The Spiritual Crisis At The Heart
Of The Eco-Justice Crisis
By John Raines
Professor of Religion, Temple University
is Eco-Justice and why should we pursue it? To answer that question
let me begin with a puzzle. What's wrong with saying, "we
should take better care of the earth"? Because speaking that
way we seem to be autonomous beings outside The Great Livingness
that enfolds and supports us, as if we should "decide"
as outsiders that we should take care of The Living World that
at each moment is, in fact, already taking care of us.
it means for us to breathe. We take in oxygen and breathe out
carbon dioxide. After these millions of years of animals breathing
how is there any oxygen left? It is because of photosynthesis-all
those grassy and green things out there that take in our carbon
dioxide and give us back oxygen. We humans breathe only because
we are part of a living, breathing world. And that living environment
was there with its oxygen millions of years before our species
made its evolutionary entrance-awaiting us and ready to welcome
us. It is the living environment that takes care of us, not we
who take care of it!
What we as
a species owe the environment is justice-a just recognition of
what we owe. And that is why we talk today about ECO-JUSTICE.
There is a
second reason. Everywhere in the world today, in every nation,
and also between the nations of the global North and the global
South, inequality is growing. Global runaway capitalism is running
away from every workforce that begins to demand and get fair wages.
Runaway capitalism ran away from the industrial workers of America
beginning in the 1970s. In the 1970s runaway capitalism invested
in the electronics and steel industries in Japan and South Korea.
But as soon as workers in those countries demanded fair pay, runaway
capitalism took those jobs to China and Brazil. Workers in America
first, but then workers in Japan and South Korea saw their factories
close. Runaway capitalism will run wherever it has to run to escape
well paid workers, and also to escape nations that enforce strong
environmental protections laws.
And that too
is why we talk today about Eco-Justice. Both global economic justice
and global ecological justice is what we talk about because they
are two sides of the same coin. Let me paint you a picture. In
your mind's eye see this. Global capitalism has wings but no feet.
And we humans have feet but no wings-we are confined to living
in local communities. Let me translate that picture into practice.
In the global South in the past 40 years millions of acres of
land have been taken out of production for local appetites-food
such as rice and maze, the only food the poor can afford-millions
of acres have been transplanted with winter fruits and vegetables
for people in the global North who can pay more, and thus increase
the profits of global food corporations. The logic which steered
the production of food was for millennia the logic of local hunger.
No longer! Today, food follows money, the logic of food is the
hunger of global food corporations for profits. If you live in
the United States today your average supper has traveled 1,500
miles to get to your table. We in the Global North can and do
pay for those miles; but those miles leave the poor and their
The result is that 1 billion and perhaps as many as 2 billion
of us-almost 1/3rd of our human species-lives in what the United
Nations calls "Absolute Poverty." This is a New Kind
of Food Insecurity, a threat to life not caused by natural disaster,
not caused by inadequate food production. There is plenty of agricultural
productive capacity to feed all 6 and ½ billion of us and
feed us well. This new food insecurity is caused by the fact that
poor people make poor customers for the corporate global food
system. And the result of that is vividly portrayed in our modern
world so strangely divided, even grotesquely divided into the
starved and the stuffed.
Let us return to that picture of wings and feet. What we need
to do to address successfully the double task of Eco-Justice is
put feet back on global capitalism so it serves the well being
of humans who necessarily live in local communities. How can we
do that? The global instruments are already there. They are the
International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade
Organization. Right now they are run by the logic of enforcing
the logic of runaway capitalism. But as the crisis of Eco-Justice
persists and even deepens, a new politics will begin to appear,
a new discipline in how we humans decide to steer our future on
planet earth. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank,
the World Trade Organization are human creatures and humans can
recreate them to serve higher moral purposes than the profits
of private corporations. And there is a politics for that to happen
as I will argue in a moment.
There are important resources in the moral reasoning of both Christianity
and Islam for defining and defending the higher moral purposes
of money. In Christian medieval thought and practice the taking
of interest on loans (usury) was strictly forbidden because it
put all the risk upon the borrower and his or her collateral.
Similarly in Islam, riba, is prohibited. Both traditions recognize
that economic activity needs to be held accountable for moral
purposes that surpass the accumulation of private profits.
In Christianity the discourse about usury has been largely left
behind. But not in Islam! Today, in Malaysia, in Indonesia and
in Turkey Muslims have established interest-free banking practices.
