Penelope Turton asks what Christians in rich countries should be doing about the climate crisis.
As we commemorated the 250th anniversary of Quobna Ottobah Cuguano’s baptism in St James last month, we cannot fail to have been moved by his devastating exposure of the evils of slavery and his passionate cries for justice. One passage of his book haunts me: “The deep sounding groans of thousands and the great sadness of their misery and woe under the heavy load of calamities inflicted upon them.. must rise the louder and higher for the scale of equity and justice to be lifted up in their defence”. His words re-ignited the sense of grief and outrage I feel as I contemplate what I see as today’s great global injustice.
Climate breakdown is costing trillions of dollars. Wealthy countries are mainly responsible for its causes, while vulnerable communities in poorer countries who have done little or nothing to cause it are suffering its most devastating impacts: millions of deaths due to drought, famine, extreme heat, storm and flood, and the collapse of ecosystems. Along with these come the destruction of traditions, cultures and spiritual heritage of indigenous groups across the globe, robbing them of their self-determination, their sense of place, their knowledge and ways of knowing, their physical and mental wellbeing.
Men and children withdrawing water for irrigation in the Dogon plateau (Mali). Credit: Velio Coviello
Jesus’s teaching of justice goes far beyond what is right simply in terms of the law. It is more akin to love and righteousness, qualities of personhood as well as action, particularly in relation to the poor and oppressed. He is uncompromising clear about what this means: being in right relationship with our neighbours (far and near, human and more than human), heeding and treating their needs as if they were our own, working at restoring to wholeness lives that have been broken, repairing as best we can what cannot be restored – and ceasing from doing further harm.
What should Christians in rich countries be doing? Personal actions count – but sadly, not for much. Meaningful change can only come about through urgent transformation of the political and economic systems that are driving and accelerating the climate catastrophe. This is a huge challenge, because those in power have ideologies rooted in mainstream neoclassical economics, a system predicated on the progressive conversion of nature into products, people into consumers, cultures into markets and time into money. Its foundational belief is that economic growth is essential to increasing prosperity, that the riches garnered from producing, buying, selling and consuming more goods make everyone ‘better off’. The hollowness of this thesis is increasingly exposed. We know that increasing wealth beyond a certain level does nothing to improve happiness or wellbeing, that the pursuit of growth has contributed to rapidly rising inequality and failed to secure basic decent living standards even for many people in rich countries (viz the huge increase in people dependent on food banks). Nor has it delivered the promised improvements in public services. Most of the goods produced and transported all around the world end up prematurely in landfill or polluting land and beaches the other side of the globe. Most importantly, growth is dependent on the continuing burning of fossil fuels, destroying any hope of saving the planet in the rapidly narrowing window of opportunity we have left.
A growing number of ecological economists are arguing that an economy that allows humans and the environment to thrive is achievable. