Friday, April 16, 2010

Environment and the Common Good

Just as I posted my last entry (4/12/10) about ecology and personal responses, I found this article by John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” from the Monthly Review (Feb. 1995). Although I don't embrace the socialist outlook of that journal, I found Foster's thoughts interesting as I worked on a chapter for a forthcoming curriculum on Christian citizenship. The following are simply notes I took as I read that article.

Addressing ecological problems, Foster cites Aldo Leopold that part of our problem is that we focus upon the individual as the key to the overall society, whereas we individuals should broaden our outlook to include respect for nature and the appropriate conduct of business.

He calls “the treadmill of production” the phenomenon of business that includes:
1. The accumulation of wealthy by a few people.
2. The movement of many workers from self-employment into wage jobs that are, in turn, connected to expansion of production
3. The competitive struggle among companies that requires technologies that, in turn, expand production.
4. The marketing of products that creates desire for more products.
5. The responsibility of government to promote economic development and to ensure people’s well being.
6. The fact that education and communication have become part of this “treadmill,” too.

But resources needed to produce and sustain technologies for greater production take natural energy resources and also creates waste (in the earth and atmosphere). So we need to find a way off the treadmill.

When I read these kinds of reflections, my first unsophisticated thought is that the only solution to such a scenario is … to leave society and become Amish. But Foster seems to be thinking toward the common good for the many who aren't abandoning democracy or our production-oriented economy.

Foster quotes the sociologist C. Wright Mills that all this has created a “higher immorality.” In American we have allowed the separation of moral virtue and success, as well as knowledge and power; consequently, money and its accumulation has become the measure of success in our country, which in turn has undermined democracy because ideas concerning our social well being and democracy have been substituted for (in Mills’ words) “propaganda for commodities.” This, in turn, has increased cynicism and has decreased a sense of citizenship responsibilities. For instance, Foster notes, in 1992 (a few years before this article was published) American business spent about $1 trillion on marketing, while about $600 billion was spent in the same year on education.

Foster argues that, because our society functions this way, we should be careful not to emphasize the individual’s role in ecological improvement without also addressing the institutional realities. A call to cut down on our consumption, for instance, “ignores the higher immorality of a society … in which the dominant institutions treat the public as mere consumers to be targeted with all fo the techniques of modern marketing… It also ignores the fact that the treadmill of production is rooted not in consumption but in production”

Foster quotes Paul Hawken, author of “The Ecology of Commerce,” that argues that environmental responsibility and change can be had by targeting not just individuals generally but specific individuals--the leaders of businesses and corporations. Foster argues that this oversimplifies, because such leaders are also part of the “treadmill.” Instead he argues that we must find ways to combine issues of social justice and economic justice so that not only is the environment respected but that persons who are suffering because of our contemporary disparity of wealth. "We must find a way of putting people first in order to protect the environment" (emphasis in text).

All this makes me think, in turn, of some of the work of Eric Mount of Centre College. He has written Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999). Mount tries to inject a stronger sense of those three concepts into American democracy and citizenship. Among other topics, he shows how those concepts that give a heighten moral and community-oriented sense to American companies and corporations, so that the "benefits" that we associate with companies are not always simply monetary but improve many aspects of corporate and social life.

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