Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Economics (Page 2 of 3)

World War 2 and climate change

Last Thursday, 3 September, marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities that began World War 2. SBS showed a brilliant documentary outlining the series of events of that horrible day in 1939 when Great Britain declared war on Germany.

ww2 roseThe documentary, called Outbreak, detailed events as they unfolded hour by hour. As the viewer was taken through the day and shown (colour) footage, you could imagine the sense of anxiety that people felt as their worst fears were being realised. You could almost feel it.

Many in the environmental movement refer to World War 2 when they talk about the need to be on a war footing in our fight against what our Australian Prime Minister has himself called the great moral challenge of our time. They refer to the fact that, in the early years of the war, defence spending accounted for 33% of total Government outlays, and this increased to 70% by 1942.

If we could respond to such an emergency with such speed 70 years ago, there is no reason why we cannot do it again. Such an impending disaster as climate change will deliver demands nothing less than a response the likes of which we have not seen since that terrible war.

Photo by Flavio TakemotoThe issue is though, do we see the urgency? On 3 September 1939 there was no denying the danger that Europe was facing. Climate change though is a much slower mover than war and so we in the West don’t see the urgency just yet. However, if you live in parts of Africa, where you are already seeing the effects of a changing climate, you will be filled with not only a sense of urgency but quite probably a strong sense of despair and anger as you realise you are not only powerless to make real change, but that you also see the nations who really can do something about it continuing along their merry way as if there was no problem. It really does seem like we in the west are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

As we remember the mood of fear and anxiety that prevailed on 3 September 1939, let’s also remember how quickly we were able to respond and, with that in mind, continue to work tirelessly to convince our leaders that the changes to our climate are our moral responsibility in these times. We owe it to our sisters and brothers around the world, we owe it to our children, and we owe it to the good Earth that God created.

The (un)Happy Planet Index 2.0

Back in 2007 I wrote an article on the decay of western culture, in which I mentioned the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. This is an index that addresses the relative success or failure of countries in supporting a good life for their citizens, while respecting the environmental resource limits upon which all our lives depend. Australia was ranked 139th out of 178, which suggested that Jesus was right when he said that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

Photo by Craig JewellWell, the NEF has published its latest version of the Index, and it is indeed quite prophetic in its call for a new way of living in a world in which the earth’s resources are being depleted at a simply alarming rate. The report begins by stating that,

“In an age of uncertainty, society globally needs a new compass to set it on a path of real progress. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) provides that compass by measuring what truly matters to us – our well-being in terms of long, happy and meaningful lives – and what matters to the planet – our rate of resource consumption.”

It goes on to say that “we are still far from achieving sustainable well-being, and puts forward a vision of what we need to do to get there.”

Some of the interesting results to come out of the study we as follows:

  • The highest HPI score is that of Costa Rica (76.1 out of 100). As well as reporting the highest life satisfaction in the world, Costa Ricans also have the second-highest average life expectancy of the New World (second only to Canada). All this with a footprint of 2.3 global hectares. Whilst this success is indeed impressive, Costa Rica narrowly fails to achieve the goal of ‘one-planet living’: consuming its fair share of natural resources (indicated by a footprint of 2.1 global hectares or less).
  • Of the following ten countries, all but one is in Latin America.
  • The bottom ten HPI scores were all suffered by sub-Saharan African countries, with Zimbabwe bottom of the table with an HPI score of 16.6 out of 100.
  • Rich developed nations fall somewhere in the middle. The highest-placed Western nation is the Netherlands – 43rd out of 143. The USA comes a long way back in 114th place. Australia comes 102nd, a slight improvement on its 139th in the original study.
  • Many of the countries that do well are composed of small islands (including the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba and the Philippines).
  • No country successfully achieves the three goals of high life satisfaction, high life expectancy and one-planet living.
  • It is possible to live long, happy lives witha much smaller ecological footprint than found in the highest-consuming nations. For example, people in the Netherlands live on average over a year longer than people in the USA, and have similar levels of life satisfaction – and yet their per capitaecological footprint is less than half the size (4.4 global hectares compared with 9.4 global hectares). This means that the Netherlands is over twice as ecologically efficient at achieving good lives.
  • More dramatic is the difference between Costa Rica and the USA. Costa Ricans also live slightly longer than Americans, and report much higher levels of life satisfaction, and yet have a footprint which is less than a quarter the size.

