There are few air hops that will give you a greater contrast than the four-hour trip from Nairobi to Dubai.
Nairobi is the capital of one of the poorer nations in the world, the home of the infamous Kibera slum, and a textbook case of how population growth, rapid unplanned development, and massive environmental degradation result in poverty and human suffering. Flying out of Nairobi, you can see signs of distress in every direction just by looking out of the plane window.
Dubai is one of the wealthiest cities on earth. Flying into Dubai, evidence of prosperity is as obvious as the poverty of Nairobi. High-rise buildings grow out of desert sands, massive highways clog with traffic. The terminal itself is more of a shopping mall with jetways than an airport: a temple to consumerism. Every imaginable gadget, garment, and trinket is on offer at prices that may be as low as anywhere else in the world.
But there’s another way to look at these cities. Let’s rewind and put on a different set of glasses:
Nairobi is the capital of one of the richest countries on earth, home to as many species of birds, butterflies, and trees as any other biological hotspot. Wildlife proliferates on the plains: massive herds of wildebeest, buffalo, elephant, and others are so numerous that lions and other carnivores can easily eat their fill.
In contrast, the city of Dubai was built in one of the most impoverished parts of the world. There is no soil or water, nothing but sand as far as you can see. The sun that brings life to Kenya blazes unmercifully on this desert land. All Dubai has to offer is oil, the black ooze beneath the sands, the liquefied remains of a long-past period of biological wealth such as Kenya is experiencing today.
Two cities—one rich, the other poor. But which is which?
Actually, both are rich. Nairobi, poor by the standards of the human economy, is rich in terms of biodiversity, nature, or God’s creation—what I will later refer to as God’s economy. Dubai is wealthy enough when measured by the human economy, but it is utterly poverty-stricken by any biological measure. What is striking to me is how these two cities seem to offer an either/or proposition: If we want to be rich like Nairobi, it seems we have to settle for minimal wealth in human economic terms. If our choice is the wealth of Dubai, we have to give up the richness and beauty of nature. The human economy, it seems, can only thrive by destroying God’s economy, the biosphere.
Zero Sum Is the Name of the Game
We’re all familiar with the tension that seems to exist between environmental and economic values. Pick jobs or the environment, we’re told, because you can’t have both. This has played out for years in the timber versus spotted owl controversies in the northwestern United States, and it is at the forefront of every discussion regarding climate legislation in Washington DC and every other national capital around the world.
The current Great Recession has raised the topic again, albeit with a slightly different twist. A May 2009 Newsweek story carried the headline, “The Recession’s Green Lining: A global downturn is doing what activists couldn’t: closing dirty factories.” This is a dilemma that I pointed to at the beginning of the recession; at the time, I wrote:
People like me should be celebrating the current economic slowdown. Think about it! General Motors has announced a reduction in the number of new cars it will build in the first part of next year of some 250,000 units. Thousands of houses aren’t being built—and all the ‘stuff’ that would be going into those houses, from wiring to new appliances, isn’t being manufactured. Stores in every mall and shopping center are loaded with merchandise they can hardly give away, and so factories around the world are no longer making the stuff the stores would be ordering to fill the empty shelves back up. It is as if everyone in the country was suddenly listening to our mantra—“Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!” The economist’s nightmare is the environmentalist’s dream!1
The point of the column was that few environmentalists want this dream to come true in this way. We want nature to prosper; we do not want humanity to suffer at the same time.
Economists call this a zero-sum game: a contest in which the winning and losing scores balance each other. If there is a winner, there must be a loser. But is this really a zero-sum game? Must we choose between jobs and trees, between a prosperous economy and a healthy environment? Perhaps people like theologian and environmental writer Calvin Beisner are right, and a clean environment is a “costly good.”2 Perhaps we do have to be wealthy before we care about pollution, toxic waste, or climate change; perhaps we have to be wealthy before we can afford to care.
Beisner, Newsweek, and unemployed workers from Detroit to Calcutta to Shanghai are correct: the economy, as it has been built and is now functioning, does force us to choose between environment and prosperity. As things now stand, we cannot have the wealth of Dubai and the richness of Nairobi. They are fundamentally opposed to each other. We cannot create the consumer goods on which Dubai thrives without destroying the fabric of the biosphere that is—or was—Nairobi’s pride and joy, and most of us cannot find ways to earn the money needed to buy such goods without contributing in some way to that same process of destruction.
Wheels Without Wheels or Wheels Within Wheels?
A William Blake poem written some two hundred years ago, and brought to my attention in an essay written twenty-seven years ago by Wendell Berry, has helped me to better understand this issue. In “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion,” Blake contemplates the first wave of impact from the early industrial revolution:
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.3
The industrial revolution in Blake’s England arrived with water-driven power-looms, producing cheap cloth in enormous mills filled with wheels, cavernous factories in which men, women, and especially children slaved from morning to night. The wheels of these mills, because of the laws of physics—note Blake’s reference to Newton—drive each other by turning in opposite directions. For Blake this is an analogy for the forces driving the industrial revolution, and it remains a clever and powerful image, an image that goes to the heart of our modern, zero-sum approach to all things economic. In a factory in Blake’s day, no wheel could turn clockwise unless its neighboring wheel turned counterclockwise, and in the human economy, no one can win unless someone else loses.
This truth was at the heart of the crash in 2008 that caused our current worldwide Great Recession. Obscure and complex financial instruments called “credit default swaps” were created as a means of defeating the zero-sum game by protecting investors from losing when someone else was winning. But alas, zero-sum is woven into the fabric of the economic system and cannot be defeated so easily. These particular wheels turned out to have a momentum of their own, and instead of reducing risk, they increased it by spinning faster and faster and faster until they exploded, scattering debris throughout the entire intricate financial system, causing damage that has still not been completely identified, much less repaired.
Blake’s “wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic / Moving by compulsion each other” is also the explanation for the Dubai–Nairobi tension that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Industrial wheels not only move in opposition to each other, they necessarily move in opposition to the wheels of creation. On further reflection, it is really not at all surprising that a Dubai can grow most easily in the desert where nature is already diminished, and a Nairobi can only flourish by destroying her own biological wealth in a desperate attempt to emulate Dubai.
Environmental thinker and writer Paul Hawken captured this recently in an address to students at the University of Portland:
Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating.4
What is to be done? Must we live with a system inherently opposed to the natural world on which it depends and within which it functions? Is this zero-sum, wheels-against-wheels system necessary? Is it sustainable?
Cue Wendell Berry:
Against the satanic “wheel without wheel,” Blake set the wheels of Eden, which “Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve, in harmony and peace.” This is the “wheel in the middle of a wheel” of Ezekiel’s vision, and it is an image of harmony. That the relation of these wheels is not mechanical we know from Ezekiel 1:21: “the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.”5
Berry’s dream is that we might learn how to run our little human economy within the framework of God’s “great economy,”6 that we might learn to live in harmony with rather than in opposition to the world of nature. Running the human economy in opposition to God’s great economy is an overriding zero-sum game that we cannot win.
As Blake forsaw, and as we now know, what we turn against must turn against us. Blake’s image of the cogwheels turning in relentless opposition is terrifyingly apt, for in our vaunted war against nature, nature fights back.7
And, we might add, nature always wins.
A New Beginning
This reality is starting to sink in. Engineers today are quickly moving forward with the development of what is called bio-mimicry, the imitation of nature as a means of solving all kinds of challenges in manufacturing, design, energy use, and production. A classic work in this area is Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which has since been followed by many others.8 It is possible, these authors tell us because they have done it, to rethink a chemical factory to the point where the water coming out of the plant is cleaner than the water going in. And at the community level, Natural Step and organizations like the Community Resilience Project are working to figure out how to design strong and sustainable communities. Interestingly, one of the first communities in North America to attempt to implement Natural Step’s comprehensive framework approach to sustainability is Whistler, BC, one of the homes of the just finished 2010 Winter Olympics. And businesses from Walmart to local restaurants are learning to work with a triple bottom line: People, planet, profit. Yes, in many ways things are beginning to change.
What Berry is calling us to, however, is bigger, much bigger: he would have us design our whole economy in imitation of, or at least in harmony with, the whole biosphere, so that it is a system where every part is in balance with every other part, a system where there is no waste and where all is healthy and harmonious but also a system with a spiritual and relational center—“the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.”
Berry’s dream raises difficult questions. What would such an economy look like? How would we get there? Where would we even start?
