Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Let Justice Roll Down...


Waterfall
Originally uploaded by paynehollow.
Okay, so the Baptists have had a week now of silliness. How 'bout a serious post?

I've been reading Bill McKibben's book, Deep Economy and find it to be speaking Truth. The book is a critique of consumerism. McKibben suggests (and documents pretty well) that our hyperconsumerism we experience in the Wealthy West is not working.

It's resulting, McKibben says, in unjust systems and environmental degradation. But aside from that, it's not even working to make we wealthy folk contented.

In one part, McKibben takes on NAFTA, saying:

NAFTA was supposed to “rationalize” agriculture, as, in a sense, it has. Great floods of subsidized corn grown in factory farms across the Midwest have “washed away 1.3 million small farmers in Mexico,” according to Michael Pollan. Mexican farmers can grow corn for 4 cents a pound, compared with the 6 cents a pound it costs to grow on American farms, but government subsidies bring our price down to 3 cents a pound, thereby setting world price, wrecking the Mexican countryside, and enriching firms like Archer Daniels Midland.

“Unable to compete, they have left their land to join the swelling pools of Mexico’s urban unemployed,” reports Pollan. “Others migrate to the US to pick our crops – former farmers become day laborers.” The small farmers forced off their land sell out to larger farmers, who, adopting the industrial agricultural practices of the north, use far more water and chemicals.

“Mexico’s scarce water resources are leaching north, one tomato at a time,” Pollan says. “It’s absurd for a country like Mexico – whose people are often hungry – to use its best land to grow produce for a country where food is so abundant that its people are obese – but under free trade, it makes economic sense.”


I read such passages and find myself reminded of the repeated and repeated warnings of the Bible against the dangers of wealth, oppressive economic systems and unjust measures.

Micah, for instance, says:

You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

Hark! the LORD cries to the city. (It is wisdom to fear your name!) Hear, O tribe and city council, you whose rich men are full of violence, whose inhabitants speak falsehood with deceitful tongues in their heads!

Am I to bear any longer criminal hoarding and the meager ephah that is accursed? Shall I acquit criminal balances, bags of false weights?

~Micah 6:8-11


What say you? Are our economic systems that serve us so well (as in, making us able to hyper-consume) bankrupt from a moral, biblical, environmental and equity viewpoint?

11 comments:

John Meunier said...

Yes, our economic system is bankrupt.

But so is every other economic system.

I think sometimes people only hear the first statement when Christians criticize capitalism. This happened in my Bible study group and it took a great deal of back and forth to finally explain that I wasn't saying capitalism is unique in its failures. Every economic system falls short of the glory of God.

I wonder what kind of economy the Kingdom of God will have.

Lorna (see through faith) said...

In a word YES

the question is - what are we - you and I being asked by God to do about it!

Dan Trabue said...

I would think that opposition to materialism/hyperconsumption would be one area where left/right/moderate, Muslim/Jew/Christian/atheistic/pagans could all join together.

We nearly all recognize the negatives of materialism and its clear denunciation in the Bible and yet, these are often the unspoken passages on Sunday mornings. Why is that?

Could it be that, as the Bible warns us, wealth is a trap? It's seductive and easily justified when it's OUR consumption we're talking about?

Good question, Lorna - What ARE we being asked to do about it?

Jeff the Baptist said...

Is our economic system flawed? Of course it is, it is full of flawed people. As John Meunier pointed out, it is hardly unique as every other economic system has the same problem.

Economics in a capitalist system is peculiarly honest about this. Western economics is based on the model of the individual as a selfish consumer. The problem is that some people have taken the selfish consumer as some sort of ideal state instead of an unfortunately accurate description of reality.

McKibben's statements fill me with skepticism though. Honestly, I can't believe we subsidize half our agricultural costs away. That would have to be a huge amount of money. But I suppose we're spending $40 billion on subsidies so maybe it's true.

Dan Trabue said...

I don't know for sure if we're subsidizing our food costs by half, but we subsidize a lot. Some sources can be found here, here and here.

This is one of the reasons that Big Oil and Big Agribusiness are two of the major contributors to both parties - and especially to the republicans, who do so much to take care of their needs.

If we're going to end welfare, let it begin with these two sources first and foremost (but not in ways that hurt actual farmers - as opposed to giant agribusinesses).

Jeff the Baptist said...

