Tag Archives: Coal

The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.


Small Is Beautiful: Urban vs. Rural

I read an article from the Guardian that asked “Which is greener urban or rural living?” Treehugger also picked up the conversation, and the consensus seemed to be that urban life was clearly greener. In the city you often don’t need a car. You live in smaller housing units in tall buildings that take up less space. You have more options for consumer products that are environmentally friendly, organic or otherwise more sustainably produced. There were a few commenters that didn’t want to just throw out the benefits of rural living, but no one really seemed to think rural living could be greener.

I read the whole conversation in light of the section in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful on development. Schumacher addressed the mentality of much development work which still continues today.

Before we can talk about giving aid, we must have something to give. We do not have thousands of poverty stricken villages in our country; so what do we know about effective methods of self-help in such circumstances? The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvellous things they could do if they were already rich. (199)

This could also be applied to this way of thinking about whether urban or rural living is greener. Environmentalism has its own unspoken creed containing dogmas that often remain unquestioned and uncritically swallowed and regurgitated. There are certain assumptions about what is “greener” that attempt to slip the premise by us. One of those is the divide between rural and urban.

Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. (203)

This dualism between urban and rural is and always has been a fiction. This was one of the most stunning thoughts for me in reading this book. It is only more relevant as the world continues to urbanize and face the same problems of Schumacher’s time (the book was first published in 1975) on an ever increasing scale.

When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Therefore, he argued, we should be putting as much, if not more, emphasis on rural development. That is not what happened. The emphasis on urban development made cities much more attractive places than the increasingly difficult life in rural areas. This drove migration to the cities and the increasing urbanization that continues today. The UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by the year 2050 and we have just recently crossed the 50% mark (I don’t have a link, but I think it was in a recent State of the World report from the UN). Urban development can’t keep up with the needs of all the rural people migrating to cities as rural economies tank. Yet, the opportunities are better in the cities. Thus we end up with the massive slums that seemed to pop up overnight around Manila, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and all the major urban centers in the “developing” world.

Yet, what is our answer for this problem of urbanization? It is to create better cities that can handle the increase in population, instead of creating rural development that makes it possible for people to stay in rural areas. What the question about whether urban or rural living is greener fails to address is the continuing, dynamic relationship between these two sectors. It’s also evident when we try defining these two terms that they are not very clear. What size community should be considered rural? At what point does a city transition from being rural to urban? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Derrick Jensen defines cities as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources” (from a YouTube video on his book Endgame). This definition means that our definition of “urban” will be relatively small compared to the largest cities in the world. However, it does account for what the discussion of how green urban living is neglects. While certain metrics make urban living appear greener, because of the economies of scale, it does not account for the dependence on outside resources to sustain the “greener” urban way of life.

Unless you are living off of your urban/community garden, the majority of your food, no matter how organic or sustainably produced, must come from somewhere else. Likewise for all the other products no matter how organic or sustainably produced that you consume in a city. All of the water you use is imported from elsewhere, as well as the coal, oil and/or natural gas you use to use electricity, drive your car, cook and heat your studio apartment. Another quote from Derrick Jensen undermines the kind of thinking that makes urban living seem “green”.

Rational people will go quietly meekly to the end of the world, if only you’ll allow them to believe that recycling is going to make a difference.

We choose the metrics that make our lives seem “greener” so that we can ignore the reality that we cannot help but participate in an economy based on extraction and the importation of resources to support our preferred lifestyle in communities called cities that require this arrangement. Perhaps there is a balance between urban and rural populations that could be sustainable. I’m open to that possibility, but it would look radically different from the current order.

So, instead of asking which is greener we should be asking which way of life is self-sustaining. Rural living, if it involves industrial monocropping or extractive lifestyles, is not self-sustaining either. But, I would argue that living in smaller rural communities has the potential to be self-sustaining, while cities require an arrangement that imports resources from outside its borders.

