For an Overheated Planet
(On August 8, 2010, I gave the message at St. Paulís United
Methodist Church in Denver. What follows below is not an exact
transcription of my remarks, but covers the essential points I made.)
not hard to look at environmental news about climate change and resource
depletion and not be frightened. I am frightened and I think others are
frightened as well.
Just recently the temperature got up 100 degrees Fahrenheit in
Moscow. The visibility was 100 yards or less because the city was choked
in smoke from forest fires all over the region. Because of these fires
and record heat, Russians also have stopped exporting wheat. Crops are
failing worldwide, there are food riots in Mozambique, and power
blackouts in many countries around the globe. James Hansen, the noted
climate change scientist, says that if we burn all the hydrocarbons we
are technically capable of burning, weíll send the planet into runaway
global warming leading to the extinction of life on earth.
But what is really disturbing about this is not just the news itself;
itís what is being done about the problem. A very interesting thing is
happening: nothing at all. The climate summit in Copenhagen was a
failure, and Congress took no action on climate change either.
Why is this such a difficult subject? There are a number of difficult
aspects here, but the chief reason is that there is a spiritual
dimension to the problem. This is not to say that there are not
technical, economic, and political problems as well, and I donít want
to discourage anyone from addressing these. But what really makes this
so difficult, and why even political leaders who "get it" have
difficulty talking about it in publicly, is the spiritual dimension.
There is a basic issue of compassion here. Humans have now swarmed
over the earth and have commandeered much of the resources, squandering
much of it irretrievably and thoughtlessly, and are now fighting with
each other over whatís left. Our economy is an "economy of
more," and that we have reached the limits of the earth to expand
any further. Climate change is simply one of many aspects of this
problem: weíve dumped so much carbon dioxide and methane in the
atmosphere that it is now threatening our existence.
So how do address this economy of "more"? Within our
political and economic system, we canít; the answer, essentially, is
that we need an economy of less, an economy which doesnít grow
at all. Or perhaps, more politically acceptable, what we need is an
economy of "enough."
One obvious way to address this is through the framework of the
message of Jesus. Simple living is one of the most basic elements of the
message of Jesus. "Do not be anxious," says Jesus, about what
you will eat or drink or wear. He advises the rich young man to sell
everything that he has, give it to the poor, and follow him.
"Blessed are the poor," Jesus says, and "you cannot serve
God and money," and "whoever does not renounce everything that
they have, cannot be my disciple." Christianity is hardly unique in
this respect; so go forth and preach your own tradition. But
Christianity clearly contains this spiritual message as one of its
We normally think of "non-attachment" as the idea of an
eastern religion like Buddhism and Hinduism, but here it is right in the
gospels. And this is not just deprivation, as in the first Christian
community "there was not a needy person among them," for there
was distribution to anyone who had need. And Thoreau once said: "a
man is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to let
So why canít we make do with less?
Because it would hurt the economy. And thatís the problem,
thatís why everyone is paralyzed: truly effective action to deal with
global warming would hurt the economy.
Climate change is only one of many related environmental problems.
Our way of life is based on exploitation of the environment and natural
resources ó and not only exploiting them, but exploiting more
of them each year. It includes soil, water, forests, and air. But most
notably, these resources are oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, and the
earthís atmosphere in which we put the waste products of these fuels.
Without these resources, nothing remotely resembling the American way of
life would be possible.
We have really encountered the "Limits to Growth" predicted
by the Club of Romeís groundbreaking book of that title in 1972. There
is only so much oil; there is only so much soil; there are only so many
forests; there is only so much atmosphere into which we can dump our
carbon dioxide and methane wastes. Our economy runs on oil, and world
conventional crude oil production peaked in 2005.
Our domination of the eco-sphere is almost total. Lester Brownís Plan
B estimated that 98% of the biomass of land based vertebrates is
humans, their livestock, or their pets. This excludes both sea creatures
and invertebrates like spiders and ants, but it is still an amazing
statement; this leaves 2% for all the elephants, lions, tigers, bears,
racoons, squirrels, deer, apes, and other major animals in the world.
Yes, there is alternative energy, but even after we resolve all the
issues about what this "renewable economy" will look like
(nuclear? biofuels? solar and wind?), we are still left with an energy
transition to renewables that will take decades at best. During
this transition, our economy will be shrinking whether we want it to or
not. Soon we will see blackouts in places other than Egypt, flooding in
places other than Pakistan, fires in places other than Russia, and food
riots in places other than Mozambique. There are just too many resources
involved here; itís more than just electricity (which is hard enough
in itself). Itís the soil which grows food, the forests which give us
wood, and rare earth metals that go into our computers and flat-screen
Of course saying that the economy has to shrink is difficult. When
the economy is growing, everyone is happy: people have jobs, companies
are making money, the stock market is going up. When the economy is not
growing, or worse yet, shrinking, companies lose money, people lose
their jobs, banks start to fail, the stock market crashes, and political
leaders start to get nervous. Our economy grows based on energy
consumption, and energy consumption means more use of fossil fuels, and
fossil fuels mean climate change (among other things).
