We are about to turn specific passage from Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren but before we go there I want to recap my central observations and clarify my perception of some key issues. My primary concern over the last eight posts has been McLaren’s claim that we are living with a “suicide machine.” By this he generally means grinding vast numbers into poverty, exhausting material resources, and destroying the environment through unsustainable economic growth. This view suffers from a parochialism of the present in at least two important ways.
First, it fails to appreciate the trajectory of human events up to this moment in time. Human life has been one long history of famine, disease, war, and bare subsistence living up until the past three centuries. Life expectancy at birth was 20-30 years old and infant mortality rates were 200-300 per 1,000 births. Global life expectancy is now approaching 70 years and the infant mortality rate is dropping rapidly through the range of 50-60 infant deaths per thousand, with the African AIDS epidemic having a significant drag on further progress. After millennia of little change, global per capita income increased by magnitudes over the past two centuries and the percentage of people living at subsistence is shrinking by the year. The most rapid economic growth is in emerging nations and the growth is greatest among the bottom quintile of these emerging nations. The cycle of prosperity is steadily spreading throughout the planet, enhancing the quality of life for billions of people.
There clearly are a variety of significant disparities between various peoples. Yet McLaren takes a snapshot picture of present realities, and without historical reference, simply presumes present economic systems are creating poverty rather than lifting people in to more prosperous lives. As my posts have gone to substantial lengths to show, you can substantiate that claim from the historical record.
Second, with regard to resource depletion, McLaren appears to be a true neo-Malthusian, projecting existing technologies and rates of consumption into the future without allowance for innovation and resource substitution. As we saw with Thomas Malthus’ predictions of endless cycles of human societal collapse in the early eighteenth century, with Jevons predictions in the mid-eighteenth century of England running out of energy within a few decades, with the predictions of imminent collapse by the neo-Malthusians of the 1960-1980s, or with the thought experiment of placing ourselves in 1910 and planning how much cropland the USA would need in 100 years, there is a profound tendency to understand and account for innovation.
Because of this parochialism of the present, McLaren casts the emergence of pollution as the by-product of the unqualified evil of modern economies. Yet that pollution led to the dramatic emergence and expansion of global prosperity mentioned above. As people move into greater affluence, environmental protection rapidly ascends the scale of issues to be addressed by society. And in fact, economic growth has actually contributed in unexpected ways to environmental protection as evidenced by the fact that the world population has more than doubled since 1960, but the net amount of land converted to cropland has grown only by 14%. Scientific rationalism and economic growth has empowered us to feed twice as many people with minimal additional encroachment on natural habitats.
With all this said, I feel I also need to add some clarification. My point in recent posts has not been to show an equally distorted picture of economic advance without blemish.
The world has gotten where it is today via far less than noble behavior by world players. Colonialism, while having little contribution to creating the wealth of Western powers, did significant damage to the productive powers of colonized nations. Slavery and domination were frequent. The USA was late to the colonial game and participated little in European style colonialism but we have an ugly history of genocide against native peoples and slavery. The USA has far too often used its might to thwart productive developments in regions of the world when geo-political or business interests made it worthwhile.
Still, even within this dark and ugly past shines forth some virtue. As Jared Diamond so aptly shows, nearly every culture throughout history that has developed superior technological and economic capabilities has engaged in colonialism and domination. The West was no different. What is unique is that certain values embedded with Western Judeo-Christian culture have severed as transformative agents leading societies away from atrocities and toward shared prosperity for everyone. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
McLaren, and many within the emerging postmodern church circles, over identify the ideas of progress and economic growth with Enlightenment and Modernist ideologies. Just as with developments like science, a narrative was spun by secularist thinkers that Enlightenment thinking, freed from the tyranny of religious thought, brought progress and economic growth into existence. In fact, the historical record shows a “hijacking” from Christianity of ideas like science, progress, and economic growth that had been coming to fruition within Christianity. They were employed in support of Enlightenment fantasies of the autonomous self. It is my reading of McLaren that he believes ideas of progress and economic growth are anathema to God’s framing story. It is my view that progress and economic growth are thoroughly Christian ideas that need to be recovered and placed back in the service of holistic shalom. McLaren’s understanding of the biblical narrative seems to be that it begins in a garden and ends in a garden. My understanding is that it begins in a garden and ends in a garden-city (i.e., the New Jerusalem), incorporating the material contributions of humanity into the created order. McLaren appears to me to see only an evil suicide machine born of Modernism. I want to know how we can redeem the good of recent human developments and lose the bad.
We will turn now to some specific passages within the book.