For example, in Turkey the members of the Gulen Movement in 1996
began such a bank, calling it the Bank Asya. By 2007 there were
117 domestic branches with the purpose (and here I quote) "to
develop new interest-free banking products" and "to
take products that are already being offered at conventional banks
and adapt them in such a way as to fit the system of interest-free
banking." The implications of this practice upon the casino-like
financial practices dominating global capitalism today are indeed
radical. I urge Muslim intellectuals to systematically explore
these innovative banking policies, which would add an important
voice to those of us who, as Christians, are highly critical of
the elitism and spreading inequality of global Capitalist so-called
"development." We Christians, in turn, need to think
anew about the prohibition against usury and the implications
of that ancient church discussion for modern banking practices.
I need to explain what I mean by "casino-like." It adds
a new dimension to the older runaway capitalism I have already
mentioned. Here is a fact most of us do not know, and it is crucial
that we do get to know it. Today, the vast majority of international
financial transactions have nothing to do with things made in
factories or harvested from fields or rendered in services. Instead,
money now mostly makes only more money, without creating new jobs
or expanding productive capacity. The bottom line is this. For
every $1 dollar that goes into the real economy of goods and services,
$35 go into speculation in derivatives and currency exchange rates-thus
the world "casino." And that global casino is what capitalism
has mostly become.
There is a way to correct that. It is called imposing a global
Financial Transaction Tax imposed every time a speculative wager
is made. That would fundamentally transform the way investors
make their decisions, because that tax would diminish the anticipated
profits from such speculations. In turn, this would encourage
new investments to move back into the real economy, where the
rest of us live and try to find work.
The idea that global capitalism could be disciplined to serve
the well-being of humans who necessarily live in local communities-human
beings who have feet but no wings-that idea seems farfetched.
A sense of realism predicts that powerful interests will use their
power to block such a move. So let me make a rash prediction.
As the global crisis of Eco-Justice persists and deepens, and
as the protest movements against those injustices continue to
grow and become transnational in connections (something that is
happening right now in the Occupy-Wall Street movement)-as that
continues to grow in future years, at some point there will be
a sudden change. CEOs and stock holders of major multinational
corporations will begin to sense this change and say: "O.K.,
as long as there are effective international enforcements that
disciplines my competition, forcing all of us to play by the new
rules of Eco-Justice, then I am with you. Why? Because I have
grandchildren and I want to leave to them a world that works."
When that happens, change that previously seemed impossible will
come like an avalanche.
But for that happy day to come, there must be one other change,
a change in our religious orientation. Yes, this double crisis
of Eco-Justice is, at its heart, a spiritual crisis.
Too often in world religions the central concern and promise is
the well- being of the Self. Religious beliefs and practices offer
"Salvation" or "Enlightenment." Thereby the
earth, this living environment that embraces and sustains us,
is reduced to a stage, to a mere backdrop where the supposedly
higher religious drama of the self is played out. That way of
looking at the world (and treating the world as it is looked at)
is the spiritual brokenness that lies at the heart of the environmental
crisis. The earth is reduced to dead stuff that we humans buy,
use and throw away. At its heart the double crisis of global economic
justice and global environmental sustainability is a spiritual
crisis. For too many of us salvation becomes an escape from the
material world and enlightenment means the cultivation of an elitist
individualism. Both fail the task of Eco-Justice. We must find
a new way forward.
I will speak only for my own tradition, Western Christianity.
And I will ask, where do the steeples on our churches point us?
And why do they point us there? Steeples point us up and away
from the ground that holds them up. Steeples witness to a profound
lack of connectedness, a lack of gratitude to the material creation
that at every moment nurtures and sustains us. What are we fleeing
from when we follow those steeples and in our hearts and minds
leave the earth behind?
Now, here is the heart of the matter. I think we fear and flee
the mortality we share with all other living things. We fear and
flee death. But note this and note it well. Without death we humans
as a species would never have evolved, would never have arrived
here on planet earth. Without death we humans would not be.
Our religious predecessors could not know and did not know the
creative role of death in life evolving. They could only see it
as an end, and by some conceived as a punishment for Sin. It was
literally impossible for them to see death as part of the Great
Continuing Story of Life. They did not know that and could now
know that. But today we cannot not know what in fact we know.
Here, religiously speaking, is where I think we Christians, and
others as well, need to take our hearts and minds. God used and
continues to use evolution to create and recreate life on earth.
Yes, that is how it happened. Beginning billions of years ago
with simple one-celled life forms in the ocean depths, that is
where the story began. Then, over vast time, life evolving became
more and more diverse and more and more complex in its organic
base. In that story of life evolving death is not some punishment.
Death is not the opposite or the end of Life. Rather life and
death are dance partners of evolution where life takes death into
itself and keeps life alive, always changing and still evolving.
