While individual members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco observed Earth Day in a variety of ways, as a congregation we observed its 50th anniversary during the two Sundays framing the event. The aim was to bring to the congregation as a whole a range of concerns that have emerged from our Climate Action Group’s meetings over the past several months.
On the Sunday before Earth Day, we started an Adult Education Hour series on “Preparing for a Post-Pandemic World.” Understandably, our first impulse at that point — after a full month of “shelter in place” — was to “get back to normal.” But a growing volume of evidence points us toward the need for a “new normal.” Our hope was that the series initiate a congregation-wide discussion on what that new normal should look like.
Pastor Sheri Hostetler opened the series with “The Impossibility of Continued Economic Growth.” What economists and policy-makers characterize as a “healthy” rate of growth fails to correspond with any realistic conception of what it means to live on a world with finite resources. Even more moderate growth goals (two to three percent) would multiply economic output by four to eight times by the end of the 21st century. Further, since economic and energy growth are 99% correlated, projections of sustained economic growth ignore the rapid depletion of cheap sources of fossil fuels. They also ignore that as we transition to more expensive forms of fossil fuel extraction, we rely increasingly on credit. This is inflating a rapidly ballooning burden of global debt. Both Nate Hagens and the Post Carbon Institute argue that if these trends continue, our financial system could collapse within the decade (this estimate was pre-pandemic).
Then on the Sunday after Earth Day, Sheri based her sermon — “Burning Hearts and Breaking Bread” — on the road to Emmaus story (the Gospel lectionary reading, Luke 24:13-32). This is an archetypal story of how humans respond when their world is utterly changed. While we are experiencing that pointedly with the Covid-19 pandemic, our sense of loss and disorientation speaks more directly to the realization that our global, industrial, and extractive civilization faces collapse. Since the course of that collapse has been and will remain uneven (poorer people having already experienced collapse), it has been easier for those of us who are more privileged to remain in denial. Arguments that “green” power sources will enable us to stay on a growth course have also fed that denial, for they ignore the extent to which renewable energy production relies on finite fossil fuel and mineral resources. Further, loss of biodiversity and unsustainable food production have us approaching the biophysical limits of our home. In short, “we’ve hit a wall and it’s about to come down on top of us.”
The Emmaus story is not about easy hope in the face of world-ending uncertainty. But it does tell us to attend to those moments in our lives when we — like the disciples as they heard Yeshua’s words — sense “our hearts burning within us.” This may be when we share homemade zwieback or protest banks funding fossil fuels, when we read poetry or demand that our mayor protect the homeless from Covid-19 by providing housing. It is with these many but deceptively small actions that the Risen One becomes known to us, that we remake our collapsing world.
Then, during the Adult Education Hour after Sheri’s sermon, Jim Lichti led a presentation on “Seeding a New World.” He began with Kate Raworth’s critique of 20th century economics. In line with Sheri’s presentation the previous week, Raworth identifies growth as the economist’s — and therefore, as the policy-maker’s — central goal. But this focus on the ascending curve of GDP has demoted the side effects of economic growth — such as global warming, topsoil depletion, or loss of biodiversity — to “externalities.” Thus, the dire consequences of “progress” recede to secondary concerns.
It is time to reframe the goal of economic policy. Instead of growth, Raworth proposes the creation and protection of a “safe and just space for humanity.” She centers that goal within a ring that her audiences have associated with a range of circular objects, but most frequently with a “doughnut.” Within her ring, the focus is on maintaining a “regenerative and distributive economy.” At the inner edge of the ring (surrounding the “doughnut hole”) lies the economy’s “social foundation.” The hole then denotes what is missing that require the attention of economic policy-makers, such as shortfalls in food, energy, education, justice, etc. The doughnut’s outer edge marks the economy’s “ecological ceiling.” Beyond the boundary, economic activity “overshoots” and undermines “Earth’s life-giving systems” through biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, etc. In contrast to 20th century economic visual models, Raworth’s visual model keeps the most crucial goals for 21st century economics squarely within view.
The circular nature of Raworth’s doughnut aligns with ancient symbols that invoke “a continual dynamic dance between complementary forces,” such as the Taoist yin yang or the Maori takarangi. It also conforms to the shape of the earth and provides a model for a global economic approach. Yet Raworth—initiating exploring this direction with biomimicry thinker Janine Benyus—has also “downscaled” the doughnut for implementation at the level of a nation or region or a town. The “city doughnut” plan for Amsterdam was just published this past March. This more localized approach aligns with the many “small actions” of Sheri’s sermons as well as with David Fleming‘s viewpoint: “large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.”