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Trends on Collision Course with Justice
By Neil Chethik


 NEW CENTURY and millennium are upon us, and opportunities abound to help shape the world for the better. But where should religious people focus their energy? What global issues are most compelling? The UU World recently surveyed more than a dozen activists working on racial, environmental, economic, and other justice concerns. Here's what they see as our time's most important trends.

Corporate Growth
The trend that the activists most often cited as alarming is the expansion, in size and influence, of private companies. The protests earlier this year at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle highlighted many activists' fear that corporations are usurping the role of elected governments--and thus the people's democratic voice--in determining working and living conditions around the globe.

Statistics show the lengthening of corporations' reach and the concentration of wealth in corporate hands. Since 1970, the number of transnational corporations--those with significant business operations in more than one country--has risen more than sixfold, from 7,000 to 44,000, according to the United Nations. At the same time, the biggest transnationals are getting bigger. In 1998, combined sales of just the largest 200 corporations accounted for 26 percent of the world's gross domestic product. Today, the top 10 telecommunications companies account for 86 percent of telecommunications sales in the world.

Business leaders say that large corporations provide economies of scale that reduce costs, making goods and services available more widely and cheaply. But the religious liberals we spoke with argue that the trend toward megacorporations raises serious ethical and practical concerns.

The Rev. Marilyn Sewell, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, contends that the bigger corporations get, the more distant they get, pointing out, for example, that decisions about the local conditions in an Asian country may be made by corporate executives in the US who have never even set foot in Asia. She adds that corporations, by their nature, focus on the bottom line and tend to reward executives who increase profits, even if the increase comes at the expense of employee safety or environmental protection. Nike is among a host of apparel companies that have recently been exposed--and in some cases, boycotted--for allowing children in developing countries to help manufacture their products.

Meanwhile, the WTO's growing power has many activists concerned. They say the WTO, a multination trade agreement, empowers a relatively small group of trade representatives, who are heavily influenced by corporations, to make and enforce international trade regulations. Activists charge that the WTO threatens democracy worldwide.

Anke Wessels, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University, points to the controversy over US beef as an example of just such a threat. Three years ago, European governments determined that beef raised in the United States that was injected with growth hormones could present a health hazard and banned its import. The US objected, taking the case to the WTO, which decided that the European ban constituted an unfair trade barrier. When Europe wouldn't change its policy, the WTO authorized the US government to raise tariffs on a number of European imports, which it did.

Wessels says the WTO tried to use its economic muscle to overturn a democratic decision by European governments. "The science on growth hormones is not totally clear," Wessels says. "The Europeans wanted to be cautious. But when it comes to trade, the WTO doesn't recognize caution."

Growing Economic Inequality
Poverty amid plenty has always been a problem, but it appears to be getting worse. In 1960, the richest 20 percent of the earth's people earned $30 for every $1 earned by the poorest 20 percent; in 1997, the disparity had grown to $74 for every $1. Today, 800 million people--more than 10 percent of the world--are undernourished, the UN reports. Some activists and economists say the growing inequality results from a "winner-take-all economy" that lavishly rewards corporate leaders and investors while parceling out subsistence or below-subsistence wages to those who build the products or perform the services that corporations sell. According to Business Week, the average CEO of a major corporation made $12.4 million in 1999. That's an increase of 17 percent from the previous year, and 475 times the salary of an average US blue-collar worker.

Kathy Thornton, national coordinator for NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobbying group, says religious liberals should be asking governments three moral questions when it comes to their economic policy: What does the policy do for poor people? What does it do to poor people? How does it affect poor people's ability to make decisions about their lives?

The rich-poor gap is especially poignant these days insofar as it affects health care. Millions of Africans with AIDS can't afford drugs that could prolong their lives for years or even decades, and in some African countries, life expectancy has dropped below 35 years. In addition, the UN says desperate workers in places such as China, Southeast Asia, and the former Soviet Union are falling prey to deceptive job recruiting pitches and ending up as slaves in sweatshops and brothels in the developed world.

Valora Washington, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, says she finds child poverty especially repugnant, as well as rampant. Even in the US, she says, one in six children lives in poverty. Washington contends that progress could be made if the US Senate would ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 by the UN General Assembly and approved by President Clinton in 1995. When they ratify the convention, national leaders agree to accord certain basic rights to children, including access to food, education, and medicine. There's no enforcement mechanism in the document, Washington says, but "it establishes some ethical standards, and that's why it's important. It says, 'This is our vision of how children should be treated.'" Congressional opponents of the document argue that it undermines parental authority.

Growth and Immigration
Suburban sprawl has not only become a major local issue in the United States and Canada but in other developed countries as well. Tracts of new houses stretch for tens of miles from city centers, gobbling up open land while straining water, power, and road systems. Meredith Burke, a demographer and UU from Santa Barbara, California, says that while developers are often blamed for sprawl, the real culprit is population growth. The world added more people between 1950 and 2000 "than in the four million years since humans stood upright," says Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group. And the growth continues. By 2050 world population is expected to reach 8.9 billion, nearly a 50 percent increase over today's population of six billion. Brown says severe water and food shortages are probable.

