Sunday, 3 June 2012

Musing on an ecological economy: why creation groans

Below is a sermon I delivered today, entitled “A Reflection on a Green Economy”. I acknowledge here my free use of the resources provided on Uniting World’s website. I am particularly indebted to the resources provided on this website of Dr Clive W Ayre. Unfortunately, his words and mine have become so intertwined I found it hard to extract either cleanly. So apologies to Dr Ayre, and I trust he will not be too displeased with my use of his ideas. I also sourced the memo from former World Bank economist Lawrence Summers from Ross Smillie's excellent book Practising Reverence.

I reproduce my refelction here because I am really tired of the “economy” apparently determining everything. It doesn’t. Nor should it. There are other measures of life and well-being we need to consider. In this spirit of anti-economism, I make the following theological and biblical offering.

Today has been set aside in the Uniting church as the time to celebrate World Environment Day. This day was established by the United Nations in 1972 to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and encourage political attention and action. In this reflection, some of the material I will be is from UnitingWorld’s resources, and written by
The United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All and the theme for World Environment Day this year is Green Economy: Does it include you?

Should the idea of economy include Christians? What do the economy, the environment and the bible have to say to each other? As it happens, they do speak to each other on a number of levels. God’s spirit is at work in humanity, in nature, in creation. And God requires that we practice justice and have reverence for all life.
This means that Christians have a responsibility to explore biblical understandings of justice, and how this is carried out. The Christian tradition is clear about the dangers of pursuing wealth to the exclu¬sion of all other things, and the bible is clear that resources are to be shared and carefully used. Secondly, acknowledging the sacredness of the earth is central to the vision of how God calls us to live together, both with each other and our environment on this planet.

In the last two centuries, some unfortunate trends have developed as to how we measure what is good. The natural environment, in the eyes of many, has become just a resource to be exploited, with little thought for immediate and future consequences. Alongside of this, we find people’s value measured primarily in terms of their financial assets. The best way I can demonstrate this is to show you a short video. It was filmed in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich place that Western oil companies have been drilling for some years. It is the home to many thousands of indigenous people, who have lived on this land for many thousands of years. They live on it, and farm it for their food. This youtube video shows what most of it now looks like. Amnesty International has produced this clever parody of Shell’s own publicity, to expose their hypocrisy. See it here at:

As you can see in this short film, the environment is ruined for those who live there. They will never benefit from the wealth generated by the oil. Their land, their crops and they themselves are not valued in this economy. Shell Petroleum has consistently refused to spend money to clean up the mess they have made. The people of the Niger just aren’t important to them. In this economy, the poor black people do not matter. In this economy, the cost of restoring the degradation and ruin to the environment is not counted.

What is measured as good is the price of the oil. If we just look at what we call a resources boom, then the economy looks good. If we count the true cost of getting and using those resources, then we have a large problem. The problem with this standard Western way of judging whether the economy is good is that no one is counting the damage as part of the cost.

You have all probably heard of the World Bank, an organisation which is an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programs.

The World Bank's official goal is the reduction of poverty. According to the World Bank's Articles of Agreement (as amended effective 16 February 1989) all of its decisions must be guided by a commitment to promote foreign investment, international trade and facilitate capital investment. In 1991, the chief economist at the World Bank, a man named Lawrence Summers, encouraged the placing of dirty industries in developing nations.

The reasons he gave for this were lower wages and lower costs associated with potential health problems workers may develop. He issued a memo saying “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest waged country is impeccable and we should face up to that”.

This memo was leaked and Summers later issued an apology, but we cannot fail to perceive that this economic vision made one class of people far less valuable than another, and showed a callous attitude to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet, not to mention the way the environment itself would suffer from the threatened toxic waste. And we can see Summers’ comment played out in places like the Niger delta. Surely the Christian church needs to find a voice and protest against such injustice.

It is not just that so-called good economics comes at the price of water and clean environment for the people who live in this region. The Christian Church has a particular calling to re-vision a much more holistic view of how we see and use God’s world, and how we look after the life that God has created on our planet. If we see the whole world and everything in it as the house of God, we may be more likely to treat everything and everyone with dignity and respect.

I am thinking that we often assume that only humankind, or perhaps even the Church, constitutes the house of God. But this is not the way scripture sees it. Psalm 24 states in verse 1 that the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, and in our call to worship from Psalm 104 we have recalled the care with which God looks after all his creatures. The Genesis 9 covenant with Noah we heard read today clearly includes not just human life, but all life. Humans are part of the web of creation; we are part of life in the biosphere known as planet earth and we are reliant on it. Our health can only be good if the planet’s health is good. Our economy can only be considered good when all people are benefitting from it. And we need to find other ways of measuring what is good for us – the development of the ‘economy’ as we know it in financial terms should be but one measure.

