Let’s be realistic. If present growth rates of consumption and global wealth disparity continue, those of us in the overdeveloped world will "do in" the planet in less than another century. Most scientists and ethicists whose minds are not for sale to the highest bidder would probably say we’ll do the job in half that time. Let’s face it: exponential growth is inherently unsustainable, and the current global economic system is premised on unbridled growth. So what is an appropriate response for Friends: denial, or a commitment to a life of integrity and consistency with historical Quaker values, regardless of the behavior of the rest of our secular society?
Realism in Fantasyland
I’m told that denial is a human mind trick that allows one to avoid the pain of facing unpleasant realities. It is said to be a coping mechanism to allow you to function (via self-deception) while immersed in a setting that bombards you with overwhelming evidence contradicting your beliefs. So are those who pursue voluntary simplicity via downward mobility masters of denial, or are they rejecting a fantasy world in favor of ethical realism? It is my contention that those whose lives center around the pursuit of responsible global citizenship are the true realists, and that those who promote values of greed and overconsumption are living in a fantasy-land.
It’s currently popular among smug economists and iron-lady/man politicians to proclaim that "there is no alternative" (TINA). It is said that unfettered global markets are an inevitable facet of human nature. But it seems that most folks in Kerala (a state in southern India) haven’t gotten the message yet. On incomes no higher than India’s average, the residents of Kerala enjoy longevity and literacy rates comparable to U.S. levels. Why? Because decades ago, political leaders there championed health and education over corporate profits. Read about Kerala; don’t take my word for it. But it may take some scrounging, because the TINA folks do their best to squelch examples that put a lie to their revered contention.
So how much hope can we pin on politicians to pursue the common good? That depends on how broadly we draw the common circle. Reciprocity (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours) is pretty "common," but politicians tend to draw the limits of their myopic good at the boundaries of their political district. In order to get reelected, politicians of all political parties feel constrained by the need to vote for whatever legislation will enrich their constituencies, regardless of the impact of that legislation on global wealth disparity or environmental degradation outside the district boundary. Thus the economic well-being of a politician’s constituents trumps any nascent concerns for citizens (or nonhuman species) of other countries or future generations. "It’s the economy, stupid"—right? Not if we’re ethical realists (realists informed by right sharing and sustainable living values).
What’s so unrealistic about geographically and temporally myopic economic growth? Well, get out an algebra textbook and look at an exponential growth curve. Scary, huh? Now, some things—like love and integrity—could use a healthy dose of exponential growth. But when one notices that global wealth disparity and environmental degradation are growing exponentially, fueled by the TINA mindset, it becomes clear that such a GNP-worshiping outlook is patently unrealistic. The TINA folks are impractical idealists to think that such trends are sustainable. The only debate is over just which time bomb will explode first: the strain of global social tensions or the environmental web of life.
Oh, but there’s a technological fix to all of these problems, say the TINA folks. How unrealistic! As I delineated in the first paragraph of a previous article on technology (FJ Nov. 1998), the technologies of the last couple centuries have simply exacerbated the time-bomb issues listed above, each new technology accelerating the pace of the damage. When the direction in which you’re headed is disastrous, a technology that will take you there faster and more efficiently can hardly be called progress.
It seems we’ve been hoodwinked into aspiring toward a phony type of progress. Combined with globalization, this consumption-dependent mentality becomes a matter of cultural imperialism. Part of the reason for the inordinate U.S. impact on the planet’s future is the pervasive and seductive nature of the values implicit in our mass media’s definition of "normal life." U.S. media values have captured the hearts and minds of the majority of the world’s low-income folks who’ve ever seen a car or a television. Such unsophisticated, trusting souls are easy prey for slick media advertisers. In the overdeveloped world, most of us are jaded to the explicit consumer values promoted in commercial ads, but we bite the bait after the commercial is over and we let down our guard. It’s the implicit, subtle values reflected in the TV programs themselves—the definition of "normal life" as a 1,500-square-foot suburban house with two cars in the driveway and kids pecking away at computer games—that infect our psyches, mold our identities, and craft our view of reality. And once a TV viewer becomes addicted, he/she generally deepens and widens the consumer habit, as new technologies ratchet ever upward the affluence level of "normal life" and credit peddlers facilitate the no-wait attainment of growing aspirations.
Indeed, the only purpose I can see for most advertising is to convince us (and most of us want to be convinced) that all the items we’ve been programmed into wanting, by the mass media’s definition of reality, are really things we need. As long as we just want them, we find it difficult to justify their purchase. But once we’ve been convinced that we need and deserve these items, their acquisition seems justified. Everyone’s happy—the corporation makes its sale, and our consciences are salved.
And just what are all these things we "need"? In our high-tech world, they are increasingly items containing plastics, heavy metals, and other environmental toxins. Cars, computers, televisions: all contain toxins and require mining, which means that both their manufacture and their use play a part in destroying the planet. As Chief Seattle reputedly said over a century ago, the white man has a disease (the need to acquire, consume, pollute) and does not understand that, as part of the web of life, whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
So why not just say no? We’re like moths drawn to a flame, and we become addicted to a narrow, opulent definition of life. In the book A Plain Reader by Quaker Scott Savage, an Amish man is asked by a group of visitors just what it means to be Amish. The Amish man responds by asking the group whether some of them feel that the values promoted by television are detrimental to their souls. Every hand goes up. He then asks whether, in light of this perception, some of them plan to get rid of their televisions. No hands are raised. So he explains that what makes Amish folks different is the desire to eliminate from their lives all items (cars, computers, televisions, etc.) they consider detrimental to their souls.
The power of media persuasion is very strong. Programmed by high-tech Y2K hype, the mass media even convinced most arithmetically competent folks that a new millennium began January 1, 2000! Such is the media’s persuasive ability to redefine reality. But need Friends be so gullible that even we are sold a definition of life centered around materialism, or do we have an alternative vision?
Right Sharing of World Resources, or Complicity in the Sin of Greed?
Happily, Friends do have an alternative: Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR). True to its name, this Quaker organization is centered around transforming the problem of affluence in the overdeveloped countries into a partial solution to problems of material deprivation in low-income countries like India. In return, the spiritual joy and wealth of soul that so often grace the lives of so-called "poor" people (something akin to Amishness) is shared to enrich the lives of affluent financial contributors. Everyone wins—folks encumbered with attachments to material goods are freed to recenter their lives on God, while folks who experience material deprivation find hope for healthier lives for their children.
Right Sharing offers us good news: there’s no law (yet) that requires us to spend all our income on ourselves and our immediate families; we’re still allowed the free will to share with others. Right Sharing provides us with an opportunity to change; we need not act helpless in the face of consumerism. As a recent RSWR newsletter put it, such "change will come as we press to see the world from God’s perspective and intentionally reorient our lives accordingly." We can unburden ourselves of items and mindsets that we consider detrimental to our souls. But do we dare?
Many would call us fools—indeed our own friends and family members might ostracize us—if we announced that we were planning to recenter our lives on using as few material resources on ourselves as possible in order to have more to share with our global siblings. Prevailing "wisdom" says things like: global disasters happen every day, why wear yourself out responding; or you’re not all that wealthy yourself; or how are you responsible for someone else’s poverty? Let’s examine these common societal justifications for U.S. affluence.
Why is it that African disasters seem to appear overnight without warning? The answer lies in our not paying attention to the warnings. These tragedies are not isolated events but merely exacerbations of an ongoing reality that breaches our consciousness only when our media deems something newsworthy. The threshold between disaster and normality in most of the world is often one bad storm or the absence of a couple good rains. It’s no coincidence that the name of the currency in Botswana (part of the Kalahari Desert) means rain. Rain—in moderation—brings prosperity; without it there is famine, and another African tragedy plagues our TV news and adds to our compassion fatigue.
When we taught in rural Zimbabwe, my wife surveyed the students and found that some growing teens of my stature had consumed nothing but boiled leaves in the previous 24 hours. Because people exist for much of the year on one meal a day, a couple of missed meals spell the onset of starvation. People do not choose a life of material deprivation. Such a life is lived on the margin, and any slight mishap can push one into the disaster zone. Much of Africa is perpetually, precariously balanced on the cusp of catastrophe, the line between good times and bad being nearly indistinguishable to the untrained eyes of Westerners from overfed societies.
Likewise, to most Africans, the differences between Bill Gates and me are indistinguishable. Regarding all the operable issues faced by most global citizens, Gates and I are both members of the global elite. The issues of daily reality for most global citizens are questions like: when I’m hungry, can I eat; or when I’m cold, can I get warm; or am I rich enough to protect my feet with shoes? Both Gates and I take all these things for granted, but for most global residents, these issues are daily struggles. Gates and the 250 next-wealthiest folks in the world have a combined wealth equal to the poorest half of humanity (three billion people). Yet even with such global wealth disparity, studies of U.S. households found that the income needed to fulfill growing consumption aspirations doubled between 1986 and 1994. So yes, when we compare ourselves with average global citizens (the world’s median annual per capita income is about $700), we Quakers are all wealthy.
