“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. [True compassion] comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” That statement is from Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a renowned address given at the Riverside Church, New York City, on April 4, 1967. I will use it to introduce “Economy, Equity, Ecology: Green Discipleship.” Given corporate corruption and growing inequality, the subordination of truth to “spin” in both advertising and politics, reckless foreign adventuresomeness and lack of any strong moral leadership in Washington, we are in need of persons who bring religious and moral substance to the day’s grave issues.
“A Time to Break Silence” is remembered for its anti-Vietnam war stand. Those of us present had no inkling that exactly one year later King would be felled in Memphis by the violence he abhorred. Typically we do not remember that King’s attention was turning more and more to economic equality and the restructuring required to address poverty and constrain wealth—the subject of the opening quotation. Our memories stop with the stirring strains of “I Have a Dream;” thus we forget that following the Watts riots King turned from the formal equality of constitutional rights (chiefly the franchise) to the material conditions of black people and economic justice, without which all talk of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was “nothing but a figment of one’s political imagination.”1 Likewise, we forget his sequel to “I Have a Dream.” After Watts, and as King moved north to Chicago, he spoke more like Malcolm X and talked, not of the American dream, but the American nightmare. “America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he said at Riverside as he linked, for the first time, the violence of war to the violence of racism and poverty. Yet those of us present forgot the very first reason he gave for opposing the war:
And while the war was “destroying the soul of our nation” for other reasons as well, King never let up, from this time forward, on poverty as a defining material and moral issue. “A nation that spends $500,000 to kill one enemy . . . and only $50 to get one of its own citizens out of poverty is a nation that will be destroyed by its own moral contradictions,” he said, adding, apocalyptically, “if something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.”3
Already, then, King has introduced two of our topics, “economy” and “equity” (fairness, justice), and linked them to the high costs of war and errant U.S. foreign policy.
King extended our opening quotation in his presidential address at the SCLC’s 10th anniversary celebration. “We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society,” he said. “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. ‘Who owns the oil?’ ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?”4
What about the oil, the water, and the ore? James Cone documents how King’s mid-‘60s turn to economic issues deepened his global vision and connections. The sociopolitical and economic freedom of blacks in the U.S. cannot be divorced from the fate of brothers and sisters in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Yet that, too, rang out in the Riverside Church almost 40 years ago. We just don’t remember it. Or perhaps you do, since those stirring words brought the audience to its feet and were widely reported: “Somehow this madness must cease,” King preached. “We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The great initiative to stop it must be ours.”5
Thus had King taken the campaign beyond civil rights to economic inequality, foreign policy, and oppression abroad. In an historic meeting with Lyndon Johnson, he told the President that the Voting Rights Act had addressed political disenfranchisement and now it was time to address economic disenfranchisement. The struggle had gone north in the process, to Chicago, “home to the world’s largest public-housing complex and two of the poorest census tracts in the country.”6 Six months of “bruising marches” ensued, together with “fruitless exchanges with Chicago’s real-estate and education boards.”7King was unsuccessful in breeching class in America, that hallowed divide observed by both South and North. As The New Yorker put it, “King had begun to perceive that society tends to confine its indignation to injustices that can be attenuated without imperiling fundamental economic relationships.”8 He was nonetheless determined that now “our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” as he told the crowd in Memphis, which had gathered to support the strike of Black sanitation workers. Poverty was the reality and the affliction and the struggle was taken up in Tennessee specifically so that “Memphis will see the poor.”9
As we all know, it was King’s last campaign. The fatal shot rang out on April 4, 1968, as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine motel. It would be his widow, Coretta Scott King, who would stand in for him at the Poor People’s March in Washington. The Riverside Church call to a great nation to live up to its creed and be rid of racism, war, and greed had been rejected as anything more than a dream. Indeed, most of us present had even forgotten that he had joined the three. The refusal to face economic disparities and injustice runs very deep in American society.
Nor do we remember that Martin Luther King was one of the great “ecological” thinkers of the twentieth century, as seen in his thinking about global socialecology. His last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?; was published the year he was assassinated, 1968. Its concluding essay is entitled “The World House.” This is how it begins:
In the very next paragraph he says, “[Formal] equality with whites will not solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.”11 The following pages are, for that era, a rather remarkable description of globalization processes that render us all neighbors, via what he calls “neo-colonialism” as an alliance of “racism” and “economic exploitation.”12 His conclusions, however, underscore dimensions of globalization that are not strictly material.
