climate change growth religion

Postgrowth economics and the church

I neglected to mention it at the time, but this Lent saw the launch of the Ash Wednesday Declaration – a call to UK churches to take climate change seriously and incorporate it into their theology. We’ll have to wait and see what difference this particular one makes, but these sorts of declarations or confessions often turn out to be important in church history.

The Christian faith is not a static belief system. It is evolving and dynamic. Each generation has the responsibility of applying the vision of the ‘Kingdom of God’ to the moral challenges of its own time. The New Testament writers looked at how Christians should live well in the context of the Roman Empire. More recent generations have addressed slavery, workers’ rights and child labour. Sometimes the church has led these debates in the public sphere, and sometimes we’ve got it badly wrong.

Specific social issues sometimes take a while to filter through into the church’s consciousness, and a declaration can be a way of stating a position. The Barmen Declaration drew a line in the sand for churches in Nazi Germany. Several denominations took a position against Apartheid this way. Among our own challenges are inequality, AIDS, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

The Ash Wednesday Declaration is a way for churches to formally agree that climate change is a matter of justice, of stewardship, and is not an optional extra for people of faith. “Care for God’s creation – and concern about climate change – is foundational to the Christian gospel and central to the church’s mission” say Operation Noah, who have issued the challenge.

What caught my eye however, is a particular paragraph in the declaration:

“God is just and requires justice in response from us. This justice applies to poor communities already suffering the devastating consequences of climate change, to future generations, and to all other creatures. The prophets put economic behaviour at the forefront of their call to justice. The primary driver of human induced climate change is the belief that prosperity depends on limitless consumption of the earth’s resources. Today, the challenge is to seek a different, sustainable economy, based on the values of human flourishing and the well-being of all creation, not on the assumption of unlimited economic growth, on overconsumption, exploitative interest and debt.”

There you have it – the postgrowth economy is a matter of theology, as well as common sense, logic, and basic survival. I happen to believe that, and find it frustrating that most Christians haven’t connected their faith to economics or the environment, so it’s great to see that the declaration has been backed by the leaders of the Church of England, the Methodist, URC and Baptist denominations, as well as Christian charities such as Tearfund and Arocha, and the Spring Harvest festival.

Now let’s hope it filters down from the figureheads of the church to the ordinary folks out and about in the real world. Because that’s a whole lot of people to add to the unstoppable wave that is the postgrowth movement.

I’m not entirely alone here, I should add. There are plenty of others who understand the theology of economic growth, including readers here. It turned up at the Christian Ecology Link conference recently. Sam Norton read the declaration and drew up a more specifically postgrowth statement here, and he has already written about the theology of peak oil and the limits to growth in his book Let us be Human, which I must read. So postgrowth economics is making in-roads into the church, slowly.

But in the interests of speeding it up a little, I’d like to explore the theology of postgrowth economics in a bit more detail.  But not being a theologian myself, I’ll need a little help – anyone want to join me? If you’d like to collaborate, get in touch!

9 comments

  1. Explore the theology of post growth economics? I think I’d love to collborate if only I had the fainest idea of how to! It must be grand to have had an education above ‘o’ level! For my own part, I always puzzle whether when Jesus said ‘render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s’, did he mean it as a principle that we were to let the governments get on with their role without our protest or interference, as with the question of taxes so, with all else? Yet, to love God seemed to automatically involve taking concern over the creation (but perhaps only on a personal level, as far as one reasonably can). Do you know if any Christians have interpreted his words in the former way? So, you’re not a theologian but are you a Christian Jeremy? For some reason i had not expected that you were.

    1. I am a Christian, yes, although perhaps a somewhat unorthodox one. I mention it in the About Us section: http://makewealthhistory.org/about/christian-responsibility/

      And yes, there’s a balance to strike between the Bible’s teaching about respecting authority, and it’s call to confront injustice. I think it’s not a question of whether you engage with government or don’t, but how you engage with government. You speak truth to power, like the Old Testament prophets. You speak up for the marginalised and make yourself a pain in the backside if necessary, but you always do it with respect, humility and gentleness.

      ‘Render unto Caesar’ is a specific and smart answer to a trick question, so it’s deliberately cryptic and I’d hesitate to read too much into it. But the whole statement makes a bit more sense of it – ‘give to caesar what is caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ That then begs the question ‘what is God’s?’ And the answer to that is ‘everything’. Jesus’ answer both dismisses the question and blows it wide open at the same time.

      1. I like that particular passage. As you say – it is a trick answer to a trick question. It even can be read as an offense to mighty Cesar who, too, is nothing but a speck of dust compared to all of creation. A mere mortal. Give to the impermanent that which is impermanent. Obviously Jesus was less cryptic when he threw out the money changers from the temple. As I often said: it is a mystery for me why and how Christians can justify any form of laissez faire capitalism with christian faith. I even believe (without being able to provide comprehensive proof) that none of the old religions or spiritual schools justify exploitation and greed in any form.

  2. Hi Jeremy – if you e-mail me your address I’ll happily send you a free copy, and of course, I’ll happily join in this conversation. You might also like to invite Byron Smith of ‘Nothing New Under the Sun’ blogspot – he’s doing a related PhD on this at the moment

    1. Gah – this is Sam writing by the way – my blogname at gmail.com is my e-mail address – WordPress is using an old moniker, sorry

    2. Hey, that’s me. 😉

      Yes, this is a project I’m interested in.

      Though as Sam said, not until I’ve finished my PhD!

      (And I’m part-way through Sam’s very interesting and readable book, along with dozens of other must-read things, yet I’m also meant to be writing, writing, writing…)

  3. Christian churches sometimes are good for a surprise. On the one hand I have difficulties with the concept of mering “continuous change” and “eternal truth”. unless continuous change does mean eternal truth, which seems difficult to derive from Christian – in particular form catholic and orthodox – doctrine. On a more pragmatic and cooperative level I am happy to see that change happen. I was surprised, for example, to find a catholic Institute of Theological Zoology in my very catholic neighbout town of Münster. So – there we have climate change and perpetual growth as theological topics – and we find animal ethics as a theological concept. Change seems to be under way indeed. Have a look (it’s english): http://www.theologische-zoologie.de/ziele.html?&L=1

    1. Stefan says ‘change seems to be under way indeed’. I was just thinking that the internet may have allowed some of our religious communities to unite into a moving force – so dare I be as optimistic as to think ‘thy kingdom come on earth…….?’

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