But isn’t the phrase "rich Quaker" an oxymoron? I wish it were! And our richness is institutional as well as individual. We qualify as global elites, whether we like it or not, due to several institutional subsidies, including: our personal infrastructure of elitist levels of education (only one percent of the world’s inhabitants have a college degree) and healthcare; our obscenely excessive levels of discretionary income (Americans spend less on food than any other nation, and we bask in high wages undergirded by repressive immigration laws); and the unfair globalizing advantage of our dominating technologies (computers, motor vehicles, satellites, and military weaponry), which wrest unequal terms of trade from low-income nations, thanks to rules imposed by the World Trade Organization.
If we refuse to renounce the material privilege that flows to us via unearned institutional advantage, we miss the opportunity that right sharing offers us to divest ourselves of the sin of greed. Our complicity in institutional global greed and exploitation is remote, subtle, and antiseptic. We benefit through the efforts of investment fund managers who gamble (on our behalf) on Wall Street. The losers at this gambling table are faceless and remote—half a world away and dying silently—like the Iraqi victims of our
inhumane sanctions and depleted uranium debris.
Such institutional violence is what Dom Helder Camara indicts as the precipitator of a spiral of violence that continues through rebellion to repression. I have seen firsthand, during my five years in Africa, the effects of routine, inexorable, neoliberal, institutional violence planned in corporate boardrooms across the United States. And I understand enough about my own complicity in our collective national sin (and about the way a few financial tigers can dazzle the general populace) to consider my country’s behavior to constitute global economic genocide.
And perhaps the most objectionable of all to Friends is the military role that undergirds our privilege. There’s no need to acquiesce to the Pentagon’s semantic ploy of defining its role as "service." The only ones served by the U.S. military are the global elite and arms corporations. Once Friends are convinced that the overriding purpose of U.S. militarism is to protect our privileged way of life, there will follow a strong impetus to relinquish our wealth advantages, live on less than the taxable minimum (in part, to avoid subsidizing the military in our name), and trust in the peacemaking potential of global sharing.
Responsible Living: The Harvesting Approach
The greatest environmental burdens on the planet stem from the overconsumption of high-income folks and the desperate survival efforts of low-income folks. Thus, the global environment would benefit doubly from RSWR’s win-win scenario, which makes each party’s problem the other’s solution and avoids both destructive extremes. The Greek adage "avoid excess" reaps dual rewards and helps defuse both the social and environmental time bombs, enriching everyone’s lives in myriad ways.
Most folks, however, have a different vision. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article decrying technology as our new god. Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe technology is merely the high priest, and the economic efficiency of the global marketplace is really our new god. The biggest return on one’s investment seems to override all other concerns, and the marketplace seems sacrosanct. Our goal seems to be to consume the planet as fast as possible, and the United States leads the pack as the most efficient nation in history in accomplishing this task.
Such thinking is what I call a mining mentality, and it clashes head-on with the harvesting mentality I propose. All mining is unsustainable. Mining simply means using a resource faster than it’s produced. Here in Albuquerque we mine our aquifer at four times its recharge rate. Credit cards and bank loans allow us to mine our current financial resources. Such behavior is simply not indefinitely supportable and is ultimately irresponsible. To apply such a mortgaging attitude to our web of life is a recipe for ecocide.
But our purported demise is of our own doing and can easily be avoided. Therein lies our hope. Am I optimistic that humankind will choose to reject the current mining mentality craze? No. Am I hopeful that we will? Yes. Optimism is a belief in the probability of something happening; hope is a belief in the possibility that it can occur. Since environmental destruction is the result of human activities, humans have the free will to act otherwise and undo the problems we’ve created. What is needed is the spiritual fortitude to commit ourselves to a harvesting mentality.
So just what do I mean by a harvesting mentality? Chief Seattle would have understood. Simply stated, it means pursuing only activities that involve reaping the surplus of renewable resources and eschewing any activity that involves mining. Such a commitment would involve using glass rather than plastic, wood rather than metals, cotton and wool rather than synthetics, soap rather than detergents, horses and carts rather than cars and trucks, etc. This is the essence of sustainable living, and it involves spurning virtually all of the technologies of the last two centuries. Such a route is indefinitely renewable; the mining-based alternative eventually consumes and pollutes the planet into oblivion. The choice is ours. How will we define progress? In my previous technology article I paraphrased an old adage: when one is at the edge of a precipice, it’s wise to define progress as one step backwards.
