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Brian McLaren says it like it is

February 17th, 2009

God’s Politics
Two Kinds of Economic Recovery
by Brian McLaren 02-10-2009

I just watched President Obama’s Indiana speech and town hall meeting from my hotel room in San Diego. I was watching on MSNBC, with Chris Matthews hosting and Pat Buchanan commenting. Pat (predictably) panned the speech, saying that people in Elkhart make RVs, and Obama’s speech failed to explain how we’d get Americans to buy RVs again. His comment, it seems to me, perfectly epitomizes an adventure in missing the point, and perfectly articulates two kinds of economic recovery.

For many people, economic recovery means “getting back to where we were a few months or years ago.” That means recovering our consumptive, greedy, unrestrained, undisciplined, irresponsible, and ecologically and socially unsustainable way of life.

I’d like to suggest another kind of recovery … drawing from the world of addiction. When an addict gets into recovery, he doesn’t want to go back and recover the “high” he had before, or even to recover the conditions he had before he began using drugs and alcohol. Instead, he wants to move forward to a new way of life — a wiser way of life that takes into account his experience of addiction. He realizes that his addiction to drugs was a symptom of other deeper issues and diseases in his life … unresolved pain or anger, the need to anesthetize painful emotions, lack of creativity in finding ways to feel happy and alive, unaddressed relational and spiritual deficits, lack of self-awareness, and so on.

Similarly, I’d like to suggest whenever we hear the word “recovery,” we as a nation see it not as a call to get back our old addictive high, but rather as a call to face our corporate and personal addictions, including the following:

1. Our addiction to carbon. Fossil fuels are an addictive substance. They give us speed … quick energy … serving as a kind of cultural amphetamine. Meanwhile, they toxify our environment and throw the ecosystem in which we live into dangerous imbalance.

2. Our addiction to weapons. Weapons are one of the most addictive substances possible. They give us a feeling of well-being and security, removing our feeling of fear and anxiety, much like a barbiturate. But like a drug, they make us lazy and slow — lazy and slow in the much more important work of relationship-building, justice, and peace-making, lazy in seeking the common good. And they plunge us into an addictive cycle, because if everyone in the world is getting more and more weapons, we aren’t safer … especially when increasing numbers of those weapons are nuclear, biological, and chemical.

3. Our addiction to fear. Religious leaders, media leaders, and political leaders have all discovered that you can raise quick votes, dollars, and members through the hallucinogenic stimulant of fear. By making straights afraid of gays, conservatives afraid of progressives, Christians and Jews afraid of Muslims, citizens afraid of immigrants, and vice versa, these leaders get a quick organizational high — crack for their unity and morale. But the more fear you pump into your system, the more fear you have, and pretty soon, you go from being stimulated to paranoid, seeing things that aren’t there and missing things that are. And soon after that, you move from paranoia to paralysis, leaving you in greater danger than ever.

4. Our addiction to stuff. Jesus said that a person’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of her possessions. An economy that measures growth by the number of durable goods (resources) extracted from the environment and turned into non-durable goods that are bought, used, and then thrown away into a landfill … that economy “succeeds” by turning goods into trash, and calling it success. That’s not success. We need to imagine moving beyond an extractive, consumptive economy to a sustainable economy, and beyond a sustainable economy to a regenerative economy. I believe that in God’s world, if billions can be made destroying the planet and exploiting people addictively, trillions can be made caring for the planet wisely and caring for people justly.

5. Our addiction to a single bottom line. During the president’s town hall meeting, a man from Indiana told how he started a solar-powered attic fan company, and how he chose not to ship manufacturing overseas, but instead, to provide good employment for his neighbors. That meant, he said, that he had a little less cash in his pocket … but wouldn’t you agree that being a good neighbor has a value that can’t be measured in dollars? The single bottom line of financial profit is addictive, and like an addiction, it destroys families and communities. We need to rediscover a triple bottom line — financial sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. So we need a recovery of family values, and we also need a recovery of community values, and neighborly values, and ethical business values.

6. Our addiction to easy answers. “Government is the problem.” “Just throw money at the problem.” We can’t afford our addiction to these kinds of easy ideological slogans and facile reactive fantasies in a complex, real world. Ideology is, in many ways, a drug that substitutes the quick high of unthinking reaction for the hard work of acquiring wisdom.

So … maybe we can sabotage our addictive tendencies by letting the word “recovery” have a meaning that wakes us up rather than drugs us into the comfortable, dreamy, half-awareness in which we have lived for too long. That’s my hope and prayer. (For more on this, see my book Everything Must Change.)

Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren ( is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again. 

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Lessons from Easter Island

December 21st, 2008


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A Word  About Easter Island And Other Calamitous Feedback Loops

   by Don Williams

Stone faces of Easter  Island gaze on as anthropologists, mythologists and space cadets endlessly  debate their meaning. Measuring up to 28 feet high and more than 80 tons in some  cases, the stones have elevated a ruined island paradise to the status of icon  in the realm of cautionary tales.

Either Easter Island’s  decline was brought on by smallpox and slave trade courtesy of Europeans who  arrived there in the 1700s or else, shortly after sinking roots around 1200 CE,  the islanders began destroying their own world by killing their verdant forests  in a vain effort to avert disaster.

It’s an article of faith  among tree-huggers–including me until I read up–that Easter Island fell prey to  a cult or three. For centuries, the natives built enigmatic stone heads in  tribute to dead chiefs. Such ancestor worship helped ward off trouble, they  believed, and grew their clans’ prestige, but transporting the stones and  erecting them used up lots of logs, adding to the decline of forests. This  caused a shortage of wood for building boats and a shortage of trees for birds  to nest in, and so the seafood and fowl that provided sustenance began  disappearing from their diets. Soon this once proud and accomplished  civilization turned to eating rats, even to cannibalism, the record  shows.

One theory goes that, as  the decline began, leaders commanded their subjects to accelerate the building  of statues. More than 1,000 have been counted, many left abandoned in quarries  or by the roadside. The idol boom was a vain attempt to call down the favor of  Gods. In short, by the middle of the last millennium, they’d mostly destroyed  their own environment by creating a feedback loop that spiraled out of control.  More cutting, less food, more cutting, even less food. Or so the story  goes.

If true, we’re wise to  embrace this cautionary tale, for our leaders ask us repeatedly to feed our  sustenance to idols they erect.

Idols to commerce, high  finance, fossil fuel, the military-industrial-media complex. All bask in dogmas  bordering on religion.

Behold Wall Street,  where numbers rise like stone edifices. Today we’ve passed 9,000. Can 10,000 be  far away? Is 12,000 once again within our grasp? Now watch as towering numbers  tumble.

“More capital!” implore keepers of the Dow. $700 billion should do.  No, toss in 150 more to prop up that idol, 200 for the one down on Main Street.  

Be not deceived. We’ve rendered such sacrifice before. In the 1980s,  the savings and loan industry failed, and we the people poured our sustenance  into it. Behold! Wall Street recovered, then faltered. For a time leaders  suggested feeding Social Security and perhaps, one day, all such safety-nets to  Wall Street.

Yes, feed the mighty Dow  your pensions.

Yes, feed it  Medicaid.

Yes, let’s have another  war–there’s a trillion we can feed Westinghouse and Boeing and General Electric  and other makers of armaments. There’s how we’ll restore Halliburton and the  Carlyle Group and other entities in which Bushes, Bakers, bin Ladens and others  lay money on the bet that wars they insist we fund continue to pay  dividends.

And so it  goes.

Hear the people chant,  “Drill here! Drill now!” Drill anywhere at all!

Yet deep ecologists tell  us the wealth of nations is founded on the shaky ground of drawing down deposits  of natural energy placed in this earth by the sun over billions of years. In  this, “the last syllable of recorded time,” to quote Shakespeare, we’re drawing  those deposits down ever more rapidly, turning them into money and ruinous  greenhouse gases.

England stripped her  landscape of most primordial forests in a couple of centuries and then turned to  coal, mostly in the 19th century. Then, along with America, Germany  and many other countries, she discovered the power of oil, bestowing prosperity  on millions, yet contributing to wars around the world. It’s been little noted  that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in part because of our oil embargo against that  country.

Beginning some thirty  years ago, Carl Sagan, J. E. Lovelock and other scientists began warning that  burning fossil fuels would result in a greenhouse effect. Yet the same  faith-based “conservatives” who ignored the need to conserve, applauded as  Ronald Reagan stripped solar panels from the White House and clean energy  incentives from the national budget. Now hear the pathetic chants from their  benighted tribe:

“Drill here! Drill  now!”

And so such chants  resound. Death to terrorists. Build more bombs. More ships. More planes. Support  the Troops! They’ll keep us safe.

In the next fiscal year  we’ll throw nearly a trillion dollars at the military, counting supplemental  funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s more than the rest of the world  combined will spend on all things military. Some among those nations have  signaled they’ll raise their defense spending in response, prompting a cry for  still more from us. And so the military feedback loop spirals onward,  mesmerizing the faithful.

Few  pause amid the clamor to consider truths that might set us  free.

Here’s one: For the cost  of one cruise missile or one aerial drone, we could build 80 schools in Pakistan  and Afghanistan, whence terror springs. Yet we feed the god of cruise missiles  while starving the benign spirit of education.

Here’s another: Osama  bin Laden told the world why he launched a jihad that most people agree included  the terror of 9/11. It was because the feet of infidels trod sacred ground.  Osama mostly won. We withdrew from Saudi Arabia as he and the house of Saud  demanded. We linger in Iraq, oblivious that our presence recruits more  terrorists for the likes of bin Laden.

Here’s one more: Clean  energy cannot compete against Big Oil and Big Coal unless nurtured, yet the  President and Congress spent the last eight years giving tax breaks to gas  companies, while mostly ignoring wind, solar, geothermal and other  sources.

On Easter Island, the stones stand looking, silent as  voices of the faithful who built them so many years ago.  

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist for Knoxville Voice, a  blogger for and the founding editor and publisher of New  Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems.  His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism  Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. He is  finishing a novel, “ORACLE OF THE ORCHID LOUNGE,” set in his native Tennessee  and Iraq. His book of selected journalism, “Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best  Writings About People” by Don Williams, is due a second printing. Along with  Greg Palast, Marjorie Cohn, Norman Solomon, Will Durst, James Secor and others,  he is a contributing editor to Media With Conscience ( and his  commentary frequently leads the page at For more information,  email him at Or visit the NMW website at

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