At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Joel Salatin on Economics, the Environment, and God (Part 3)

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Economists and environmentalists generally stand on opposite sides of the aisle in Washington. But one of the most fascinating lessons to learn from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin is how to apply theology to the environment and economics to see both as inseparable and in need of each other.

Earlier, in parts one and two of this interview, Salatin discussed work, stewardship, and his method of “forgiveness farming.” This is the final installment of this three-part interview.

Why do you think so many Christians don’t care about economics?

Our Greco-Roman, Western, linear, reductionist, systematized, compartmentalized, segregated, linear parts-oriented approach loves separate boxes. We put theology in one, economy in another, ecology in another, and so on. This is patently unbiblical; every thought and every action is to be brought under the authority of God. For too long, the Augustinian idea of spiritual goodness and physical badness has allowed us to escape the relatedness of things—which, by the way, you don’t find in Eastern thought, where everything is about holism, oneness, community, and we’re all relatives. Israelites are Easterners, just for the record.

Why should Christians care about economics?

Truth is truth, and it all lines up across all spectrums: ecology, economy, theology, society.

Why should Christians care about economic freedom?

Freedom is freedom. You can’t have a religiously free society without freedom in other areas…What good is it to have the freedom to worship, assemble, or speak if we don’t have the freedom to choose the food (fuel) to feed [ourselves] to give us the energy to go pray, preach, and congregate?

In an interview you said “Amoral, unbalanced capitalism is no better than amoral, unbalanced communism.” What did you mean by this?

Amoral anything is without constraint, and in the end, freedom without constraint is just as tyrannical as socialism without constraint…Giving Monsanto everything they want is just as culturally devastating as giving the poor everything they want.

What about your Christian faith has influenced the way you interact with the environment?

I believe the environment is better with a righteous human touch. The human touch can bring on sickness or wellness; knowing the difference and doing more of the latter is a good thing. I want to caress creation as a loving steward, knowing that such an attitude and action helps me understand everything: death before life; Jesus’ parables; redemption; the new earth.

Why do you think there is such a perceived division between the economy and the environment in politics and in our culture today?

First, the Augustinian notion that the physical universe is bad and the spiritual is good (I know that’s oversimplifying, but that helps make the point) created a lethargic interest in creation stewardship. Second, an inordinate importance on other-worldly thinking—after all, it’s all going to burn up anyway—gave an excuse to abdicate our visceral responsibilities to creation. Third, the modern environmental movement grew out of the pantheistic writings of romanticism into creation-worshipping and finally the hippie movement of the 1970s. Christians, unfortunately, found it much easier to lump environmentalists into anti-capitalist, anti-American commies than to wrestle with thornier questions like whether pesticides that make infertile frogs and 3-legged salamanders really glorify God. Out of this political context came the universal principle that what was good for the environment was bad for Wall Street, and what was good for Wall Street didn’t damage the ecology irreparably.

What paradigm shift needs to happen in our culture to erase the division between economics and the environment?

The paradigm shift for this to change is for Christians to realize that creation has a profit and loss statement just like Wall Street. Furthermore, the invisibles—like the 50 billion bacteria in a handful of healthy soil or the 3 trillion bacteria in the human gut—are more foundational than the visible. In other words, what the business plan does to earthworms, soil, and water is as important as what the business plan does for jobs and return on investment. Even a good idea or good service potential must be balanced with its effect on the greater invisible life community surround us.

How should Christians view the connection between economics and the environment from a theological perspective?

Christians should understand that without a functioning ecology, you don’t have an economy. Ultimately no civilization can be healthier than its soil and no people can be healthier than the food they eat. With each mouthful of food and each touch of the earth we are creating the landscape our children will inherit. We’re also describing, one action and attitude at a time, our view of God’s creation. Are we first seeking to understand creation’s patterns rather than first seeing what we can manipulate? Are we first seeking to understand what make the human body as the temple of the Holy Ghost healthy and functional rather than what can be ingested so cheaply that we can put more money in the offering plate for missions?

Tensions between economic productivity and environmental integrity persist in Washington, but not at Polyface Farm, according to Salatin:

On our farm, we’ve found that when we function with ecological integrity, we also function with economic integrity. The only tension between the two is created when we take short-term views. If we take long-term views, then the tensions vanish.

Salatin’s long-term, eternal vision of work drives him to respect the earth and steward his resources, which allows him to run a more productive business.

Do you agree that a long-term view makes the tension between the environment and the economy vanish? Leave your comments here.

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