Activists take different approaches to the problem. Brown is pushing the US and other prosperous countries to spend more money educating women in developing nations about family planning and supplying them with birth control devices--the best way to reduce population growth, Brown maintains. On the other hand, Burke, who has consulted for the World Bank and Genentech, says the US should get its own house in order by drastically curbing immigration. She contends that most of the country's anticipated growth--from today's 275 million to a projected 404 million in 2050--will come from immigrants and their children. "It takes a lot of hubris for us to tell other countries [to stabilize their populations] when we aren't willing to do it ourselves," she says.

Burke's border-closing proposal probably won't be adopted any time soon, which means another trend is asserting itself in the US: People of color are growing as a percentage of the total population. Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice, says that by 2050, racial minorities will make up half the US population. And along with the racial shifts will come religious ones, with Muslim and Buddhist numbers growing in relation to those of Christians and Jews.

Cloud says these changes will provide a major test for Unitarian Universalists, for whom tolerance and the celebration of diversity are primary tenets. "Each of us will have some work to do," Cloud said. "We'll need to reach out and engage others who are different, and try to understand others who are different."

Environmental Threats
Unitarian Universalists have expressed a belief in the sanctity of the earth in the form of our seventh principle, which calls on members to respect "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." It's no surprise, then, that for some UU activists, environmental degradation is the most important problem facing our world.

Global warming has special urgency. According to the EPA, global surface temperatures have increased between 0.6 and 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last hundred years, and the 20th century's 10 warmest years have occurred since 1984. Rising temperatures are melting glaciers and raising ocean levels. Among many other effects, this threatens coral reefs, which are sometimes called "the rainforests of the sea" because they are home to great varieties of marine life.

The chief cause of the rising temperatures, most scientists agree, is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from industrial and civilian use of fossil fuels. Environmental activists say it's possible to shift to cleaner energy sources, but oil companies and some manufacturers are trying to convince people otherwise.

The clearing of forests, especially those in the tropics, is another major concern of environmentalists. Rainforests shelter many plant and animal species. In fact, the Worldwatch Institute says massive forest-clearing campaigns--often to make room for ranches and houses--have led to or threatened the extinction of 25 percent of the world's vertebrate species. "If we assume we have some responsibility to future generations," Worldwatch's Brown says, "we have to take care in what we're leaving them."

Scientific and Technological Innovation
Many political and business leaders are hoping that advancing knowledge and new technology will solve the problems like the ones described in this story. Most activists we spoke with doubt it, however. Indeed, they fear that rapid technological innovation is actually widening the gap between rich and poor. They point out, for example, that wealthy countries--and, within those countries, wealthy communities--can afford to buy computers, train their citizens to use them, and take the profits that come with increased efficiency. As of 1999, the US, with less than 5 percent of earth's population, had more computers than the rest of the world combined.

Justice activists are skeptical of other advancing fields, as well, particularly genetic engineering and nanotechnology, which alter substances at the molecular and atomic levels, respectively. Martin Teitel, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, which studies such technologies, says more than half of the processed food in the supermarket already contains genetically engineered substances. "We're eating it, we're feeding it to our kids, we're beginning to let it loose," he says.

At the same time, he contends, we don't know enough about the long-term effects of consuming such food products. He points out that asbestos and DDT were both considered safe when they were originally marketed; only with time did we learn about their toxicity. And unlike those substances, products altered at the atomic level are alive, Teitel says. "Cleaning up or recalling something that is not only alive and reproduces but can mutate or connect with another organism is a challenge we have never really had to face," he says.

Teitel, author of Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, says he doesn't oppose technology but that serious moral questions are raised by creating new kinds of life. "I'm not saying we should all wear animal skins and run around in the forest," he jokes. "I have my laptop computer and my Dodge van. But there's a big difference between learning from the world and shaping that world so that it 'lives' within our ideas, which is precisely what genetic engineering does."

An Interdependent Web of Issues
All five trends mentioned in this story are interdependent--world poverty, to cite an obvious example, leads to population growth and environmental degradation. So activists say it really doesn't matter where someone chooses to step into social justice work. When possible, they do suggest joining local communities of fellow activists for support. And despite the urgency of many of the problems, they warn against setting goals too high. Social justice work is like a very long relay race: Our forebears had their turn, and then they passed the baton to us; we take our turn now, and eventually, we must pass the baton to the next generation.

Neil Chethik is a freelance writer from Lexington, Kentucky. His book Father Loss: How Sons Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads will be published in January by Hyperion. Christopher L. Walton contributed to this report.

UU World XIV:6 (November/December 2000): 18-22.

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