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Simple Living
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.)

Itís 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 central teachings.

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 alone."

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 televisions.

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 nonviolence.