The Economy and Ecology of Neighbor Love

My vote for the press photo of the year would be the one taken by Joshua Bickel on April 13 and circulated widely since. Covering a Coronavirus response update from within the Ohio Statehouse, the photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters with flags, red Trump hats, and masks outside—freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders.

The photo captures some of the painful divisions and complex ironies of our political/economic/cultural fabric—including, here, the irony of “law-and-order” conservatives defying local laws and taking to the streets, the President goading them on. One hopes that the new activists will gain some measure of empathy for more experienced protesters within Black Lives Matter, MeToo, or immigrants’ rights movements. One hopes, too, that liberals quick to relish in their anger can see also the real pain and anxiety underneath it. We may yet find ways to connect.

Our larger debate is between saving livelihoods by opening up the economy and saving lives by continuing to shelter-in-place. That debate, too, is complex and ironic. Complex because livelihoods, the means of securing the necessities of life, also obviously preserve lives, and because the lives saved are qualitative and not merely quantitative, notwithstanding death toll tickers on every cable news channel. Indeed, a now-obsolete meaning of “livelihood” is the quality of being lively—truly alive.

Only the most extreme ends of this debate, those fighting the pandemic as a battle within a longer culture war, think that you can disregard wealth or health in pursuit of the other. The vast majority of us want to get back to work as quickly as it is safe to do so, knowing that jobs and lives will ultimately be lost and saved together.

But the debate is also ironic, largely because of the terms that we use for it and the deeply deluded assumptions that lie underneath. We talk as though the health of the economy and the health of bodies—human bodies, the bodies of other creatures, and the whole body Earth—were different things. We’ve forgotten that economy and ecology come from the same Greek word—oikonomia, the management of the household. Worse, we’ve designed metrics such as the GDP that abstract the accrual of wealth from the larger economy of carbon and water cycles, relegating changes in the latter to mere “externalities.” We talk about endless economic growth while, as Wendell Berry says, failing to subtract. We fail to account for the loss of biodiversity and topsoil, rising sea levels and monocultures, precipitous climate change, and—this is intrinsically related— deteriorations in human public health, especially among the most vulnerable.

If endless monetary growth happened in the deep space of an expanding universe, we might be able to call it good. When it happens on a finite planet with limited resources and a particular carrying capacity, we should call it what we normally call uncontrollable growth that overtake its host—a cancer.

Nowhere are these ironies more conspicuous than in the negative oil prices that contorted global markets last week. Unable or unwilling to stop our fracking and pumping (in part, because it might be harder to return to maximum capacity), and running out of storage spaces, producers literally couldn’t give the stuff away. For the last two decades, the United States has wanted nothing more than to be energy independent, and (thanks in part to fracking) we have largely succeeded. But because this “independence” depends on nonrenewable fossil fuels extracted from the earth, the “independence” is fragile, abstract, and temporary, if not delusional. To claim that any nation is “energy independent” while using high-powered machines to blast gas from shale is like saying that able-bodied, employed adult men are entirely self-sufficient, while their mothers cook their dinners. (Adam Smith is a real life example; see “Adam Smith isn’t the Real Economic Hero—His Mother Is.”)

What does all this have to do with NetVUE institutions and their callings to educate for meaning, purpose, responsibility, and commitments to the common good? How about the central vocation that Christians share with other religious and nonreligious people of good will—the calling to love and serve the neighbor in need? I have three responses.

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

First, attending to the fundamental relationship between wealth and health, between economy and ecosystem, enables us to recognize the importance of vocational discernment, as it surpasses other forms of career choice. One can choose a career by matching one’s capabilities with interests; interest assessment tests do exactly this. To discern a vocation, by contrast, adds a critical third piece—that of understanding the human and non-human communities that have gifted one in the first place, and then responding with one’s gifts and passions to work for the community’s good. In other words, jobs become callings when they contribute to public health and the common good, including the health of the land itself.

Second, given that economy and ecology always intertwine—but contentiously so, as of late—it can become difficult to know what serving the neighbor entails, and how to live that out.  Carl Hughes finds Martin Luther’s 1527 tract on “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” surprisingly relevant during COVID-19—and I agree. Luther urges people to focus on the needs of their neighbors, especially in fearful times. For some, this will mean risking personal safety to serve others. Luther’s examples include doctors caring for the sick and pastors ministering to the dying. Other workers, including clerks and constables, can take leave of their posts only if they “provide capable substitutes to make sure that the community is well governed and protected” (Basic Theological Writings, ed. Lull, 481). Luther would have those of us teaching and administering colleges from a distance consider what leads to the health of neighbors—including our students, but also the communities of our campuses—when considering when and whether to reopen the campus as the nation reopens the economy.

And yet, many strain to use Luther’s language of sacrifice and service to the neighbor. Many of the “essential workers” ringing up groceries and delivering packages, often at low wages, are working not because they feel a special calling to serve (although some certainly do). They simply don’t have other options (see this essay from the Huffington Post written by a grocery store worker).  Luther would have each of us courageously do our work or find someone who can serve in our place. But what are we to do now when, for decades, we have been maximizing profit by exploiting workers who have very little choice in the matter? Language of sacrifice and calling can tend to expose these injustices. We wonder whether “essential” really means “disposable.”

Finally, though, there are some reasons to be hopeful, at least when we look to the long term possibilities. It may turn out that the coronavirus pandemic shines bright enough of a spotlight on injustices that we raise the wages of the workers that should earn a living wage on top of our praise. The bad irony of negative oil prices may inspire countries to use stimulus money to move further toward renewable energy. After all, wind and sunlight doesn’t need to sit in offshore tankers while we figure out how to use it. Finally, it may be that we individually pursue and corporately compensate work that leads to happiness and health rather than only to wealth as abstracted from the wellbeing of the whole. Ironic, too: we might just learn the way forward from the socially-responsible, environmentally-conscious Gen Z students that we are called to serve.

For other posts on this blog by Jason Mahn, click here. For more on Luther’s letter, see Caryn Riswold’s “Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross.” To learn more about the photojournalist and his experience of taking the photograph above, see “Fury and despair: behind the viral image of Americans protesting against lockdown” by Poppy Noor in The Guardian, April 18, 2020.


Jason Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). The above is adapted from Jason’s new book project, tentatively entitled Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Real-time Reflections on the Coronavirus.

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