Their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together

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Abram was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold.

Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them if they stayed together; their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together. There were quarrels between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and those of Lot’s.

  Genesis 13: 2, 5-7

Tucked away in the story, the description of God’s gift of the land to Abram is a brief and powerful description of the source of the conflict between Abram and Lot: “. . . their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together.” Abram’s solution to the inherent conflict of such competing gratifications is to suggest to Lot that he choose where he would like to settle and that Abram, given the plenitude of space and land, would choose the opposite direction, so that they could merely avoid each other.

A difficult truth for us is that our preferred solution to the problem of “life with others” at the macro or micro level is to avoid the others and claim our own private spaces so that we can enjoy our own possessions free from their demands. We now understand, however, that at the global level we no longer live in a world of infinite space and resources. As Pope Francis points out in Laudate Si the comfort and wealth of the developed world has been built to a significant degree on the backs of the world’s poor. For some time the depletion of the rain forests of the Amazon and the Congo took its toll only on the indigenous peoples of those areas. Now, while that cost continues, we have arrived at a point where the entire planet is affected by the insatiability of a system that colludes with our human greed and desire for ever more. In our day it is not so much competing wealths, but a competition between rich and poor that dominates our global relationships.

We see the dynamic of competing gratifications not only at the global but at the level of personal relationships as well. By now most of us in the United States recognize the fraying of the fabric of our civic community.  Not only in the wider world, but even among ourselves, we realize that a sense of entitlement pervades our relationship to each other. Too often we tolerate “the other” with a kind of benign neglect until they somehow impede or threaten the progress of our project or the demands of our desires. At that moment we pass from indifference to anger and our reactions become violent. We find ourselves very much in the position of Abram and Lot, but with increasingly fewer options for avoiding each other.

In such an environment we experience the truth of the loss of community in U.S. culture which has been much documented in recent times. Today’s scripture calls us to recognize the connection between our desire for more than we need and our relationship to others. The phrase “the American dream” was coined by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931. For him, the concept included far more than the merely economic. He wrote that it it “is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” For Adams, then, the American dream included, and sprang from, a certain respectful recognition of others and a shared concern for their human potential. When our desire for wealth and possession supersedes our recognition and respect for the others, we are bound to find ourselves unable “to dwell together.”

There is a profound wisdom in the view of the common life in all the great wisdom traditions. In some way or other, that life depends on a way of voluntary poverty/simplicity, of chaste respect for other persons, and of an attentive listening to the needs and directions of the environment – human and ecological – in which one is situated. As individuals begin to become rich, in fact or in mind, the bonds of community inevitably fray. Those of us vowed to life in common, if we are honest, must acknowledge the effect on our community lives of increased personal wealth and accumulation of personal goods. Pope Francis has touched many nerves with Laudate Si. Perhaps one of the most sensitive is that he challenges all of us as individuals and societies to recognize that we may have developed a need for “too much,” and with that need a lack of recognition and respect for the others in the world “for what they are.”

193. In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. Benedict XVI has said that “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency.” [135]

194. For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change “models of global development”; [136] this will entail a responsible reflection on “the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications”. [137] It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of economic growth. In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.

195. The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,” [138] can those actions be considered ethical. An instrumental way of reasoning, which provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs, is at work whether resources are allocated by the market or by state central planning.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si

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