Reviews: Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint and Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation

[1] Sallie McFague and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda agree: the world is in trouble and we are to blame. Rising sea levels due to climate change; species extinction; massive inequalities between rich and poor on a global scale; unstable economies predicated on dwindling reserves of petroleum… the list goes on. McFague and Moe-Lobeda know that we, North Americans of the consumer class, are devouring the planet, consuming our way toward chaos and injustice. These two eminent eco-theologians have faced the prospect of environmental catastrophe, but in their newest books – both released from Fortress this year – they bring messages of hope.

[2] In Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint, Sallie McFague asserts that the world’s consumers need to be transformed by a message of restraint, and this message is best delivered by religions (x). McFague believes that the Christian concept of “kenosis,” or self-emptying, can lead Christians through a process of transformation that leads to a willingness to exercise restraint (xi, 2). The bulk of McFague’s book is an in-depth exploration of this process, as it is demonstrated in the lives of three widely admired Christians. Quaker abolitionist John Woolman, French Christian philosopher Simone Weil, and Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, have not been canonized officially, but McFague does not hesitate to call them saints. For McFague, a “saint” is neither strictly one whose pure holiness creates miracles, nor a word that refers to every believer of good will (135-136). They are people whose lives inspire others: “the lives of the saints are ‘case studies,’ wisdom in a nutshell” (37).

[3] McFague sees in these saints a pattern of transformation: 1) “experiences of voluntary poverty,” leading to an experience of “wild space,” in which alternative ways of being come to light; 2) “the focus of one’s attention to the needs of others,” which involves seeing others in a new, relational way; 3) “the gradual development of a universal self,” which involves the death of the ego and identification with the whole; and 4) “the new model of the universal self [which] operates at both the personal and public levels” (xii-xiii). Voluntary poverty seems a harsh discipline, but “the point is not that deprivation is good, but it appears to be necessary to burst the bubble of egotism” (57). Going through these four steps constitutes kenosis (self-emptying), which transforms both our perceptions and our actions. The key for McFague is an altered sense of self. This, it seems, is the only way to motivate the profound changes in lifestyle, consumption, production, and policy that are necessary to reverse the disturbing ecological trends that motivate McFague’s work. Interestingly, she uses not only the tools of Christian theology to reach this answer. She also uses insight from ecological science and psychology, Buddhism and economics, to support her conclusions. “Kenosis, self-emptying, is not an ascetic, world-denying practice of the saints; rather, it is a catchall term for the way the world works: it works at all levels through restraint, pulling back, sharing, reciprocity, interrelationship, giving space to others, sacrifice” (36).

[4] McFague says “While we will not all be saints, we need not be the total slackers that we presently are” (107). Since the environmental and economic crises are, at bottom, spiritual crises, we need spiritual tools – those we learn from the lives of the saints – to address them. McFague’s offering is modest but hopeful; if we transform ourselves, we can transform our world.

Resisting Structural Evil[5] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, is significantly more ambitious. She addresses a problem that is essentially the same as McFague’s. The world’s economic systems are on a crash course with the planet, and are creating terrible injustice among people; significant, profound change is necessary; and religions can help bring it about. Moe-Lobeda affirms that “this land is replete with profoundly caring human beings,” and yet, somehow, these same caring people – you and I – end up consuming and producing in such a way that people are exploited and the earth is despoiled (3). What accounts for this disconnect? Moe-Lobeda names it as structural evil, harm I do not intentionally cause but nonetheless participate in and benefit from. She proceeds to carefully and diligently guide her readers through the process of understanding structural evils, many of which slip “into obscurity by intermingling with good” (68); to analyze and truly understand this evil; and then to explore sources of, and visions for, viable alternatives. She takes her readers through a comprehensive set of examples, from fair trade coffee to petroleum products to electronics manufacturing to transportation to clothing.

[6] Moe-Lobeda’s response to the trouble of structural evil is complex and multi-faceted, but her primary answer is love. Employing an admirable analysis of the discourse on Christian love, Moe-Lobeda concludes that love is a command more than an emotion, a norm for which justice is its content (180-181). She demonstrates the use of “critical mystical vision” to explore the disconnect between what is and what ought to be,in a context of guidance from the Spirit. It is love that bridges the gap between the suffering and exploitation we endure today and the vision of a better world. She writes, “Over time, the aim … is to re-arrange systems of transportation, food production, housing construction, and so on so that our daily activities are in themselves practices that contribute to healthy eco-systems and socially just human relations” (252). An ambitious agenda, but one that is sorely needed, and religions must play their part, according to Moe-Lobeda. While she critiques economic systems, inefficient production, and the like, I found her section about “worship practices as morally formative,” to be especially helpful and provocative; Christian worship, too, influences people’s behavior, and must be reimagined to support the goals of equity and sustainability (259). Moe-Lobeda pulls no punches, calling for all kinds of economic and ecological “resistance and rebuilding,” in every facet of society (240). Hers is a message of hope: “we are not bound to ‘the way things are.’ We, ordinary people of the Global North, can live toward justice and sustainability. We can resist being ‘uncreators’ and exploiters” (270).

