Acknowledging Our Participation in the Industrialized World
We have found the Quaker testimonies to be a source of simple guidance in our lives. It seems plain to us that living honestly and authentically is important. Indeed, we believe that trying to live with integrity is the core precondition to all meaningful interactions with other people and with the world. And yet, we feel a deep sense of dishonesty in the way we all live.
We write this essay from the comfort of our lounge, in our little suburban house in Aotearoa, New Zealand. In front of us is a coffee table that we made. We like to think that it reflects our values. We enjoy its simplicity, elegance, and the practicality of its design. We feel a sense of satisfaction for having made it with our own hands, but, of course, it is not really that straightforward. It is made from pine that was grown and milled in Argentina. From Argentina, the wood was shipped to and processed in China. The tools and products we used to shape and finish it were also imported to New Zealand, and in turn, those tools were made from raw materials that have been mined and rendered from many places. All these processes were linked together by diesel-powered ships and trucks that transported the materials in a great web of extraction, long before we could even begin our craft. Even though we obtained the tools secondhand (being the sustainably minded people that we are), they too would not have been available to us without undergoing their own convoluted global tour. Whether we like it or not, our table was made by many hands and has been significantly subsidized by fossil-fuel energy.
This story of globalized industrialization shapes all aspects of our lives: from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. It shapes the economy from which our little export nation derives its wealth. This industrialized world is the reason we live with food abundant in our supermarkets, medicine in our pharmacies, vaccines in our laboratories, cars on our roads, and timber and tools in our hardware stores. Of course, none of us individually chose to be part of industrialization. Indeed, we could all list much that we dislike about it. And yet, we cannot deny or opt out of the collective wealth that industrialization has generated, as unevenly distributed as it may be.
We cannot deny or opt out of the collective wealth that industrialization has generated, as unevenly distributed as it may be.
The burning of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they emit constitute the most significant global contributor to atmospheric warming. Fossil fuel powers factories, mines, and the transportation of goods. Climate change simply cannot be understood without acknowledging the industrialized economy. Yet in our conversations about an energy transition, people so often focus on their direct and personal energy use. Perhaps this is a reflection of our individualistic culture, but we can’t help notice that this ignores our collective energy use. Fossil-fuel energy accounts for 83 percent of all energy consumption used to power the global economy. The mines and refineries, factories, and freight ships and trucks are needed for the activity that defines our lives, and they all demand fossil fuel for their operation. So, even if we don’t own a car, only shop secondhand, and grow our own food, we will still be a part of this industrialized economy. We will purchase industrially produced medications and set up industrially produced solar arrays on our homes. Even the bicarbonate of soda we use (for all our sustainably minded cleaning) is created through fossil-fuel intensive mining and refining processes. We need to be honest about this when we talk about climate action. We need to be realistic about the limits and the feasibility of energy transition. And perhaps, we need to be more radical in our ambitions.
To be clear at this point, our intention in writing is not to mock individual efforts. Indeed we try to live simply and walk lightly ourselves. Neither of us eat meat; we make some of our own clothes and furniture; we recycle; we catch the bus and walk to work; we grow our own veggies. But no one can opt out of our collective economy, the energy it uses, or the harm it causes. So of course, individual actions have their place, but they are only part of the picture, and it seems that the other part, our collective energy use, is often overlooked.
We need to be realistic about the limits and the feasibility of energy transition. And perhaps, we need to be more radical in our ambitions.
Who Are We?
So entangled are we within globalized industrialization that an even more fundamental truth is generally shrouded from us: humans are animals, and like all living creatures, we are part of and entirely dependent on an ecosystem of other living creatures for our survival. This truth is shrouded from us because our lives of concrete, steel, sealed roads, and just-in-time deliveries paint the delusion that humans have “progressed” beyond being animals, beyond needing to listen to the Earth. The industrialized world hides us from the networks of fungi that support plant growth, the bacteria that is needed to break down our waste, and the fellow creatures that we share this planet with.
And so absorbed are we in the delusion that human progress has elevated us beyond nature that we recklessly destroy these very ecosystems on which we rely. By many measures, human civilization is living beyond the capacity of the planet to regenerate, provide for human needs, and process human waste. Indeed, if all people lived like New Zealanders, we would need more than three Earths to support us; we would need more than five if we all lived like U.S. citizens. We have been able to get away with excessive consumption so far by taking up the other creatures’ habitats and pushing them to extinction, and by rapidly using finite resources that will not be available to future generations.
When a life form relies upon unsustainable resources and life processes for its survival, it is considered to be “living in overshoot.” Overshoot is the primary issue currently facing the industrialized world. Pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, global warming, and species extinction are all symptoms of overshoot. Climate change is already starting to show us that as long as we deny our interconnectedness with ecosystems, we will cause suffering to the planet and ourselves with it. We write this article because we feel that as long as we are living in overshoot, we are not living out the Quaker testimony of integrity.
When a life form relies upon unsustainable resources and life processes for its survival, it is considered to be “living in overshoot.” Overshoot is the primary issue currently facing the industrialized world.
The word “integrity” has two meanings; both are instructive for beginning to address the issue of overshoot. Its first meaning implies strength, reliability, and the quality of completeness. A house built with structural integrity does not collapse. Human societies can interact and contribute to natural ecosystems in ways that are nourishing and regenerative, so species do not become extinct and life systems are not degraded. Indigenous societies which integrated such sustainable practices and contribute to ecosystems can be said to have resilience and integrity. Because our global industrialized society depends upon quickly depleting nonrenewable resources, it is vulnerable to collapse and therefore does not have integrity.
The other meaning of “integrity” concerns living truthfully. We consider industrialized society to lack integrity in this sense because we live as if we were not animals, as if we were not interconnected within ecosystems, and as if the oil we dredge and the minerals we mine will last forever.
We know that we must change. Undertaking such a pivot in our collective human story will require an enormous shift in how we think about ourselves and what we do. This will be a transformation of both spirituality and action. Reverence for integrity needs to be at the heart of this change.
Some call this “de-growth.” It means wealthy nations need to intentionally reduce the size of their economies. If we do this now—while we have the time and the resources available—we can reduce our size in a manner that is dignified and enriching.
Living with Integrity
As with so many aspects of our spiritual lives, this change will begin through acknowledging the truth. We need to change the story we tell of ourselves from one of industrial conquest to one which places humanity within Earth’s ecosystems. How can we begin to tell this story about ourselves? Perhaps seeing that of God in everyone is a good place to begin our journey. When we look at how dependent our lives are on fungi and bacteria, sunlight and wind, and plankton and insects, it becomes apparent that the “everyone” of this Earth includes far more than humans. We are a part of a community of many amazing, living creatures with whom we share this planet and the story of life on it.
To accept this story will mean to discover new things to hold important. We will develop new expectations and ask different questions of ourselves and how we live. What do we expect of our companies and public institutions? Does economic growth really represent the prosperity we want? Is there any value in measuring GDP? Isn’t this profit margin big enough? Is this company too big? Isn’t the idea of infinite growth on a finite planet a delusion?
Reorganizing our societies so that they may be based on integrity means intentionally designing our economies to be smaller. It means recognizing planetary limits and reducing our economies to fit within them. We can have rich lives with less; we can create and grow more locally; we can nurture and prioritize our communities; and we can make our individual worlds smaller, so that our Earth can be more abundant.
This is where we should direct our actions and our advocacy; this is where we should focus: on the practicality of redesigning human society to be smaller. Yes, renewable energy is a good idea, but in our growth orientated world, renewable energy technologies are adding to energy use rather than replacing the fossil fuels that we currently use. This means that a green transition is more complicated than simply picking up our existing economic structure from its foundation on fossil fuels and putting it down onto a new foundation of renewable energy. Yes, we will need to stop using fossil fuels, but there are limits to what renewable energy can do, so our lives will also need to become smaller; we need to use less energy and fewer resources, and we must live more locally. While solar panels and wind turbines can be part of this future, the revolution that we need is not one of technological innovation but one of social and economic transformation.
Some call this “de-growth.” It means wealthy nations need to intentionally reduce the size of their economies. If we do this now—while we have the time and the resources available—we can reduce our size in a manner that is dignified and enriching. But if we wait too long, then the Earth will reach her limits, and we will be forced to live with less.
Quakerism has helped to guide our view that a life of integrity is a life that acknowledges the truth and seeks to live in accordance with the truth. And so, writing at our globalized table and drinking tea made with (fair-trade) tea leaves from the other side of the world, we reflect on the importance of a collective movement for change. None of us can do this on our own, but if our collective actions are guided by integrity, we can move towards a better future of ecological congruence. We believe that Quakerism—with its testimonies and its history of speaking truth to power—can help push for the kind of change that both humankind and the Earth so desperately need.
2 thoughts on “Integrity in the Time of Overshoot”
Thank you for your article. Very interesting. Here’s a few links that you both (and others) may find interesting:
Almond, R. et al (eds.), Living Planet Report: Building a Nature-Positive Society (Gland, Switzerland: WWF/ZSL, 2022) at: https://livingplanet.panda.org/en-gb/.
And see also https://wwflpr.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/lpr_2022_full_report.pdf.
Thanks for the well-considered, important, thought-provoking article.
I hope it can gain a wider readership, both within Quakers, and beyond.
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