Can We Fix the System?

The Tonanwanda Town Meeting we had in class was a great learning experience.  I was struck by the unique perspectives that each individual interviewee brought to the table.  Hopefully we all gained greater insight into the complexity of the situation and the way forward for Tonawanda.

Nearly all of the speakers highlighted stronger and more compassionate involvement by the local government as a common need.  While state and federal agencies such as the DEC and EPA must do their jobs and enforce the laws, the people need to feel the support of their towns and communities.  Real solutions to complex, inherently local problems do not come from bureaucracy.  Rather, solutions may come when local officials, who understand the pros and cons of both regulation and industry within the local context, use their power to care for their citizens.  A great example of this was the actions of Berks County Commissioner, Mark Scott, against Exide in Toxics in the Air, Worry on the Ground.  On behalf of his constituents, Scott protested the new permit issued to Exide by the Pennsylvania DEP.  While not it does not necessarily fix “the system,” intercession by local leaders can greatly ease the burden on individuals or community organizations like CACWNY.  As Kimlyn Bender observes in “The Mask,” “Ethical renewal must be a grass roots movement.”

The question still remains, “Is the ‘system’ broken?”  The same question came up again and again in our Tonanwanda Town Meeting.  How are we to think about the system of environmental regulation in our country?  What about the system of science, in general?  The many voices we heard expressed a wide range of opinions on this topic.  Is anyone right?

At its core, the environmental system is broken because all of our systems are broken.  Why?  Because humankind is broken.  We are inherently self-serving.  We have a propensity for wrongdoing as thinkers such as C.S. Lewis and Nitin Nohria have observed.  Borrowing a term from Golding, Bender asserts that our “‘essential illness’ is…rebellion.”  This brokenness is nothing new.  The rich and powerful have always exploited the poor and powerless.  The prophets of the Bible’s Old Testament are filled with indictments against the injustice to which humanity is prone.  In the 8th century B.C., Isaiah writes

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.

Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.

They do not bring justice to the fatherless,

and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

(Is. 1:23, ESV)

From a Christian worldview, we have no hope to fully fix our brokenness or cure our sickness on our own.  Utopia, the perfect ‘system’ will not come about by our power.  The only hope for true renewal comes through humbly asking for help from the God of the Bible.  If we truly want a true solution to our ethical problems, “we must seriously reconsider the necessity of religion for morality” as Bender states.  As a Christian, I don’t hope for complete change of humanity in this life, but rather see my responsibility to humbly serve and love others as I have been loved.  My focus must be making a difference in the lives of those around me, not necessarily “changing the world.”

So how does this all apply to Tonawanda?  It seems that we must not put all our eggs in the basket of “changing the system.”  This sort of utopian goal is ultimately paralyzing, because we see the impossibility of complete change as long as man’s heart is evil.  Rather, action should focus on the real, specific people around us, rooted in love for them. In his book Ethics, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a great example of ethical heroism in WWII Germany) writes that ethics must focus on concrete reality not abstraction.  He shows us that we can’t just sit back and “think great thoughts” (Scheider 2012) about ethics, worrying about how we can change the system.  In the end, we must focus on the real ethical demands before us.  For Tonawanda and other communities, the real change will take place as the local community works together.  Surely we, and they, can seek broader changes where we are able, but we can’t let big goals blind us from real, local actions before us.

Ask yourself – “Are there concrete, specific ways in your scientific endeavors that you can better care for or love the real people affected by your work?”

1 thought on “Can We Fix the System?

  1. Beautiful. I don’t think there’s any other way to “change the system” but through individual commitment to remain faithful to one’s values and ideals, and do good despite the inevitability of making mistakes along the way.

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