[7] McFague’s and Moe-Lobeda’s answers to the ecological and economic challenges of our day share a lot in common. In discussing the Christian duty to neighbor-love, both subscribe to an expansive view of the neighbor: all humans, and indeed the entire planet, is our neighbor and should therefore be loved (McFague 115, 132; Moe-Lobeda 175, 184). This love of the expansive neighbor is a duty and a calling, and God helps make it happen (McFague 22, Moe-Lobeda 196). They both see attention as the basis of love, calling for courageous willingness to face the evils affluent consumers perpetrate on the planet and on other humans. Such attention is transformative (McFague 56, 97, Moe-Lobeda 61). Both authors recognize that it is very hard to avoid feeling overwhelmed and succumbing to despair, denial, and powerlessness (McFague 162, Moe-Lobeda 93-94). But they assert that small-scale, individual actions toward justice and sustainability are not as futile as they may seem; since human choices created this mess, human choices can, little by little, undo it (McFague 62, 134; Moe-Lobeda, 183, 196).

[8] Despite all this agreement, there are some interesting points of contrast between the two books. McFague praises gratitude as a fitting response to life’s blessings, since any abundance is more than we deserve (207). Moe-Lobeda, by contrast, brings a critical eye to practices of gratitude, wondering whether these prayers may “subtly rationalize and normalize the [earth-destroying and exploitative] ways of life that produced my material blessings” (92). Overall, Moe-Lobeda brings a sharper critical eye; her emphasis on using the perspectives of women and oppressed peoples is a helpful complement to McFague’s more traditional approach. I do wonder whether McFague would be helped by a dose of the feminist theory that Moe-Lobeda uses so well. McFague correctly diagnoses the need for “a different model of power” in the societies that have ravaged the planet, but seems unaware of helpful feminist work on power relations (211-212). McFague also wholeheartedly endorses kenosis, self-emptying, without any acknowledgement of feminist concerns about calls for self-sacrifice that undermine women’s empowerment (Moe-Lobeda 171).

[9] Ultimately, McFague’s contribution is mystical, seeking to inspire readers to an altered sense of self, for the sake of the planet, and in this goal it succeeds well. Moe-Lobeda’s aim is much more multi-faceted and analytical, one that requires, at times, slower reading to fully appreciate. (Her quasi-fictional “life stories” are a much needed leaven for her otherwise dense prose). Both are a pleasure to read, though in different ways. The pleasure of reading McFague’s theology is due in large part to the occasional gems of well-wrought theology she slips into her chapters ( like this one: “We desire what desires us, and it is in the concrete living out of our response – our yes to God’s Yes – that we become who we want to be and were meant to be” [11].) The pleasure in Moe-Lobeda’s book is her occasional discursive sections – always erudite and enlightening – to analyze the concept of hegemony (86-87), or to ask whether the earth can count as a moral subject (142), or to revise the traditional Wesleyan Quadrilateral (adding non-human voices and oppressed voices to the traditional sources of authority: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) (241). These, too, are gems for the reader. Both books would be appropriate for graduate students and seminarians, and perhaps for advanced undergraduates. Both should be required reading for those interested in environmental and economic ethics.

[10] McFague makes an apt observation: In studies written about the environmental and economic crises, the closing sentence is often something like the following: ‘But of course it is really a spiritual problem – a problem of changing hearts and minds so that people will live differently.’ And there is probably nothing more difficult or discouraging than such a conclusion, for people do not change easily (2).

[11] But change we must, as McFague and Moe-Lobeda both recognize. They have offered us two inspiring, insightful discussions of how this change should occur. Will these books turn the world around? They will certainly contribute to its turning. As McFague writes, “it is a small piece, but my responsibility is to do it as well as I can and to keep working at it day after day” (215).

Laura M. Hartman

Laura M. Hartman, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Religion Department of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois