Revisioning Economics

By Sr. Anne Lonergan, R.C.
January 1990

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Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Creation Spirituality. We thank Sister Anne Lonergan who works at Holy Cross Centre in Port Burwell, Ontario, a centre dedicated to the preservation, stewardship and respect for God's beautiful creation - our planet earth.

I write this article, unavoidably, from a Canadian perspective. I apologize if its relevance too many readers of Scarboro Missions magazine, especially those in other continents, are very indirect. However, to face the ecological crisis of the present, the old slogan of "thinking globally, acting locally" is. imperative. I am also aware that many concerned with the environment in the First World are regarded as burdening the Third World with crises created by the First World, or calling for population measures in these countries and neglecting to critique themselves. Therefore, I am writing of the necessity of creation spirituality in the United States and Canada in terms of the dominant culture: the media, the economic system and a major religious tradition, Roman Catholic.

In this dominant culture, events almost daily tell us of the schizophrenic nature of our present system of meaning and value. We can characterize it as a time when the human race, however haltingly, realized its mortal peril and the peril of the so-long-taken-for-granted planet. This new awareness operates at cross purposes with the large scale organization of much of the dominant culture.

Consider, on a quiet Sunday morning David Suzuki, a Canadian scientist, is following up his fine television series, A Planet for the Taking, with a national radio series, It's a Question of Survival. The segments feature scientist after scientist documenting the damage to the planet that imperils the next generation in the industrial countries, and the present starvation and ecological devastation in the so-called ".developing" countries. World leaders concluded an extravagant meeting in Paris, in which the environment finally received lip service. A cartoonist offered a sly look at Prime Ministers Thatcher and Mulroney, and President Bush competing for an award for the most times they can drag the word "environment" into a sentence. The documenting of such things goes on in newspapers and television which are supported by advertisements to buy everything in sight and treat nothing with as much reverence as business, followed distantly by sports, fashion and entertainment. Articles on the ecological crisis appear here and there, but pages of newsprint, glossy magazine inserts, time on the major television networks, all go to supporting an economy of extraction and development, of consumerism and obsolescence. A schizophrenic world.

"Creation spiritualty is not romantic nature worship; it is the realization that a culture that destroys the very basis of life on earth must be changed."

Creation spirituality must deal with this real world, because in this real world creation itself is being destroyed. A spirituality unfortunately too much present in this dominant culture is not really grieved by acid rain, or the death of lakes or the death of species. It does not find sacrilege or blasphemy or even sin in biocide or geocide, much less in watching Chesterton's green tree disappear under bulldozers or acid rain. For it, the really spiritual is "inner healing;" or "centering prayer" or "directed retreats" or enneagram workshops or journaling; in other words, in the relationship of the atomized 'soul' to God. It is the flip side of an individualized, consumer culture.

Again, The New York Times reports that six explorers are leaving on a seven-month journey across Antartica, which has raised 11 million dollars in sponsorship. One sponsor reports, "Antartica is the hot continent now. Mount Everest is out. It's been done every which way. It's been trashed." Indeed, since Antartica is presumably next to be trashed, where will we the trashers head next? We've done a fine job on all the other continents and the air and water. Is there some other hospitable little planet just lurking around the corner for its turn?

Suzuki asks several scientists on the program, "Why are we so blind to our peril?" Most answers centre around the adaptability of the species, able to think of short range solutions, but unaccustomed (except in cultures like the North American Native ones) to consider long- term futures. Consider, for example, the near-reverence all over for the invention of the automobile. When Ford began mass-producing, did anyone realize how this wonder would radically change the nature of people's lives, the surface of the earth,-the basis of economies? Did anyone foresee Mexico City in 1989, slowly poisoning its children to death; or the smog in Manila or Los Angeles; or the greenhouse effect from fossil fuel burning; or the damage to fisheries from oil spills? Can anyone, even today, figure out how to get from a fossil fuel economy to anything else?

Spirituality has been privatized in the last few centuries, but creation spirituality tells us that spirituality must "evangelize culture." Creation spirituality is not romantic nature worship; it is the realization that a culture that destroys the very basis of life on earth must be changed. Creation spirituality calls for a religious dedication to changing Canadian and American cultures from consumerist to caring for the planet. It is a huge challenge because it requires a change of mentality from the whole confluence of the industrial revolution and capitalism that has brought Canada and the United States to previously unimaginable levels of human prosperity, but with a hidden cost that some are only beginning to realize.

