When I turned on the radio Saturday morning and heard about the earthquake, I only heard the second half of a sentence, “…it was one of the worst earthquakes in history,“ as if it was something that happened decades ago. Not until I saw the New York Times front page did a realize that this was now…and not so very far away.
The recent earthquakes in undeveloped parts of China, and then in Haiti, were tragic because their poverty meant that low-grade construction left them vulnerable to the shaking. Implied in that thinking was, “If only they were rich, like us…they’d have suffered, but not as much.” Tell that to the Japanese, whose building codes and architectural values were designed around the inevitability of an earthquake catastrophe.
The Times writes: In the wake of Friday’s natural disaster in northern Japan, and the growing nuclear catastrophe that it touched off, residents here are fast learning that many things they have taken for granted — fully stocked supermarkets, precisely punctual trains, power for their electronics and cars — can readily slip beyond their reach. It seems that the way we get our food, water, and power for our mobility has created its own environment of vast vulnerability.
We’re still moving into the future based on the presupposition that a little tweaking here and there, some double-pained windows, better gas mileage, and riding our bikes to work a bit, will ensure that the growth of industrialization will continue. People will keep moving into the cities, worldwide. Farms will continue to get larger and big agriculture will continue to supplement the soil with oil-based products, requiring more and more petrol per calorie produced (from 2.3 calories of food produced for every calorie of fuel consumed in 1940, to 10 calories of fossil energy required to produce a single calorie of food today!). We need to do this, of course, because the way we farm, though it brings great yields, robs the soil, so much so that organic matter has moved from 9% of northeast China’s soil during the days of small farms, to less than 2% organic matter today. The yield is only sustainable by pouring more and more oil into the soil. Most of the people who leave their farms and move to the city, if they’re to prosper, will need to produce stuff—toasters, prizes you win at carnivals, computers like this one I’m using just now, trash cans, shoes—everything. And of course, we’ll all need to continue to buy—more and more. This is the way of global capitalism, and as long as buyers keep buying, small farmers keep quitting because it’s been made so difficult to continue, and consumers keep consuming and throwing away, all will be well.
The wheels of the global economy are humming along at max speed, maybe higher, greased with so much oil that Japan must supplement with nuclear power. It all works…sort of. Until there’s an earthquake of Biblical proportions. And now instead of an earthquake and tsunami, both epic tragedies by themselves, it appears the a third tragedy is possible—a threefold meltdown!
I wonder if we’ll stop and think this time—collectively:
1. Even if global warming is a myth, the evidence that there’s a limited amount of oil is nearly universally accepted. Even if the overwhelming evidence is somehow rendered null by a vast discovery, shouldn’t we be rethinking the demise of community, the demise of the soil, the demise of simplicity, and the dependence on greed that are all inherent elements in our existing economic model?
2. Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that “too big to fail” is too big? If 15,000 people are sickened by chicken pot pies, as happened in 2007 but investigators could never find the source, shouldn’t we change things? When we realize that big banks failed at a much a higher rate than small banks, shouldn’t we learn something from that? We we realize that micro-farms actually produce more food and use less oil than big industrial farms, shouldn’t we be asking questions about how big is too big?
3. Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that there’s something inherently wrong with an economic system that is founded on the need to get people to buy things they don’t need, and didn’t even know they wanted until the advertisers entered their psyche?
We’re busy but not content. Buying but not connected. Comfortable but not healthy. Consuming but not celebrating. In debt, but not free. Questioning our system doesn’t change the tragedy in Japan, for which we mourn, pray, and give to address crisis needs. But I hope that at some point, people will begin to question the global economic model—because the cracks aren’t just metaphor; they’re threatening lives.
I don’t have precise answers, and know full well that I’m part of the problem just like everyone else. But when disasters happen these days, whether they’re nuclear, environmental, or economic, it seems that the conversation is always centered around getting back to some sort of “normal” is if our “normal” is healthy.
I’m wondering if the church shouldn’t be at the forefront of defining a new normal by working hard to overcoming consumerism, individualism, and by challenging the uncritical contributions we all make to the status quo. We might offer alternatives that move is into more interdependency, simplicity, generosity, and movements towards justice.
But Ceasar’s values run deep—and I’m not sure people want to change THAT much.
Should anybody be asking these questions? Should the church? I welcome your thoughts.