Instead of just having economies associated with ‘growth’ and ‘progress’, we also need to measure things like people’s happiness, their satisfaction with life, how long they live, and how much of what they consume impacts on the life and health and happiness of others.

We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. We need to put a price on clean water and fertile soil. Because poor people, ecosystems and animals are not able to pay, their rights and well-being are not seen as important in our current system. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of good stewardship and well-being. Surely God intended us to treat our neighbours everywhere fairly and with love, and his creation with care.

I want to share with you now another example of what happens when Western mining companies move into areas populated by poor, black people. The description on this video introduces the topic as :

Nestled between the blackened pits of the TATA and CCL coal mines, the community of Ramgarh district in the state of Jharkhand has been left without access to basic drinking water. Before the mining companies came in, water was accessed by digging a mere 6-8 feet below the ground but now the deepest wells, about three to five times the depth, are running on empty. Continuous mining has dried out the traditional community wells. While the groundwater is being spirited away, rain water has no chance to replenish the falling water table. The rains collect and stagnate with the pollutants in the mining pits.

You can watch the video here:

It may not surprise you to learn that the Uniting Church has a policy on these issues. In July 2009, the Uniting Church Assembly adopted the statement, An Economy of Life: Re-imagining hu¬man progress for a flourishing world. The statement calls on Australian governments to:
... develop economic systems and structures which recognise that human and ecologi¬cal flourishing require much more than the creation of wealth by ensuring that public policy seeks to address first and foremost the wellbeing of all people, especially those most vulnerable and the environment.

The kind of economic system the Uniting Church is upholding is often referred to as a ‘green economy’. This name recognises that until recently when we’ve been thinking about our economy, we’ve only considered it from the perspective of financial and material growth. Referring to a green economy helps us to remember that a healthy economy is one that is sustainable, benefits all people and respects the sacred gift which is God’s good creation. The principles of a green economy include a commitment to the common good, equitable use and distribution of resources and a belief in the importance of the integrity of creation.

A green economy recognises that unlimited growth on a finite planet is not possible. We need to re-imagine these terms to see ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ as the flourishing of all life, rather than the accumulation of wealth by a few at the expense of the many. Progress needs to be seen in terms of the bringing about of the reign of God so we see a world that is more just, equitable, respectful, compassionate and loving. If members of God’s family continue to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many of God’s wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing a more holistic household of God on our planet.

Jesus gave us a Gospel that should be good news for all the Earth. He called on everyone to bring good news to the poor, free the oppressed, and announce the year of the Lord’s favour, which means release from debt. If we continue to destroy the environment that many of our most poor and oppressed peoples depend on to live for the sake of a few Western companies gaining tremendous wealth, or for the sake of our own comfortable lifestyles, then we cannot say we are following these commands of Jesus with any integrity.

And in the light of the covenant God made with Noah, we need to understand that ‘salvation’ should be seen as extending beyond human beings to include the creation itself. The development of a green economy needs to be understood in the context of the understanding that creation, all creatures great and small and their habitats, as well as all people, are equally important and should be cherished by God’s faithful servants – us. It is essential for us to revise and broaden our definition of economy to include the natural world and defy any attempt to put a dollar-only value on it. We should value it because it is God’s good creation, not because of its monetary worth.

As church we have a responsibility to re-imagine the world that God created in a more holistic sense, and contribute to designing systems and structures that help us live together in ways that take the whole into account. We are at a critical point in history, facing some con¬siderable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence. They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materi¬alism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.

I am going to leave the last word today with Paul in the letter to the Romans. Paul speaks of creation groaning, waiting to be delivered; and as we wait, he encourages us to overcome fear. This raises a good question for us: do we, as a nation, make our decisions about resources and resource sharing, based on fear of doing without, or do we make them according to the gospel of the one who called us to love our neighbours and to give without expecting any reward in return?

The Christian life is not judged by comfort and prosperity and reward by God - especially not financially - but by suffering with Christ. It is a challenging message. Our initial question asked whether we saw ourselves as part of a Green Economy. I hope that we, as the Uniting Church, can re-image a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal, and that "green" will be seen as meaning also fair and sustainable and just. And I hope that by doing so, we can ensure the future of our planet and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.

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