A New Heaven and a New Earth

So why isn’t technology helping to increase our sustainability? Because technology never was the problem. Our problem lies much deeper: at the level of worldview. That is, what we value, and how we order our hierarchy of values. Technology simply enables us to get what we want, but it doesn’t help us to want what we ought. We need a worldview that recognises that the cost of a product is not just the money you pay for it, but also the ecological and social cost of production, consumption, and waste. Economics (another tool) can tell us what to produce, how to produce it, and to whom to distribute it, but it cannot answer the more fundamental questions: how much should we produce? How much is enough? Fundamentally, what is the good life?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is very helpful in understanding how a society can become so wickedly complacent. In After Ten Years, he asks “how could they [the Nazi public] let it happen? His answer is dummheid, or moral stupor. Dummheid, Bonhoeffer says, is more dangerous than malice, because it bypasses reason.[2] It is not a psychological phenomenon, but a sociological one. Few people achieve that level of evil alone – you become morally blind in a group:

Under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

The dumm person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.

We are these people. We have believed the lie of technological salvation, and have preferred to think that our responsibility extends only as far as we can see and touch.

Breaking out of this paradigm requires moral creativity – a reimagining of the world as it should be. The I have a dream concept. We need a compelling narrative, and secular leaders are realising that we don’t have one. Like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, we know what we are against, but we cannot even imagine an alternative. This worries theorists: I hear them talking about it at conferences. And yet this is what the church does best: reimagining the world as it should be. Through the ages, Christians catalysed the moral evolution of society: human rights, the abolition of slavery, the SPCA, public healthcare, humanitarian aid, education. But this is precisely because the church has a why: a story, a reason, a purpose. The ‘why’ is what people buy into. The plan – the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ – are secondary: they serve the vision of why it matters. Secular philosophy is at a loss when it comes to the ultimate why questions. As such, sustainable consumption is a deeply theological problem. This is where the church needs to be, although it isn’t where we are.[1]

Liberating Questions

So here are some uncomfortable questions. Although they are not meant to be taken as personal accusations, we do need to take them personally: not for a guilt-trip, but to become just and gentle consumers. These questions apply to me as much as to anyone. Try to let them filter into the why, rather than just the what.

What kind of business are you in? Is your goal to promote consumption? Are you really, really helping, or just making money and trying not to think about it too much? We need good people in essential industries such as mining. But we need good people who think about what they are doing. A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business, as Henry Ford said. How do you value monetary wealth in comparison with social and environmental factors? The clothing brand Patagonia’s financial goal is to not grow. Their sale labels read “Don’t buy this jacket”:

We ask our customers to think twice before you buy a jacket from us. Do you need it, or are you just bored? … Since corporations run the government, if you want to change the government, you have to change the corporations. If you want to change the corporations, change the consumers.

-Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder

Do you really need water bottled in a factory and driven by truck from the Cape, or flown in from Switzerland or wherever? You may as well rev your car and drink tap water. When you throw that piece of Norwegian Woollies Salmon away, do you think about what it cost to get it into your dustbin?

GMO-free food. The science against GMO’s is dubious to say the least. But more than that, is it not morally dubious to grow more exclusive food – food that it is too expensive for most of the world’s malnourished population? I’m just as much for ‘sticking it to The Man’ (Monsanto or whoever), not killing bees with pesticides, etc. But that is a different issue to growing more nourishing, affordable GM-crops[3]. Is supporting the non-GM movement the neighbourly thing to do?

What about only buying socially and ecologically responsible coffee (if there is such a thing)? The slave trade was driven largely by the West’s appetite for sugar. Is what we are doing for coffee any different? Do you know what the living conditions of the man who farmed your coffee is like? Your tuna might be dolphin friendly, but is it tuna friendly? I’m not a vegetarian, but a friend of mine gave up tuna for this exact reason while he was a student. He also gave up beef and chicken. He seems healthy to me.

What would it look like to not buy ‘affordable’ Chinese clothes and shoes? You would have fewer clothes and less variety. There would be some things that you could not afford or that are not available. Can you even imagine living like that? I know this girl (a graphic design student) wears the same dress every day. She doesn’t make a big fuss about it, but it does ask a deep question. (You can check how ethical your favourite brands are here and here. And yes, there’s an app for that.)

How much hot water do you really need? When you let the tap run for a while, do you think about the purification and pumping needed just so that you can wash it down the drain? What about that coal-fired electric heat? One year I gave up hot water for Lent, as a dare from a friend. Admittedly, it was a stretch. But I realised how much I really need: a lot less. (Not that I always remember.) Japan is one of the most efficient countries in the world. After Fukushima, they switched off 30% of their (nuclear) electricity generating capacity. The economy didn’t shut down. If one of the most efficient societies in the world could reduce their demand by 30% voluntarily, can you imagine what we can do?

“Greener” technologies are more expensive, but is that your only consideration? Will you only consider solar electricity or a hybrid car when it’s cheaper than the fossil fuel alternative? The reason solar panels are becoming cheaper is that that’s exactly what the German government didn’t do. Germans voted for them, because to them it is more than cheap sentiment. They were willing to spend their money on it.

What are your criteria for buying your electronics? Price and features? Where does the copper and tantalum in our smartphones come from? Places like the DRC, where 5.4 million people were killed in the late 90’s due to resource wars, feeding the West’s insatiable appetite for these metals. It’s called the resource curse. Can you even imagine 5.4 million people, or do you just skip over the long numbers? What will we be doing with the money we save on the cheaper phone anyway – buy more electronics?

Another sensitive one: international travel. I love it. Sometimes I can afford it. But do future generations have voting rights on this? Careful now – do you dismiss this as too extreme? Under what conditions would you consider not going on that affordable overseas holiday? I know this (European) academic who had to chance to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Iguaçu Falls in South America for a conference on the environment. She loves international adventure travel, but declined. It would be selfish, she said.

How do you invest your money? Unit trusts, Electronically Traded Funds, with an investment house, or maybe at the bank? How do these places make our money grow? They buy government bonds, gold, or invest it on the stock market, in companies. Which companies? All sorts of companies, but mostly companies that are doing well. Which companies are doing well? On the JSE, BAT is (mostly) best. British American Tobacco. So chances are that we are investing in BAT. We are helping them grow, and turning a profit from their sales, and calling it “responsible investing”. So, are we willing to invest in companies with lower returns, or are all other considerations secondary to profit?[4] If you could invest in an 18th century slavery company, would you do it? Great profit. What’s the difference?

I realise that we still live in a fossil-fuel world, and we have to get to work somehow. There aren’t enough caves for all of us to go live in, and frankly, I don’t think that we are meant to do so. But it may be helpful to examine our idea of utopia. What is our idea of the good life? How much of what is enough? Maybe we need to imagine a new heaven to get a new earth.


[1] Irony abounds here. Ecotheology has actually been around for a while now. It is just that the vast majority of Western Christians are oblivious to it. They are still fighting the Catholics, or fighting about Genesis 1, or worrying about whether they will really be going to heaven when they die, or praying for the ‘blessing’ of God – which usually means the ability to consume more stuff.

Furthermore, it is the religious right who are the greatest obstacle at this critical juncture. It is no secret that climate denialism is a peculiarity found almost exclusively in Republican politics. In so doing, they are rendering themselves largely irrelevant to life in the real world – a fact not lost on the very people they are trying to reach.

[2] For my Reformed brothers out there, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and did have a strong view of human depravity, which makes his remarks all the more interesting.

[3] There is no food you can eat that is not genetically modified. That is what farmers have been doing for centuries.

[4] This doesn’t have to be the case, since sustainability seems to be profitable too.