Valuing the Earth: Ultimate Means and Biophysical Constraints

I’ve been enjoying reading Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics so much that I thought I should try to review some of the main points and add my own thoughts and reactions. The book is divided into three sections covering the three topics in the subtitle: 1)Ecology 2)Ethics and 3)Economics. So, I will follow this format with an additional aside on property somewhere in there. This is an edited work that has gone through two editions. So, not all of the authors completely agree with each other. Some of the chapters are from the 1970s, while others were added to later additions. C.S. Lewis’ famous essay from 1944, “The Abolition of Man”, is included in the ethics section (which was mentioned recently by a former seminary professor on his blog related to a completely different topic, A much neglected basic choice in theology). The titles for my posts are taken from headings of chapters or sections in the book.

In the introduction by Herman Daly, he uses the ends-means spectrum to talk about a framework for understanding the essays in the book. On the bottom of the spectrum are “ultimate means” (low-entropy matter-energy). At the top of the spectrum is “Ultimate end (?)”. In between are two sets of intermediate needs. Each of the four areas of the spectrum have a corresponding field of study. Physics deals with ultimate means, the material physical stuff of this world and how it works. Close to the bottom are the intermediate means of stocks of artifacts and labor power. This field is referred to as “Technics,” in other words how to deal with the ultimate means in terms of getting the raw materials and using them. Then there is a large gap before the intermediate ends of health, education, comfort, etc. This area corresponds to the field of ethics which defines the things we should do and the good life. The field covering the vast gap between intermediate means and ends is labeled political economy. I think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is helpful keep in mind in conjunction with this spectrum.


The author argues that typically economics ignores ultimate means and ends concerning itself primarily with this vast middle. “Absolute limits are absent from the economists’ paradigm because absolutes are encountered only in confrontation with the ultimate poles of the spectrum” (Daly 21). So, the first section of the book concerns whether or not ultimate means are limited. The second section concerns the question of ultimate means and the purpose towards which our economic activity moves us. The final section concerns the implications and interaction of these two poles of the spectrum.

Limited or Unlimited?

The growth economists’ vision is one of continuous growth in intermediate means (unconstrained by any scarcity of ultimate means) in order to satisfy ever more intermediate ends (unconstrained by any impositions from the Ultimate End). Infinite means plus infinite ends equals growth forever. (Daly 21-22)

So, the question is whether ultimate means are in fact unlimited. The essays consider two important aspects of this issue: availability and population. First, are the natural resources used to fuel our economy infinite? Second, how many people can the available natural resources support and at what cost to quality of life?

Natural resources are what fuels the economy, whether it’s vegetables, silver or oil. Even those who produce only ideas in our economy (e.g. a company that only makes brand names) still consume resources. They must eat, wear clothes and have a place to live which requires a lot of natural resources. They also certainly use equipment (computers, phones, etc.) that require lots of natural resources to produce. We are all dependent for our lives, lifestyles and work on the natural world no matter what we do for a living.

The economic process is solidly anchored to a material base which is subject to definite constraints. It is because of these constraints that the economic process has a unidirectional irrevocable evolution. In the economic world only money circulates back and forth between one economic sector and another (although, in truth, even bullion slowly wears out and its stock must be continuously replenished from the mineral deposits). In retrospect it appears that the economists of both persuasions (Marxist and orthodox growth economics) have succumbed to the worst economic fetishism–money fetishism. (Georgescu-Roegen 81)

We have been hearing about peak oil for some time now, and there seems to be a growing awareness that the resources we rely on, which once seemed to be infinite, are in fact finite. There are a couple responses that growth economists and optimists have to this fact of finite resources. First, they say we will simply be able to substitute different resources for the ones we’re currently using. So, we’ll turn to natural gas or something else and turn it into energy that will fuel our cars, homes and our economy. The assumption is that we will be able to substitute infinitely one resource for another, but once again the world is finite and we will eventually run out of material stuff or be unable to convert what’s left into energy. Remember that it takes energy to convert these resources into energy. Just as in the case of the Alberta Tar Sands we are expending ever more energy in order to extract resources than we are able to get energy out of those resources.