What this study clearly shows is that our way of living in the (still) affluent west is unsustainable, as if we needed reminding. Brian McLaren calls our way of living the ‘suicide machine’, because it is a way of living that is literally killing us and the rest of the planet. His brilliant book, Everything Must Change, explains this in more detail.

The study also highlights what many people have been saying for a long time now. Consider this quote from Thomas Friedman, a long-time advocate of growth and globalisation:

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more'”

Jesus was indeed right when he warned of greed which is idolatry. Our whole way of living is based on greed and it is not just a doom-and-gloom killjoy remark to say that it is killing us. It is an undeniable fact. T. Jackson, in a NEF publication called ‘Chasing Progress’ has said that “every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth.” The Happy Planet report has an excellent section on this myth in which it discusses the history of the philosophy behind economic growth and how it came to prominence.

Photo by Ramiro PérezMany respected social thinkers have long put forward the argument that a religious outlook on life is beneficial to a peaceful and harmonious society. A society that places ethical values and a positive outlook for the future, often based on a religious faith, is a society that is based on a solid foundation. The Happy Planet report echoes this by saying that even a magazine such as The Economist says that 

“attempting to explain why well-being does not keep rising in line with consumption, [The Economist] suggests that ‘there are factors associated with modernisation that, in part, offset its positive impact.’ Specifically, it argues that alongside consumption growth, [a] concomitant breakdown of traditional institutions is manifested in the decline of religiosity and of trade unions; a marked rise in various social pathologies (crime, and drug and alcohol addiction); a decline in political participation and of trust in public authority; and the erosion of the institutions of family and marriage.”

An article in The Age a few years ago showed that, if all people in the world lived like Australians, we would need 4 planets to maintain our lifestyle. And of all the states in Australia, my home state of Victoria was the worst of the lot. That is mainly due to our  reliance on brown coal to create electricity. We have a lot to change, but happily, there are signs that change is happening. The Happy Planet report tells of incidences such as a community in Scotland sharing ownership of a new windfarm with developers, a ‘Big Lunch’ being arranged on streets across Britain to bring neighbours together, a community in a council estate in Luton partnering up with tea-growers in Southern India to ensure trade that is even fairer than fair trade. Things are happening. As Gandhi famously said, we must be the change we want to see in the world.

Jesus said the kingdom of God is among you. Through Jesus, the kingdom is invading history, and the good news is that all are invited to be a part of it. Heaven on earth will only happen when the resurrected Jesus returns to put the world to rights. But in the meantime, we have the absolute privilege of laying the building blocks. That is why everything we do matters. Every act of kindness, every act of justice. It all matters because when we do it in the name of Jesus, it has cosmic and eternal implications. As Ross Langmead sings,

“the kingdom is coming, a kingdom of peace. Beat swords into ploughs for fighting will cease. Justice will prosper, love will be king. Peacemakers will be able to sing that this is God’s earth and it has been worth all the pain.”

The Happy Planet report is a huge step in showing us how our current way of living is not of the kingdom, but it also shows some of the things we can do to help fulfil Jesus’ wish that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Our framing story

Brian McLaren, in his book Everything Must Change, talks about our framing story – the ultimate story we tell ourselves about how the world works. For example, if our framing story tells us that the purpose of life is to have as much stuff as possible and to have the greatest pleasure possible in our short lives, then we will have little reason to manage our consumption. Our framing story determines how we live. Call it our worldview if you like.

framePostmodernism says there is no framing story. What is right for you may not be right for me. Truth is relative. The problem with that ideology is that, as the global village becomes ever smaller and we all realise how much our lives are interlinked, what is right for me also becomes right for you. Take climate change as an example. Climate change is a challenge to postmodernism because more and more people are realising that, if we are to ultimately survive as a species, we have no choice but to have a framing story that says we have to manage our resources better and look after the planet. A philosophy of ‘what is right for you may not be right for me’ just won’t cut it in the real world of climate change. In my post on our addiction to growth I said the following:

“As long as the world remains fixated on the idea that we must grow our economies, we will inevitably fall into the same trap, and probably worse than we are in now.

In the mid-1980s, our planet passed a tipping point. It was then that we started going into debt in terms of the available resources that we have to survive. It was then that we started to consume more than we could reproduce. So while we remain addicted to economic growth, we continue the slide into debt. Our way of living is unsustainable.”

Truth can no longer be relative in a world where we have the choice of continuing our current way of life or making serious changes that will save the lives of untold millions. We can no longer hide behind the warm and fuzzy – but ultimately fatal – idea that there are no universal standards to live by.

Everything on this planet is interlinked. That is the beauty of how God made it. It all works together. David Suzuki, the Canadian environmentalist, describes how, if all of humanity disappeared off the face of the earth, then the rest of life would benefit enormously. The forests would gradually grow back, and relative stability would return to the ecosystems that control global temperature and the atmosphere. The fish in the oceans would recover and most endangered species would slowly come back. On the other hand, for example, if all species of ants disappeared, the results would be close to catastrophic. There would be major extinctions of other species and probably partial collapse of some ecosystems. The functions of the creatures living in the air we breathe, and beneath our feet, all work together to keep us alive. We need to, like our indigenous brothers and sisters did for 40,000 years, pay respect to the land we live on.

Our framing story needs to be one in which we all work together to bring in the kingdom of God – a kingdom of love, of justice, and of beautiful butterflies fluttering majestically over summer flowers. A kingdom where love finally reigns and where all of God’s children, in the words of Martin Luther King, will be able to shout ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’.

Meaning and wellbeing in the rat race

As I waited at the bus stop one morning last week, watching both school kids and adults waiting to go to their places of education or work to spend the day, I was once again struck by the thought of meaning in life.

silhouette_business_peopleThe kids were waiting there to go to school to work out what they want to do with their lives, what career path they want to follow. Then there were the adults who had gone through it all years before. It was the expressionless or just plain unhappy looks on the faces of the adults – who used to be just like the school kids next to them – that hit me. They seemed to convey the thoughts of millions of workers across the western world – a wish that they didn’t have to spend another day at this job, that if only they could win the lotto and ‘life could be a dream’ as one recent ad put it.

As I saw this scene played out before me, as it is every day of the working week, I wondered again – is this all there is? Is all those kids have to hope for just about getting their qualifications, landing a job, maybe having a family, living 80 or 90 years and then dying? Is that it? Are they destined to spend the next 50 years just going to work every day and making money? Where is the meaning? Where is the purpose?

I believe there has to be something more. Life is more than the accumulation of possessions and wealth, which we lose when we eventually kick the bucket anyway. I remember a pastor of mine telling me years ago of a funeral she conducted for a friend. A close relative of the friend looked at the body in the open coffin, reflected on the person’s life, and made the strong point that “there has to be something more”. It couldn’t have just ended with the death of her body. Something seemed to be telling her that people are made for more than this. Soon I hope to be able to purchase a new book by Dr. Stephen Ilardi called The Depression Cure. This work looks at the massive increase in depression in the western world in the last 100 years from, not just a cognitive-behavioral point of view, but also from an anthropological angle.

Fortunately this message is slowly getting through in even the business pages of some media. The Age last week ran an article reminding us that the measure of GDP is just one way to measure a society’s wellbeing. Paul Jelfs, the author of the article, explained how the Australian Bureau of Statistics has a number of other indicators, including the Measure of Australia’s Progress (MAP) and the Generic Social Survey. And many readers will probably be aware of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness indicator. Interestingly, according to American Public Media, since “Bhutan glimpsed the rest of the world seven years ago with the arrival of TV and the Internet…happiness [has become] an increasingly rare commodity”. Yet again I am reminded of the relevance of Luke 12:13-21 and the other old words of Jesus – what shall it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your very self in the process?

Book Review – Now or Never

Now-or-never-1It has become noticeable that the tone of recent reports, articles and books on climate change is becoming increasingly urgent. This book by 2006 Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery, continues the theme of urgency, with its desperate sounding title, and it’s picture of a clock showing just a couple of minutes to midnight on the cover.

