The Spiritual Crisis At The Heart Of The Crisis Of Eco-Justice

What 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.

Think what 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 corporations for profits.  If you live in the United States today your average supper has traveled 1,300 miles to get to your table.  We can and do pay for those miles; but those miles leave the poor and their hunger behind.

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 Starvation, a starvation not caused by natural disaster, a starvation 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 starvation 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 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 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 and manage 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.

Let me make a prediction.  As the global crisis of Eco-Justice persists and even deepens, and as the protest movements against that continue to grow and become transnational, there will be at some point in all of that a sudden change.  CEOs of major multinational corporations will begin to say:  “O.K., as long as you have effective international enforcements that disciplines my competition and forces all of us to play by the new rules of Eco-Justice, then I am with you.  Why, because I have grandchildren too!”  When that happens change 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 draws us into a deeper dimension of crisis, because the crisis of Eco-Justice is at its heart a spiritual crisis.

Two often in world religions the central concern and promise is the well being of the Self.   Religious beliefs and practices offer this self “Salvation” or “Enlightenment.”  Thereby the earth, this living environment that embraces and sustains us, is reduced to a material stage or material backdrop upon which the 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 when, in fact, the earth is our home and mother.  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?

I think we fear and flee the mortality we share with all other living things.

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.

Here, religiously speaking, is where I think we Christians must head.  God used and continues to use evolution to create and recreate life on earth.  Yes, that is how it happened and how it is still happening.  Beginning billions of years ago with simple one-celled life forms in the ocean depths, that is where it 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 life-evolving.

Let me dare for a moment to do some theology.  Creation, I wager, is not something that happened back then and now is finished.  That would make the world dead.  The Creator and Creation are in fact not separate but one and the same, joined together as Cosmic Creativity.  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 image 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 1 million years.  We humans would appear only in the last volume, on the last page and only in the last line.  That seems like a kind of humiliation.  But think again!  The wonder is that I can say what I just said, and you understood it!

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.

Here, toward the end of my remarks, let me return to the same idea 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 the nations of the global North and the global South, and all that that means for the precarious future of democratic governance.  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 world into the hands of the younger generation.  It is our bitter legacy to you.

Yet, as Abraham Lincoln once said about the tasks facing his own generation, “we must dis-enthrall ourselves, we must think anew and act anew” in order to save the future.  My young friends, here are my final words.  My unborn great grandchildren are cheering you on.  It is your generation, not mine, that is their hope.


Dr. John Raines who is Professor at Department of Religion, Temple University is also an Op-Ed columnist for the 4th Media.

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