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living faithfully in a “throw-away” culture

Written by andrewtatum : February 18, 2008

America is a place where consumption is a top priority. Do you doubt me? Just think about it. There are few places a person can go in this great nation where he or she will not be bombarded by some form of advertising. And America sells it all. Food, cars, electronics, stuff, stuff and more stuff. Questions like “do I need this?” or “who made this?” aren’t necessarily discouraged, but they’re not encouraged either.

What if American Christians began asking these questions? Sure, there are small groups of people in the United States who are becoming concerned with issues of consumption, necessity and the mistreatment of workers; but on the whole, most of us live in a culture where just about everything is fair game to be bought, used without consequence, and then thrown away and forgotten about. And we do all of this without thought to the effects of our actions on the earth. I will be the first to admit that when a disaster occurs that involves people directly - hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. - Christians are willing to pack up and take a trip to provide relief to the hurting, the displaced, and the alone. However, it also appears to be the case that - as far as the environment is concerned - Americans are simply unconcerned and American Christians even less. We simply consume and we throw away and we do not ask questions.

Part of the issue may be that more and more people are migrating to the cities where agricultural concerns aren’t as visible. We seem to forget that the stuff we buy, buy, buy and then trash, trash, trash has to go somewhere. We do not seem to care that the more cars we have, the more damage we do to the environment. We seem not to be concerned about how much water we use (this is especially true in Durham, NC where I am located - we currently have about 60 days of water supply remaining). Now there are many who simply do not buy all this “climate change” “mumbo jumbo.” I am not one of those people. With Pope Benedict XVI, I believe that “We can’t simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us (YES Magazine.com).”

But my concern is even more specific than this. As a person who was raised in rural North Carolina and who went to college in a mostly rural, heavily agricultural community, I am a passionate supporter of buying organic and locally produced food and products and I am just as passionate about resisting corporate-driven agribusiness that is daily moving quickly toward the displacement of an entire cultural group in this country simply because they aren’t expedient enough, efficient enough, or willing enough to cooperate with practices that they know are harmful to the earth and which, in turn, make sustainable food production more and more difficult. But lest we think that the concerns of farmers and rural communities aren’t our concerns, Norman Wirzba has this to offer:

However much we might think of ourselves as post-agricultural beings or disembodied minds, the fact of the matter is that we are inextricably tied to the land through our bodies - we have to eat, drink and breathe - and so our culture must always be sympathetic to the responsibilities of agriculture. If we despise the latter, we are surely only one step away from despising the former too.

What does it mean to be radically faithful to Christ in a culture like this? How can Christians be faithful to Christ if we are so used to living in the way of the Empire that we don’t even know the difference between the two? Issues of environmental sustainability and community identity are not just the concerns of scientists and sociologists. Ordinary Christians are called to be stewards of the environment and cultivators of sustainable communities that model the way of Christ but it appears that we’re falling down on the job. I know that there are many Christians who take the challenges of consumerism and environmental sustainability seriously but it appears that more is going to be necessary. Therefore, this article could be thought of as a call to action:

A call for Christians everywhere to begin questioning their practices of consumption and waste. A call for creative action within the agricultural sphere to come up with genuine alternatives to corporate-driven agribusiness. And, ultimately, a call to prayer for all who understand that, regardless of where we live, we must eat, we must drink, and we must breathe and, therefore, we must pray for those who provide our sustenance. We must pray for discernment so that we may act. And we must pray for forgiveness for being so short-sighted that we do not always see the ways that our living contributes to the degradation of the earth of which we are all called to be responsible stewards.

What are your ideas? I want to hear your stories. Do you know folks who’ve successfully made their way out of the grip of agribusiness? Have you seen local communities and Churches take initiative towards the development of sustainable, community-oriented production of food? Please feel free to share your stories, your concerns and your prayers.

Andrew Tatum is a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. He is married to Lydia Pratt-Tatum, a youth minister and student at Campbell Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC. When he's not reading, writing or taking exams at school, he can be found blogging at (Re)inventing the Sacred, a blog dealing mostly with issues of Christianity & contemporary culture.


