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Economics, Inequality, & Planetary Limits.
A faith-based dialogue.
Remembering this conversation of hope from summer 2021, as we speak to sustainable and moral development, Ukraine, and more, with Dr. Gary Reusche.
Dr. Gary Reusche has dedicated his life to sustainable, ecological and unifying development internationally. He has managed projects all over the world, including in India, South Africa, and Russia, and he currently lives on a small farm in Kyiv, Ukraine. Undergirded by a Bahá’í faith, Dr. Reusche holds a Ph.D in Agricultural Science and a Masters in Business Administration. Dr. Reusche teaches at Wilmette Institute, a Bahá’í University, addressing climate change, responsible entrepreneurship and social transformation. We invited Dr. Reusche to the Climate Cafe Multifaith for an in-depth conversation.
Dr. Reusche is a true world citizen. He was born in California, with his family moving to Japan shortly after. He estimates his work has taken him to more than 90 countries, and he has held different passports over time, including the laissez-passer issued by the United Nations. Having traveled worldwide, when it comes to the challenge of climate change, he is quick to note the relationship between over-consumption, wealth inequality, and environmental degradation. His perspective is forthright, saying of the climate crisis, “it's getting worse every year. Do you know it? If you do know it, what are you going to do about it? Because you’ve got to do something about it.”
In 2003, having worked in both Russia and Ukraine, he settled in Kyiv. With expertise in agriculture, development, and having been immersed in both Russian and Ukrainian cultures, he has a global perspective on the current war in Ukraine. When sustaining local systems are disrupted by global mechanisms of overproduction, overconsumption, and inequality, the outcome too often leads to war, poverty, and dismay. After a lifetime of work to establish peace, he has now a front row seat to a violence he has worked his life to prevent.
To all that, even now, Dr. Reusche adds the teachings of his faith, calling us urgently away from the collision course of conflict, away from extractive wealth, and toward respect for difference and unifying structures of justice. He quotes the Bahá’í teacher Bahá’u’lláh, “The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see…” Source.
Dr. Reusche lives in Ukraine, but sees the challenges of overconsumption and wealth inequality as a global one, including and perhaps especially pertinent to challenges in the US. The US faces a crisis of poverty and environmental destruction, much worsened from just 50 years ago. Dr. Reusche explains that the existential crisis we face can be seen as rising in part from an individualist mindset. He reads an excerpt from a working paper of the Bahá’í International Community, “…the individual as a purely self interested economic unit, striving to accumulate an ever-greater share of the world's material resources. Such a crude understanding has largely been rejected at the level of formal theory as simplistic and consumptive and destructive.”
How we deal with this individual accumulation and greed will matter if we are to step back from the brink. The voices of the faith community might be an essential one to interject ethical and moral frameworks toward remedy. Says Dr. Reusche, “the religious community…we need to be able to understand that we are all individuals and we all live on the same planet. We have many of the same objectives in terms of how we're going to develop our capacities and our spirituality.” We must stop enabling the excesses of the few, as this causes the destruction of many. Change will take a shared mindset: “Creating the world anew, leaving no one behind.”
“Global capitalism does not alleviate poverty and social exclusion. In fact, it's making it worse. Global capitalism has destroyed communities. … conventional economists are ignoring the acceleration of global environmental destruction. You know, we just simply can't do that.”
—Dr. Gary Reusche
Addressing inequality may take addressing individualism, but that will be challenging, indeed. Says Dr. Reusche, in the US in the 1960s and 70s a lot of young people, including himself, were in the streets fighting for a more equitable world. Yet, “somehow we were reoriented, intellectually, believing that we needed to increase our wealth in everything, whether it's cars, houses, anything…. And we started to develop a society which has turned into an overly materialistic society that is now a big problem for the world, not just for the United States.” We lost, he says, the idea that “some things are more important than materialism.”
Over the last 40 years, change did indeed come, but not the change that the youth of that time had dreamed of. “We wanted to be good people. We wanted to live through our life to be united, to be loved, to show passion, and to work for the beauty for the world. Somehow or another the whole thing switched around from about the mid 70s up until now, where [people say] ‘I need a bigger house, I need a bigger car, I need a bigger this, I need a bigger that.’ ” In reality, these things aren’t lasting. As the phrase goes, ‘you can’t take it with you.’ And Dr. Reusche wonders what our answer will be, when, “in the next world someone asks ‘what did we do with all your time? Why weren't you doing some other things that were better for society and for the people around you?’ ”
Dr. Reusche suggests tackling conversations like that with common sense engagement, both relational and urgent: “We simply can't sit back and watch and say, ‘oh my God, everything's going badly.’ We need to do a lot more, to say, ‘let's work together.’ Let’s find other people. Let's discuss it. Let's find the best way to move on. And let's think about how we live” because “we know we are surpassing planetary limits.”
