I’ve recently been writing some study material to be used by churches round the country for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland’s annual Creation Time initiative this autumn, on the theme of Sustainable Energy for All. This follows a major UN initiative by the same name, with three main goals:
- To give everyone in the world access to sustainable electricity supplies by 2030. One in five currently has no electricity access at all, and many more have unreliable supplies.
- To give everyone clean cooking facilities by the same date. Here 40% are reliant on burning wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste, causing smoke and fumes which are damaging to the health of both humans and the planet.
- To encourage the developed world to make a faster transition to sustainable energy.
Each of the studies contains a mixture of practical questions and a Bible study, and for the third I’ve chosen Isaiah 58. It’s quite commonly used for Christian studies on international development issues, perhaps getting to the stage of a cliché, but does have something useful and distinctive to say about the general issue of sustainable development too.
The general way this chapter is read is as follows: the Israelites were struggling and divided. (There are different opinions as to how, when and why, but this doesn’t affect what follows.) They then turn to God by fasting, seeking his guidance and blessing, but nothing much happens. The reason for this is that they fail to recognise two things. Firstly that they themselves, or some of them at least, are the cause of the problem, by oppressing others, causing them to have insufficient to live on. Secondly that a true fast involves genuine sacrifice rather than just pretending to be humble. What they’ve lost is a true sense of community across the whole population: if they saw the poor as true kinsmen, they would be sharing and supporting the poor naturally.
It gets applied to various degrees, depending on how bold you want to be. Everyone sees in it the mandate to provide for the poor. Most will note some sort of solidarity with the poor as well, although how far they’re prepared to take it we’ll look at below. There’s a case to be made that Isaiah would see just this as an insufficient response: in the same way that just fasting without dealing with the heart isn’t going to get anywhere, attempting to solve the problem out of a sense of obligation isn’t much better.
A further step forward is to start asking the question of whether we, the rich, are complicit with these people’s poverty, and if so what should be done? This was true of, for instance, the Jubilee 2000 campaign, and it’s worth noting that this is one of the passages that forms the heart of Jubilee theology. It’s at this stage that people start getting a bit uncomfortable: Helder Camara’s “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” comes to mind.
Probably we aren’t meant to take “bring the homeless poor into your house” as a literal instruction to fly starving refugees over from Africa and put them in the spare bedroom, but it’s an indication of the level of sacrifice required. I don’t think I’ve seen any reading of the passage that goes as far to note that the Israelites were given this instruction in the context of a fast, therefore we should respond partly by fasting, and maybe it’s not valid to do so. It’s certainly consistent with the ideas of sharing with the poor though, both showing solidarity with their condition, and giving out of our riches to enable them to live better.
Turning to sustainable development, you can see the same kind of spectrum of responses in what has been proposed and tried. There has been considerable debate and critique of the effects of policy to date. Whatever else you conclude, it seems a fair comment that we have tended to try too much to fix the effects of the problem as compared to the problems themselves. What we manage to achieve in the developing world tends to get overwhelmed by the inequity in the world system and other structural issues.
The sustainable development movement has long been based on the premise that if only the South can be helped to develop, they can get living standards equivalent to the North, and that all that is necessary for this to happen is the North to invest a relatively small part of its riches: 3% of global energy investment for the next twenty years in this case. Both the environmental consequences and the institutional and other obstacles to this don’t seem to be acknowledged, or at least acknowledged in a realistic manner.
To its credit, the UN report does go some of the way down this road, listing many aspects of the status quo which favour both the Global North and fossil fuel industries. They also point out that the North, as well as helping the South to develop sustainable energy, must also get their own house in order.
But they stop short of a couple of other important steps. It could give more consideration to what the millions currently without
electricity will do with it when they get it. It should also note that the North should not only be looking to switch to sustainable energy but cut usage (and other consumption) radically. Both of these are of course consumption issues, and goes back to the repeated question of whether “sustainable development” can indeed be “sustainable” if it doesn’t account for our overshoot in use of global resources.
This isn’t to say that everybody should be prevented from consuming more than they currently do: we are not, as some would accuse us of, condemning some to live in poverty forever. But we do need to do what we can to ensure that as people’s capacity to consume increases that they don’t imitate the North in consuming both too much and in a resource-inefficient manner.
That the report hasn’t gone further probably reflects that it’s already challenging enough to the Powers That Be to make its acceptance challenging: going further would make it more unpalatable, but if we’re taking the message of Isaiah 58 seriously, that is the direction we need to move in.