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A Dialog On Faith and Consumption

Rabbi Mark Winer and Grier Raggio were classmates at Harvard College after each graduated from high school in Dallas, Texas. Mark went on to earn a Ph D in comparative religion and other studies from Yale University. He then became a distinguished man of religion and has served as a rabbi for over 40 years in the United States and in London, England. He has been very active in interfaith initiatives and has written extensively. When I was starting this blog, I emailed my old friend asking help with religion and environmentalism as follows:


I intend “We Consume Too Much” to advance the idea that protecting natural systems from radical changes is the right and religious thing to do, for the benefit of all of us and also for those who will be alive in 10, 30, and 100 years. I attach a memo of my conversation today with a home builder at the Texas State Fair; the stewardship argument is not likely to work with him or his fellow religious literalists. Any guidance from you is welcome.


Dear Preacher Grier,

Many, many religious organizations are as committed to conservation as you, on religious grounds. I know of a specific Jewish initiative in this regard. The Church of England has made zero carbon footprint a goal for each of its churches. We haven’t even begun to do the research, but the religiously based environmental movement is huge, and could not only be tapped into, but encouraged by your initiative.

From my religious perspective, the builder you spoke with at the state fair is precisely wrong on every count. Theologically speaking, God promises at the end of the Flood never again to destroy the world, but God does not promise to prevent human beings from destroying the world. God grants us free will, but does not intervene to prevent us from using our free will for destructive ends. Holocaust theology, both from Jewish and Christian sources, unequivocally comes to that conclusion.

Human destruction of the environment, of the Earth that God created and gave human beings dominion over, exhibits the same human evil and arrogance and sinfulness. God commands us to be His (Her) stewards of what we have been given. But the principles of preservation of God’s earth, preserving life, reverence for life, concern for the pain of animals are deeply embedded in Christian and Jewish theology. Indeed, they are deeply embedded in Islamic theology, in which every individual is called upon to be “Khalifa” in Arabic, the regent on behalf of God, to preserve what God has given us.

I could go on and on, needless to say. Support for your position, from the perspective of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theology is endless. Although I am much less knowledgeable in Hindu and Buddhist theology, my judgment is that support is equally strong.


Dear Mark,

I’ve been thinking and talking with people about the possibility of We Consume Too Much being a non-profit. One problem is that effective change has a political component that doesn’t fit easily into a non-profit. Remember the environmentalists’ tragedy of the commons? Fifty English households share use of the village commons on which everyone can graze his or her sheep. Each household knows that it can add one more sheep without affecting the commons very much. But if each of the fifty families follows its own economic interests and adds its own one more sheep, the commons soon turns into a mud puddle.

Let’s say half the households see the problem and for moral reasons decline to add their one sheep each to the grazing area. The other half of the households are unmoved by appeals to community interest and continue adding their one sheep each. The commons still turns into a mud puddle, only more slowly. The answer I see is to get enough households to the point of taking political action to prevent all households from adding additional sheep beyond what the commons can sustainable support.

I do believe that values from Abrahamic religion can be effective tools to challenge the “Greed Is Good” mantra embedded in our historically-successful, individualistic, capitalist culture. My tradition is Unitarian Christian, and old-time religion Lutheran from my grandmother, and I learned some of Christ’s reported teachings. There wasn’t anything there about the importance of having a big house or, as one of my friends puts it, using “Money as the way of keeping score” on your success in life. But you and I know that many people who define themselves as Christians don’t see any problem at all in treating constantly increasing consumption as a very high personal and national goal. We also know how difficult it is to change people’s beliefs and goals. So politics will be required to require changes in behavior when reason and religion don’t do the job.

At any rate, I’m turning this over, and am fortunate to have many smart, good-hearted friends such as you.


Dear Grier,

Politics is not a problem for a non-profit, so long as it is not partisan. Environmentalism, appropriate use of the Good Earth God has given us, taking our fiduciary responsibilities seriously are well-established civic, non-partisan values. When you think about it, conservation is really a conservative value. Indeed, the leading major party on Green values in the UK is the current Conservative Party, where the Prime Minister, a Conservative, has made a huge thing about riding his bike to Parliament, and to meetings. The Conservative mayor of London Boris Johnson has been a leading advocate of Green initiatives. Bikes all over London available for hourly rent are commonly called “Boris bikes,” after the Conservative mayor. London imposes heavy congestion charges inside Central London, although electric cars are exempt. The Conservative Party dominated Westminster Council has installed free charging bays for electric cars, and gives free parking. Etc., etc.

Conservation many would argue is one of the most important non-partisan religious values, civic duties, etc. perfect fodder for an interfaith initiative. Part of what we have to do is make conservation a transpolitical issue, interfaith issue, one which cuts across boundaries. To the extent to which conservation has been politicized, it has been caught up in the blue state/red state conflict. That’s too bad.


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Comments (1)

  1. Patty Stephens Tuesday - 29 / 11 / 2011
    Growing up in North Dallas, I saw that men were to produce money and women were to consume it. Score was kept on amounts produced and saved on deals. And I did my part on the consuming side, and when liberated added producing. The problem now is that this is not a winning formula for our kids and grand kids to have an environment that is livable. A gated communities or HP address won't protect us from the damages we are doing to the earth now. The good news is that we can turn the tides by becoming carbon free. We are working to discover how faith communities that are natural stewards of the earth can take a lead. Thanks for the blog Mark and Grier, Patty

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