I love camping, the kind of camping that is up in the mountains at the end of a forest service road, next to the trailhead into a wilderness area. Usually, the campground only has a pit latrine for a bathroom. If we’re lucky there’s water from a well, but sometimes we must bring all our water with us. One of the many things I appreciate about camping is its reminder of how little I really need to be happy: shelter from the weather; food and drink; companionship; and something to do each day.
Although not nearly as fun as camping, I’m finding the pandemic is having a similar effect on me. I hesitate to continue with my thoughts, because I’m deeply aware of the extent to which my resources as a college-educated, cis-gendered, white person has sheltered me from many aspects of the pandemic storm. As has been said, we’re all in the same storm, but not the same boat. Some people don’t even have a boat. When the storms of life come, and they always do, our societal systems are designed to protect some at the expense of others.
This disparity is where there’s a connection between the pandemic and other injustices, including the unjust way we’re consuming the natural systems on which our lives depend. The initial shelter-in-place order disrupted the habits of my daily life. As I’ve resumed some level of activity in the community, I am continuously asking myself, “is the purpose of the activity worth the potential risk?” In the answers, I’ve discovered how many things I used to do habitually, because I felt like it, or just because I could.
Similar to camping, the pandemic has made me aware of what I need to be happy. I confess I’ve been living further into the territory of wants than I care to admit. My recent birthday was a revelation. To celebrate, we got take-out food from a restaurant. It was one of the few times we’ve had food from a restaurant since the pandemic started. It really felt like a treat for my birthday, in contrast to prior years, when eating out was so common that I couldn’t think of anywhere special to go for my birthday meal.
Data shows I’m not alone when it comes to living excessively into my wants. Even with the huge disparities of wealth in the U.S., our average per capita consumption of the earth’s resources is one of the highest in the world. Although we’re not the highest per capita consumer, our consumption is particularly troubling for a couple of reasons.
1) The U.S. population is the third highest in the world, meaning our high per capita use of resources has a large impact on the planet’s natural systems.
2) Our lifestyle is being sold by corporations around the world to create markets for their products; however, there are insufficient resources for long-term support of these markets. To maintain our current level of consumption, we’re going into debt by “borrowing” ecological resources from less developed countries and future generations.
Earth Overshoot Day is one way that people are trying to quantify our ecological debt. It uses the concept of an ecological footprint to assess the demand we place on the planet’s natural systems. These are the same systems that supply our air, water, food, and all the goods transferred through economic activity. On August 22nd of this year, the world’s consumption of resources exceeded the amount that the earth’s natural systems can renew within a year. In other words, we went into ecological debt for the year. Everything we’re consuming since that date is ecological debt. Events like species extinctions, crop failures, and climate change are indicators the debt will come due.
As my consumption habits have changed due to the pandemic, I find myself haunted by a statement from John Chrysostom that I read in The Story of Christianity, Volume I, by Justo L. Gonzalez. After being installed as the bishop of Constantinople in 398 CE, he worked to reform the church, which had become intertwined with the rich commercial culture of Constantinople, a major economic center of its day. The book quotes from one of Chrysostom’s sermons.
“The gold bit on your horse, the gold circlet on the wrist of your slave, the gilding on your shoes, mean that you are robbing the orphan and starving the widow. When you have passed away, each passer-by who looks upon your great mansion will say, “how many tears did it take to build that mansion; how many orphans were stripped; how many widows wronged; how many laborers deprived of their honest wages.” (Second Edition, p. 228)
Imagine how Chrysostom might preach to us today. Like the gold decorations cited in Constantinople, what are the decorations of our cars, houses, children, pets, and ourselves, that he would name? Who are the indigenous people whose land is stripped from them for the natural resources that feed our consumerism? Who are the slaves, the indentured, the migrants, and the low-waged workers who are wronged, so that we may consume more while paying less? Many of these people are the ones who have been most harmed by the pandemic. Unnamed by Chrysostom are the ecosystems and creatures who die for us to have more.
The haunting I feel from Chrysostom’s words is a sense of “guilty as charged.” I’m blessed to inherit from him a faith tradition that both convicts me and extends grace to me through the path of confession and repentance. The experience of the pandemic has brought me to this point of confession. I’m working on repentance and the reparation that is inherent to it. As my consumption decreases, I look for ways my resources can support jobs that sustain the lives of workers and their families and that are sustainable for the planet. These criteria are a much higher bar for my consumption, than my own habits and wants; however, it is the path to wholeness for all life on this planet, including my own.