In the Christmas narratives of the New Testament, nowhere is the proclamation of a new order of things stated more clearly than in these words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55):
"He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
the rich he has sent empty away."
This has happened many times in the course of human history. It happened when the Roman empire disintegrated, and then again when the absolute monarchies of the Middle Ages went down after the French Revolution. It happened when slavery was abolished, and each time one of the European colonies gained independence. It happens every time a dictator is deposed, or an injustice corrected, or any form of religious intolerance exposed as a lie manufactured by human hands and not by God's. It is happening today as women emerge from millennia of patriarchal domination in both society and religion, and as people increasingly demand liberation from the great perversion whereby elites become rich and powerful at the expense of the working class and without the slightest regard for the conservation of the human habitat. But one essential ingredient of the Christmas message is still missing: peace. Impending "reorderings of things" - such as the transition from consumerism to sustainability - better be animated by the wise principles of solidarity and nonviolence.
Fallacies of the "Natural Order of Things"
The "natural order of things" is often invoked to rationalize old prejudices that are no longer tenable. The prime example is that the patriarchal culture of command and control is a matter of "natural law" and even part of the divine plan for humanity. This fallacy became normative during the agricultural revolution (10,000 to 5,000 years BCE) that preceded the beginning of all the major religions and corrupted them all. We are still suffering from the kind of primitive thinking whereby 50% of the human race must be subservient to the other 50% - a major obstacle to progress as it diminishes the contribution of 50% of human resources. With regard to sustainable human development, one fallacy that comes to mind is that "growth" is a universal good. From this it follows that infinite growth in a finite planet is intrinsic to the "natural order of things." But, as Mother Nature confirms in so may different ways, physical growth eventually comes to an end, is followed by some form of stability for some time, and in due time becomes degrowth. We all know about the normal cycle of physical human life: birth, growth, adulthood, degrowth, death. All plants and animals share this cycle of life and so do all living systems such as grasslands and forests. All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, ....
People as the Wealth of Nations
Money is not the wealth of nations. People are the wealth of nations. Natural resources are part of the wealth of nations to the extent that people use them well. They are used well if, and only if, they are used for sustainable human development, i.e., the kind of development that gives each and every human being a fair opportunity to attain their full potential in every dimension of human life: physical, intellectual, emotional, vocational, spiritual. Sustainable human development is not possible as long as people cling to the priorities of the patriarchal culture of control and domination which prevails, and perpetuates itself, by seducing us with the attractions of the "consumer society" while blinding us to the reality that we cannot live sustainably beyond our means financially ("easy money") or physically ("free resources"). Simply put, there can be no unlimited growth in the production and consumption of material goods and services, and it is irrational to expect (let alone assume) that some miraculous technology will emerge to allow us to get something out of nothing. Politicians cannot work miracles either, subservient as they are to the elites that control both financial and military resources; a subservience which is common to politicians of every tendency from extreme left to extreme right.
Bread and Circus
It is disingenuous to attack politicians, or the oil companies, or the international financial system as if they were the only cause of the current economic-ecological crisis. After all, they are giving us what we want: "bread and circus." Bread in the form of cheap energy extracted from fossil fuels and material commodities to satisfy both basic needs and extravagant luxuries; circus in many forms, including the spectacle of politicians who clown around and dance to the political rythm required by the vested interests of those who pay for their political campaigns. Lamentably, even religious leaders are often "prisoners" of those from whom they receive financial support, and two billion people living in poverty (one billion in abject poverty) are seldom part of either political or pastoral calculus.
Thus we have unlimited growth for a few and unlimited misery for many, or so it seems to be for the time being. But some significant signs of hope are emerging: the ecological movement, the protest movements that adhere to nonviolence, the increasing recognition that certain "exclusivisms" in both society and religion, in particular those pertaining to matters of human sexuality and gender, are mere human concoctions to protect vested interests (money, power, honors) of those who presume to be "normative" and comply with a "natural law" made by human hands. Nothing human is 100% pure, but the voice of God continues to resound in the events of history, always calling people to freely choose more ethical behavior.
The Ethical Mind
Ethics may well be the most important concept for sustainable development, even though it is rarely mentioned. The dictionary definition of "ethics" is straightforward:
Sustainable development requires an "ethical mind," i.e., a mind that habitually takes into account both self-interest and the common good of society, now and in the future. All religious traditions offer a code of ethics, often summarized as an ethic of reciprocity and succinctly expressed as the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. All professions have a code of ethics, such as the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. All national governments have a code of ethics for public service. All universities have one. Most businesses have one of their own. Most international institutions have one, and ISO-26000, Guidelines for Social Responsibility, could be useful as a code of ethics for sustainable development worldwide. But as long as the future is discounted and maximization of short-term profit is "the natural order of doing business," all social and business "contracts" will be ethically meaningless, since sustainable development includes, by definition, balancing current needs with the needs of future generations. In other words, Homo economicus must become Homo ecologicus for sustainable development to make sense.
Toward a New Order of Things
The transition from consumerism to sustainability will be an evolution toward a "new order of things." It is not reasonable to expect that miraculous new technologies will emerge to enable infinite growth in a finite planet. Rather, people will have to outgrow the Homo economicus mindset and become Homo ecologicus. This will require leaving behind the patriarchal culture of control and domination and the advent of a new culture of human solidarity rooted in social ethics, with human decisions always balancing self-interest and the common good. All kinds of "exclusivism" will become obsolete; "unity in diversity" is the way of the future. It would be naive to imagine that this transition will not be a bumpy road. There will be bumps, and plenty of mud, and poor visibility, and a succession of crises along the way. Humanity will have to "muddle through" the process of mitigating the environmental damage that has been done and adapting to the new order of things. But the muddling through will be less difficult, and less painful, if we do it together while radically renouncing any form of violence.
It would be helpful if political and religious leaders stop clowning around, pay attention to the "signs of the times," and start acting like grown men and women willing to face the music. Global citizens must keep pushing (indeed, demanding) that the elites be pulled down from their thrones, that all the people be recognized and justly treated as the true wealth of nations, and that the human habitat be conserved as a precious legacy to be shared with future generations. Our children and grandchildren will have problems of their own, but they will be grateful if we responsibly choose to follow the "straight and narrow" path of solidarity and sustainability.