ecology and consumption :: the “nimby” effect

Here is a list of ten places you will not see on the cover of any travel magazine for the next few…hundred years. For the second year running, the Blacksmith Institute has released a list of the most polluted places on the planet. Needless to say, there was an unfortunate amount of competition for the honor.

Factory in Azerbaijan

What is remarkable (but not necessarily surprising) is the concentration of sites on the map. North America (North of Mexico), Western Europe (West of Belarus), and Australia are scot free. None of the top ten, not even the top thirty most polluted sites are to be found in our backyards. What does this mean? Should we “developed folk” congratulate ourselves on the success of our environmental regulations and efforts at conservation? We’ve realized our errors and are cleaning up our messes. We are taking good care of the planet. Being stewards of what we’re given. Those backwards folks in the third world have yet to get on the ecological bandwagon.

I would not be too hasty with the laud. It rests on an answer (“Not In My Back Yard!”) too facile to function for long.

For all our efforts at conservation, for all our tough-talk toward polluters (which, don’t get me wrong, are good things), we still have not gotten down to the real root of the problem. When we continue to buy the products that cause pollution, but refuse to allow the polluter to live next door, we do little more than export our trash. It’s like saving time by training your dog to drop duke on the neighbor’s lawn. The stuff stinks even if the fumes aren’t filling your nostrils. Our rabid consumption and power-backed aesthetic imbibes the raw materials from other people’s mountains and leaves the dirty by-product in other folks’ rivers, while all we ever see is the plastic wrapper (oh, and the price tag).

What does this mean theologically? I’ve offered one try at an answer, but I’ll give another. To my mind, the best question to start with is this: Where does Jesus stand in this dynamic? Which river is he drinking out of? If we want to find God in this mess, where should we go? I’ll paraphrase Matthew to make my answer clear.

“When you supported companies that caused cancer for the least of these, you did it to me. When you saw that I had filth in the air but kept on driving, you did it to me. When you wouldn’t visit me in my industrial slum because you had pristine wilderness to occupy you, you left me in the dust.”

Chinese Worker

If I ever make my big move and get into the Miss America pageant, I know what I’ll say. Seriously, I’m waiting for the talent scouts to notice my unparalleled beauty, but when they ask me how I’d change the world, I have my answer already. If I had one wish, one magic pill to solve the world’s problems it would be to…reduce our consumption by 80-90%. In this one move, all my major planetary concerns coalesce.

I dislike the way that the world’s laborers are disenfranchised from thier land and thier way of life–let’s stop feeding the machine that causes the injustice. I fear the vapid materialism that leaves so many of us crammed to the gills with possessions…and miserable. Let’s quit pretending that “more buying”=”more happy.” I worry about our forests, our polar bears, our oceans–let’s pull the plug on the demand that fuels their demise. I don’t like the power that money weilds in our political process these days–let’s undercut economic growth as the sole determining factor in our decisions. We could continue.

The capitalist myth of the ever-expanding economy is one of the most destructive ideals ever foisted on the planet. A finite planet cannot facilitate infinite growth. But we aren’t the ones dealing with the consequences of our pipe-dream…not yet.

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