Which brings us to the next rebuttal that technology will save us. Unfortunately, this ignores fundamental laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics says that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Economists seem to recognize this with the oft quoted adage “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” However, we ignore this law in the way we talk about economic consumption. In reality, nothing is ever consumed. It is simply converted into something else. Gasoline does not disappear when it is burned. Coal does not disappear when we turn it into energy to keep the fridge running. This is where the second law of thermodynamics comes into play. This is also known as entropy, “a measure of the unavailable energy in a thermodynamic system.” This is the law that states that energy always moves from low entropy to high entropy. The heat from a pot of boiling water when taken away from a heat/energy source will eventually equalize with the surrounding temperature of the room. It is impossible for the pot of water to boil again without an external source of heat/energy.

Economics in general has yet to catch up to the reality of physics.

This is often a touchy subject and one many people are still uncomfortable even discussing. However, if our ultimate means are in fact limited, then this has a direct impact on the amount of world population that is sustainable. The quality of life on the planet is directly related to the amount of people we are trying to support. Just look at the biggest cities in the world and you will see that the amount of people crammed into one place has a direct impact on quality of life. As was mentioned several times in the book, claims that world food production could support 40-45 billion people sound good, but what kind of world would we live in if that many people existed on the planet. We are quickly approaching 7 billion people on the planet. In order to continue to sustain life on the planet and increase the quality of life for more people, we will be forced one way or another to address the population issue.

Terrestrial vs. Solar Energy
Another distinction that I found very helpful was between a “stock” and “flow” of energy. The majority of the resources now being used to produce energy come from the earth. This is a stock, because it is a finite supply of something. We can theoretically use it all up today and there would be no more tomorrow. The sun, however, is a flow of energy. We cannot tap into future stores of the sun’s energy. Even if we could harness the maximum amount of direct energy from the sun it would not take away from the flow of energy tomorrow. Georgescu-Roegen lays out an interesting comparison between the massive flow of free energy from the sun that only produces a waste product of escaping heat and the terrestrial stock of energy that requires energy to extract and process, not to mention the waste it produces. A comparison of only the amounts of raw energy produced is staggering. The sun produces 10^13 Q of energy annually where Q=10^18 BTU. Total world consumption at the time of the chapter (1975) was only 0.2 Q annually. The estimate of the total amount of fossil fuels available at that time was 200 Q (100). Even considering how outdated the numbers are the difference is staggering.

All of this might really be a long way of saying that we are still creatures and constrained by the limits of our creatureliness. As the people of God and followers of Christ we are clearly called to “keep and till” the earth (Gen 2:15). If it is our “dominion” then we will one day have to answer for what happened to it, because it is our responsibility. If our economics chooses to ignore the laws of nature then according to our Scriptures it is also in rebellion from God, or simply contrary to science, whichever you prefer. The result is the same.

Next… The Purpose of Wealth

They Mine Because We Buy

21fd257a-d693-11df-98a9-00144feabdc0.jpgI was struck this morning that only days after the last Chilean miners were rescued, mining accidents happened in Ecuador and China killing 21 and trapping others. No one in the media seems to recognize our own connection and complicity in these disasters.

They mine because we buy.

Copper mines in Chile help make our air conditioners run.

Coal mines in China fuel the energy demands of their booming economy fueled primarily by the cheap we goods we continue to gobble up even in this down economy.

This gold mine in Ecuador is still mining for the precious metal which our economy is only tangentially based on anymore, a leftover from the sordid colonial history of Latin America.

An excellent article titled Capitalism didn’t save the miners points out that even though the drill bit that rescued them was crafted by All-American ingenuity and made in the USA, capitalism also created the very conditions that forces poor people to continue to pursue one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet.

Rather than continue just reporting these tragedies as tragic human disasters and ignore the reality that continues to make them happen, why don’t we take these disasters as a chance to question the prevailing assumptions and economic order that places these people in peril in Chile, Ecuador, China and Appalachia.

Photo from FT.com