Watercolor image of the Earth.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash
With a change in perspective, a new, more modest, standard of living is possible
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Rebecca Solnit suggested that “much of the reluctance to do what climate change requires comes from the assumption that it means trading abundance for austerity, and trading all our stuff and conveniences for less stuff, less convenience.”
Solnit, a writer and historian, and co-editor of the new anthology, “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story From Despair to Possibility,” argued that what is required is a change in perspective, one that reframes climate change as an opportunity “to rethink who we are and what we desire.”
“What if we imagined “wealth” consisting not of the money we stuff into banks or the fossil fuel-derived goods we pile up, but of joy, beauty, friendship, community, closeness to flourishing nature, to good food produced without abuse of labor?” Solnit wrote. “What if we were to think of wealth as security in our environments and societies, and as confidence in a viable future?”
Solnit’s op-ed recalls the groundbreaking environmental justice work of American Baptist pastor and denominational leader, Jitsuo Morikawa (1912-1987). Morikawa made a significant contribution to this field by articulating an understanding of environmental justice rooted in Christian theology and ethics.
Prior to World War Two, Morikawa served three Japanese American congregations in the Los Angeles area. During the war he was forcibly relocated to the Poston Internment Camp in southwestern Arizona and preached for one-and-a-half years in the camp and relocation center.
From 1944 to 1956, Morikawa was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Chicago. After that he served 19 years with American Baptist Churches USA, first as director of evangelism and later as associate executive secretary. He challenged American Baptists to redirect their evangelism toward the world at-large and encouraged churches to be concerned with the corporate and social, as well as the personal and individual, dimensions of life.
Morikawa wrote, “To be human, to live life in salvation, to live life in Christ, is to live as a fair and responsible steward of God, which means a new standard of living, a life of maximum meaning based on minimal consumption to insure equity of distribution and protection of future generations still unborn.”[i]
Morikawa was prescient. “The twin issues around which the world’s future seems to revolve are the issues of ecology and justice,” he wrote. “Ecology pointing to humanity’s dependence on nature, and justice, its dependence on neighbor.”[ii]
It is not enough for an individual or a family to succeed if others are not prospering; likewise, for western nations to enjoy material abundance while others remain mired in poverty. Persistent inequity within and among nations, Morikawa argued, is contrary to God’s design for human life.[iv]
Morikawa was ahead of his time in discerning the intersectional nature of social justice and ecological wholeness. His efforts were instrumental in bringing these concerns together in the American Baptist emphasis on ecojustice in the early 1970s and they continue in the work of such organizations as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to press companies to do their part to address the climate crisis.
Like a modern-day Apostle Paul, Morikawa argued that our stewardship in Christ calls for a new standard of living—one that does not measure the good life by what we consume, but rather finds meaning in minimal consumption to insure equity of distribution in the present and protection of the environment for future generations. He was prophetic in his own day and remains so in our time.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
Paul did not suggest we ignore our own interests, but rather that our interests are bound up in the interests of others. If we lived more fully into this admonition, considering the intersection of our interests with that of our neighbor and the environment, it would contribute significantly to addressing issues of ecology and justice.
Morikawa understood that a living standard tied to what we acquire and consume, is untenable in a world of limited resources and increasing population. A new, more modest, standard of living—one which considers the interests of our neighbors and the environment, and which seeks to expand equity of access to the necessities of life for all—is possible. To achieve it will require a change in perspective.
Which brings us back to Solnit’s suggestion that we think of wealth not in terms of money and goods but rather in terms of joy, beauty, friendship, and community; that we think of wealth as security in our environments and societies, and confidence in a viable future for all. To this I imagine Morikawa would say, “Amen!”
[ii] Jitsuo Morikawa, “Toward an Asian American Theology,” (American Baptist Quarterly, June 1993
[iii] Paul M. Nagano and William L. Malcomson, Jitsuo Morikawa: A Prophet for the 21st Century (Council for Asian Pacific Theology, Richmond, California, 2000), p. 57