Tag Archives: sustainability

Review of “Changing the Climate” by Adrian Brown

Changing the Climate is the most recent in the education series of Grove Booklets – short summaries of aspects of Christian life and ministry. I was fortunate to discover this one when I met the author at the recent Reconciling a Wounded Planet conference in Coventry, as I don’t normally follow the education ones, and this one has plenty to offer the general reader too.

Brown’s main thesis is that the way we have educated children in recent decades has failed to adequately equip us to find creative ways to address our crises of environment and sustainability; in fact it has tended to make them worse. Education is increasingly about success in “fulfilling short term tasks set by outside agents”; it puts knowledge in subject silos with little cross-disciplinary thought (at least at secondary school and beyond) and divorces it from ethics and the consequences of actions; and continues to teach the myth that knowledge is everything, that in theory at least we can manage the earth and essentially become gods.

Education has always been a balance between, on the one hand helping induct young people into what society considers normal, and on the other hand helping them develop the skills to critically evaluate the status quo and reinvent it for the future. Our current system, while advocating the latter, fails in either showing pupils the big picture of what today’s world is like, or having the wide-ranging vision to do something about it. Many young people – as always – have the passion and interest to do something, for instance, about the environment, but feel worn down by what they’re taught in school.

A particular problem is economics, taught as though it is “an empirical science with no need to factor in questions of values and obligations”, and that (since the fall of communism) it is inevitable – even both of these are known not to be true by academics. The ideology of this sort of economics has led to our current consumer society, where even Christians dislocate creator from creation and we lose any sense of right relationship with either. Our education system could help us challenge it, but instead it is aligned with it: education is primarily about success, which is about money, and with that money we can consume more.

Or, as Brown writes: “The planet does not need more ‘successful’ people; it desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people with the moral courage to fight to make the world habitable and humane.” Our Christian faith, correctly applied, can help shape such people. In particular, the prophetic texts help us to step outside the box, see our world in a more objective manner and inspire us to change it. They help us to share the despair of a broken world, acknowledges the difficulty of change, but see hope and bring hope for the future.

There is much rich material here to reflect on, and Brown has drawn together many strands (and cites many books). My one regret is that while there is a convincing case made for the failures of the current system, little is said as to how we can practically move on. What is a secondary school teacher to do when constrained by the strictures of a GCSE syllabus that leaves virtually no room to teach anything else? What can those of us not in education do to address the problems?


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Lydia Lives Lightly – sustainability blog

I’ve been looking a blog run by Lydia Groenewald, whom I met at a Christian Ecology Link meeting on Food. Called Lydia Lives Lightly it gives lots of practical ideas about how to live sustainably. It hasn’t been going very long, so I can’t say much about the posts, but the main strength is the lists of links of resources and organisations in categories ranging from travel to cosmetics to reducing our use of water, electricity and everything else. Recommended.

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Book published!

Living Lightly CoverOur book, Living Lightly, Living Faithfully, has been published today. Print copies cost £7, but we are giving away electronic copies (in PDF, epub and mobi/Kindle formats) for free. Get both from the Faraday Insitute bookshop.
The book contains essays from the speakers at our Sustainability in Crisis conference, a wide variety of authors representing diverse faith and secular positions, including academics, expert practitioners, campaigners and faith leaders. Together we explore how faith groups share important insights on the question of sustainability and the potential to mobilise large numbers of citizens onto the path to a more sustainable future. What is already being done and what more can be done?

Contents are as follows:

  • Introduction—Faith in sustainability?
  • Preface—The challenge of sustainability Bill McKibben
  • Is economic growth compatible with environmental sustainability? Paul Ekins
  • The role of credit and debt in our economic crises Ann Pettifor
  • Environmental economics of Islam Mawil Izzi Dien
  • Sustainable growth or right livelihood? A Buddhist approach to economic development Laszlo Zsolnai
  • Growth, sustainability and behaviour change: a Christian perspective Tim Cooper
  • Values and the role of charities Tom Crompton
  • A critique of sustainability in the business world from a Christian perspective Cal Bailey
  • Sustainable energy Juliet Davenport
  • Sustainable production—insights from Islam Harfiyah Haleem
  • Governing for sustainability—winning battles but losing the war Paul Chambers
  • Campaigning for sustainability Andy Atkins
  • Sustainability and food Peter Melchett
  • The moral landscape of decisions in sustainability and climate change Douglas Crawford-Brown
  • The environment and sustainability—an Islamic perspective Fazlun Khalid
  • Religion and sustainability in global perspective Elaine Storkey
  • Hopeful virtue: living in response to a world in crisis Ruth Valerio
  • The role of the church in the coming ‘crisis of sustainability’ Colin Bell
  • Spirituality and sustainability Satish Kumar
  • Sustainable production Harfiyah Haleem
  • Reading list and further resources

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Winton Symposium on Energy Efficiency

Yesterday I went to a one day conference on energy efficiency at the Department of Physics here in Cambridge. They have a new programme on the physics of sustainability and this is their first major event.

The meeting was mainly aimed at scientists, and as a non-specialist, there was often rather more detail than I needed, but it is encouraging to see some great minds applying themselves to the practicalities of sustainability technology. I do now have a much better idea of how solar PV cells work though!

