What should the church be saying about sustainability and why?

Based on a talk given to the Environmental Interest Network of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.)

Over recent decades, the Christian churches have realised the need to take action to care for creation. This has paralleled and been influenced by moves in wider society, where the “green movement” has grown into a significant minority.

The “green movement” is however, not a monolith. It is motivated by three main concerns.

Firstly, environmentalism: that our way of life as a species is damaging our planet to the extent that both other species and ourselves are suffering. Effects include degrading natural environments, loss of biodiversity, pollution of water, and emission of climate changing gases. This, and in particular climate change, has been the most important concern for the last twenty years or so, and would be the dominant public perception of the green movement.

Secondly, the idea that what the Earth can supply us is limited, and that we risk running out of both non-renewable and renewable resources. This view was first put by Thomas Malthus, gained a resurgence in the 1970s through the publication of Limits to Growth, and is again regaining interest with concerns about Peak Oil. The Transition Town movement is a good representative of this perspective.

Thirdly, the idea that our modern high-speed high-technology materialistic lifestyle is in and of itself damaging to us: it cuts us off from what it means to be truly human, turning our inter-personal relationships into anonymous financial transactions and cutting ourselves off from our natural sense of place and relationship with nature. Probably the most influential proponent of this view is EF Schumacher, but he stands in a tradition going back at least a century before that.

Although these are connected, and call for broadly similar action, they are in fact logically independent: climate change would need addressing even if we had no shortage of fossil fuels; there are concerns about the psychological state of humanity as well as our environmental state, and so on.

The church in the UK has broadly taken the following position on the environment: God created the Earth and bequeathed it to us as stewards. We have failed to keep this mandate with various environmental consequences, and we risk causing severe damage to ecosystems and humanity, particularly in the less developed world. This addresses predominantly the first concern.

Of the others, the third is covered generally as “do not put your trust in material things”, taking the theme from the Gospels and other texts, but the consequences are normally restricted to cutting yourself off from God. Even fuller treatments that look at the wider context (for instance “Consumer Detox”) tend not to make the links to the other two areas. There are some exceptions which bridge this gap, such as Michael Northcott’s “A Moral Climate” and A Rocha’s “L is for Lifestyle”, but the kind of radically simple lifestyle advocated in the latter is seen only as a calling for a certain few.

By contrast, little if anything seems to be said on the limits question from a Christian point of view. Apart from the fact it has not been prominent in secular thinking either, there are two reasons why this may be.

One is that both creation care and anti-materialism have a clear Biblical theology behind them, including key texts that can be referenced and plenty of supporting evidence. Both were, in their own ways, topics that were of relevance in Biblical times. Limits, however, were not so much an issue in the world the Bible was written into – or at least if they were, they were not perceived as such – so not only does it have to be argued more indirectly from a combination of Biblical texts and pragmatic fact, it also has conflicts with passages about God’s blessing and growth in population, agriculture and such matters. Such growth would have been perfectly fine on a much emptier planet, but not in our currently overladen one.

Secondly, addressing both climate change and materialism is seen as an optional and generally altruistic “nice” thing to do. This approach coheres well with our individualistic culture in which you can choose to do, or not do, anything. Although in both cases the consequences are negative, people can, and do, opt against doing something about them on grounds such as cost, time, the possibility of doing something later, etc. (Exactly the same applies to virtually everything else in the Christian life, up to and including attending church, reading the Bible and prayer, and issues such as spending money you don’t have.) Limits, on the other hand, are coercive and compulsory, which makes them hard to speak on. You hear relatively few “Thou shalt not”s from the pulpit these days.

However, there are reasons why it is a helpful addition to our discourse as well.

The first is that it provides a second way in to an advocacy of a low-carbon, low-consumption future. We have made progress on this from the perspective of climate change, but it has been slow. A significant minority deny anthropocentric global warming, and many others seem tired by the issue, and/or believe rightly or wrongly they have already done what they can. A limits message is, if nothing else, new. It also enables new evidence to be brought in, particularly on Peak Oil, and while the effects of climate change are for now largely abstract – what does a half-degree rise in temperature really mean for us? – we can point to the increased prices of fuel and food in recent years and say that more of the same is likely in the future, while acknowledging that there are still some debates over whether rises to date are limits-related or not.

The second is that this is an issue whose effects are more likely to be seen earlier than those of climate change, and more in the developed world. Experts are loathe to make estimates for obvious reasons, but we don’t expect to see severe results of climate change within, say, twenty years, and those will be predominantly in the developed world. Resource shortages on the other hand are likely to bite this decade, and the combination of increased fuel prices and the consequent damage to our economy will affect everyone.

Again we have the current situation in Greece and other parts of Europe to point to as a model for what we might see. We can argue that we need the church to take notice for two reasons: firstly as a warning to our own congregations of the risks, but secondly as a potential missional opportunity. Considerable numbers are likely to find themselves poor both financially and in spirit, having lost hope in the likelihood of the economy providing themselves the lifestyle they would like to live, and will be in need of support in both regards. Some will be open to the alternative source of meaning we offer through Jesus Christ.

Our argument thus becomes something along the lines of: “We are failing to fulfil our mandate to care for creation and future generations by overconsuming, particularly in the developed world. Even if that doesn’t convince you to take action, we are going to be forced to go down this route regardless due to shortages and increased costs of key resources, so it would be best to think about and prepare for this future now. In particular, how can we support and reach those in our communities who will struggle with this transition?”

This kind of approach is certainly challenging, and certainly requires some further thought to work out how to apply well in the church context. Like the Transition movement which comes from a similar starting point, we certainly need to be humble both in that we don’t know the full details of what will happen, nor can we offer a full solution, but we do know we need to pull together as a community and decide how to make the best of what we are likely to have. As for AGW, there will be strong voices who deny there is a problem at all, so those speaking on the issue will need to be well-prepared and courageous.

The task at this stage is to inform those in church leadership and other key individuals of where we are practically and help them to work out how these issues interact theologically and practically with the mission of the churches in local areas. As we know from environmental issues, we will get much better responses from some than others, but need to encourage all.

The Sustainability in Crisis project has a vast wealth of knowledge on this: our task is to provide resources that present at least the basics of a complex field so that all can grasp something of the challenges ahead.


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