Ah, reading your second link explained a lot. Essentially the US has structured our farm subsidies so that the agricultural industry always breaks even on the US market alone. This means that the export markets like Mexico are pure profit and we can dump our excess agricultural capacity there for pennies.

Larry B said...

"Are our economic systems that serve us so well (as in, making us able to hyper-consume) bankrupt from a moral, biblical, environmental and equity viewpoint?"

This kind of statement drives me batty. Thankfully Jeff the Baptist expressed the overriding point.

Adding my own thoughts to echo Jeffs:

Systems are not soulful entites - they have no such thing as morality or equity. Systems reflect the participation of the people within it. Pick any economic system and put only good persons who commit no harm and no sin in that system and there won't be the types of problems like equity and environmental concerns and it will work fine.

These problems are born from the depravity of the human beings participating in the system. When the church turns it's energy towards reforming a system it's, in my opinion, missing the point. Worry about the state of the individuals within the system and the system will correct itself from there no matter what system you choose.

Incidentally it's not just the "Wealthy West" causing harm to the environment. Witness China's awful environmental and human rights record and they have yet to hit the full on consumerism of the west.

Dan Trabue said...

1. No one said the "wealthy west" were the only ones causing environmental degradation.

2. China trying to emulate the wealthy west DOES indeed make things worse.

3. The fact is, not everyone CAN live like we do. Our lifestyles would require several planets' worth of resources to sustain for 6 billion people - much less 7, 8 or 10 billion people (the population will be approaching that number by 2050, according to the census bureau).

4. Increasingly, largely because our advertisers do their job so well, people DO want to live like us. China and India are increasing their consumption incredibly.

5. Obviously no economic system is perfect. I'd prefer some version of regulated and reasonable capitalism over most systems of which I know. But certainly not an unfettered capitalism - that will destroy us as surely as a communist tyrant intent on world domination would.

6. Jesus and the prophets criticized economic and societal systems roundly. If a system is unjust - and systems WILL be unjust - we ought to advocate changes.

This was not intended as a "bash America" post - which I know some people perceive anytime we start talking about economic systems and their shortfallings (as John Meunier noted). This was referencing prophetic-style warnings against unjust systems and looking at what we could do to more closely live up to that Golden Rule.

Stephen said...

Ouch, don't let JtM know you posted this on Locusts and Honey. :)

On a serious side, the Pope made an interesting remark in his visit to Latin America where he critiqued Liberation Theology as Marxism. (not exactly true, but nevertheless) However, in his same speech he critiqued Capitalism. So I still want to know what idea the Pope has that works between these two, or do we always hold these things in tension.

Dan Trabue said...

Earlier, John M. asked:

I wonder what kind of economy the Kingdom of God will have?

Do you think we might find glimpses of that Kingdom in Jesus' practices? The early church model? Or in Israel's ideals (Jubilee Laws, Sabbath Laws, etc)?

Larry B said...

1. No one said the "wealthy west" were the only ones causing environmental degradation.

My apologies, I was just responding to the summary of Mckibben in the original post - "McKibben suggests (and documents pretty well) that our hyperconsumerism we experience in the Wealthy West is not working.
It's resulting, McKibben says, in unjust systems and environmental degradation"

The way that was worded, I thought that's what McKibben was concluding in that gramatically, the It's in the above statment is a direct reference to Wealthy West, and he doesn't seem to make any allowance for any other possible causes.

2,3,4: That's a bit of egocentric viewpoint to think that China want's to emulate the West. Individual greed when given the chance for expression is the same no matter where it exists. It's not a matter of imitating anyone. The loosening of economic restrictions in China has merely given expression to the greed that lies within everyone. I fail to see how that is a longing to be like the west.

6. Jesus and the prophets criticized economic and societal systems roundly. If a system is unjust - and systems WILL be unjust - we ought to advocate changes.

I don't understand this statement either. The study of economics as a system is a relatively new development (1700's). The term economy is a modern term that we use retroactively when studying past civilizations, the civilizations themselves weren't using system level concepts like those found in economics to describe their economies. The Roman economy at the time of Jesus was very simple (agrarian economy with slavery) compared to the modern complex systems that exist today. How is it that Jesus and the prophets made criticisms of "economic systems" when that concept didn't even exist back then.

I thought his criticisms where leveled at individuals and their treatment of other individuals.