Kent: American way of life is fraught with perils - Catholic Courier

Kent: American way of life is fraught with perils

There is no limit to what we can do if we put our minds to it.

Yes, there is.

Civilization may be reaching that limit sooner than expected, according to two authors who see the concept of limitlessness as blasphemy at its worst, greed at best.

The two essays which, when read together, construct a well-reasoned bulwark against the "delusion of more" that will be offered by politicians during the remainder of the election season.

Wendell Berry, writing in Harpers, and Daniel Callahan in Commonweal agree that the situation is caused by the "American Way of Life" — and no little irony its acronym: AWOL.

The dominant response to the end of cheap fossil fuel "is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible," said Berry, a poet, author and conservationist. "We will keep on spending, wasting and driving as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves."

Callahan, author of many books on medical technology and health care costs, deals with the "hard truths about the American Way of Life," which he says is unsustainable. Berry’s premise is that limitlessness is a godly trait since only God is without limits. (Indeed, many who thought themselves equal to God — Adam and Eve, Lucifer — came to a rather poor end.)

Berry even has the temerity to suggest the relevance of religion to mankind’s present plight. Coming to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world is not all bad, according to Berry. "It returns us to our real condition and to our human heritage from which our self-definition as limitless animals has for too long cut us off," he writes.

"If we go back into our tradition we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life and thus forces a consideration of what human beings are and ought to be."

That consideration, according to Callahan, will require no less than a cultural revolution to accept that less is more. He deals in four specific areas: health care, credit, automobiles and global warming.

"The push for individual prosperity and for constant economic growth remains unabated," says Callahan. "That drive is precisely what will have to give way."

"Less is more" is heard in few political campaigns this year.

"To address the problem we will also have to be prepared to put up with worse health, less prosperity and less mobility," says Callahan. "Few people will be ready to make such sacrifices."

The thought of limitations are unacceptable because, in Berry’s view, we confuse limits with confinement.

"We will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent," says Berry. "We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given."

Rejecting what we are being told by politicians and marketers is the American Way of Life is far from being unpatriotic. It is recognizing the reality of stewardship, the proper care of creation and the right relationship of man to God.

Berry and Callahan each offer a valuable perspective on the perils of AWOL.

Stephen Kent is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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