A harvesting approach will invariably result in a slower pace, a more natural and real taste of life (as opposed to the current "virtual reality" craze). It will elevate concepts like ubuntu (an African term meaning the essence of personhood) and reject concepts like "soaring investment returns." It will often entail surprising healing experiences, as when an overstimulated, fast-paced professional discovers the sense of peace in a monastery garden. It doesn’t divorce and compartmentalize work and recreation so much.
It emphasizes joy in relationships, satisfaction in work well done. It’s a way of life enjoyed by the average Keralan, and, as Bill McKibben discovered in his book Hope, Human and Wild, it is "subversively inefficient." Am I saying that so-called primitive folks like Chief Seattle and residents of Kerala have many of the answers for what ails those of us in the "overworld" (overstimulated, overweight, overdeveloped)? Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying. It’s the same upside-down kingdom news that Jesus preached 2,000 years ago: pay attention to and strive to emulate the least among you, the humble rejects, the losers—women, Samaritans, little children, the untouchables of each society. We need reverse missionaries to help us rediscover ubuntu; de-developers to help us dismantle our ecocidal technologies; simple, rooted folks to rescue us from our fantasyworld pursuit of "virtual" living; traditional, communitarian wisdom to teach us what RSWR has contended all along—that both elites and destitutes benefit from the surprising ways that all our lives are enriched through equitable global sharing.
The Challenge for Friends
The art of living is a constantly unfolding riddle. There are many aspects to it, and some of us will accentuate one area more than another. Our diversity is a strength; if we were all identical in our nuances of ethical realism, those who oppose our vision would have only one strategy to defeat. As long as the activities we pursue in our diverse roles do not undermine the goals we seek, we are free to pick the style that suits us best.
We need to understand, in a visceral way, the concepts of true global equity and true environmental sustainability. We must not settle for watered-down, phony versions of these goals. However, we must not beat ourselves up with endless bad news about global wealth inequities and environmental doomsday, frantically racing from one article or workshop to another, lurching about in search of answers. Such mania mimics the moneylenders and corporate tigers whose methods and goals we reject, and such behavior often leads us to despair and elite luxuries like burnout (destitute folks in Africa don’t have the option of such apostasy; they just dig in and struggle harder). Instead, we have only to get the information we need on one or two issues and start to act, always consistent with the overriding parameters of our ethical realism. Mark Twain was once asked whether he was concerned about all the parts of the Bible he didn’t understand. He said, no, he was concerned about the parts he did understand! Revere God (and God’s creation) and love your neighbor. That should be enough to keep anyone busy for a few lifetimes.
We are not helpless lemmings driven toward an inevitable surf. If we call ourselves Friends, more is expected of us than of "average Joes." We claim to be followers of Jesus, and if we strive for anything less (knowing that we’ll always fall short, of course), we are spiritual wimps, and our young Friends, bored and unchallenged by our uninspiring lives, will lose interest in Quaker ideals. Let us not excuse ourselves (if we are parents) by saying that we are living a globally upper-class lifestyle for the sake of our children. Such a contention puts a heavy guilt trip on our kids: we can’t live by gospel values because we have children. Besides, our young Friends see through such hypocrisy if, once we have an empty nest and the kids are on their own, we continue in our globally opulent lifestyle.
We must set the standard for the rest of our culture and not ignore Christ’s message by putting him (or those who dedicate their lives to his vision) on a pedestal, so that we are absolved of the need to try to improve. It’s a measure of how far U.S. society has strayed from wholesome values that ordinary, decent behavior—caring about global equity and the environment we leave future generations—is considered exemplary. Truly exemplary behavior, true integrity, is the determination to pursue what I’ve outlined above, despite the apparent hopelessness of the current global situation.
Global sharing and environmentally sustainable living are wedded to each other in the spirit of responsible global citizenship. They differ largely in their temporal frameworks—present vs. future. How can a person be concerned with leaving an inhabitable planet for future generations and not also be concerned with alleviating material desperation among the globe’s current generation?
Can we share our way to a greater measure of world peace? Who knows? Is it worth a try? I think so. To modify (while capturing the essence of) G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote: global sharing and environmentally sustainable living have not been tried and found wanting, they’ve simply never been tried.
If you disagree with the points I’ve made and the suggestions I’ve offered, I’m eager for you to point out the flaws in my logic rather than pretending I’ve never raised these issues. We live in a critical moment filled with danger and opportunity. Let’s be realistic: our hope for a future of life on this planet beyond the 21st century lies in our ability to learn to share global resources and tame our greed in order to live within the limits of our ecosystem. Let us lovingly challenge one another, as F(f)riends, to live our lives responsibly, consistent with the values that our wisdom traditions profess.