A version of this essay was first published in the Mountain Xpress on December 19, 2007.
A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend Duke Divinity School’s Convocation called Our Daily Bread. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two of the most insightful and respected thinkers and authors on a proper earth economy, were inspiring in their presentations and conversations. Wes Jackson used the word restraint to describe the relationship humanity should have towards earth’s bounty. We hardly ever hear this word in civil discourse anymore. Restraint calls on us to reflect on the consequences of our simple everyday actions, to determine if harm, whether intended or not, could come to others.
Wes Jackson called restraint the forgotten virtue. Virtue is another word scarcely used in public dialogue. So it was a shock to me when I heard John Edward’s comments in a recent forum on Global Warming. Calling climate change the moral challenge of our generation he said “…the American people are ready for a President who calls on them to sacrifice, and asks them to be patriotic about something other than war.”
The final International Panel on Climate Change reports that climate change is “unequivocal.” We are warned that we must begin to cap and reduce our CO2 output within several years. We are told we must develop renewable energy technologies and efficiency programs. Investment in research is needed. All of this is correct, but unfortunately quite insufficient for the crisis we face.
We know in our hearts that sacrifice and restraint are virtues. Efficiency shouldn’t be conflated with conservation. In order to achieve a meaningful cap on CO2 emissions, and then reduce them to levels that will ensure a stable climate for healthy human communities in an ecologically diverse and beautiful world, we must conserve. We will be required to limit economic and population growth. Yes there are limits to growth; it’s a fact of biological life. There is no getting around it. No amount of wishful thinking (delusion is a better word) can create an earth economy that could support 6-9 billion people the way North Americans, Japanese, or Europeans live.
We must use restraint in travel, useless and frivolous purchases, and our extravagant use of fossil fuel energy. The most prosperous of us will need to sacrifice the pleasure of a raspberry or asparagus in winter, another toy for our child or the vacation by air. For a great majority of Americans the extravagances mentioned above are beyond their reach
For those who value justice that means the more comfortable among us must work to change the structural imbalances in our economy that keeps the poor and struggling middle class in or near poverty. We must create jobs that provide a living wage, affordable housing, and reliable convenient transportation within an energy infrastructure that is based on renewable energy. J
ustice means we live more simply so that others may simply live. The “American way of life” – the automobile culture, urban sprawl, throwaway consumerism, chemical agriculture or a meat based food system - is incompatible with justice, worldwide democracy, and ecological survival. For developing and undeveloped nations to live anywhere near the level of consumption that we enjoy, we would need 4 to 5 more planets worth of water and other material resources. Technology alone won’t provide us a healthy, stable, and beautiful earth as a legacy to our children. Only restraint, cooperation and sharing the gifts of creation will deliver us to that awesome world.
We need a politics and economy based on reverence for life. Our current actions need to help protect, preserve, and restore a damaged earth. Albert Einstein once said “…the world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.” The problems we created are based on the idea that human progress and happiness are satisfied by material consumption and accumulation. But no wisdom tradition, religion, or human psychology can confirm this as true.
We know in our hearts that once our basic human needs for food, shelter, safety, and health are met, we are happiest when we are engaged in meaningful work and living within loving families and communities.
Einstein even in his brilliance missed the point. We will not get to the level of thinking that will get us out of the political, social, economic, and environmental mess at which we arrived until we learn to love life again and revere it as a sacred trust.
Reverence is seeing the beauty and inherent worth of all people and all creatures. Reverence is the recognition of life as a fragile and delicate gift of the mystery of Creation. Reverence is a willingness to live a life of compassion, and the determination to leave our communities and world a more beautiful and healthier place than we found them.
Reverence requires restraint. It’s a political and economic choice, and one that will bring joy to your life throughout 2008.