Sallie McFague on economics and ecology in our time: “We have a major need for strategies, practices, for moving into action”

February 26, 2016

Dr. Sally McFague, a theologian who investigates the connections of religion with economics and ecology,  The 2010 edition of State of the World, a highly-regarded annual report, suggests that religions must be major players in the most important two-sided crisis of our time—the economic and ecological one.

To put it as simply as possible, she says: it is not sufficient to consume in a “green” fashion; rather, we must consume LESS, a lot less.   Quantity still matters; in fact, we are at such a level of consumption in relation to the carrying capacity of our planet that reduction must take a major role in sustainability. No one wants to face this fact.

The statement from the State of the World advising “reducing and even eliminating” the use of cars and airplanes causes a global gasp. Surely not. The shock, however, causes us to realize how far we have to go in both our attitudes and practices. We human beings are so embedded in the culture of consumerism that asking us to curb consumerism—let alone eliminate precious forms of it—is like asking us to stop breathing. It is important to take this seriously: the “culture of consumerism” is not just a form of life we can accept or reject; it has now become like the air we breathe. Consumerism is a cultural pattern that leads people to find meaning and fulfillment through the consumption of goods and services. Thus, the well-known comment that consumerism is the newest and most successful “religion” is not an understatement. I would suggest that religions are being asked to take on what no other field has been willing to assume, yet is at the  heart of their own message: “a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns,” particularly at the level of consumerism.

As the State of the World asserts: Of the three drivers of environmental impact—population, affluence, and technology—affluence, a proxy for consumption, is the arena in which secular institutions have been the least successful in promoting restraint. “Restraint,” summed up in the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is a major practice of most religions. It is the one thing needed now and is, I believe, both a gift from religions and the challenge to them. It could be considered a “coming home” for religions as well as their greatest contribution to the economic/ ecological crisis facing us. The report sums it up well: Their special gift—the millennia-old paradoxical insight that happiness is found in self-emptying, that satisfaction is found more in relationships than in things, and that simplicity can lead to a fuller life—is urgently needed today.

I consider these words to be marching orders for religions. Such a position would not only serve the planet, but also be a return of religions to their own spiritual roots and cause them to recognize how far they have deviated. The insidious message that the purpose of human life is to consume is a “heresy” and should be condemned as such! Religious traditions may find such a return revitalizing of their basic message—restraint, not for the sake of ascetic denial of the world, but in order that “abundant life” might be possible for all. My small contribution is to take up this challenge with an in-depth study of one form of restraint in one religion—“kenosis” or self-emptying in Christianity.

We have reached the point in public discussion of the planet’s twin monetary and ecological crises where we have one major need—not more information but strategies, practices, for moving into action. Can religions make a contribution by sharing their profound, countercultural, and often unpopular message that abundant life at both personal and public levels is found not by expressing one’s ego as our market-oriented, individualist culture encourages, but by losing one’s ego in service to others? Can we see this much-neglected aspect of many world religions—counter-cultural kenosis—not as the only answer to the issues, but as one, important, and needed perspective?

Increasingly, the issue of how to live well has become one of changing from how we are living now to a different way. As our ecological and economic crises have become worse, more people are questioning the reigning culture of insatiable greed. They are coming to the conclusion that the prospects of consumer culture have been greatly overrated and serious change at a fundamental level—of who we think we are in the scheme of things and what we must do—is necessary. Change at this level is incredibly difficult. Yet, it is precisely change at this fundamental level that most religions are about—it is called “conversion” in Christian circles and demands thinking and living differently than conventional society recommends. But how do people change behavior? Behind our decisions of how to live stand our most basic beliefs: who do we think we are in the scheme of things? What is our worldview? One thoughtful person puts it this way: “Be careful how you interpret the world. It is like that.”

We live within our models, our worldviews, and they deeply and subtly influence the decisions we make, including ones about the environment. For instance, if we hold views of God, the world, and ourselves that are dualistic, individualistic, and anthropocentric, we will “naturally” decide that climate change, for instance, is not a serious matter. If we see God as a distant, supernatural, all-powerful being who rules the world, then it is not our responsibility to change our behavior so poor human beings and other animals might live. Rather, we say, “Let God do it.” If, however, we see everything, including God, as interrelated and interdependent, a worldview supported by contemporary science as well as the wisdom of many religions, then we see we are responsible for the well-being of the whole, including less fortunate human beings and other life-forms.

We need to change our images of God, from seeing God as king and master over the world to imagining the world as within God, like a baby in the womb. We live and move and have our being within God. We need to wake up from the lie of the current worldview of individual, selfish fulfillment through consumerism to the reality of fulfillment by sharing with needy fellow creatures and the earth itself. Religious understandings of limitation, detachment, self-emptying, and compassion can help us do this. The Christian notion of self-emptying and the Buddhist understanding of compassion are two illustrations of the contribution religions should be making to the crisis of climate change.

What we need is to move from one worldview of self, of who we are in the scheme of things, which encourages narrow, individualistic, greedy behavior to a view of self as “universal,” in which all are included. The Dalai Lama has said that we ought to think of the needs of strangers in the same way that a mother responds to the needs of her child, and Christians say much the same thing with “love the neighbor as yourself.” We might put it this way: the world is my body. Who I am does not stop with the limits of my own skin, or with my own family or nation or even with all human beings, but stretches to include all living creatures. Only with such a radical change in “who we think we are” will we be able to make the deep changes necessary to turn us around from ruining the planet to helping it flourish.

This change needs to happen at all levels of our life from the personal—what we eat and how we get to work—to the public—how we tax carbon emissions and distribute scarce resources fairly. Thus, I am suggesting that the religions of the world have a major role to play in the climate change crisis. Religion should answer the call to return to its deepest roots of restraint, limitation, sharing, and self-emptying so others might live. This process of change from belief to action contains the following steps:

  1. Experiences of “voluntary poverty” can shock middle-class people away from self-fulfillment through possessions and prestige and toward self-emptying as a pathway for personal and planetary wellbeing.
  2. The focus of one’s attention on the needs of others, especially the most physical, basic needs, i.e., food. Freed from finding fulfillment through accumulation, one is able to really pay attention to others, not as objects for one’s own goals, but as subjects in their own right. These subjects are other human beings or life-forms, and even the processes that sustain life such as rivers, trees, and climate patterns.
  3. The gradual development of a “universal self.” As the line containing one’s concern for others (compassion) moves from its narrow focus on the ego (and one’s nearest and dearest) to reach out further and further until there is no line left: even a caterpillar counts. This journey, rather than diminishing the self, increases its delight.
  4. The model of the inclusive self operates at both personal and public levels. For instance, the planetary House Rules operate at both public and personal levels:
    1. Take only your share;
    2. Clean up after yourself;
    3. Keep the house in good repair for future occupants.

In conclusion, while other fields contributing to our planetary crises often end with the despairing remark, “Of course, it is a spiritual, an ethical problem,” the religions of the world should offer their distinctive answer: “Yes, it is, and let us look at that process of change from belief to action.

With thanks to Dr. Sallie McFague!