This volume, which first appeared in Quarterly Essay in September 2008, outlines the desperate situation the earth now finds itself in, and Flannery’s solutions to the crisis. It is then followed up by a series of replies by others in the field of climate science or research (the one exception being Richard Branson who, through his Virgin group of companies, is making his own attempt at limiting his carbon footprint). One of the responses is from Ian Lowe, current President of the Australian Conservation Foundation. As Lowe points out, “the fundamental message of Flannery’s essay is that we need to recognise the limits of ecological systems and build that recognition into our planning”.


More greed and more loneliness…and more brilliance from Leunig

A prophetic article from the brilliant Michael Leunig on the insanity of our obsession with economic growth. Leunig is one of those rare individuals who has the ability to speak truth into a culture, to go straight to the heart of a matter and speak it like it is. Following a previous post of mine on our addiction to growth, Leunig tells the story of a childhood friend of his working in Papua New Guinea whose hosts in PNG were fascinated and pained by our way of life and how it lacked any semblance of community. The quote which haunted her when she explained that her family home had separate rooms with private bedroom for each of her daughters, was when they responded “”How sad for your children. How sad for your family. Everyone lost from each other in such a big house with so many walls.”

‘The lonely crowd’ is a term friends of mine sometimes use to explain the loss of community and the feeling of lostness and aloneness despite living in a city of millions of people. To the ‘primitive’ people of PNG with their apparent superstitions and strange rituals, our lostness was bewildering. Leunig then goes on to explain our own superstitions and rituals. The question is then, who are the ‘primitive’ ones? He makes points which seem so obvious but blind us in our desperate search for more and better. His points, which are so pertinent in today’s climate, are:

“Yet surely an economy, as well as our personal lives, are doomed to malfunction if greed and its subsidiary behaviours and consequences are not factored in and collectively acknowledged as a central scientific reality. Just as we all have a heart, we have natural greed, and unacknowledged is uncontrolled. For economics to bypass it would be like the aviation industry refusing to acknowledge the fact of gravity or the Catholic Church refusing to accept that the Earth is not the centre of the universe.

We are asked to believe in eternal economic growth (upon which we have become dependent) when we know in our hearts and minds that such growth will destroy the Earth. This is worse than any cargo cult. It is a massive, absurd, depressing conflict.

So when the economy has a “downturn” we might think to look further and wider than new regulations or the replacing of cogs and washers and wheels. Underlying the financial dysfunction is the possibility of a conflicted, dispirited human culture that has consumed so flagrantly and ruthlessly that it has grown sick and ashamed of itself, to the point where it has lost its meaning and vitality: a society sitting exhausted and faithless in its own poisonous bathwater, regurgitating its worn-out gestures, stuck in its jaded, reactive modes, and generally incapable of sufficient originality, courage, innocence or honesty to make a healthy life.”

We have much to learn from our brothers in sisters in poorer parts of the world. What St Paul said many years ago still seems to hold true today, that the things of this world are foolishness in the eyes of God.

Book Review – Another Way to Love

Another Way to LoveOver the last 20 or so years, I have seen an encouraging move towards the church taking a lot more seriously the imperative of social justice as being a core part of the Christian message. Countless books have been written to help people see that social concern is not an optional add-on to the real message of saving souls, but that it lies at the heart of who Jesus is and what God cares about. Another Way to Love is another excellent contribution to this collection.

This publication is written by people who spend their lives at the coalface of bringing good news to the poor. |more…|

Fighting the plague of consumer Christianity

A growing number of people are disturbed by the values exhibited by the contemporary church. Worship has become entertainment, the church has become a shopping mall, and God has become a consumable product.

divine_commodity1The above quote is from Skye Jethani on his new book, The Divine Commodity. In the last year or so, more and more Christians have been expressing their concerns about the rabid onslaught of consumer Christianity – the idea that if you come to God everything will be great and you will be blessed and prosper.

I have been in churches – as I’m sure you have too – where ‘worship’ is definitely entertainment. The band has started playing a song, I’m ready to sing, and next minute there are all these dancers on the stage swinging streamers around their heads and stepping around each other in beautifully choreographed harmony. I wasn’t sure whether I should sing or watch. It definitely wasn’t worship for me.

