Climate warming is the biggest, most fundamentally threatening environmental issue to come along in the history of humanity. As a scientist, I am naturally very interested in climate warming’s physical causes and its impacts on the functioning of the earth system. As a Mennonite, I see how pertinent our traditional values of simplicity, community, justice and peace are in formulating an appropriate human response to climate warming and other environmental problems.
The scientist part of me is disturbed by the news articles and scientific reports coming out with ever more frequent and dire assessments of climate warming and various other environmental degradations such as threatened species, deforestation and plastic garbage in oceans. I am also disturbed to realize that these are direct, though unintended, consequences of the system in which our society is organized, dominated by technology, industrialization and globalized corporate capitalism. While it is good that scientists diagnose the physical causes, and activists propose actions to counteract them, these efforts deal only with immediate causes (such as carbon dioxide emissions). They unfortunately do not address underlying causes stemming from the forces in our system that have led to these problems in the first place.
The Mennonite part of me sees how our traditional values can provide a framework to look critically and deeply into our current system, diagnose the root causes of these environmental problems, and envision responses based on these values. By so doing, we can see more clearly our own complicity in the system, understand hidden connections, focus our individual efforts and work for system change.
Let us consider the four Mennonite values mentioned above – simplicity, community, justice and peace – noting how they stand in contrast to the values of the current system and how they can undergird a response to climate warming and environmental degradation.
This is the value I believe is most pertinent in addressing climate warming and other environmental problems. As I would characterize it, our system has three mutually supporting facets: human desires as motivator; a capitalist/consumer economy as provider; and technology as enabler. Simplicity addresses all three of these.
The ethic of simplicity leads one to a lifestyle of modest consumption and a focus on the essentials of a good life, family, community and authentic human experience rather than being distracted by possessions and technological gadgetry. Simplicity also provides motivation for having a long term, intentional outlook in lifestyle decisions rather than being driven solely by the short term and current societal and consumer trends. We must recognize, too, that all consumer goods coming from our system have an embedded carbon and environmental footprint in the materials used in their manufacture, their shipping and the energy used to operate them. In a phenomenon economists call “externalities,” this footprint often goes unnoticed, as the hidden environmental and social costs are not reflected in the price of goods. Unless governments can bring these hidden costs into the price of goods (via, for example, a carbon tax), using price alone as a guide to purchasing decisions is inadequate to avoid unwanted environmental impacts. The ethic of simplicity is needed as a guiding consumer principle along with a commitment to following this principle even if it causes some inconveniences or leads to doing without.
Of the three system facets mentioned above, I have come to believe that technology is the most dangerous with respect to the environment. While offering immediate and obvious advantages, it also offers great power to exploit and manipulate the environment without requiring the necessary foresight, knowledge, wisdom and responsibility to avoid causing great damage. Decades of experience have taught us this lesson, and we are seeing the results today. Many still look to technology to solve climate warming and other environmental problems, but if we do not approach this with a different ethic, we will repeat the mistakes of the past. The ethic of simplicity should lead to a more skeptical view of technology, more caution in preserving what is good before adopting new technologies, and more willingness to have modest lifestyles and consumer behavior rather than looking for technological fixes to enable maintenance of our existing system and lifestyles.
Our highly individualistic culture poses major challenges to the ethic of community. A strong sense of community leads one to think beyond just individual concerns or even those of one’s family and friends and ultimately to widen the circle of consideration to include all people in the world as well as the earth itself. Climate warming now requires such a global conception of community. The most direct connection between community and climate warming and other environmental issues involves the source of consumer goods. Buying things from distant sources – an easy thing to do in today’s globalized economy – means shipping distances are long, which involves a large carbon footprint. Buying things from local sources reduces those carbon emissions. In connection with social concerns, buying from large distantly-owned corporate stores, including online, sends money out of the community, weakens the viability of local businesses and eliminates personal interactions with local business people. So even though our capitalistic system and consumer culture are based on the idea that purchasing decisions are purely a matter of individual choice, in reality every purchase has environmental and social impacts, many on a global scale. The ethic of community means that these impacts need to be considered when making lifestyle and consumption decisions.
It is tragic to realize that nations and future generations that have contributed little or no carbon emissions will be the ones most affected by climate warming. Similarly, communities most affected by air and water pollution from nearby factories and other industrial infrastructure tend to be the less affluent ones and are often populated by minorities. These are the central issues in the fields of climate and environmental justice, that those least responsible for and least able to respond to environmental degradations are the ones most affected. In a connection with simplicity and consumerism, there is a sense of unfairness that our North American lifestyles use far more resources than many other places in the world. Constant and rapid technological change leads to some justice issues too. For example, it often eliminates jobs, leaves behind those who cannot afford or do not wish to purchase new devices, and makes it difficult for those trying to live a simple lifestyle, minimize waste, and avoid consumerism. The ethic of justice requires us to acknowledge the environmental and related social injustices of our current system and compels us to work to rectify them.
Climate warming and environmental degradation are symptoms of humans committing violence to the earth and not living at peace with it. This violence is inherent in our current system. It stems from a worldview that considers humans separate from nature and the world as a machine, an object of human domination and control, and a pool of resources to be exploited for human desires. Some recognize the damage from this worldview and are changing to one that sees the world as a living object and something to be respected and cared for. We must admit, however, that our lifestyles and consumer behavior are still often in contradiction to the Mennonite value of peace. The ethic of living in peace must include the earth and all living and inanimate things, not just fellow humans. We must reconnect with nature and consider it part of our community.
These four Mennonite values stand out to me as pertaining directly to environmental concerns. They provide a framework for critiquing our current system, looking deeply at the connections of “normal” everyday practices to underlying, sometimes hidden, environmental and social consequences that contradict professed values. This level of critique and response is needed to find real solutions to these problems rather than treating only symptoms with technological fixes or a few simple personal actions and leaving the system essentially intact.
Living a life that is consistent with our values is hugely important, even though, if taken seriously, it requires the effort of intentionality and can lead to inconveniences and perhaps even doing without. Living in this way is an act of faith; the reason we do it is not because we think it will change the world but because it is the right thing to do. And yet, living these values might indeed change the world. I feel that Mennonite values are a great gift, and they entreat us to care for each other and for our world.
David C. Garen is a retired hydrologist who spent most of his professional career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Weather Service. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is a member of Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church.