believed that the surplus could be equitably redistributed. Unlike the growing economy, the stationary state economy would not have to continually expand into the biosphere and therefore could leave most of the world in its natural state. The stationary state is both necessary and desirable, but neither static nor eternal--it is a system in dynamic equilibrium with its containing, sustaining, and entropic biosphere. The path of progress would shift from bigger and more, toward better and longer lived. (Daly, 117)

The neoclassical economists, Daly says, re-employed the term "steady state" to refer to a theoretical benchmark where capital stock keeps up with population in potentially infinite growth, a notion foreign to the classical economists.

It is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the classical economists were concerned with adapting the economy to the dictates of the economy. In an empty world the dictates of physical reality are not immediately binding on growth; in a full world they are. Consequently, and paradoxically, it is the older classical view of the steady state, Mill's version, that is more relevant today, even though the neoclassical view dominates the thinking of empty-world economists. (Daly, 118)

Daly offers his own updated definition of the steady-state economy as "one that maintains itself with a constant throughput that is within regenerative and absorptive capacities of the biosphere." (Daly, 118)

[3] It may be well to note, as well, that Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Industrial Revolution Scotland whom many conservative Christians today revere for his work in mobilizing churches to help the urban poor get on their feet economically and off of government welfare, was a staunch Malthusian, and succeeded in his project in part by consciously applying the Malthusian remedy of limiting births, by means of encouraging sexual restraint and delayed marriages among the impoverished classes (an approach that I suspect was scarcely less counterintuitive, culturally out of sync, and "doomed to fail" in his day as it would be if it were attempted in American inner city ghettos of our day). The irony here is that many of the voices today who laud Chalmers' accomplishments are precisely those who downplay environmental constraints and would excoriate such thinking as Daly's as "neo-Malthusian."

[4] It is not the point of this essay to consider the overall or relative merits of various worldviews in promoting practical environmental concern. I do wish to argue, however, that the common notion today that such concern does not find a ready and natural home in a biblically-informed worldview is patently false. In footnote 1 above I alluded to the observation that has been made by many scholars of religion that Christianity is particularly activistic in seeking social change in the theater of history. It would go beyond the scope of this article to consider the particular objections of the Roman Catholic Church to the use of contraception, which I think are an unjustified and tragic misstep. But I think it is beyond credible doubt that each of the major world religions, in their predominant tendencies, are united in being skeptical of recent Western notions of unrestrained economic growth, though that would be a topic deserving separate treatment of its own.