Books like The Divine Commodity however represent a sign of hope. I have already written a review of Mark Sayers’ The Trouble with Paris. Just in the last week I have also come across another book called Enough! by Will Samson. This book looks at the question, “What would it be like to be formed by communities consumed by God and God’s vision for the world?” Smatterings of N.T. Wright and his oft-quoted question, “What would the world look like if God was running the show?” This book seems a lot like The Trouble with Paris, in that it

include[s] cultural, sociological and theological analysis of the dilemmas of consumption and contrasts them with the writer’s vision of God’s call to abundant life in Christ. In the second part, Samson offers detailed, practical ideas on how believers can make lifestyle changes aimed at embracing wholeness in connecting belief and practice as the people of God.

enough!Isn’t it refreshing that many Christians seem to have had enough of the heresy of health, wealth and happiness that a cultural Christianity has foisted upon us, from those of us in the rich west to the poor in Africa? In the latter case, lives have been ruined by the false hope of a Christianity that promises much materially but then fails to deliver, leaving the victim blaming him/herself for a lack of faith.

I wonder if this push to rid the church of such false teaching is a result, at least in part, of the global economic meltdown. Good can come out of anything, and maybe the good in this is that many Christians are waking up to the unreality of a Gospel that never promises the good life, but does promise life in all its fullness – a fullness that one can only have when fully sold out to Jesus. John Smith said years ago that if there is anything we can be obsessed about in life, it is Jesus. Plead with God to show you more of Jesus, to have your life reflect his, that you be sent as he was sent, to the poor, the vulnerable, the ostracised and the victim. This is the life that is true life, the abundant life in all its beautiful fullness.

Addiction to growth will not save us

For all the talk and the satisfactory outcomes of the recent London summit, something seemed to be missing to me. As long as the world remains fixated on the idea that we must grow our economies, we will inevitably fall into the same trap, and probably worse than we are in now.

In the mid-1980s, our planet passed a tipping point. It was then that we started going into debt in terms of the available resources that we have to survive. It was then that we started to consume more than we could reproduce. So while we remain addicted to economic growth, we continue the slide into debt. Our way of living is unsustainable. That is why, as I and others have said previously, there must be a massive investment in green infrastructure, and now is the perfect time to do it. Kevn Rudd’s massive investment in broadband is not a bad start but it needs investment that will not just create jobs but that will create a sustainable economy and eco-system that will be the only thing that is of genuine long-term value.

In the meantime, check out this great blog from Simon Moyle called ‘Manna from Kevin’. It has some great ideas for what to do with your $900 stimulus present from Mr. Rudd. Instead of using it to prop up our consumerism, use it to prop up someone who is struggling to get by.

Why isn’t this being given more coverage?

With all the talk of bailouts and tax cuts to stimulate growth in the economy, the silence about the enormous opportunity these financially difficult times present is somewhat deafening. Why isn’t there a lot more coverage about the need for massive investment in the green economy? The Obama Administration has recently announced that it plans to take the lead on dealing with climate change and not block the initiatives of the states, of which the Governator’s California has been a strong leader. Arnie’s enthusiastic response to Obama’s call for cooperation with the states shows that this must go beyond predictable party politics. This is a moral issue. Indeed, as Kevin Rudd has said, the great moral issue of our time.

green-energyIn my opinion – and I am no economist – massive infrastructure investment in green technology is by far the best solution to get the economy going again. What better time to do it than now? And at the same time it will show that we really are serious about mitigating dangerous climate change. Bailouts are only short term solutions, and tax cuts are not only short term but are not likely to work as people tend to want to save in times like these. Green investment will create thousands of jobs, and Australia of all countries has the resources to invest heavily in solar, wind, geothermal, and wave technology.

Various sources (I won’t list them here, check them out) are saying that Australia could be powered entirely from renewable energy. If you take solar alone, there are few, if any, countries in the world with the amount of sunshine that we have. Why aren’t our journalists talking more about this? The only one I have noticed who has said anything recently is Jill Singer in this article in the Herald Sun.

To me this shows again how crucial it is for grassroots movements like GetUp, and many others made up of people like you and me, to pressure our Governments like there is no tomorrow. Because if we don’t, there just might not be any tomorrow for our children.

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