A few more general points of interest to share with you though. One aspect I haven’t seen in these kinds of talks before is to ask what the theoretical physical limits are. Normally, it’s just a presentation of some advance in what can be done, but it’s helpful to know what else might be possible. For instance, the maximum theoretical efficiency of a single-material solar PV cell turns out to be 31%, and the best ones we have now are nearing 20%, so we can expect some further improvements but not substantial ones.

A second strand in the conference looked at the efficiency of computer processing and data storage. This currently expends in the order of 2% of world energy use, and trends are upward. Here too traditional forms of computing are beginning to hit some physical limits in terms of how far energy use can be reduced. However, the human brain is a factor of a million more efficient than this, and not too far above the absolute physical limits for transferring and storing data. One of the more interesting talks, by Simon Laughlin, explained just how it was so efficient: a combination of dense wiring, only sending on information when it is needed, and mixing chemical and electrical processing so that the more efficient is generally used. Certainly strong support for the claim that it was designed carefully.

It might be possible to try and design a computer which works more like a brain in these respects but it would be very different from our current ones, and certainly rather slower (and perhaps not completely accurate). Programming it could be interesting, but this is the kind of thing we’ll need to consider doing if we want to keep exponentially increasing processing and storage power.

The first talk of all, by Malcolm Keay, was by a social scientist, and he challenged the audience that energy efficiency wouldn’t automatically lead to sustainability, mainly due to a variety of rebound effects. For instance, although lighting technology is now several hundred times more efficient than in 1800, the amount of lighting we do has increased by over ten thousand, so our per capita consumption has risen by a factor of twenty or so. Things vary enormously from field to field, but in general people don’t see limits in what they can consume, and the amount spent on a given type of consumption stays roughly the same as a percentage of earnings.

He therefore advocates trying to make energy efficiency savings more in areas away from the front-line of consumption to prevent this kind of effect, but it goes to show that behavioural change is fundamental (if difficult to obtain).

There’s hence a lot of hope for good things from the scientists, engineers and technologists, but we can’t rely on them alone to get us to a sustainable future.

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Communicating Hope conference

Last week I shared a couple of days with about sixty people as we looked at the issue of how to find hope in our current environmental situation and how to communicate it more widely. It was organised by Ruth Valerio of A Rocha and Margot Hodson of JRI, with the main speakers were Martin Hodson, Richard Bauckham and Andy Atkins.

It’s taken me a while to process my thoughts. I think this is a good sign as it has forced me to reconsider both what we as a group of thinkers, activists and communicators should be doing, and me personally. (I haven’t seen much other comment on the conference online, so maybe other people are doing the same!)

This can only really be a personal overview and I’m only going to give brief outlines of the talks. I think Richard Bauckham’s talk is going to be published online, and it’s one where you’re better off reading the source than a second-hand description! And although the talks were important, the heart of the event was getting together and wrestling through the various issues, and giving us a safe space to express our own emotions.

These were particularly to the fore at the end of the first evening, after Martin Hodson’s “problems” talk presenting the latest updates to our environmental state. It need not be said that these were predominantly gloomy, with only a couple of potential green shoots. We then got into small groups to come up with our own ideas of what the problems were. Our group’s 14 post-it notes was not atypical.

The two morning talks gave some pointers to how we might go forward. Richard Bauckham encouraged us to rediscover the true nature of the Christian hopes. We’ve too often seen there just being one: our ultimate hope in eternal life with God in a fully restored creation, which has led to one of two opposite faults. Either we do too little to look after this one, or make an attempt to progress towards utopia on Earth (in line with post-Enlightenment thinking) and get frustrated when it doesn’t happen.

Instead we should see hope as rooted in a combination of love and faith, maturity and realism, seeing positive outcomes we can aim for which are feasible from where we are now. It may or may not be too late to avert major climate catastrophe, but we can at least do the best we can to mitigate from making it worse, to adapt as best we can, and help people imagine a possible future which is better than the one we fear.

Andy Atkins gave us the benefits of his practical experience as a campaigner. Again I can’t really do justice to his talk, but the main points I took away personally were the need to be wise in how we use what we have in the light of rapidly changing situations, and to ally with each other to use our respective strengths.

Interspersed through this were more time for group discussion, an Open Space discussion on various themes – our group looked at how we get a sustainability message out beyond our small community in the church – prayer and worship.

So what did I take away?

Perhaps greatest was a new sense of purpose and hope. It is so easy to get jaded, depressed and a sense that nobody else cares for what you do, but although the practical situation seems increasingly dire, there is still hope, plenty to do, and other supportive people there doing it too. In the week since the conference I’ve felt new passion for what I’m doing, and a few new positive ways to go forward.

It was certainly an encouragement to hear that our Sustainability in Crisis conference and this blog had been helpful to various people in their thinking and contacts.

I think the most urgent task, for me at least, is to get the message out to as many in the Christian community as possible, and now have a possible pathway for that to happen via a new contact in a significant place.

There was also a reminder that things are interconnected to a greater degree than we often see. I’ve been rethinking what I understand by stewardship/dominion in Genesis 1, which will be the subject of a future post, but if I’m right it could be helpful in unsticking some of the places the debate has got stuck.

But perhaps most is a reminder that we’re not doing this on our own: there is a community out there with the same concerns, and it helps to reconnect with them, reflect, and recharge periodically. The conference was much more than that, but had it been just that it would still have been worthwhile.


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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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