I suggest that it might look something like this:
First, this new economy should nurture biological life in every form and in every way possible. The entire human enterprise rests on a very small foundation: “six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” As much as we would like to rise above this fact, we are biological creatures and our own survival and prosperity depends on this foundation. All creatures, from the microbes in our soil to the great carnivores in the jungles, contribute to and are necessary for our existence. The only civilization, the only economy that will last is one that rests on and grows out of a foundation comprising an abundant and healthy biosphere.
Second, the new economy should rest on a system of values that govern and constrain the universal human tendency to behave destructively toward ourselves and the world in which we live. What values? We could write books on this, but why not start where Jesus started?
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36-40)
Loving God who is the creator of the universe would be helpful if, in fact, we want to have a system that runs in harmony with that universe. Loving our neighbor would keep us from ruining the system in the process of running it. An economic system based on these two principles could not fail.
And third, the new economy should provide every human being with the opportunity to live in a way that is fully human. By this I mean that each person should have their basic needs satisfied: food, shelter, health, and security. Each person would learn what it means to be human through both education and participation in community. And each person would have the opportunity to participate in and contribute to the community and the economy and to reap the rewards, material, emotional, and spiritual, that come from that participation and contribution.
Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done
This vision is a long way from our present reality. If it is hard to see the present-day poverty of Nairobi transformed into a flourishing and righteous community of fulfilled human beings, it is more difficult to see the glitz and glamour that is Dubai undergoing such a change. It is not a question of moving Nairobi up and Dubai down; such a shift presupposes the kind of dichotomous system we are trying to grow out of. No, what we want is to move both of these models over to a new way of doing things. It cannot be done easily, and it may not even be possible without a major collapse.
But if we don’t see how to get to this end, we can see in what direction it lies, and we can begin to move in that direction.
The church9 actually has some surprisingly apt features that would allow it to be an agent for this kind of transformation of the human enterprise: working backward, the church is already a community that is ostensibly committed to human fulfillment (goal 3), however far it might be from actually achieving that in practice.
The church is already committed to the proclamation and practice of the kinds of values we have described in this new economy (goal 2), namely love for God and love of our neighbors. Again, although the dream is greater than the reality, the start is already here.
If the church were to live out these two goals that it has already articulated and learn how to add goal 1, a community-level commitment to the flourishing of God’s creation, nature, or the biosphere, who knows what might happen.
It is important to add here that the church has something that is found nowhere else: the power of God to transform lives. Without the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit in salvation, nothing can happen. History would suggest that even with that power, the kind of change we are looking for is not easy—but it might be possible.
Problems beyond the abilities of the greatest powers of this world might begin to fall before a group of people who took this vision to heart.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
Paul Hawken, writing in his book Blessed Unrest, sees the current worldwide interest in environmental issues as the greatest popular movement in history.10 He is wrong, of course. The church of Jesus Christ has that title, and for two thousand years, it has pursued the goal of preparing for God’s future kingdom by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. Perhaps now is the time, without giving up that goal, to add to it the very real and present task of bringing Nairobi and Dubai together.
How did Jesus put it? “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
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1. Edward R. Brown, “A Dilemma for Environmentalists,” Wisconsin State Journal, Guest Editorial, January 8, 2009, http://host.madison.com/news/opinion/article_06445ba2-5a91-595b-997a-adafc2d854e1.html.
2. E. Calvin Beisner, “Oral Testimony of Dr. E. Calvin Beisner to the Environment and Public Works Committee of the United States Senate,” U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, October, 20, 2006, http://epw.senate.gov/109th/Beisner_Testimony.pdf.
3. William Blake, “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion,” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York, NY: Anchor, 1997 ), 159.
4. Paul Hawken, “Healing or Stealing,” Commencement Address, University of Portland, Oregon, May 3, 2009, http://cforjustice.org/2009/05/06/and-the-earth-is-hiring/.
5. Wendell Berry, “Two Economies,” The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002), 231.
6. Ibid, 220ff.
7. Ibid, 232.
8. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York, NY: North Point Press, 2002).
9. Without digressing to an extended theological and historical discussion of a definition of church, for purposes of this discussion I mean a community of committed Christians, as well as the larger network of those communities in a region or in the world.
12. Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest (New York, NY: Viking, 2007).