Two years ago, my husband and I moved from Davis, California, to Grass Valley. The first thing we did was plant fruit trees. One day last August, in the sweet early morning, I went to check on the trees, and found, to my delight, that one little tree had grown a single, perfect peach. It was fat and ripe and fragrant. I reached out to tug at it, and it dropped into my upraised hand.
This is my body, grown here for you. These are the words I hear any time I hold a fresh fruit or a vegetable. If there was ever a sign of a covenant between humans and the divine, it is this: we reach out our hands, and ripe fruit drops into them. The act of eating is a communion: we take into our bodies nutrients and water from the dust of long ago stars, distilled by the power of the sun, and the intentions of life itself, into delectable juicy flesh. We partake of the Body of God.
But wait a minute, who is this “we?” Does everyone get to join in this communion? Does everyone get to sit together at our table?
Of course the answer is no. Seven hundred and ninety-five million people are hungry in our world, many of them starving. Seven hundred and ninety-five million. That’s such a big number that it’s hard to make sense of. So let’s take it to a more understandable scale. Let’s imagine shrinking the entire human population to the size of one village of a hundred people. Who are the people and what are the conditions of their lives?
There would be 60 Asians, 14 Africans, and 11 Europeans. Fourteen people would be from the Americas, with only five from Canada and the United States. About half would be female, and half male. Only 16 would consider themselves White, with the other 84 having other identities. 30 would be Christian. The other 70 would not. One person would own over half of all the wealth, and that person would be from the United States. 17 people would be unable to read or write. 15 would be chronically hungry. 23 would have no shelter. 35 would have no sanitation facilities. 13 would have no safe drinking water. 22 would have access to a computer. Seven would have a college education.
Do you have a computer? Do you have a college education? If you do, you are one of the richest people in the world. Do you feel rich?
If we shrank the population of just the United States to a village of 100 people, one person would own 40 percent of the wealth. The richest 20 would own 93 percent. That’s right. Eighty percent of Americans share only seven percent of the wealth of this nation.
One of the worst things about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is that the “wealth” is “produced” from the exploitation of ecological and social systems to the point where they break down completely. This is happening everywhere in the world, but perhaps the most familiar example is Syria. Climate change caused by fossil fuel use dried farmlands to the point where they were unusable. So people began moving en masse toward cities, which couldn’t sustain them. This has resulted not only in the horror of war, but also in a global immigration crisis, as rich countries in the North refuse to take in the immigrants whose lives we’ve ruined with our profligate fossil fuel use.
The language we hear in the news about why we should not take in immigrants—why we should build a wall instead of a bigger table—has to do with scarcity. The story goes that there is not enough for all, and at worst, immigrants want to kill us to get our share, and at the very least they want to come take our jobs.
A lot of progressive people scoff at what they consider to be the stupidity of this kind of rhetoric. It’s so obviously fear-mongering for political ends. Or they’re simply bewildered by all the vicious hatred. But there is a reason why some people respond to the rhetoric. Poverty in this country is deep and real and rapidly increasing. When eighty percent of the people have access to only seven percent of the wealth, when it says right on people’s paychecks that the money they are contributing to Social Security might not be available when they grow old, it’s not hard to understand why people are afraid.
And that makes it even easier for the richest one percent to say we can’t afford to stop using fossil fuels. We can’t afford to restore ecosystems or conserve water or clean up pollution or protect wildlife because that would shut down our economy and we need more jobs. We hear that we have to choose between jobs and the environment, one or the other. The economy or the environment. One or the other.
Why should this be?
Consider the Greek word “oikos.” It means “household” or “home.” From it we get the English prefix, “eco.” So ecology means the study of our household or home. Economy means the custom or rules of our home.
Now consider the word “environment.” “Environ” means “to surround,” so the word literally means “that which surrounds us.” Isn’t it interesting that the word that white Americans decided to use to refer to the interdependent web of existence is a word that places it outside of—separate from—ourselves? The fact that we use this is a legacy of Western culture. This culture has historically understood the world in a binary, dualistic way, in which humans are atomistic individuals, separate from and in conflict with each other and nature.
And this view is the foundation of our economy system. In a college economics class, my daughter was taught, as I had been 25 years before, that economics is the study of “the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends.” In other words, scarcity is assumed to be the basic condition of an economy, so that individuals must compete with each other for what they need. Economic growth is valued above all because as long as more wealth can be generated, more will be available to all. Nature is seen as a repository of resources for humans to use. When one resource is used up, others can be substituted, so there are no limits to growth.
Now, there are at least two good ways to understand what is wrong with these traditional Western ways of thinking.
One is to look at the shape and size of our planet. It is a sphere. It is finite. So infinite economic growth is simply not possible. To behave as if it is, is suicidal.
The second is to try and stop breathing. Can you do it? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Think of how oxygen arrives in front of you.
We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. WE ARE THE EARTH AND THE EARTH IS US. There is no separation and there can be no separation. We are temporary aggregations of atoms and molecules that are continually being exchanged with those of the atmosphere; every cell in our bodies is being continually remade from the food we eat and the water we drink and the air we breathe. There is no substitute for water. There is no substitute for oxygen. There are no substitutes for the basic nutrients our bodies need.
And we can only get these through the action of healthy communities of billions of other kinds of lives. We need them to fix energy for us and cycle water and oxygen and nutrients for us.
