A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend “Our Daily Bread,” a convocation at Duke Divinity School that focused on sustainability. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two of the most insightful and respected thinkers and authors on a proper earth economy, were inspiring both in their presentations and in conversation.
Jackson used the word “restraint”—which he called “the forgotten virtue”—to describe humanity’s proper approach to 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 whether harm—intended or not—might come to others.
Virtue is another word that’s scarcely used in public discourse. So it was something of a shock to me when I heard John Edwards’ comments during 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 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pronounces that global climate change is “unequivocal.” We are warned that we must begin to cap and reduce our CO2 output within the coming years. We are told we must develop renewable-energy technologies and efficiency programs. Investment in research is also needed. All of this is correct, but given the magnitude of the crisis we face, it is grossly insufficient.
We know in our hearts that sacrifice and restraint are virtues. And efficiency should not be equated 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 limit both 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 billion to 9 billion people the way North Americans, Japanese or Europeans now live.
We must exercise restraint in travel, in useless and frivolous purchases, and in our extravagant consumption of fossil-fuel energy. The most prosperous of us will need to sacrifice the pleasure of raspberries or asparagus in winter, yet another toy for our child, or the glamorous vacation by air. And for a great majority of Americans, these will soon become luxuries that 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 keep the poor and struggling middle class in or near poverty. We must create affordable housing, jobs that provide a living wage, and reliable, convenient transportation within an infrastructure based on renewable energy.
Justice means living 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 achieve anywhere near the level of consumption we currently enjoy, we would need four or five more planets’ worth of water and other material resources. Technology alone won’t enable us to pass on to our children a healthy, stable and beautiful earth. Only restraint, cooperation and equitably sharing the gifts of creation can return us to a proper relationship with our world.
We need a politics and an economy based on reverence for life. Our current actions need to help protect, preserve and restore a damaged earth. As 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’ve created are based on the idea that material accumulation and consumption are the keys to human progress and happiness. But no wisdom tradition, religion or human psychology confirms this to be true.
We know in our hearts that once our basic 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.
Despite his brilliance, Einstein missed the point. Because we won’t get to the level of thinking that will get us out of the political, social, economic and environmental mess we’ve created 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, all creatures, and life itself 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 our world healthier and more beautiful than we found them.
Reverence is also a political and economic choice that requires restraint. But it will bring joy to your life this holiday season!
[Richard Fireman is regional director of N.C. Interfaith Power & Light, a program of the North Carolina Council of Churches, and the editor of www.sustainablewnc.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]