Do a Google Image search for the phrase “No Limits” and see how many of the hits are from churches promoting a sermon series by that title. That’ll tell you how far off the church is on one of the most important problems plaguing our contemporary culture.
It seems as though we’ve reached a tipping point in American society, and most people are at least somewhat aware/accepting of the reality that much of the world’s poverty is systemic. Most of the world’s people are poor not because they’ve made bad choices or don’t want to work hard, but because they are part of a complex social, economic, and political system that needs winners and losers. North American poverty, in particular, is largely generational and systemic. I don’t know many people who argue against this today.
Because of the acknowledgement of systemic issues, more attention has been given to considering the systems at work in our society and the world. Movements like Occupy Wall Street have brought attention to the concentration of power and wealth among the 1%. For instance:
“Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs in America were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times. Meanwhile, over the same 30-year time span, the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation, since 2000.” (Robert Reich, Kansas City Star, April 29, 2014)
The problem of wealth/power concentration in the hands of a few is a huge issue, and is something that needs to be immediately addressed on a national and even global level. However, American opulence extends far beyond CEOs and the 1%. Just a quick snapshot of American society shows that we are hooked on our own opulent lifestyle and it impacts everything from our own bodies, to the way we organize our society, and even the wider world. Here are a few interesting examples:
- 65% of Americans are obese, and weight loss is now a $20 billion a year industry (a low estimate).
- In American, we comprise 5% of the world’s population, yet we use 25% of the world’s fossil fuels, 33% of the world’s paper, and produce 50% of the world’s solid waste.
- New houses are 38% bigger today than in 1975, despite housing fewer people per household. (these stats were culled here, here, and here.)
- An article in today’s NYTimes outlines the ways in which climate change is already changing American realities.
This all adds up to one glaring conclusion that nobody seems to want to face: our The American lifestyle isn’t sustainable. If we continue at our level of consumption and standard of living we are headed for a painful fall. It may not happen in our lifetime, but our children or grandchildren will be forced to suffer for the problems we are creating. I continue to side with Wendell Berry, that our problem is a matter of scale. We cannot continue the drive toward ever higher standards of living, while 2/3’s of the world’s people living on less than $2 a day.
If you want to really get the crap scared out of you read David Brooks’ recent NYTimes editorial “Saving the System,” on how American opulence and the un-sustainability of our current way of life is viewed around the world in light of recent world events. Brooks, who teaches a global leadership course at Yale isn’t exactly a liberal alarmist. However, when he asked one of his colleagues, ex-State department legend Charles Hill, to share with the class to interpret what’s going on in the global political arena Hill said:
“The ‘category error’ of our experts is to tell us that our system is doing just fine and proceeding on its eternal course toward ever-greater progress and global goodness. This is whistling past the graveyard…when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation. When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure. This is what Putin is doing; this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”
I’m not hoping to make you a pessimist, and I’m not ready to stockpile food and move to the basement quite yet. I’m just saying that at some point we are going to have to bend our lives toward God’s wisdom. All of us are going to have to change the way we live, the way we use our money, our resources, and will will not be able to continue to pretend that we live in a world without limits. God has designed us to live within certain natural limits. If we flout them, especially to the alarming degree that we have in the US, then the world–natural and otherwise–begins to organize against us. When we go against the flow of what God is doing in the world and where God wants to take God’s good creation, we will not be allowed to continue for very long.
Western society is built on a foundation of shifting sand–the illusion that we can live without limits. There is no single solution to the problems we are creating and facing in our society. The most effective solution will be sweeping grassroots efforts among ordinary people to slow consumption of energy and resources, and to demand of our leaders and governments a more thoughtful approach to how we use the world’s energy and resources. It boils down to stewardship through and through.