Earth Day: Living as stewards in God’s house

By George Clifford

Wednesday, April 22, is Earth Day. Began in 1969, Earth Day was instituted to call attention to the global environmental crisis. In the intervening forty years, awareness has grown. Embarrassingly, much of the Church has remained indifferent while environmental problems have worsened, often taking a back seat to other, purportedly more urgent issues.

Today, the economic crisis cries for center stage. However, the economic crisis and environmental crisis intertwine inseparably with one another, as theologian Sallie McFague emphasized in her 2001 book, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. McFague describes two worldviews, the neo-classical economic and the ecological economic, first explaining the connection and then suggesting theologically responsible responses.

The neo-classical economic worldview emerged from market-based capitalism guided by the invisible hand of self-interest, which Adam Smith first outlined in the eighteenth century. Theoretically, independent, acquisitive individuals eventually work out, albeit unintentionally, a society’s optimal production and consumption solutions to the benefit of all. McFague helpfully observes that this worldview focuses on monetary gains as its sole aim, excluding the values of the fair distribution of profits from the earth’s resources and global sustainability.

For the world’s entire population to enjoy a Western, middle class standard of living, we would require the resources of four more earth-type, earth-size planets. We in the West – about one in six people globally – typically see ourselves as consumers. More is better. Newer is better. The most and the newest is best. McFague reports that 93% of U.S. teenagers say shopping is their favorite pastime and that the U.S. has an amazing sixteen square feet of shopping space per resident. All of this consumption aims to create personal happiness.

Yet, consumption does not translate into personal happiness. Certainly, some amount of consumption and wealth are essential for human well-being and happiness. Humans have obvious needs for water, food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. Humans have less obvious but equally real needs for education, social structure, and enrichment, including art and spirituality. Some modest level of personal wealth generally enables one to obtain most of those goods, goods that the poor live without or only have in insufficient quantities. However, surveys indicate that U.S. personal happiness peaked in 1957, even though consumption has more than doubled since then. People with six figure incomes sometimes feel poor. One root of the current economic crisis was excessive consumption by the avaricious, those whose greed far exceeded their needs as they sought happiness racing along a pathway named “More is better.”

I do not think it coincidental that the unhappiest parish, as measured by personal attitudes and social problems (alcoholism, broken marriages, troubled children, etc.), that I have known was also the wealthiest. People were so busy pursuing material goals that they had little time for self or others. Consumption had become their ideology, even the de facto religion of many.

The emergence of market-based economies signaled the emancipation of the individual and a developing, healthy emphasis on human rights. However, the neo-classical economic worldview myopically emphasizes individuality, birthing planetary problems. The top three of those are diminishing biodiversity, rapid population/consumption growth, and global warming. Continued, unbridled exploitation of natural resources, including other life forms, to maximize consumption driven economies will only exacerbate those problems.

The ecological worldview that McFague sketches sharply contrasts with the neo-classical economic worldview. She defines ecological economics as the allocation of scarce resources to keep the planet working indefinitely. She characterizes the planet as God’s house, a household that must support all of its members over the long run. God intends humankind to serve the planet (the house) as stewards.

Ecological economic presumptions differ starkly from those of neo-classical economics. Neo-classical economics begins with unconstrained distribution of resources to competing individuals, confident that over time, if all compete, issues of fair distribution and sustainability will work themselves out. Ecological economics begins with community, focusing on sustainability and distributive justice, believing individuals of all species, including humans, can only thrive as part of the planetary community. Ecological economics entails balancing community and individual, not subordinating one to the other, avoiding the consequences of exalting the individual at the cost of the community and the futility of attempting to exalt the community at the cost of the individual. In other words, healthy mutual interdependence replaces radical individuality.

Ecological economics does not discard market-based capitalism; instead, ecological economics views market-based capitalism as one of many tools in the economic toolkit. Like any good craftsperson, the steward of God’s house will choose the tool that best fits a particular job. Not every job requires a hammer.

Humans who view themselves not primarily as consumers but as members of a planetary household will perceive a circle of life and aim for a spiral of sustainability rather than the linear progress associated with increased consumption and production. Sustainability embraces all life and thus requires distributive justice. Furthermore, sustainability emphasizes the indispensability of all types of capital (financial, physical resources, knowledge, relationships, etc.). Poverty, the lack of financial and other forms of physical capital, like the consumption that neo-classic economics promotes, destroys sustainability. For example, poor people often use environmentally destructive slash and burn agriculture in a desperate struggle to survive. Poverty, contrary to neo-classical economic theory, is increasing. The income gap between the world’s richest and poorest fifths has exploded from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1997.

By the standards of neo-classical economics, i.e., measuring gross domestic product per capita, the United States ranks 10th in the world; the top nine nations, except for Norway, are small countries, such as Liechtenstein and Qatar. Canada ranks 21st. (CIA – The World Factbook — Country Comparisons – GDP – per capita (PPP)) However, compared using the United Nations Human Development Index, Canada ranks 3rd and the United States 15th. (Human Development Reports (HDR) – United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)) The Human Development Index better gauges ecological economics, including not only per capita income but also education and life expectancy. Admittedly, Canada has its share of problems and challenges. Nevertheless, the reversal in rankings between Canada and the U.S. with respect to per capita gross domestic production and the Human Development Index highlights an inherent weakness of neo-classical economics. Maximizing consumption does not maximize quality of life, let alone sustainability.

Faith communities are rightly addressing the concerns of those whose livelihood, dwelling, or well-being the current economic crisis imperils. More importantly, faith communities should attempt to use the economic crisis as a catalyst to shift worldviews from neo-classical economics to ecological economics. Ecological economics affirms the importance of both community and individual. Ecological economics replaces an ethic of human dominance with an ethic of human stewardship that values all life and all creation. Ecological economics enriches life for all, in a sustainable manner. Finally, ecological economics, unlike neo-classical economics, emerges out of a profoundly Christian understanding of creation.

McFague enumerates three simple rules of ecological economics that if adopted by everyone as part of his or her spiritual discipline would transform them and the planet: (1) take only your share; (2) clean up after yourself; (3) keep the house in good shape for future occupants.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

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