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    One model example in my state is the Oklahoma Food Co-op, formed and maintained in large part by the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker:
    http://www.oklahomafood.coop/

    We can't join because we are just outside of their boundaries and we are too poor to go pick up the food and pay for it. :( We are actively looking for some egg/dairy farmers locally instead.
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    The question, “Do I need this?” might better be replaced by, “What do I expect this to do for me?” and, “Will it work?” If we are buying things to meet our physical needs, there can be little question about the morality of our purchases. If we are buying them to meet a spiritual need which ought to be satisfied in Christ we practice idolatry. The “Will it work?” resolves the issue. To buy to satisfy human needs works. To buy to satisfy spiritual needs does not.
    The question, “Who made this?” might be irrelevant. It is the classic meat sacrificed to idols question. To say that it is more moral to buy from a local, a small, or an organic, or otherwise trendy hippie supplier is incorrect. Big does not equal bad. To say that it does is to make a gross oversimplification. If corporations manipulate the political mechanism to their gain, and thus employ the use of force, they are immoral. The same is true of McDonald’s or Enron, or the local grower that receives a subsidy, whether direct, or indirect, as in the case of growers who sell at state-provided farmers markets.

    Your ideas about waste production are simply false. There’s not too much trash. All of the trash produced over the next twenty years in America could easily fit inside 20 square miles, stacked 200 feet deep. That’s a lot of trash. But not an amount to worry about.
    Water use is directly related to prices. If the price of water were higher, if it were allowed to fluctuate based on supply and demand, the golf courses in our area (I’m at NCSU in Raleigh) would have gone brown a long time ago. People would use less. It’s not that there is not enough water. It’s that there’s not enough water at the low price. Quadruple the price of water, and you won’t have to tell people to stop washing their cars. They’ll do it on their own.
    Sustainable, community-oriented production of food, like “Seeds” off of Holloway street in Durham, near you, or the local farmer’s markets, cannot meet the demands of a growing population. Try encouraging that kind of agriculture in third world countries and you will have a lot more people starving. It is exactly because more food can be produced on large farms that we have the structure we do today.
    Is it better to have 50% of the population working simply to grow enough food to live, or to have 5%, or 2% growing food and the rest working to make people’s lives better? Don’t be romanticized by agrarianism. Remember that heaven is depicted as a city.

    Nathanael Snow
    ndsnow@gmail.com
    Senior, Economics
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    Nathanael,

    You may wish to study Polyface Farm in Virginia before you make the assumption that sustainable agriculture is not feasible in feeding large populations on small acreage and with a small workforce. Or read The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka.

    One reason people are malnourished is not food (under)production, but the political and economic forces that keep the markets for local production restrained. This was the gigantic light bulb moment for Francis Moore-Lappe as she was writing Diet for a Small Planet.

    ~Anna
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    I think the better question is not "“Do I need this?” might better be replaced by, “What do I expect this to do for me?” and, “Will it work?”"

    The question is: Is what I am doing promoting the flourishing of God's creation?

    It's a lot less self-centered.
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    Your ideas about waste production are simply false. There’s not too much trash. All of the trash produced over the next twenty years in America could easily fit inside 20 square miles, stacked 200 feet deep. That’s a lot of trash. But not an amount to worry about.

    Where will we put it? Right now a lot of New York City's trash comes to my neighbor state to the south, Kentucky. Most Kentuckians who know it goes on don't want it, but they weren't consulted when the deal was made. Landfills leak, and the capping and lining techniques used to try and stop leaks often fail, leaching out all kinds of toxic material into our groundwater.

    This is to say nothing of the problems of sewage disposal. Last time I checked I believe it was 45 of the 50 states reporting problems with drinking water contaminated by human sewage, not to mention other wastes (often agricultural) that were dumped into the sewage system.

    Regarding the efficacy of smaller-scale operations, while it would be difficult to call it a "small-scale" operation in a large city, surely something could be made of the fact that every human being excretes nearly enough natural fertilizing material every year (largely in the form of nitrates found in urine) to feed him/her self for a year, if the fertilizer would be apprehended and rendered safe for agricultural use - which can be done through proper composting. Instead of dumping billions of tons of sewage into rivers and landfills every year perhaps it could be put to good use. That is how nature works, at least - animal manures and urines go into the soil where they are broken down by microorganisms and become an enriching agent for the soil. Ours is potentially no different, and think of the potential for revitalizing farmland in "underdeveloped" countries (instead of teaching them to pump their soil full of chemicals like we do, and then charging them 2 arms and a leg for the materials to do so).

    Is it better to have 50% of the population working simply to grow enough food to live, or to have 5%, or 2% growing food and the rest working to make people’s lives better?

    How do you define "better"? If "better" means "able to afford consumer goods whose production generally involves the release of toxic waste into the environment and the subjugation of entire populations to produce those goods for our amusement", then I would say we're much better off having to have more people work to grow the food they, and we, eat.

    It is exactly because more food can be produced on large farms that we have the structure we do today.