Our present economy is built on growth and the expanding use of natural resources. A world of dreams, as historian Thomas Berry puts it, dreams of a wonder world that is increasingly becoming waste world. The real message of our cultures is to buy: "consumer confidence," "gross national product," "new design," "keeping up with Japan," "fueling the economy," "expanding markets" and "development." These are the really sacred words. Think how patronizing we feel about the lack of consumer goods in Russia or China, and how delighted we feel when their economies might imitate our models. The Brundtland report and various national documents based on the idea of sustainable development are, at most, a call for radical creativity, and at least, a contradiction of terms. I have attended various meetings between ecologists and business people and, as yet, have found two very different world views, even though these meetings were called around "sustainable development." An aluminum industry spokesperson bragged that when bauxite is extracted, the landscape is renewed with trees and greenery. A baffled ecologist wanted to know when the perfectly frivolous use of aluminum in kitchens would be discouraged by the companies (after all, pre-World War II homes didn't have it, nor plastics). Predictably, the answer is production must stay up, jobs are at stake. Yes, and that's the difficulty in trying to think through 'sustainable development.' At another time, a Hydro company strategy for increasing nuclear plants was outlined and an ecologist wanted to know what had happened to pushing conservation. The Hydro representative said that the public is no longer interested and just wants more efficient energy conversion. Another asked why the rate structure for electricity is highest for the first amount used and decreased with enormous use in factories. "The cost of consumer goods would go up," answered the representative. Yes, the ecologists and business people were obviously baffled by each other's view of the world.

The dilemma will require real creativity. One extremely helpful suggestion comes from Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand legislator with a doctorate in political economy, who wrote If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics, Harper & Row, 1988. She and other economists: would like to change the United Nations System of National Accounts since present economic indicators in no way show anything about genuine economic health, either of eco-systems or human communities. A telling example: if many women in a community are not in the supposed 'work force' because they are staying home and raising children, this reflects poorly on current economic indicators. However, if a nuclear installation for the production of bombs opens and employs people, the economic indicators. go up. There is something inherently wrong in indicators that show the essential tasks of the human community, for continuing life as unproductive, while the building of death machines is productive. Many other suggestions for making visible the invisible are documented in her work, such as differentiating between extractive use of resources and enhancing use. of resources, such as the agriculture practised in Europe years ago which actually increased soil fertility. At present, there are no true measurements of the real economic health of a region or nation.

"The real message of our cultures is to buy: 'consumer confidence', 'gross national product','new design', 'keeping up with Japan', 'fueling the economy', 'expanding markets' and 'development'. These are the really sacred words."

Creation spirituality requires from all of us facing the future and changing. It will require a profound psychic energy, the energy that only. religious valuing can tap. Indeed Paul Ehrlich, a scientist noted for his writings on species extinction, calls for a quasi- religious: transformation in our attitudes to deal with the ecological crisis. However, looking at the dominant stream in western Christianity, a sense of the sacredness of the earth and the processes that sustain life is noticeably absent from liturgies, catechesis, religious asceticism and formation. Probably the major difficulty between native North Americans and the dominant culture stems from the vast religious differences in the valuing of other species and the earth.

Creation spirituality simply requires that we live the real truth that the sacred community is the universe. The mysterious process that has gone on for 14 billion years, the flourishing of life on this planet, product of star dust, is the true sacred journey in which the formation of carbon, the rise of life, the vertebrate eye, the invention of the flowers, the fish, the birds, the insects, the humans, the other mammals, the mountains and the invention of photosynthesis, all these. moments take their place as sacred moments, along with the Mosaic covenant and the Incarnation. Is this spirituality so controversial? Every two-year- old has it: a deep sense of reverence before insects and moons and snakes, a joyous participation with water and mud puddles. Culturally, we have tried to breed it out of ourselves, with scorn for beetles, snakes, animism, and for people trying to stop the destruction and to save the animals and forests. Perhaps we need to turn to the people who have lived thousands of years on this continent to teach us. We are killing ourselves and the beautiful world the Lord has made.

Fr. Thomas Berry, considered one of the leading voices of creation- centered theology, writes in his book The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Book Club), that to be fully human we must identify ourselves with the entire community of life on Earth. "We must move from democracy to biocracy (that is, from governing. Which takes into consideration only human life, to governing which considers all forms of life) ... The splendor of Earth is, in the variety of its land and its seas, its life forms and its atmospheric phenomena; these constitute in colour and sound and movement that great symphonic context that has inspired our sense of the divine, given us our emotional and imaginative powers, and evoked from us those entrancing insights that have governed our more sublime moments." He calls for "...a radical change in our mode of consciousness." In the evolution' of the cosmos, "...humans appear as the moment in which the unfolding universe becomes conscious of itself ... We bear the universe in our being as the universe bears us in its being ...A new paradigm of what it is to be human emerges."

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