Friday, February 8, 2013

Sustainability Is Religion's Catch Of The Day


This is one of the cases when I am publishing an article to which I do not completely agree with its chief premise, notably the need for strong government intervention and regulation to both reduce economic growth and consumer behaviour  But to ensure debate and discussion, I gladly do so. Lorna Salzman writes: "Our religious leaders cling to the notion that moral exhortation will do the trick, that over-consuming humans will scale back their material demands and willingly accept a frugal way of life because this is the 'right' thing to do."

by Lorna Salzman

Our fearless leader Bill McKibben, who speaks and behaves more like a vicar than an activist, was a featured speaker at a UK conference, "Sustainability in Crisis," sponsored by two religious organizations. While there are some secularists on the agenda too, the questions posed to the speakers and panelists are, as usual, irrelevant and superficial.

As the name suggests, it has not occurred to these distinguished beard-stroking clerics that sustainability is not the issue but rather Contraction and Reduction: contraction of the economic growth economy and reduction in consumption by the over-consuming countries of the global north. In the same spirit of inconsequential inquiry that characterizes nearly all public discourse about climate change these days, this conference will seek but not find. Its questions relate to how one persuades (as opposed to regulating, legislating, incentivizing, bludgeoning or coercing) producers, governments and consumers to change their habits so as to save the world. This is no different from the religious conversion sought every Sunday in churches around the world.

The punishment for not changing one's greedy ways is not forgiveable by confession; in fact greed continues to be rewarded by the consumer society. The punishment, not yet acknowledged by humans, is the one that is already being imposed by Nature and her laws on the transgressors, which is to say most of the world's population. Those not over-consuming are doing their part to transgress by having lots of children. Curbing births is about the furthest thing from the mind of the religious community (including non-Catholics) behind this conference; chances are excellent that overpopulation will not be mentioned at all.

What is our fearless vicar McKibben going to say? Nothing different from the pap that he spouts continually in this country. Nor is it likely that most of the speakers and panelists will veer off the moral high road of pulpit homilies and issue any condemnation of global corporate capitalism and growth. Sustainability is the Catch of the Day. Few have recognized that Sustainability will be impossible unless and until growth in consumption and population is ended. Even fewer recognize (or admit) that Sustainability will require equity which cannot be achieved without massive redistribution of wealth.

Our religious leaders cling to the notion that moral exhortation will do the trick, that over-consuming humans will scale back their material demands and willingly accept a frugal way of life because this is the "right" thing to do. Religious leaders are amazingly skilled at avoiding moral judgements  however, when it comes to fingering the major eco-criminals, which is to say the corporations, the financiers, the transnational treaty entities, and the governments of the industrial nations. If one believes religious leaders, there is no such thing as evil except for those who do not follow scripture and dogma.

McKibben has boldly (for him, anyway) asserted that the fossil fuel industry is the greatest criminal of our day. In a sense—the sense that fossil fuels are destroying the earth's climate balance—he is right. But he stops short of calling for the measures that would shut down the industry, such as a stiff carbon tax, sharp annual reductions in CO2 emissions leading to full shutdown of fossil-fueled power plants, rigorous mandatory energy efficiency standards and an end to all fossil fuel subsidies. In this sense he has let everyone else off the hook; by not including consumers in the energy mix, he is actually avoiding the political crunch by letting them believe that the coal, oil and gas biggies are the main culprits.

Homo economus is the main culprit and all the fist shaking in the world will not accomplish what was must be accomplished in the very near future: an end to the industrial growth society. About this neither McKibben nor religion has anything whatsoever to say.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at


  1. A news story appeared in the New York Times under the headline "The Global Farmland Rush."
    This news suggests that the time may be approaching when the economy is a factor is promoting sustainability.

    1. Do we need government intervention?

    2. I want to add a further point after having read the NYT article. Government intervention cannot work in the nations where corrupt governments exist. Thus, I have reconsidered my earlier objection and acknowledge that leading transnationals that exploit such nations for their landmass ought to somehow face penalties and punitive measures. But how is this to be done under current laws, including international ones?


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