    Look at the history of the growth of the modern food production system and the government subsidies/government-corporate partnerships that have supported the system for decades now and you might want to rethink that statement.
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    Anna,
    Thanks for referring me to Polyface Farm. I have visited sustainable farms before and enjoy the high quality of these kinds of foods when I can afford them. They are quite a luxury to our family right now. We subsist on commercial poultry and beef. I have to shop for meats on sale. I got whole chickens last week at $.50 a lb, and week-old bananas at $.20 a lb! I wonder whether Polyface can match these prices? Of course, I don’t mean on the bananas.

    Jason,
    It is hard to find a place for trash. Most waste disposal companies are heavily regulated by the state, but enjoy monopoly privileges simultaneously. I guess that means the state has to buy land from individuals to build landfills. I suppose the state will buy the least valued land to do this, which will probably be land closer to poorer populations. Once landfills are built land values depreciate further. This often creates political problems. It is hard to imagine what a completely privatized waste industry might look like. To begin with, the cost of collection would most likely go up in the short run. This might create incentives for people to create less trash. They would buy items that include less packaging, and compost on their own. Of course, packaging has become thinner and thinner over the last two decades, to the point that crushing an aluminum can on one’s forehead is no longer the fraternity feat it once was. And, it is no longer worthwhile for bums to collect these cans for money, since it takes a lot more cans to make a little cash.

    But in the long run I can imagine private companies finding better and better ways to collect and make use of trash. They might develop ways to collect fuel gases from waste. Or they might find more efficient ways to recycle certain resources. Once the incentives are right a lot can happen. Unfortunately, as long as inefficient means of recycling are taught as moral necessities, and as being the natural responsibility of the state I doubt we will ever know. Economists have done an awful lot of work on these subjects.

    Reuse of human waste is an interesting idea. I would love to read about some examples of this being cost-effective. As far as I know, it is cheaper and easier to treat raw sewage biologically at treatment plants, and then to pump the treated water into lakes, where, as you have described, nature does its work. Then we can reuse the water, after being treated, for human consumption. Accidents happen, and always will, but the system works pretty well, and most of the lakes in America are clean enough to swim in. What a luxury!

    I define “better” as longer life expectancy and improved quality of life. I don’t think it is healthy to engage in consumerism. That’s a liberal, statist, Keynesian idea. I believe in savings, frugality, and generosity. God has given to us not that we might squander His talents, but that we might share with those who are in need. I think the best thing the church could be doing today is working for elimination of immigration barriers and inviting the least of these to come and live with us. If we are concerned about conditions in Darfur, Kenya, Burma, or Zambia, we ought to find a way to help innocents from these places to move in with us here. The United State Government (I never say “we”) has already spent enough money on the war in Iraq to move every man, woman and child in that country to America and to give them each $16,000 to get started on life.

    Frankly, I’d rather see animals crammed into small cages and treated like… animals, than to see humans prevented from exercising their human energy freely due to some protected privilege.

    Let’s be clear. I am an anarchist. As a Christian I am against all forms of centralized government, and all government programs because they are pagan in nature. But as a budding economist I am against many of the same programs because they are inefficient and wasteful of humanity. I am against corporate and agricultural subsidies, and against welfare and social safety nets.

    I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. I am neither an environmentalist nor a consumerist. I am a Christian.

    Nathanael Snow
    ndsnow@ncsu.edu (my n.c. state email address)
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    There is an interesting little film on this topic @ http://www.storyofstuff.com/
    This film, in 20 minutes, quickly describes many of the problems of our "linear" economic system. From "extraction" to "disposal" this system has certain false assumptions that assure its eventual collapse. Annie Leonard, the narrator, researcher, writer, and creator of the film presents the case in an easy to understand manner.
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    Greg Boyd has been blogging @ http://gregboyd.blogspot.com/ on "why I am a vegetarian" in the process he has laid out some good arguments for why vegetarianism is consistent with christian non-violence as well as the ethical problems with the meat production industry.

    Though I would like to engage more with y'all on this topic (as well as the broader ethical implications of imperialistic global capitalism and how anarchist christians are to respond) I am juggling a two year old and a four year old and can barely complete a sentence.

    Shalom,
    Julius
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    Julius, thanks for the link. I've been a vegetarian for over a year now and it's great to read someone who chose this lifestyle for many of the same reasons I did. I also greatly appreciate the way Boyd does not force his ideas on his readers, or try and put them on some kind of guilt trip for not conforming to his convictions. And I know about that juggling stuff- mine are finally all in bed, hopefully for the whole night!