And we need the beauty and diversity and richness of a healthy world in order to feel whole and well and happy, because we evolved in a beautiful and diverse and rich world. We will feel ill as long as the earth, that larger body of which we are part, is ill. This is the reality of interbeing.
So it is no coincidence that global economic and ecological and social catastrophe are all arriving at the same time: we are living in one single interdependent oikos, one household, with one set of rules, which we cannot transcend.
How, then, do we live here?
Well, there is a different model of economics. It’s called ecological economics. Its goal is not growth, but rather sustainability and justice. An ecological economy starts at the local level with meeting people’s basic human needs: food, shelter, water, health care, education, meaningful work, safety, beauty. Each local community finds ways of providing for its citizens’ needs that sustain the supporting ecosystem. Only when there is a surplus does one community trade with another. Larger national and international economies develop then as communities of communities, partnerships of partnerships.
Ecological economists—the only economists who accurately predicted the economic meltdown of 2008—have written volumes on specific policies that would convert our failing, unjust, growth-based economy to a healthy, just, steady-state one.
So then the question becomes, if there is a different model available, and we know how to implement it, then what on EARTH are we doing trying to keep a growth economy going when it is killing us all? What keeps us in its thrall? Why do those of us who are not super-rich keep working so hard, and making wars, to protect the interests of the wealthiest one percent?
One word: fear. The current model says scarcity is the basic condition of life. Scarcity. How does that word feel inside your body? Is there a tightening of your chest, a drop in your stomach, an acceleration of your heart? If I say resources are scarce, do you think people will share with you? Or do you want to run right out and grab all you can for yourself and your family?
This is a model grounded in fear. Fear that we are all alone, there is not enough, no one will share—and so we’ll die.
But what about the word abundance? What if I say, there is plenty for all? How does that feel inside your body? Is there some loosening, some relaxing?
Because there really is plenty for all, if we will just share. When we are willing to live within limits, and not take more than what we need, there is plenty for everyone. So the next question is, how do we learn to live in faith that there is enough? How do we calm our fears? How do those of us with wealth release our attachments to it? And how do those of us who live in poverty find the courage to stand up for what we need?
These are some of the central questions addressed by every religion of the world. And every religion of the world says similar things. One of these is that, for those people who have more things and money than we need, a really good way to release our attachments to them, is to release the things and money. Give them away. The less surplus we have, the more simply we live, the freer we are from attachment and fear. I have a friend from Grenada who tells me that her brother is a wealthy man who owns many things. He worries constantly that someone will break into his house and steal everything. But my friend owns very little. She leaves her house unlocked. She is free from worry. She is the most joyful person I know.
A second piece of wisdom from every world religion is that releasing our attachments to things does not mean we should become ascetics who revile the material world. No, in fact, the opposite is true; we should celebrate, revel in, lose ourselves in the beauty here, because simple beauty can fill us so full we need very little in the way of material things. What’s more, all the beauty we perceive, through smell and sound and sight and touch and taste, is a gift we are obligated to appreciate and participate in and share. Think of all the bread and wine Jesus and his friends ate together; think of Rumi wandering around, intoxicated by the moon; think of the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon. Think of the Buddhist meditations on the lotus blossom, the bright colors of a Hindu festival, the dancing and drumming of a Salish potlatch. In the book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes a group of Jewish men in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the men could sing beautiful arias. The other men saved their meager rations of food to give him in return for his singing. This is how deep is the human need for beauty.
Then there’s a third teaching I want to share, from Unitarian Universalism. To understand it, let’s return to the question of fear—that fear of scarcity we need to calm if we are to learn to live sustainably and joyfully on earth. And also that fear of what might happen to us if we claim our power and stand up for what we need.
Nineteenth century Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou said that fear—the kind of fear that keeps us from becoming our best selves—is located in the body. Ballou believed this fear stemmed from the religious understanding, prevalent in his time, that God’s love was scarce, and only the elect would be saved. He countered that fear with the idea of universal salvation, the idea that God’s love is so abundant that all are saved. We have transmuted this to the teaching that every person has inherent worth and dignity, that all are equally worthy of love. But what of the fear that still resides in our bodies? Contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, in their book A House for Hope, remind us that religious community offers us experiences of beauty that train our bodies out of fear and into love. When we come together in community to experience beauty through ritual and ceremony, through song and dance, through shared food and drink, we are training our bodies to share with each other, to trust one another, to trust in a larger love that holds us all. If we do this well, our fallback behavior during adversity becomes courageous, creative love. If we are threatened with violence, we meet it with love. If we are threatened with scarcity, we find ways to create abundance.
And so here we are today, sharing the bounty of the earth. Here we are, filling ourselves with the beauty of all these fruits and flowers and vegetables, the beauty of our singing, the beauty of all these loving faces. In this way do we begin to restore the covenant between ourselves and the source of life. In this way do we begin to make the communion of eating available to all. In this way do we begin to create the life abundant.
May it be so. Blessed be.
For further reading/viewing:
Buehrens, John, and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2011. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. Beacon Press.
Cobb, John B. Jr. 2007. Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Kaza, Stephanie, ed. 2005. Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. 2000, Fortress Press. (An extremely clear and simple explanation of ecological economics from a Christian theologian.)