What Do I Really Need?

Monday, June 18, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

What do I really need?  “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at…. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p. 67.)  Our technological products—the gadgets and devices we invent—have the promise and potential to do noble things, to expand human flourishing, to empower the weak, to bring justice to the wronged.  But Thoreau saw the flaw already back in 1854.  Our technology is a tool that makes us more powerful, but we too easily sink into using these tools for the trivial and the base. 

What do I really need?  When we are careless and unthoughtful in our development of technology, we sink to the lowest common denominator of human needs, wants, and desires.  Although market forces sometimes push technology development towards innovative solutions that optimize use of resources, not all natural resources are monetized, and thus unconsidered development is less than optimal or even wasteful with these resources.  For example, without external pressure, development strategies that reduce air pollution will not necessarily be pursued.  The external pressure might be governmental regulation, but it might also be a cultural shift, such as a grassroots movement toward more fuel-efficient vehicles that drives a market shift to meet this newly perceived consumer desire.  Grassroots efforts to value natural resources better have taken the form of ecological movements, environmentalism, and lately, sustainability.  Christians have always been called to care for the creation.  This calling is often called stewardship. Christian stewardship is a concept we often hear preached in sermons about the church’s finances and the obligation for members to give.  Unfortunately, for many Christians, stewardship thus ends at their pocket book.  Once they have written a check, they don’t expect further responsibility.  But stewardship is a much richer principle, with meaning beyond simply tithing part of one’s income.  It is the awesome responsibility that humans are given in the first chapter of Genesis, to care for the entire creation as God’s appointed stewards.

What do I really need?  As caretakers of creation, the focus shifts from what I need to what others need.  We start with care and love of our fellow humans.  Justice calls us to provide fair treatment to all.  Justice includes giving a fair consideration to everyone in the eyes of the law.  “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”  (Proverbs 29:7, NIV) Justice includes giving everyone access to basic needs such as water, food, and shelter, perhaps also things like education, job opportunities, or health care.  Gandhi noted that the natural resources our planet contains are sufficient to our needs, but not sufficient to insatiable greed:  “I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it I thieve it from somebody else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world.” (M. K. Gandhi, Trusteeship, Navjeevan Trust Publication - Ahmedabad, 1960, Page 3. http://www.gandhi-manibhavan.org/main/q4.htm)

What do others need?  As creation’s stewards, we look beyond our fellow humans to the rest of God’s creation—both living and non-living.  “The righteous care for the needs of their animals.”  (Proverbs 12:10, NIV) Other creatures of God’s making also deserve our care and respect, though in different ways.  I might care for a bird or frog differently than a rock or ocean wave.  As God’s steward of creation, I am called to respect them all, even when I use that resource for my own sustenance, or perhaps especially then.

How do I balance my needs with the needs of others?  Sustainability concepts can help us find an appropriate balance.  I am reminded of the old saw about rights.  My right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.  Similarly Gandhi’s point is that my right to pursue my “wants” ends at the point when it crimps someone else’s ability to satisfy their needs.  The most common definition of sustainability captures this idea.  Commonly known as the Brundtland Report, it defines the term thus:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

( Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future , World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Published as Annex to General Assembly document A/42/427, August 2, 1987)

A statement on sustainability at Calvin College expands on this idea a bit, starting with God’s care of creation and leading to promotion of flourishing:  “We seek to live as part of the natural world in ways that mirror the care and love God has for the creation.  To live in a sustainable fashion means our daily activities will be conducted in such a manner that they do not seriously jeopardize, but instead promote, the well being of other people, other species, and the ability of future generations of all creatures to flourish.”

Moving a whole community to flourishing requires some knowledge about how the system works.  While attending a sustainability workshop recently, I learned more about systems thinking.  As an electrical engineer, I was already familiar with some of the terminology, such as reinforcing loops and feedback.  The workshop encouraged us to think about broader systems, beyond just technology, e.g., economic or political systems.  Donella Meadows, in her book Thinking in Systems, presents a list of means to change a system.  Near the top of her list, in terms of its effectiveness, is to change the goal of a system.  To reach a more sustainable world, our goal must shift from accumulating more resources to using them more effectively.  Individually that means giving up the race to accumulate more toys and focusing more on healthy flourishing.  Nationally, that means moving the definition of economic health from a focus on growth in production (a fancy name for a national accumulation of more toys) to a focus on flourishing as a society.  I am not calling for a technology-free society nor a return to frontier life.  Rather, I am suggesting we redouble our efforts to use technology more wisely, keeping in mind improved ends such as flourishing for all of creation when we choose to utilize the resources God has placed before us.

Page 1 of 1 pages
(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest