Glen Argan: We must fight the demon of individualism

  • September 5, 2019

An old adage in development work is the dictum, “Give a person a fish, and you will feed her for one day; teach her how to fish, and you will feed her for a lifetime.” 

This dictum is paternalistic, assuming that we in the developed world know how to “fish” while the residents of developing nations do not. The greater likelihood is local people know their own business much better than outsiders. They may need better technology which we can help provide. Or, maybe the best response is a mutual sharing of gifts.

The creative solution will arise out of turning the telescope on ourselves and searching our own consciences to see how our actions drive others into economic desperation. 

Unhappily, the Western world has exported the view that economic growth is the be-all and end-all for every society. We have taken for granted this assumption which has led to greater wealth and comfort for most of our people and have made it a template for the global expansion of our industries.

The idol of economic growth is the anti-Christ in contemporary civilization. It is the antithesis of the Gospel and of the worship of the transcendent God. It is the root cause of virtually every evil which plagues our world. In the Christian faith, God is in God’s very being an infinite outpouring of love among three divine persons, a love which overflows into creation itself.

In that light, Jesus states the two greatest commandments: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10.27). He also lamented the rich fool who built larger barns to store his crops when that night his life would be demanded of him (Lk 12.13-21).

Building bigger barns — or rather, the increasing exploitation of the Earth’s resources — has far outstripped love for God and neighbour. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is the latest poster boy for environmental exploitation, but he is simply following the example of 500 years of so-called development of his continent. Bolsonaro rails against the colonialism he sees in outside nations wanting to help control the fires currently ravaging the Amazon region. The real colonialism is the idolatry of economic growth which Bolsonaro has imbibed so well.

But let’s not place all the blame on the Brazilian leader. Pope Francis says “everyone’s commitment” is needed to control the Amazon fires. What might “everyone” do about an event halfway around the world?

The main practical task is to urge Western governments to contribute considerably more than the paltry $20 million they have offered to help Amazon countries fight the fires. More deeply, we need to fight the demons in our own hearts: the demon of individualism, the demon of uncritical acceptance that economic growth is good, the demon of a privatized moral conscience.

Theologian Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes that a privatized moral conscience “is the subtle but engulfing persuasion to serve the well-being of self, family and the ‘tribe’ to the extent that the well-being of distant ‘others’ becomes functionally irrelevant.” A person may be highly moral in their personal affairs but disengaged from the social evils which afflict the world.

Conscience is socially engaged, at least it ought to be. That engagement involves more than giving fish to the poor or teaching the poor to fish. It includes a realization that many are without fish because of structural injustice. 

That injustice can take the form, as I witnessed in Bolivia, of extensive upstream water use that turned a large downstream lake into a salt flat. The people’s traditional livelihood from fishing had been decimated. Teaching them to fish was no solution; government control of scarce water resources would have helped.

Conscience, by nature, goes against the flow. Living by the accepted values of society does not require an exercise of conscience. Conscience only swings into action when one suspects the veracity of the unquestioned values of one’s society or peer group. One then seeks higher values which throw society’s assumptions in doubt.

We can begin to prevent future replays of the Amazon fires by examining our consciences and discovering how our lives are ruled by the idol of ever-increasing material prosperity. Once that examination bears fruit, we must summon the courage to act in new ways.

(Argan is program co-ordinator of Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.)

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