I wouldn't wish this recession with its job losses and suffering on anyone. There is nothing good about it. I have heard a few pastoral colleagues essentially welcoming it because it brings people into the church. But it is a weak and insecure church that welcomes suffering because it fills the pews. We want people to have jobs and homes and healthcare.
Here we are, though. The economy is contracting and everyone, rich and poor, is being affected. President Obama has recently talked about the need to "reset" diplomatic relations with a variety of countries. Perhaps it is also time to revisit our values and reset our priorities.
Recently I have been reading a book called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben. McKibben addresses what he calls the "single-minded focus on increasing wealth" that has "driven the planet's ecological systems to the brink of failure, without making us happier."
How we got to this point is pretty obvious, he says:
We kept doing something past the point where it worked. Since happiness has increased with income in the past, we assumed it would do so in the future. We make these kinds of mistakes regularly: two beers make me feel good, so ten beers will make me feel five times better. But this case was particularly extreme and easy to understand, because human beings have spent so much of their history trying to satisfy basic needs... Consider, say, America in 1820, two generations after Adam Smith. The average American earned, in current dollars, less than $1,500, which is somewhere near the current African average. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey explains, "Your great-great-great grandmother had one dress for church and one for the week, if she were not in rags. Her children did not attend school, and probably could not read. She and her husband worked eighty hours a week for a diet of bread and milk-they were four inches shorter than you." Even in 1900, the average American lived in a house the size of today's typical garage. Is it any wonder, then, that we built up a considerable velocity trying to escape the gravitational pull of that kind of poverty?But then, thanks to the genius of the free market wedded with the wonders of technology, we suddenly blew past a way of life that had marked our ancestors' lot for centuries. Good riddance. Life was better. People were happier. We don't want to go back to those days.
But we never slowed down. Everything kept getting bigger and bigger: our homes, cars, meals, our pile of toys, and our environmental footprint. We supersized everything. And we long ago passed the point where making more and having more could make us more happy. We know, too, that there is no way the mothership Earth can take the rest of the world living the way we have lived.
Now we are being forced to slow down. As I said at the beginning it isn't "good for us." People are suffering; they don't know how they are going to feed their families. We want the economy to recover and soon.
But as we recover we have an opportunity here to make choices about how we live our lives and where and how much we spend our money. Community, friendship, spiritual well-being don't take much money but they do take time and effort that can actually bring us happiness. Building a sustainable world with a healthy environment, making the world more just and peaceful take both time and money. But it is time and money well-spent. We don't want "no" economic growth. We want smart, sustainable, and slower economic growth that lifts all boats and takes care of the planet.
Over the next year you are going to be hearing much more about sustainability at the church. We are going to be studying sustainability in adult ed, actually working to make our own piece of land on Highland Drive more sustainable (and beautiful), hearing me and some guest speakers talk about it. It is a teachable moment. I hope and trust we will all use it well.