No divine warrant on consumption


After the massive ice storm a year ago last January, a scientist I know told me there would be grieving, and that it would be comparable to people experiencing a tragedy in the family.

At the time, I thought her prediction a little extreme. But sure enough, I did encounter people who felt that way. Not a whole lot, mind you. However, those who did still speak of the storm, and the damage it brought, with a sense of great personal loss.

It wasn’t property damage that concerned them. They didn’t bring up the subject to talk about the costs of cleanup, or lost timber, or the view from their front window. They spoke of their emotions. And their language was the language of pain.

I thought of this while speaking with Stephen Dunn, professor of Christian ethics and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at St. Michael’s University in Toronto. He is a Passionist, a priest of the Congregation of the Passion, which has about 3,000 members around the world.

We were talking about consumerism, over-consumption, and excessive demands on the carrying capacity of the earth. And how an abstract understanding that nature has limits has not motivated people to live with less. We continue to plunder nature with abandon.

The plundering is unlikely to stop, Dunn said, until people feel a connection to the earth. His emphasis on the word « feel’’ conveyed a sense of profound identification,  and I thought: « Wouldn’t it be grand if people made that connection to head off a disaster, instead of grieving after one had occurred?’’

Unfortunately, Christian theology has not been a great help. It has become human-centred, Dunn said. It has tended to see humans as directed by God to be in charge of the earth, and from that the concept of stewardship has evolved.

Stewardship means we manage the universe, Dunn said. It means we stay at the centre. There is an arrogance to this, he said, even if we believe we are doing God’s will. It is arrogance — and success in developing technological skills — that leads us to believe we can always repair damage to the environment. If not today, then we’ll be able to do it tomorrow. As a result, we ignore limits. We think we are all-powerful.

Instead, Dunn said, we should accept that this is God’s universe, and we live here as only one of His species. Nothing more, nothing less.

Only then will we develop a sense of belonging to, and being a part of, the earth. Only then will we treasure it, and « feel’’ the connection.

« If God really didn’t mean we should be destroying machines on the earth, then what did he mean,’’ Dunn asked? Answering his own question, he added: « God meant, ‘Join the community of the earth.’’’ Feel a kinship to all of His creations, and the humility that comes through appreciating the intricate dynamics of the cosmos.

The Church has been trying to change consumption patterns, Dunn said. But it has had limited success because its focus remains human-centred on social justice — on the impact over-consumption has on people, especially those in the Third World. Those whose lands are stripped of their natural resources to provide materials for citizens of industrialized nations.

« The theological literature is not much about depletion of resources.’’ It doesn’t talk about ravaging God’s earth, upsetting the dynamics of life in nature, and violating the community of the earth.

There are exceptions. The Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church has declared it a sin to maliciously cause harm to the environment — and Dunn supports that position.

« Our patterns of consumption have no divine warrant,’’ he said. « If you put religious language on (these patterns), they are sinful. They are ultimately evil.’’

That’s awfully powerful language. However, I see it not as a threat, but as emphasizing how central it should be to Christian thinking to see kinship in Creation.

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