That is almost the book’s end, but not quite. Its penultimate page includes a passage that was also a part of the Riverside address: “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” And the very last lines of the very last page are these: “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”14
That was spoken 40 years ago. You may alter the language and nuance the analysis but it is remarkably prescient for this new and already weary millennium as well. I cite King because we both honor him in January and annually forget him. I cite him chiefly, however, because he has forcefully introduced all three topics: “Economy, Equity, Ecology.” I will say more to “ecology” than he did, and I will use “green discipleship” to address what he named the moral substance and “revolution in values” needed to keep the world house from destruction. We take each topic in turn.
Economy. Rosabeth Moss Kanter is an ardent devotee, not foe, of global capitalism. Harvard Business School professors are like that. So you understand why I leaned forward and squinted when I saw her op-ed piece, “Poverty: Capitalism’s Powder Keg.” She ticks off recent events—riots in France where young North Africans said they just wanted jobs and inclusion; the Summit in Argentine where crowds booed Bush while Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela all said “no!” to the U.S.-desired Free Trade Area of the Americas; and riots in Bolivia where the poor demanded nationalization of the oil and gas companies and brought down the government. She then identifies the common thread as discontent among poor people left behind by global capitalism. She underscores Latin American unrest especially, the region with the world’s largest disparities between rich and poor and an unemployment rate among the young that hovers around 20 percent. Because of security concerns, Moss Kanter herself had to be ferried by helicopter and guards in her consulting work for big companies in Sao Paulo. Prior to this op-ed piece she had addressed the Davos gathering of corporate and political elite at the 1995 World Economic Forum, where this elite was proudly trumpeting the worldwide victories of capitalism. Moss Kanter told them that capitalism’s triumph would be short-lived if business and political leaders did not pay attention to the social needs of the global poor and help close the gap between top and bottom. While she went on to praise the efforts of some large companies, she finished her op-ed piece with this: “Believers in a free-market economy (and I’m among them) had better be prepared to do even more to help lift the poor out of misery. Otherwise, markets will not be free enough or our cities safe enough, for any of us. . . . For all the talk of a flat world with a level playing field, the world still seems pretty lumpy to me. When those at the bottom of the hill get tired of being trampled, they can easily erupt.”15
My interest is not in Moss Kanter’s worries about effective markets and security but in her recognition that the systemic logic of global corporate capitalism generates both wealth and poverty and that, unless otherwise attended to and altered, creates its own powder keg of poverty and its violence. She might have said, but didn’t, that it was ever thus and that all modern socialisms, including religious socialisms, arose as reform responses to the blatant socio-economic injustices of capitalism. Socialism may or may not be back—Latin America is astir here. But if not socialism, then some other reform movement that confronts the desperations of poverty must take leadership.
This, then, is the first issue for green discipleship: how to address obscene poverty and obscene wealth in a world powered by turbo-capitalism on a global scale.
The second issue is present by its absence in Moss Kanter’s analysis, and in the analysis of most every other economics or business professor at Harvard. If you want to hear very smart people say silly things to a rapt audience of people who will later translate these silly things into bad policy, you need to go to places like Harvard. Likewise, if you want to find very smart people not saying anything at all about the most important things, you can also visit the “Ivies.” Take Moss Kanter’s colleague, Harvard professor of economics Benjamin Friedman. His new work is The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. He makes one valid point after another about the relationship of economic growth and social advancement. (Or, to borrow from Jimmy Carter’s new book, Our Endangered Values, he ably explains why “a rising tide lifts all yachts.”) But when we finish, we haven’t heard a mumblin’ word about the relationship of the big economy of global corporate capitalism to the great economy upon which it is totally dependent and in which it is inextricably embedded, namely, Earth’s economy. Friedman can worry about economic growth without mentioning Martin Luther King’s oil, ore, or water and without any attention whatsoever to habitat, sustainable living space, or a warming atmosphere. Your children and grandchildren will be baffled with the trained incapacity of the likes of Moss Kanter and Friedman to see the huge, grinding mismatch between the Big Economy (the present globalizing human economy) and the Great Economy (the economy of nature). Human economies and the rest of nature’s are forever entwined, and your kids will wonder what economic brilliance forgot to notice that economic growth in industrial capitalist and socialist forms has yet to show it is not destructive of its own foundations. How can you write a book entitled The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth and fail to recognize that Earth’s economy is the first and sustaining condition of our existence and the existence of all other life? Doesn’t its well-being belong to the moral universe of economics and economic growth? How can you talk about the global economy and omit the planet and its economy?