“We do not need to live in a life that leads us to have excessive materialism. We can live more simply and probably more happily and more successfully and more spiritually, if we live in a different kind of a way.”
—Dr. Gary Reusche
The Climate Cafe Multifaith brings a leader to a conversation, and from there, the dialogue grows. For this conversation a lot of questions and observations bubbled up for discussion.
Peter Sergienko, an Episcopal lay person active in creation justice work, including Oregon Interfaith Power and Light, spoke to the challenge of shifting—reorienting—congregations away from materialism and accumulation back to shared ministry. He reflected on the notion that, “We will not save what we do not love.” And, while we are commanded to love God and our neighbor, he reflects, “like everyone else, we love stuff. …the America that we've all been enmeshed in is very materialistic. It's very individualistic. Our response to 9/11 was to go shopping.”
For Sergienko, he recognizes that simply being part of the US means participating in these economic systems, even when those systems are not necessarily moral or life-giving. Even something as simple as as writing a church budget is “enmeshing us in the capitalist systems that we're trying to critique and get out of. Our congregations are supported by the donations of our members, our money flows uphill. So we give to our churches and our churches take our common purse and pay our staff and keep up our buildings and maybe we have some money left over to put out into the larger community as ministry.” The necessity for money keeps a focus on the money, and it ties churches a system that prioritizes accumulation (buildings, hymnals, landscaping, organs, stage lights, sound systems...).
“We have to be able to find ways to say our quality of life—the purpose of our life, the reason why we live—is more important than wealth, is more important than materialism.”
—Dr. Gary Reusche
And indeed, materialism is often antithetical to the vital and moral work of church ministry. So how do we shift the system? Sergienko thinks it may be in “just trying to get into a moral conversation about sacrifice as a holy and beneficial concept, and something that we should be proud of.” Because it can be “off putting” to talk about sacrifice, Sergienko suggests using the phrase “embracing simplicity” as an easier way to begin. “I have been thinking a lot about language and story and how to communicate the idea that we're going to feel better and be better if we embrace simplicity. It's hard to talk about sacrifice and it's hard to talk about doing with less… putting material acquisition in its right place and putting material comfort in its right place, its a difficult story to tell.”
Edward Gildea who lives near London, in the UK, is an Anglican, a retired educator, and now involved with climate change activism including with Extinction Rebellion. He is also the Eco-Leader in his local church (in the US this would be a green team leader). Gildea identifies challenges of the big picture with the structures of government and finance. Despite the merits of Democracy, the system is not producing the change that is needed. Says Gildea, “Democracy has got now a 25 year track record of utterly failing to deal with climate change.”
He identifies that the failure to address climate change comes in part from political “short-termism.” In both the UK and the US, politicians must stand repeatedly for election and reelection. Climate change is and has been a long-term challenge. Gildea is succinct, “Every politician has got to be re-elected in three or four years’ time. So they can only do short term things that will get them popular and they don't dare do anything that will upset anyone or a lobby group or a self-interested group.” In place of short-termism, Gildea proposes “a legacy mindset” by which he means power and decision making must be reformed to take “future generations” into account.
“The United States has gotten out of control, where all the money is going towards the CEOs and shareholders. Those in the middle, frequently they don't even have enough money anymore to buy medicine, to rent a house, to buy a house, and it's gotten worse and worse and worse and worse every year.”
—Dr. Gary Reusche
Attitudes and behaviors from finance and business are another big-picture problem. Says Gildea, “We need an economic system that works on One Planet.” Instead, every year our global business/finance system consumes far more than one planet can restore. Partly, this is because a 200-some year old law of ‘fiduciary duty’ requires businesses to maximize profit. “We have corporations, businesses, who have just one fiduciary duty, and that is to maximize profit for shareholders,” says Gildea. “But there now needs to be a Triple Fiduciary Duty, which is also to Nature and to Humanity, and for the courts to then build up case law of what balance there is between a company’s duty to the planet and the environment, to shareholders, and to the rest of humanity.”
Where Gildea speaks to big system of macro-economics, Robert Shields gets local, speaking of local communities and micro-greens.
Robert Shields is Bahá’í and President of the Alliance for Reason and Knowledge (ARK) in Alaska, an organization that focuses on solutions to the climate crisis with an emphasis on permaculture, farming and food sovereignty. Shields also recognizes that “we are dealing with a [global food] system that is completely broken.” This brokenness drives an economy that prioritizes a race to riches over sustainability, stewardship, and the integrity of the person and biosphere. He sees two important ways to address that challenge. One, is that the system can be used to apply the right kind of pressures, and two, that actual projects must arise that create a new, more equitable system.