    Andrew, this article was very much enjoyed, as this is a subject of interest to me. I've also enjoyed reading all the comments- each one has shared important aspects from different points of view. I am passionate about healthier, more sustainable methods of agriculture, but I am also passionate about supporting free economies, where people are not coerced in any way. I believe that simply being a good friend to people, honoring their personal convictions, yet at the same time living in a way that makes the alternatives attractive, is the best way to go about beating the uglier side of agribusiness, and most other social ills for that matter.

    Last year I began to shop for most of our food at the seasonal farmer's market. Man, what a difference in taste. My mouth waters when I think of that fresh, local sweet corn, crowder peas, even the turnip greens were great! We also garden organically, and are trying to make it better each year by focusing on improving soil health and choosing varieties that grow well despite the fire ant infestation (the ants actually benefit a few of these, so it's not all bad). And we have several free range chickens for eggs, fertilizer, and they're sort of pets, too.
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    Nathanael,

    I completely understand the money-crunch situation with the choice between "cheap and conventional" and "expensive and alternative". My husband is in school full-time and with my meager income, it is a stretch just to buy the cheap stuff.

    What we decided to do is eat lower on the food chain rather than eat the less-than-ethical meats. I like high-quality eggs, so I spring for those and some local dairy products like butter and a little milk. Other than that, we are basically vegetarians. Beans and grains are cheap and easy to cook with a crock-pot! My husband lost about 20 pounds after we were married because he ate so much better than before as a single guy.

    ~Anna
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    Anna,
    It' s true, eating lower of the food chain can be cheaper, beans and rice, etc. And I don't mind going that route. But I don't think it is right to turn this into an ethical issue among Christians, or even within sub-groups of Christians. I mentioned in my first post that this can become an eating-meat debate, but I think that is too narrow of a discussion. If following arguments rely on solidarity on the meat issue, yet that issue is a non-essential, then the conclusions are straw men.
    I've read Boyd's posts on being a vegetarian. He has good reasons for choosing that lifestyle. But it is not essential.

    Sara,
    Sure, farmers market foods taste better. I buy there when I can. Sometimes you can get a good deal. But I recognize that much of the produce sold there is heavily subsidized just as commercial produce is subsidized. If anything it illustrates that farmers market food is indeed a luxury.

    Julius,
    Be careful to distinguish between imperialistic global capitalism and just plain global capitalism. One implies participation by the state for imperialistic ends, the other implies free trade among voluntary individuals, creating wealth for all.

    Capitalism is legitimate when uncorrupted by the state. It is ethically neutral. It permits both consumerism and generosity. To attempt to generate a system which prevents consumerism is to ask the state to impose ethical norms. But we must choose our behaviors and ethics voluntarily or they become devoid of virtue.

    I reject the notion that corporations are separate powers or principalities, distinct from governmental powers or principalities. If that is what Wink argues, I think he is wrong. If the law is allowed to become responsive to any individuals over any others then the law is corrupted. The law must be completely irrespective of persons or privileges. Get that right, and corporations have no opportunity to manipulate the law to their advantage. They have no power except that which exists through corruption of the law. Corruption of the law only exists where legislatures can create law at their own whim. Correction of the law, and discovery of the natural law is feasible through common law systems. The problem lies squarely at the feet of those who ask for a king, for a new law, for a human law-giver whom they may manipulate to their advantage.
    Nathanael Snow
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    Nathaniel -

    You can't compare organic food and regular food as apples to apples. .50 a pound may be cheap for a factory farmed chicken, but 2.00 a pound might also be considered cheap if you realize that the product you are getting is far superior. It's like comparing a BMW to a KIA and saying the KIA is always better because it's cheaper. I don't want government controls on farming practices, in fact I want the government out of everything. But as a consumer, the choices I make in the market do affect the decisions farmers make. If consumers refuse to buy caged chickens at any price, then farmers will stop caging them, and that's the free market at work. Right now, organic and local food might seem an expensive luxury to some, but in the future it will be cheaper as consumers wise up to just how depleted and empty the mass produced food is, and organic food gains a greater market share and drives the competition out.
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    I may be expressing my economic ignorance here, but it seems to me that there if a fair trade bananas are $2/lb and Dole Bananas are $1, the difference in price isn't simply one of quality. And I believe it is a myth to say that the Dole banana is "cheaper" or "costs less." The two bananas cost the same, the difference is that when you only pay $1 for a banana, the rest of the cost is absorbed elsewhere--by cheaper labor or unhealthy shortcuts.

