The Common Good

Energy, Consumerism, and the Economic Crisis

Last year, America spent $700 billion on oil imported from the Middle East. That figure is familiar because it is almost the exact amount of money that the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, requested from Congress to buy up securities and bank notes from our leading financial institutions that were on the verge of collapse. Could a comprehensive energy policy, making America significantly less dependent on foreign oil, have saved us from the mess we're in?

Then there's the war! It's no secret that if mushrooms, rather than oil, had been the main export of Iraq, we would never have invaded; and if we hadn't invaded, we wouldn't be spending $250,000 a minute to maintain a military presence there. There's an obvious connection between our economic plight and the billions we spend weekly in our militaristic adventurism. Would independence from foreign oil free us from sending American dollars overseas, thus alleviating some of the pressure we are experiencing in our present economic squeeze?

Since the year 2000, the only sector of the American economy that has expanded has been the housing industry. That is where most of the jobs were created, and that is where the financial investments were made. It should come as no surprise, then, that when the housing market went south, so did the rest of the American economy.

What if, instead of investing so heavily in the construction business, we had invested more heavily in the energy business? What if we had done what Denmark did, and what Al Gore proposed during his presidential campaign, and built our economy around the development of alternative forms of energy?

Since the 1970s, Denmark has made great investments in developing electricity from solar, wind, and thermal sources. During that time, the Danes not only became 80 percent independent of foreign oil, but also enjoyed a 68 percent increase in their GNP, while creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Would America, if it had embraced such energy policies, have escaped our present fiscal crisis, while at the same time diminishing the threat of global warming?

It is popular these days to blame our economic troubles on the greed of corporate CEOs, Wall Street's manipulators, and government irresponsibility. Few, if any, of us are pointing our fingers back at those of us who live on Main Street. Yet we have to face up to the reality that we are ourselves major culprits in the financial fiasco that has befallen the nation and the world.

Seduced by brilliant advertising, we are a people who have bought into affluent lifestyles that have us living beyond our means. We spend almost all that we earn and save very little.

What is worse is that, with our credit cards and ATM machines, we spend money that we don't even have-borrowing from hoped-for future earnings.

More than 50 years ago, America's most famous economist, Harvard's Kenneth Galbraith, warned us that an economy built on buying on credit would one day collapse. Now that it's happened, we are ready to blame everyone but ourselves.

I need not go into all the biblical passages that would call us to live simply, if for no other reason than that others might simply live. Facts and figures condemn us. We are 6 percent of the world's population but consume 42 percent of the world's goods. We all know that we Americans spend more and more money to buy more and more things we don't need in order to impress more and more people we don't know. In short, we have turned away from the lifestyle prescribed by scripture, failed to be good stewards of God's creation, ignored the needs of the poor, and, in the words of scripture, "spent our money on that which does not satisfy."

The time is at hand for repentance-not only for Wall Street tycoons and self-serving politicians-but for all of us. It is a time for all of us to examine our lifestyles in the light of scripture and do what we are asked to do in 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.

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