On Consumption


Dear Friends:  Nobody ever taught us to pray, “Give us this day our stockpile of bread with a shelf-life of forty years.” Hoarding resources for private gain is a course of action that despoils the Earth and obstructs our right relationship with God. Humanity today consumes resources 50% faster than the Earth can replenish them. In the United States, we consume them 400% faster. (See footprintnetwork.org.) Habitat destruction and other factors caused biodiversity to plummet by 30% across the globe and by 60% in the tropics between 1970 and 2008. (See wwf.panda.org.) Dozens of species go extinct and a thousand people die of starvation each day, due to human greed, ignorance, and inertia.

Longtime leaders in conservation biology Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily continue to call for global change in three broad areas: 1) achieve sustainable levels of global resource consumption though reductions in human population and per capita consumption rates, 2) achieve the former in large part by reducing global inequity among peoples, and 3) strengthen the leadership that science provides to society.

As Friends, we practice waiting for the Sprit to direct our actions. Ideally, when we feel moved to act, we stop to ask ourselves whether that impulse flows only from a personal desire or also from a movement of the Sprit. This interplay between our God-given free will and our dependency on the Spirit is hard to carry into the marketplace of public discourse. Two thousand years ago, we were warned, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

It is not easy to see how to tread lightly on the Earth today. In a culture built on 250 years of industrialization and 10,000 years of agriculture, we find ourselves in an unstable global economy within an unstable global ecosystem. We want to live according to our testimony of Simplicity, but at the same time we want to avoid “solutions” that are ineffective or even counterproductive because they are simplistic.

The World Wildlife Fund proposes we take a “One Planet Perspective” towards healing our global ecosystem and calls for a set of five global actions: 1) preserve biodiversity through habitat conservation, 2) improve efficiencies in production processes, 3) reduce the ecological footprints of high-income populations (especially carbon footprints), 4) restructure financial markets to incentivize conservation and sustainable practices, and 5) create governance structures to provide legal and policy frameworks for equitable access to resources. Clearly, none of these five leverage points will be moved by simplistic action, yet each of them can contribute to the creation of a sustainable global ecology that is simple in the sense that it maintains a healthy balance of interdependencies among its living systems.

At the outset of the industrial revolution, John Woolman observed, “So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world that in aiming to do business quick and to gain wealth, the creation at this day doth loudly groan!” (1772) Woolman devoted his entire adult life to opposing torments imposed upon the poor and upon domestic animals by those who sought to create great wealth. He advises us today, as we seek to restore right relationships among all the creatures of our Earth, to plant our reason firmly in in the ground of simple goodness: “Goodness remains to be goodness, and the direction of pure wisdom is obligatory on all reasonable creatures . . . laws and customs [are not] a standard for our proceedings [unless] their foundation is on universal righteousness.” (1793) We cannot fabricate pure wisdom. We are obliged to wait for the gift of it. And we are obliged to follow its direction when we receive it by God’s grace.