    I had a friend once argue with me about the idea that it is often more ethical to spend more money on goods. We look at spending $300/month on groceries as indulgent, but in reality paying more for fairly traded goods can often be more just because it moves our affluence to the hands of the worker. It is a way of recognizing that the worker's labor is as worthwhile as our own.
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    Nathaniel, thanks for pointing that out about capitalism. I am really confused when the "free market" gets blamed for the mess the world is in, when you can't really call it a free market. The invisible hand has been handcuffed for over a century. The very fact that there is such a thing as the USDA is proof of this. The government promises to keep our food safe, yet its policies are under the control of the ag-industrial corporations. If the government were out of the way, there would be no false safety guarantees, and people would take more interest in where their food came from and how it was produced. This would lead to a greater support of local, family owned farms, and the elimination of polluting, disease ridden, cruel factory farms and nerve poison soaked produce farms. It would also reduce the need to transport so much food from such long distances, lowering pollution in that area as well. This is happening already on a grassroots level, and, as Luke pointed out, the more people voluntarily get on board, the cheaper alternative food sources will become.
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    Luke,
    Good example. I was going to use a similar one on a previous post, but I rewrote it. I personally am going to stick with the Kia (actually it’s an ’83 Malibu) for a while. There’s nothing wrong with BMW’s, unless you can’t afford one. I suppose I could afford one if I quit tithing and worked a little more instead of spending time with my family. Valuation is subjective. Nutritive measurements are not. Until a $5.00 a lb chicken is 10 times more nutritive than a $.50 a lb chicken, I will subjectively choose not to make that tradeoff. If you know where I can get a nice BMW for under $5K, let me know.

    Mark,
    In reality you make be right. Due to the multiple layers of state interference it is very hard to know whether prices accurately reflect costs. Theoretically, prices are information tidbits which direct the flow of resources to their most highly valued uses. If a third world worker agrees to work for a particular wage, there is nothing unfair about it. Again, the problem does not lie with capitalism but with state interference.
    As Christians living in a world controlled by state powers, we have to consider what the best way to help the least of these is. I have tried to argue that trendy “green” living might not be the best method, because it ignores economic forces which cannot be denied. The scriptures command us to offer our workers a fair wage and to rescue those who are in need. I like to think of rescue in literal terms, like the way Lutheran Family Services literally rescues the least of these out of the most oppressive situations and brings them here and sets them up with a new life. The refugees have a very good record of paying back all the expenses within a year’s time.
    I am working at articulating an ideal, so sometimes my theory seems a bit impractical. I get concerned when we are willing to sacrifice good theory to practicality rather than working to preserve good theory and adopting flexibility in application.

    Sara,
    It might lead to more support for local farms, depending on individuals’ preferences. Regarding transportation issues, you might be surprised how small a carbon footprint a grape from Chile is compared to one from a local grower. The pollution effects of global trade are grossly overstated. This is counterintuitive, but has mostly to do with economies of scale. Large trains use a mere fraction of the amount of fuel trucks do, and ships are even more efficient. They have to be, or the price of grapes from Chile wouldn’t be so low.
    Demand driven growth of the local food economy certain will lead to greater efficiency and lower costs there. Most luxuries go down in price after a round of first adopters has passed through, like with flat panel television sets. But there are limitations to what can be done with practices which are appealing particularly because of their inefficiency. We like long horse drawn carriage rides through the park specifically because it is inefficient, it is leisurely, it is a luxury. BMW’s will always be more expensive than Kia’s. And luxury goods will always face a limited demand.

    Thank you everyone for putting up with my arguments. It is very important to me to be intellectually honest in these forums and as respectful as I can. I thing there is just a gross amount of economic ignorance in this world thanks to state-run schools.

    Nathanael Snow
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    Nathaniel, For what it's worth. I generally agree with your perspective. You sound a bit like Lew Rockwell.

    I think an organic chicken is 10 times more nutritive than a factory farmed one, especially when you consider that the latter chicken may actually have a negative value because it contains harmful substances. But, somehow I don't think I'm going to convince you. You think you're getting a deal at .50 a pound, but I think you're getting ripped off. It doesn't really matter to me, I'm a vegetarian so I won't be buying either chicken anyway.

    My BMW example was a poor one because that is a luxury item, and organic food, at least in my opinion, is not. My point was that cheaper is not always better. And it's also a poor example because there is no real ethical dilemma between buying a BMW and a KIA. Now a BMW or a horse carriage....hmmm there might be something there....

    Fortunately, I can't attribute my ignorance to state run schools. I was homeschooled so I acquired all my ignorance at home :)