Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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In 1975 I had just read the recently published book Limits To Growth, about the environmental and social trauma future generations would likely face if we didn't rein in our consumer mentality. At that time, by virtue of having revived the moribund "social concerns" committee of a UCC church in Los Angeles, I occupied a seat on the church's board of trustees. At one board meeting, I took issue with a recommendation that I felt was both overly materialist and anti-environmental. At the next meeting, I presented the the following letter to the board. It went right over their heads.

Today, we now have Limits To Growth: The 30-year Update, by the same team of researchers. Things don't look good, folks.

Bill Becker          June 3, 1975

Many of you know me primarily as a supporter of farm workers and the United Farm Workers Union. Now it appears that legislation will make it possible that farm workers' labor will bring them real benefits—a situation long overdue. At this time I feel compelled to share with you another, larger issue, and I speak to you specifically as the leadership of a church that calls itself a "caring community."

That this church is a caring community is very evident, but it is my belief that the scope of our caring is too narrow, and does not adequately recognize the broad, impersonal forces and structures which are determining the kind of world we will leave to our grandchildren. Just as we live with the results of decisions made by our grandparents, so will our grandchildren live with the results of our decisions. Thus, it appears to me, it is a matter of great importance whether our decisions are shortsighted or farsighted. This seems especially true when the decision-makers are Christians.

In 1970, the world's population was 3.6 billion. Under the most optimistic assumptions, experts predict a world of 7 billion by the year 2000. Under an assumption of continuing present rates of fertility and declining mortality, the world population will exceed 14 billion persons by the year 2030. Many of our grandchildren will be under 35 years old at that time. What are we teaching our children about a world with 7 billion people? Have we ourselves faced up to the implications of the oil embargo, or the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and mercury in our waters? I think not. Instead, we talk hopefully (and sometimes belligerently) about "energy sufficiency," or "an upturn in the economy," in the belief that we can continue indefinitely in the profligacy known as "The American Way." This is the real lesson our children are learning from us, and it is my belief that they will pay heavily for it in the future.

Now, what has all this to do with Christianity? Aren't these essentially economic and political questions? Isn't Christianity concerned first and foremost with man's personal relationship with God through Christ? Doesn't the separation of church and state preclude political and economic problems from falling within the sphere of Christian concern? I cannot speak for Christians in answer to these questions, but I can offer a few facts which I believe speak for themselves.

As a nation, the U.S., with 6% of the world's population, consumes at least 30% of its non-renewable resources. Affluent Christianity both shares in, and actively promotes this disparate ratio, and non-affluent Christianity would like to. In many poor countries, the growing of cash crops for the benefit of affluent Western countries precludes the development of sound food-growing practices for the local population. During the 1960s, beef production in Costa Rica reose 96%, while beef consumption there dropped 26%. Most of the beef became franchised restaurant hamburgers in the U.S.

Nor has the U.S. been as generous as many of us would like to believe. In terms of per cent of GNP, we rank 13th among 17 industrialized nations as a donor to poor countries. In 1974 that meant 0.24% of our GNP, and one-half, in percentage terms, of our giving in 1962. In 1974, our food aid was less than one-half of our profits from higher-price grain sales to poor countries. In 1973-74, loan repayments to the U.S. from poor countries came to 20% of our development assistance. In 1974 we sent four times as much aid to Cambodia and South Vietnam as to starving Sahalian Africa and Bangladesh. In 1973, the U.S. spent $9.5 billion on military and police training to 64 countries, 25 of which are dictatorships.

As a caring community, I believe that we are obligated to examine the relationship between facts such as these (and there are many) and our personal faith. If we do not, we will miss what I believe to be our greatest challenge: the direction of man's knowledge from the production of personal comfort and profit for a few, toward the establishment of truly humanitarian institutions and values. It may already be too late. Some knowledgeable people believe that the eco-sphere's ability to support life is already seriously threatened.

The first step in meeting this challenge is to recognize and accept our personal share of he responsibility of the problems and dangers which others will face and are facing now. And, we are not exonerated just because our personal share of that responsibility is small. Instead, as caring persons, I believe that we are more responsible for being aware of the aggregate results of our actions. In our efforts to take that first step, we must be wary of two subtle pitfalls: "open-mindedness" and "positive thinking." It has been my experience that open-mindedness most often justifies the status quo, and that the power of positive thinking is used as often to deny the existence of a problem as to provide the spiritual force for its solution.

There are three books available which speak eloquently on these issues, and from which I have drawn the facts mentioned above. Taken together, they provide competent and challenging material for understanding much of the world's present and future problems, and also point the directions of possible solutions. Please give your most serious attention to reading them. Thank you.

Limits To Growth, Signet $1.50 (paperback) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered, by E.F. Schumacher, Harper Torchbook (paperback) Abt. $3.50 Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe, Ballantine, $1.50 (paperback)

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