Clean Energy Conversion Response: “We” = Who?

A thoughtful Q & R after the jump in response to my recent posts on Clean Energy Conversion

I’ll insert responses below … A reader writes:

You are a spiritual hero to me, and very likely your books kept me from losing my faith. You reintroduced Jesus to me and led me to others—Wright, Franke, Stan Grenz, to name a few—that shook my faith and made it stronger. I’m a graduate of Biblical Seminary because of your endorsement.

Thanks. That’s encouraging to know!

Anyway, I just read your post on Clean Energy Conversion, and honestly it really hit me the wrong way. I don’t disagree with point #1. I’m personally looking into solar energy for my house and I drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. In theory my belief about clean energy is that the sooner, the better. The question is how does this occur?

Great to know you’re taking these important steps!

So what’s my beef? It’s in one two-letter word: “we.” Who is “we”? As you always point out to your critics, their words have so much “loaded” in them that it’s difficult to respond without completely talking past each other. I feel like progressives are beginning to suffer from something I call “we-dolatry.” Instead of placing emphasis on the individual, the emphasis is placed on the collective. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but what happens when the “we” makes the individual subordinate? The philosophy of “we” strips away individuality away without realizing it (because I know that’s not what you intend to do).

This is a really valid question and I’m glad you asked it. Please be assured – I’m not trying to strip away individuality! Rather, I’m trying to inspire individual commitment toward shared action. And this is especially important in relation to environmental stewardship. Let me explain.
I’m all for individual initiatives – getting solar panels, driving fuel efficient vehicles, changing light bulbs, eating local. These are important and worthwhile. I’m also for local economy initiatives – solar energy coops, food coops, etc. These are no less important and worthwhile. But all of our individual actions can be overcome by bad policies – especially bad energy policy.
Permit me an analogy. Let’s say we start a school in Malawi to help orphans. But then war breaks out in Malawi. (Fortunately, Malawi has been much more stable than its neighbors – so this is just hypothetical.) The children will be scattered and the school destroyed. So a big social phenomenon crushes hundreds, even thousands, of good and beautiful individual and local initiatives. This isn’t to minimize the importance of those individual and local initiatives. It’s just to say that more and more of us have to think both/and, not either/or – more and more of us have to work on all levels, individual, local/community, and social/global. Or better said, you might focus on global issues and I focus on local ones, but we should respect one another rather than criticizing one another.

So when you say, “we must re-price dirty energy,” there are a few unspoken assumptions that I really struggle with:
1. “we”—whoever that is—know what to re-price it at; this strikes me as naive at best and arrogant at worst. If we’ve learned anything the past 100 years of modern history, it’s that human beings do not know how to correctly “price” something on a large scale that is beneficial for society. It’s always led to mass poverty and social injustice.

— I’m not sure what examples you’re thinking of here – unless you’re thinking I’m recommending communism or socialism!
The best thing (in my opinion) would be to price dirty energy at the level of its renewable alternative. We’d need to gradually move toward this, knowing that as we did, renewable alternative prices would come down, so I think we’d eventually meet in the middle. Another option would be to try to estimate the full costs of dirty energy – the externalized costs that the extractors are passing on to us.
By the way, if you think there’s a better option than re-pricing dirty energy, I’m open to it. I just haven’t heard a better option that takes the environment seriously, and I’ve done a good bit of reading and research on the subject.

2. “we” means everybody in our society; what is unsaid is the belief that a collective “we” acts, but this cannot be true. At best our elected leaders “act” on our behalf, but what about the untold thousands or millions that are harmed in the process? Humans are not individual automata, they are individuals with subjective preferences. “Love your neighbor” means in part to respect those preferences. If they are immoral, wrong, or dangerous, they ought to be addressed, but I cannot help but laugh at the notion that the right laws will actually make our society better

— I think if you were African American, you wouldn’t laugh at the notion that civil rights laws made society better. If you were a coal miner with black lung, I don’t think you’d laugh at the notion that labor and health laws could make society better. If you were a woman suffering from discrimination or a handicapped person who couldn’t get access to buildings, you’d feel that equal rights and disabilities legislation made society better. If you got sick from infected meat or if you were discriminated against for your religious beliefs, you’d feel that better food handling laws and better religious nondiscrimination laws make society better.

So the question is, Who is “we”? And how exactly do “we” make decisions? Since we don’t live in a democracy, what constitutes “we”? And even if “we” act, how do we know that’s best for everyone? By what standard do we measure whether or not “we” have made the right decision? With respect to “wisely investing” in the dividends of re-pricing, I must ask, “How do we know that we are wisely investing?” What mechanism is going to tell us? A committee? The government? A group of really concerned citizens? The next election?