Yes, some people in Congress are trying to do something. Recently a
climate change bill was proposed. It actually excited some controversy,
too, but not in Congress: within the environmental community, James
Hansen, Annie Leonard, and others said that it was worse than useless.
But even a tepid, watered-down, ineffectual bill addressing climate
change is going nowhere fast in Congress. Will it be different next
year? It will never be different until people confront the reality that
there is a limit to human domination. We will face the same problems, or
worse, year after year until we come to terms with the limits to growth.
In the meantime, what are the consequences of an "economy of
more?" Here are three of them:
1. The Gulf of Mexico. In normal times, youíd think that the huge
oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year would have provoked
outrage. Of course we need to ask what BP was doing and how this came
about. But we also need to ask, what are we doing in the Gulf of Mexico,
drilling for oil beneath 5,000 feet of water, in the first place?
Weíre drilling there because thatís where the oil is. Itís
the same reason that weíre producing oil from the Alberta tar sands, a
tremendously expensive and environmentally destructive way to get oil.
No one in their right mind would go to either place if there were
alternatives, which brings us to the point: the easy oil is gone. Now
all we have is expensive and destructive oil, and thatís before we get
to climate change: a consequence of an "economy of more."
2. Afghanistan. What, precisely, are we doing in Afghanistan?
Essentially, it is because of security. And we have a problem with
security because we have a lot of stuff, we want even more stuff, and a
lot of people have a problem with what we are doing to accomplish all
this. Surely, there are probably some bad people in Afghanistan; but
there is something terribly ironic in the U. S., with over half the
military might in the entire world, making war in a country that has an
average per capita annual income of about $426.
Our ally is an unbelievably corrupt regime that is not demonstrably
better than the Taliban, and it is costing us billions of dollars every
year. At one time, Osama Bin Laden, who engineered the September 11
attacks killing nearly 3000 Americans, was living there, although
Afghanistanís government was probably not directly complicit. But, in
the meantime, within our own borders we have a common criminal on the
loose who caused the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis in a war of
aggression. Ultimately, the war in Afghanistan is another consequence of
an "economy of more."
3. Torture. Of course torture of human beings is wrong, but it was
practiced all the time during the Iraq war, with approval coming from
the highest levels. Even the Democratic President seems to think that itís
all right to kill American citizens without trial. But we also torture
on a more systematic way, the torture of animals. How else can you
describe the treatment of animals on todayís "factory
farms"? Chickens are held in cages so small that they cannot
stretch their wings; female pigs are kept in gestation crates in which
they cannot even turn around; and all animals have their beaks or tails
cut off, and are castrated, all without anesthetic. If you did any of
this to a human being, youíd call it torture. If you did it to a dog,
youíd call it torture. This is all happening because humans want cheap
meat ó another consequence of an "economy of more."
As we can see, climate change ó which itself threatens the human
race with extinction ó is only one of the consequences of an
ever-growing economy. We are obliterating other life on the planet, we
are destroying animals and plants, and ultimately we are destroying
ourselves. It raises the question: do we really think that there is
anyone on the planet besides us?
There are many practical problems associated with climate change and
all our many other environmental problems ó for example, how we handle
the economy, how we handle population, what mix of energy sources is
appropriate, and how we reduce the current blatant inequality between
humans. But the basic and indispensable question is, how do we find
basic compassion for nature and life on earth?
Many people are talking about an economy of less, or an economy of
"enough," or a "steady-state economy" ó the names
vary. There are many practical directions we could take:
1. We could reduce the work week, reducing the amount of stuff we are
making but also increasing our leisure time.
2. We could live in smaller houses, or live with more people in a
household, reducing our footprint on the planet.
3. We could eat vegetarian or vegan, drastically reducing the land,
water, soil, and energy requirements that go into our food.
4. We could drive fewer cars and ride bicycles. With proper
infrastructure, very few people would even need a private car.
5. We could implement policies that would reward all of these actions
and that would put upper limits on the natural resources that we are
burning or using up.
We are all interdependent. Simple living is a personal virtue, but it
is more than that. If America wants to deal with climate change, if it
wants to survive, we need to change our spiritual direction in the way
suggested by the gospels ó in the direction of simple living and