Exploitation and enough

John D Anderson considers the meanings of exploitation.

Exploitation is a word with more than one layer of meaning. “To exploit” can mean “to make good use of natural resources”, as in “the British exploited the resources of the ocean”. But it can also mean “to take unfair advantage of”, as in “he exploited slaves to get rich”. Exploitation in the second sense is the root cause of global heating. 

In our preparations for COP 26 in Glasgow the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is showing us how global heating is racist. The white rich have exploited the earth’s resources; the black poor suffer the consequences, such as increasing floods and droughts, or from the extraction of oil in Nigeria or  the burning of our plastics in poorer areas. As Nazmul Choudhury of Practical Action once wrote, “Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.”

In Britain the infrastructure of some of our canals and the building of some of our great houses were financed from the extraordinary profits made by the exploitation of black humans: buying them in Africa, making as much as 1,000% profit on transporting and selling them in the New World, and using them as slaves to produce cotton and sugar. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote, “Poverty is not a fact of life but a result of sin by the powerful and therefore a cause of God’s wrath”.

Our wonderful Creator God so arranged the evolution of our fruitful planet that carbon dioxide was gradually sequestered under the earth in the form of coal, oil and gas. In the last 300 years we have exploited these resources in the worst possible way: we have brought them to the surface and burnt them, thus releasing their embodied CO2. The Qur’an enjoins us to preserve the balance of creation; we have not.  We have tipped the balance greedily – and temporarily – in our own favour.

Humankind weaves threads into God’s natural tapestry. Our farming fabric, however, is increasingly threadbare: we are destroying soil, cutting down forest cover and adding too much artificial fertiliser to natural processes. We then invent the neologism “over-exploitation”. I live in Yorkshire and have recently been much impressed by a farmer who explained how, by reducing his flock of sheep, he has obviated the need for artificial inputs, reduced the pressure on his land, gained a much better life-work balance – and made more monetary profit. Tropical farmers in the Amazon, the Pope has recently shown us, need our support since they work with God’s creation to harvest its riches from the natural forest rather than cutting it down as cattle ranchers and soya farmers do.

Thomas Aquinas reminded us that “those things which some possess in excess of reasonable needs are owed by natural law (that is by basic right) to the sustenance of the poor”.  In our exploitation of the rest of nature for our benefit we possess, for a while, excess money, mobility and comfort. If we reduce exploitation and increase cooperation with the fruitful earth gifted us from God, we will indeed find joy in enough.

John D Anderson. Member of Baildon Methodist Church, Bradford.

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