— Whether we’re talking about a city, county, state, or national level, “we” means citizens, and the process is messy, for sure. It involves attempts at education and persuasion (which I attempted in my post), civil argument (as perhaps we’re doing now?), formation of public opinion, voting, and eventually public policy. No doubt, we get it partially wrong all of the time, in the sense that every decision has unintended negative consequences and somebody is unhappy with almost every decision. Today’s solutions help solve today’s problems, but they also create tomorrow’s problems. So I agree – none of this is surgical and perfect. But do you have an alternative? Because the status quo isn’t perfect either – as you already agree – when it comes to our current energy policy.
It might be interesting to go back and study the elimination of slavery, especially in England (where they didn’t have a civil war over the issue). It exemplifies the kind of change I think we need today in relation to the environment. People defended slavery and said it was impossible to eliminate it. They said the economy would collapse without it. In fact, I believe the British GDP did go down about 10% when slavery was abolished (hardly a collapse, but a cost to be sure). But nobody today doubts it was the right thing to do. There are some things more important than money, right?

I know you will address these in more detail, but it bothers me that the solution is always begun with “we” because it speaks of the assumption that somebody (or a group of somebodies) knows how “we” ought to do things in society. I simply cannot agree with the belief that if we have the right laws, the right regulations, the right amount of taxes, the right [whatever] to orchestrate society in a peaceful way, then all will be well. Why? Because large-scale orchestration of society has never worked. Invoking biblical support sounds great to win over Christians, but it strikes me as aligned with the constitutional approach to the scriptures.

I think you may be reacting against something I didn’t say and don’t believe. I never said “all will be well.” It won’t, and I can’t imagine why you would think I would believe that. But without wise energy policy reform, things will be a lot less well than they could otherwise be. Nor did I argue for large-scale orchestration of society – I’m just talking about energy policy reform. Nor did I claim that I or anybody knows with absolute certainty how we ought to do things in society. But having studied this issue for some years, and having the privilege of knowing some very smart and knowledgeable people whom I have consulted on the subject, I’m trying to speak out as best as I know how, based on what I know. If I’m wrong, I’m certainly eager to change and improve my views – something I can tell we have in common.

I hope I’m not coming off too strong, but I shed tears over the attitudes of people who arrogantly think they know how to run society, because the people in society without a voice suffer. I don’t think you’re arrogant by any definition, but it appears as if you still are okay advocating for social change in the same way. I’m looking forward to your series. I hope I’m convinced a bit more than my fears outline here. Every time I read stuff like this, I think of Greg Boyd’s statement to Jim Wallis in a debate a few years ago: “I don’t see how our commitment to Christ gives us a unique privileged stance on having an extra wisdom to tell government, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ The hope of the world isn’t found in our tweaking the government the right way.”

— First, I’m with you in wanting to be sure that people without a voice are advocated for, and ultimately, that their own voices are heard.
Second, Jim is a good friend of mine, and I don’t think Jim would say that being a Christian gives us any inside track on being right politically. (Sheesh … in recent years, it might be the very opposite!!!) Perhaps it should in ideal circumstances, but in reality, Christians can become voting blocks who are manipulated and misled just like other voting blocks are.
But if Christian identity doesn’t give us an inside track, neither does it give us exemption from our responsibility to our neighbors for the common good. If anything, our commitment to the Scriptures – much of which were written by the prophets, who have a lot to say about justice, of which public policy is an expression – obligates us to be involved with real passion and energy.
Nor would Jim say that the hope of the world is found in tweaking government. But I think Jim would agree with Gary Haugen of IJM when he says something like this: If a person is hungry, we give him some bread. If he is naked and homeless, we give him clothing or a place to stay. And if he is a victim of injustice or genocide, we need to provide the protection of a good and wise law.
And I would add – if species are going extinct, and if the environment is being plundered, and if future generations stand to suffer a great deal because we failed to convert from dirty and nonrenewable energy to clean and renewable energy in time, then I think we need to work for better energy policy. It’s a matter of wisdom, justice, and love.

I also assume your ability to read the unspoken assumptions in my own questions (a skill I am thankful you have!), so if you respond to my email at all, I’d be happy to be challenged in those assumptions.

Thanks so much for raising these questions. As I look over your email, I think you’re asking important and worthwhile questions about how far government should go in regulating social behavior. If we don’t regulate enough, then we end up with BP oil spills and Wall Street meltdowns that make us all suffer. If we regulate too much, then we can suffer in other ways. We both know that some cable news channels will worry about one danger and others will worry about the other … It’s a lot harder to work in between the two, realizing that dangers often come in two’s. Being “fair and balanced” is harder to practice than it is to proclaim!
One other thing. If we were all independent subsistence farmers living five or ten miles apart from each other, our lives wouldn’t be very interwoven so we wouldn’t need very much government. But we live in an incredibly interconnected world. We drive the same roads, use the same banks, invest in the same markets, depend on the same police and firefighters, breathe the same air that we have polluted together, eat seafood from the same Gulf of Mexico, drive using the same fuel and heat our homes using the same energy grid, communicate on the same internet, go to the same hospitals, study in the same schools, etc, etc., etc. So that means that with much interactivity comes much mutual responsibility (to quote Peter Parker) – which is another way to define what public policy is about: handling our mutual responsibility.
I don’t think a lot of people realize this relationship between high interactivity and high mutual responsibility.
Well – I hope that makes a little sense, anyway … and I look forward to more feedback from you in the future.