“We do need to live in a world where we work together systematically for the future and for our children, particularly because I'm afraid for younger children as they go forward into life.”
—Dr. Gary Reusche
Shields recognizes the relationship—or enmeshment—of politics and economics with what humans do. Shifting policy, then, can impact economic priorities and human behavior where people live. He explains, “the fact of the matter is that we have as much political power with our wallets, in the grocery store, as we do in the ballot boxes.” By choosing with our wallets, we can drive outcomes toward sustainable goals. His example relates directly to food economies, “going back to garden analogies…we can move away from the system of consumption and corruption and exploitation by focusing on reconnecting with that spirit of the garden, of nurture, of caring for each other and ourselves.”
Our choices are made more possible when openings in the system arise, through “critical issues” such as food, for example. Humans produce and consume “highly processed foods” in a profit-driven system. Getting out from under that is surprisingly straightforward with ready tools, “you can do microgreens in seven days and start transitioning your diet,” says Shields. From there, everything literally grows, “I'm trying to just influence us to start gardening, to start a community gardening group, and use that as a foundation not for only food and community, but also as a space for these conversations.”
The faith community can be an important part of that 'back to the garden’ transition. Shields mentions that already, “in Alaska, the food banks don't distribute any food to anybody. They distribute food boxes to the churches and the churches distribute the food to the people.” Churches are well positioned, then, to take the next steps. “As a community of faith, our direct action to help people grow food, understand how to cook it, and celebrate the community that is processing it, all of that,” Shields explains, becomes a sustainable “foundation for economic growth.” Adding that, as local projects grow, communities are creating a new economic model. In the end, “we stay true to the foundation of the earth as our home…. And that will take care of all of us.”
“We need to be able to work together, think together, believe together, pray together—so that we can find ways to overcome all of these things that are impacting the world today.”
For Dr. Reusche, this is an example of exactly the types of remedies that are necessary. He speaks to the reality that since about 1975, corporations have taken over, “overwhelmed,” the whole food system, saying, “the whole system from the beginning until the grocery store …is not a benefit to societies, not in the United States, and not in other places.” Dr. Reusche continues that, “we work with communities, local communities, and we've developed cooperative tax structures to do the kinds of food [production] such as situation that you're talking about. I believe that's the future.”
Changes that get to the root of the problems are changes that rise from local communities—people reaching together to meet their needs sustainably without destroying their land and culture in order to do that. People of faith know how to do this at the most basic, spiritual level. Faith communities share wisdom traditions and religious values that prioritize life and wellbeing for generations on generations to come. Says Dr. Reusche, “we have to be able to integrate the spirituality that we have as religious people who believe in God. We have to somehow integrate those, let's say virtues or spiritual requirements and say, ‘we need to really be able to work collaboratively in a kind of a unified fashion for a different kind of world.’ ” And this is the way, he says, that “is going to save the future for these young children.”
The conversation was deep, wide and complex. But at the heart of it is an absolute simplicity. This is really about returning to the common care we all learned when we were young. Life can be simpler, more hopeful, and more fair. We need to simply acknowledge the truth of where we are, and turn, and be healed. Or as Dr. Reusche sums it up, “it may not be that just one thing is going to solve everything. We need to be able to work together, think together. Believe together, pray together. So that we can find ways to overcome all of these things that are impacting the world today and are not going to go away unless we start to do something positive about them.”
Gary Reusche is a social and economic development worker living in Ukraine (born in Marin County, CA). Combining a PhD in agricultural science with an MBA in management, he managed projects in Central America, Africa, South Asia and the ex-Soviet Union. During the past 30 years, Gary used consultation decision-making in his work and teams. The purpose of consultation is not only to provide a framework within which collective decisions can be taken—important though this is. It is a means of harmonizing points of view, promoting unity among the members of the community, of strengthening the bonds of trust and love between individuals and institutions; and of allowing new insights into complex issues to be brought forth and examined dispassionately. While working on the ebbf research team, he authored the brochure “Consultative Decision Making” based on the Bahá’í Writings and his personal experiences both in business, and as a member of Bahá’í consultative bodies in 5 different countries where he lived as a development specialist. His passion is to correlate Bahá’í social principles with current realities in the world and to work for a sustainable future in a united world. As a social activist, he lives on a small farm in Ukraine and with his wife they run a residential “distance learning school” for groups of children, youth, and adults striving to build a culture based on universal spiritual principles.
Find this article and more at the intersection of faith, climate change and climate justice here on substack, or on the Faiths4Future blog.
Rev. Richenda Fairhurst is here for the friendship and conversations about climate, community, and connection. She organizes the Climate Cafe Multifaith as a co-leader of Faiths4Future. Find her in real life in Southern Oregon, working as Steward of Creation with the nonprofit Circle Faith Future.
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