This, then, is the second issue for green discipleship, the utter embeddedness of the human economy in the great economy, Earth’s. But, of course, it ratchets up our quandary: how do we close, in the context of global corporate capitalism and its inherent expansionism, the gap between rich and poor persons while simultaneously meeting the rest of nature’s own requirements for its own regeneration on its own non-negotiable terms? This is a requisite that Moss Kanter and Friedman’s capitalism theoretically might meet, but to date emphatically has not. With the possible exception of, say, the Scandinavians and the Dutch, we are still pretty much where we were, not only with King 40 years ago, but with Frederick Engels more than 150 years ago. Here is what Engels said: “To make the earth an object of huckstering—the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence—was the last step toward making oneself an object of huckstering … It was and is to this day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation—the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life—yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth.”16 In different words, how do we extend King’s vision of living together in the “World House” so as to understand that this world house, Habitat Earth, necessarily includes the whole Community of Life? There are good reasons why economics, ecology, and ecumenics all share the same root, oikos, itself the Greek word for house and household. Let’s turn for a moment specifically to ecology.
Ecology. First, we will visit the work of those who measure ecological footprints, and then the tomes of Jared Diamond.
Canadians William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel have pioneered a scientific means for measuring the local, regional, national, continental, and global impact of human economies on nature. These human impacts are called “ecological footprints,” and these footprint analyses tally ecological assets and ecological deficits for designated areas. What is measured is “the size of the human enterprise compared to the biosphere, and to what extent humanity is in ecological overshoot. Overshoot is possible in the short-term because humanity can liquidate its ecological capital rather than living off annual yields.”17 In short, we can now give scientific specificity to the meaning of sustainability and non-sustainability for any given portion of the globe by comparing actual demand to the “biocapacity” of the region. I commend this resource to you, “Global Footprint Network,” at www.footprintnetwork.org. In that way you can readily include what economists and the world of business conveniently omit. You can secure a more accurate picture of human economies than, say, The Wall Street Journal’s. I will not go into the details of selected regions, cities, or nations. I only report a single “macro” datum. Midway between 1981 and 1991 worlddemand crossed the threshold from sustainability to unsustainability. In 1961 world demand was half of the world’s biocapacity. Around 1985-86 they were a match. But in 2002 we were living at 1.2 times the biocapacity of the Earth, and that number is steadily rising. In short, we’re using up indispensable capital rather than living off yield. Differently said, King’s “World House” is in ecological deficit. The kind of basic restructuring King said was necessary for U.S. society in order to address poverty, is equally necessary for global capitalism. But now it must address poverty together with restoration of the health of the biosphere and atmosphere it depends upon utterly.
This brings us to Jared Diamond. Diamond’s first investigation, Guns, Germs, and Steel, was provoked by a Papuan New Guinea friend who asked, “Why does the white man have so much cargo, and we do not?’ Diamond knew the answer was not in native intelligence or genes. So he set off to explain the inequality and inequity of our world. The role of geography (or “environment”) and history is key, he concluded, as these play out in the domestication of plants and animals and with “guns, germs, and steel” as the three great modes of conquest of territories and peoples. This explains the advantages some societies and civilizations had and why they rose and ruled at the expense of others. But what explains why so many fell? More poignantly, why did so many fall near the height of their power and numbers, and often rather quickly? That query led to Diamond’s second magnum opus, Collapse. I turn to it because, unlike most works in economics and business, it always has the complex and dynamic interrelationship of economy, equity, and environment in view. I also turn to it because Diamond’s own quest is fundamentally moral; he wants to know what lessons of history will help us learn how to sustain Earth’s economy in the very course of overcoming the insecurity and destructiveness of a world cleaved by haves and have nots. “Green discipleship” is my odd term for this moral endeavor, though it means to address people of faith in particular. “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” is Diamond’s.18
In the remaining space, I will do two things: list the factors Diamond investigates to explain why societies fail or succeed, and make comments relevant to our specific discussion.
