Shuck and Jive

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Third "E": Economy

Why are we in such a pickle in regards to ecology and energy? It has to do with the way we manage our house.

The word "economics" is from the Greek words οκος [oikos], meaning "family, household, estate," and νόμος [nomos], or "custom, law," and hence means "household management" or "management of the state."

Simply put: our economic system does not fit our ecological and energy realities. We are doing a bad job of managing our house, which is Earth.

Our economic system is based on unlimited growth and consumption of goods. “Unlimited” growth requires “unlimited” energy.

Thomas Berry put it better than anyone. In speaking about our current North American way of life he writes:

“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”
Thomas Berry. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), p. 76.

Our economic system is not sustainable. It will be dismantled by one of two events:

1) a decrease in the supply of energy or
2) ecological collapse.

Unless, of course, we drastically make conscious changes in the way we understand and practice economy. We need a new way to manage our house. Earth is our house. So when one country bombs another one, the destruction caused and the resources wasted affect the same house. It is like two brothers brawling in the living room and destroying furniture. They only hurt themselves.

What we need is an ecological economy. The realities of energy and ecology need to come before corporate interests. Theologian Sallie McFague speaks of it as rules of the household:

1) Take no more than your share.

2) Clean up after yourselves.

3) Keep our space in good repair for future generations.

Our space is Earth. We are all members of one house. Our world economy needs to reflect that reality. Currently, if everyone on Earth consumed at the rate of the average American, we would need four planets of resources. Take the quiz to see how big of an ecological footprint you make.

Americans are not following household rule number 1. But we can. Actually, we have to do so. Eventually, we will whether we do so willingly or not.

In March I preached a sermon entitled: “The American Way of Life or Life for All?” in which I shared some of these ideas including these paragraphs:

“That way of life—that economic model has no long-term future. The demands that way of living places on both the environment and energy resources are too great to sustain. At some point, by necessity, endless consumption will break down. We will transition into a new way of living. What will this new way of living look like? A positive vision will consist of some of the following elements:

“In this new way of living the food we produce will be produced locally not three thousand miles away. We will walk or bike from where we live to where we work to where we shop and to where we go to school. Public transportation will be the way we move from place to place. Our sources of energy will be clean from the sun and the wind and from places and through creative technologies we are currently discovering and developing. We will focus production on things of value such as food (mostly vegetables), medicine and clean water. Energy resources for our communities will be local and small scale. As Sallie McFague puts it: We will take our share and no more than our share, clean up after ourselves, and keep our space in good repair for future generations.

“That is our future. The sooner we become aware of the necessity of transitioning to that future the better. The hope is that we can transition into this way of living before necessity requires us to do so.”

Economy is the third E. However, there is one more "E" to come. Unless we are honest about that, our future could be nuclear winter.

On that cheery note, remember to always look on the bright side of life!



  1. Thomas Berry (born 1914) is a Catholic priest, cultural historian and ecotheologian - note: "economist" is NOT listed as one of his titles.
    "We are doing a bad job of managing our house, which is Earth." - Yes, even a conservative can agree with this.
    "our economic system does not fit our ecological and energy realities." - Is just flat incorrect.
    "Our economic system is based on unlimited growth and consumption of goods." - is an incorrect (and somewhat jaded) definition of free market capitalism.

    The problem is not our economic system (there is NONE better), the problem is people (and liberal theologians?).

    There is no other economic system extant that can better address the issue of scarce natural resources. There is not one that better rewards innovation and change and flexibility and exploration and research.

    The problem we face today is indeed one of stewardship - which I guess is implicit in your comments. Perhaps "theologians" should emphasize this more, personal responsibility and stewardship. The "house" is not ours (it's Gods) and the future is not ours (and extends beyond the next quarter's earnings report).

    As for the elements of your "positive vision" (many I agree with), the only way to efficiently implement them is through "enlightened" free market capitalism and entrepreneurialism (see Whole Foods Markets as an example).

    Does the pie need to be more equitably served? Perhaps, indeed. Can the pie continue to be enlarged? Even in the face of scarce resources? Absolutely!

    With the right profit motive, some one will ALWAYS scour that waste heap and come up with "the better mousetrap".

  2. Hi Austin,

    Thank you for your response. Thank you for mentioning areas of agreement and areas of disagreement.

    The real problem I have regarding our economic system is that is has no morality built into it. We serve it, rather than have it serve us.

    Therefore, we think it is quite normal and natural to use and misuse Earth's resources because so doing keeps the economy going. We act as though the economy is value neutral.

    However, if we think of Earth as home or a household, there is value built into that. We care about all of the inhabitants. Our economy therefore would have rules regarding the well-being of these inhabitants.

    It would be silly to think that if I have five children, that one of them will eat steaks, have video games, a college education, and that the other four will barely survive with inadequate healthcare, food, shelter.

    We have rules for our households. Take no more than our share.
    Clean up after ourselves.
    Keep it in good repair for future generations.

    I agree with you regarding the creativity of humanity coming up with the better mousetrap. The market is not doing it nor can it. There is no mousetrap that will replace the energy we get now from fossil fuels. Life will change drastically particularly for us in the so-called First World.

    Finally, as far as personal stewardship is concerned, yes, we do need to encourage that. That cannot be the only message, however. We are so caught in a destructive, wasteful system that no amount of personal stewardship can change the trend. The consciousness of all of us must change regarding how we manage our house (or God's house if you prefer).