It's a different kind of Good Friday and Easter story, where life
keeps itself alive by using death for the end and purposes of
So there it is. Good Friday and Easter can be, and I would say
must be, differently conceived. The death of Jesus of Nazareth
can receive a different meaning than a sacrifice that saves us
from the punishment called death. Instead, the death of the Messiah
pictures to us that sacrificial life of the evolving community
of life as that community struggles throughout the ages against
any finality of a particular species' power and privilege. In
that regard, we need to remember that those living armored vehicles
called dinosaurs went extinct, unable to adjust to a dramatically
changed environment caused, perhaps, by the encounter of the earth
with an asteroid. The famed "survival of the fittest"
is not survival through domination and by dominating to secure
the future. No! the survival of the fittest is the survival of
the fittingness, those most adept at adapting. And therein lies
a mighty lesson for that powerful species called the human.
Creation is not something that happened back then and now is finished.
That would make the world dead. The Creator and Creation are not
separate, one coming before the other. Rather, Creator and Creation
are joined together as Creative Spirit embedded in and making
alive the unfolding of the material universe, Cosmic Creativity
continuing to create. It is Spirit-filled Matter, star dust blown
into the future universe some 14 billion years ago, a cosmic process
that is still unfolding. And we humans are a part of all that,
indeed a very special part.
If we imagine that story of 14 billion years of cosmic unfolding,
if we imagine all that in terms of a bookcase and volumes in that
bookcase, there would be 39 volumes. Each volume would have 400
pages, and each page would represent one million years. We humans
would appear only in the last volume, on the last page, and only
in the last line. That seems like such a humiliation!! But think
again. The magic and wonder is that I can say what I just said,
and you understood it.
The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobchanzky saw the meaning
of it all. In his book Mankind Evolving here is what he said:
"The most important point in Darwin's teachings was, strangely
enough, overlooked. Man has not only evolved, he is evolving.
This is a source of hope in the abyss of despair. In a way Darwin
has healed the wound inflicted by Copernicus and Galileo. Man
is not the center of the universe physically, but he may be the
spiritual center. Man and man alone knows that the world evolves
and that he evolves with it. By changing what he knows about the
world man changes the world that he knows; and by changing the
world in which he lives man changes himself. Changes may be deteriorations
or improvements; the hope lies in the possibility that changes
resulting from knowledge may also be directed by knowledge. Evolution
need no longer be a destiny imposed from without; it may conceivably
be controlled by man, in accordance with his wisdom and his values."
In these words we find hope for the future, but also terrible
judgment if we fail to act upon what we know. Today, tomorrow
and the day after tomorrow, we live without excuse.
How strange and wonderful that Cosmic Creativity should bring
forth here on planet earth an autobiographer of Cosmic Process,
a Story-Teller who begins to tell the Larger Story of which our
human story is a part. Yes, we humans are becoming a place (we
may hope there are many other such places in the universe) where
God wants the Story of Cosmic Creativity to be told. And once
we begin to tell that story well and accurately, we humans who
are Christians will take our steeples and in our imagination turn
them upside-down, and thereby return honor and gratitude to planet
earth which gives us life-in the place where God intended and
prepared for us to find life.
And that life is always and everywhere Life-Together, an immensely
complex interdependency-a vast organic WE. That story is told
wrongly when it is told as a Story of individual Escape, when
it is told as a story of Salvation or of elitist Enlightenment.
The real story is a story of unfolding mutual interdependence-of
humans needing and depending upon one another and of all humans
together depending upon the Living Environment that at every moment
of our individual lives, but also of our collective lives, sustains
and nurtures us.
Let me conclude in much the same fashion as I began. Why is it
a mistaken way of speaking to speak about "the environmental
crisis?" Because the environment is in crisis only because
we humans, and especially we well to do humans, are in crisis
in relationship to the environment. The crisis is ours, we made
it and we must undo it.
Confession, it is said, is good for the soul. So let me end my
remarks with a confession.
My generation has failed.
We have failed to prevent the two great moral crises that haunt
our era and threaten the future. One is the growing inequality
within all nations and between all nations of the global North
and the global South, and what that growing inequality means for
the precarious future of democracy. The second failure of my generation
is our inability to discipline our lifestyles and our economic
institutions to the task of environmental sustainability. My generation
now puts this wounded world into the hands of you, the younger
generation. It is our bitter patrimony.
But here is the inescapable truth. My unborn great grandchildren,
and your unborn grandchildren and great grandchildren await us.
And it is they, not we, who will have the final say and judgment
about how we understood and lived our lives.
God grant us the courage to see and understand and accept our
human nature and destiny, and the resolve to act upon what we've
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