But first, by “collapse,” Diamond means “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economy/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.”19 “Collapse” is an extreme form of extended decline.
In all cases of collapse, degraded environments, usually “unintended ecological suicide,”20 is a, though not always the factor, whether we cite an ancient civilization such as the Mayan, or recent collapses such as the Soviet Union. There are eight processes by which people have undermined the biological capacity on which they depend: “deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, over-hunting, over-fishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact of people.”21
To these eight, present in some combination in past collapses, Diamond adds four that are new because they are products of modernity itself, i.e., products of the age of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. These four are human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.22 Diamond’s conclusion is that nearly all twelve of these will be “globally critical within the next few decades: either we solve the problems by then, or the problems will undermine [both Two-Third’s World and] First World societies.”23 He doesn’t foresee the doomsday scenarios that make Hollywood blockbusters—say, the apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilizations or the extinction of the human species. More likely is “a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources.”24 Diamond is not a determinist. Societies’ choices issued in collapse or recovery in the past, and still do today, and, as mentioned, his whole purpose in writing is to learn how to overcome the inequalities and inequities and degradation that led to collapse. In that connection, I pass along his framework for assessing societies’ responses. What societies do about the following five contributing factors to demise or resilience sets their course.
We have already noted the one he finds present in every case: namely, [self-generated] environmental damage. The others are: climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and societies’ responses to their environmental problems. (The book uses the factors of this framework to investigate societies such as present-day Montana and Southern California to Norse Greenland to Easter Island, the ancient Puebloan peoples of the Southwest U.S., Rwanda, The Dominican Republic and Haiti, China, Australia, and the Netherlands.) The sober bottom line is this: no present society has sufficiently addressed the complex of our twelve factors. This, then, aligns Diamond’s conclusion with that of the Global Footprint Network: “[o]ur world society is presently on a non-sustainable course.”25 This non-sustainable course will get “resolved” one way or another, Diamond says. “The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of those grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability.”26 Finally, if anyone in Diamond’s studies gets the nod of approval, it’s the Dutch. And the reason? Because they realize better than most that the whole world is now a “polder.” “Polders” are the below-sea-level lands that the Dutch have been reclaiming for a millennium. There is a Dutch saying that goes like this: “You have to be able to get along with your enemy, because he may be the person operating the neighboring pump in your polder.” The person who passed that along to Diamond went on to say: “And we’re all down in the polders together. It’s not the case that rich people live safely up on the tops of the dikes while poor people live down in the polder bottoms below sea level. If the dikes and pumps fail, we’ll all drown together.” He continues, “If global warming causes polar ice melting and a world rise in sea level, the consequences will be more severe for the Netherlands than for any other country in the world, because so much of our land is already under sea level. That’s why we Dutch are so aware of our environment. We’ve learned through our history that we’re all living in the same polder, and that our survival depends on each other’s survival.”27
This is King’s “World House” and King’s global social ecology now extended to all of nature, both biosphere and atmosphere. In other words, “they” don’t live here anymore; it’s only “we.” And “we” are the Community of all Life together with its indispensable biotic envelope.
Equity. Where does this bring us? I conclude with “green discipleship” elements for Christians who live in King’s “World House” and Diamond’s “world as polder.” The focus will turn specifically to “equity” (justice and fairness) for a reason. The reason is the biblical dream for the earth; namely, the good life lived in just institutions amidst abundance for both peoples and the land. The dream is comprehensive community and a comprehensive common good, as the will of God and in praise of God. And that is the goal of the restructuring King sought: “the common good of an inclusive ‘Beloved Community,’” Earth’s best approximation of the coming Kingdom of God.
Four elements comprise green discipleship. St. Ambrose introduced all these elements in the fourth century together with two verses from Proverbs. Here is Ambrose: “The world has been created for all, while you rich are trying to keep it for yourselves. Not merely the possession of the earth, but the very sky, air and the sea are claimed for the use of the rich few. . . . Not from your own do you bestow on the poor man, but you make return from what is his. For what has been given as common for the use of all, you appropriate for yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not to the rich.”28 And here is the voice of Sophia wisdom in Proverbs 30: 8-9: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
The four elements follow.
Enough is Best. Christianity, together with most every religious tradition, teaches that the truly abundant life is one of self-discipline and a restraint upon the multiplication of material desires. Indeed, a joyful existence is frustrated by unrestricted material indulgence and consumerism as a way of life. “Enough is best,” rather than “more is better,” is wise on all counts, material, moral, and spiritual. But what is enough? Real poverty is not enough. It debilitates body and kills spirit. It beats people down before they can stand tall. It brutalizes cell and soul alike. An economy that has the resources to meet basic human needs and the needs of Earth’s economy, and does not do so, fails the test of discipleship.
The Neighbor’s Claim. In the mid-1950s, H. Richard Niebuhr and a couple friends wrote a little treatise on The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry. I cite a passage:
In the economy of the “World House” and the world as polder, human householders are trustees of creation in a community that we have inherited and that is entrusted to us for present and future generations. For green discipleship, the neighbor is “all that participates in being.” The responsibilities we bear extend that far.
Universality and Equality. “In that which is most basic . . . the value of each life, we are all equal.”30 That root moral conviction follows from the faith conviction that God’s love is unbounded. For our topics—economy, equity, and environment—it means the following. No human group should be excluded from a reasonable share of the benefits of any human economy and nature’s, nor should any be exempted from shouldering a reasonable share of the burdens. One begins thinking about restructuring with the idea of an equal sharing benefits and burdens, and then goes on to say that economic inequalities may be justifiedif and only if they can be shown to serve the common good (instead of private interests only). This common good now is inclusive of the biosphere and atmosphere.
Checks and Balances. As a species, humans are quite “bratty.” We have been since Cain, and certainly since Homer. Green discipleship argues that a wise economic order guards against any unchecked concentrations of power and minimizes opportunities for the selfish uses of power. Evil and injustice always flow from maldistributions of power. So, while we cannot ipso facto rule out high concentrations of economic power—to build a public transportation network, to provide a needed dam and irrigation system, to keep postal and communications systems working, to address large-scale emergency needs, to provide public education for masses of people, etc.—such concentrations, whether in public or private hands, require built-in checks upon even the necessary amassing of economic and other power.31 Green discipleship’s nod to democracy is precisely because genuine democracy democratizes political, social, and economy power.
Economy, equity, ecology—rightly relating these is the substance of “green” discipleship for the years ahead. Christian faith bears its own wisdom for the task.
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1. James H. Cone, Malcolm & Martin & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 223.
2. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” from James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 232-233.
3. As cited by Cone, Malcolm & Martin & America, 240.
4. “Presidential Address,” SCLC Tenth Anniversary Celebration, 16 August 1967, Atlanta, Georgia, as cited by Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America, 224.
5. Ibid., 238.
6. David Levering Lewis, “The Mission: Martin Luther King’s final chapter,” The New Yorker, 23 & 30 January, 2006: 90.
9. From the excerpted portion of Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, in Time magazine, 9 January 2006:51.
10. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The World House,” Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 167.
11. King, Where Do We Go from Here?, 167.
12. Ibid., 173, 175.
13. Ibid., 172-173.
14. Ibid., 190, 191.
15. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Poverty: Capitalism’s Powder Keg,” Albuquerque Journal, 28 November 2005: A7.
16. Frederick Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 210, as cited in Howard Parsons, ed., Marx and Engels on Ecology (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977).
17. P. 1 or “Humanity’s Footprint 1961-2002,” available at www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=global_footprint.
18. The subtitle of Collapse.
19. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 3.
20. Ibid., 6.
21. Ibid., 6.
22. Ibid., 7.
25. Ibid., 498.
27. Ibid., 519-520.
28. St. Ambrose of Milan, De Nabuthe Jezraelita 3, 11, as cited by Rosemary Radford Reuther in “Sisters of Earth: Religious woman and ecological spirituality,”The Witness (May, 2000): 14.
29. H. Richard Niebuhr and other, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1956), 38.
30. J. Philip Wogaman, The Great Economic Debate: An Ethical Analysis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 53.
31. This text about priniciples is taken from Larry Rasmussen, “Gaining a Christian Perspective,” ch. 8 of Economic Anxiety & Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1981).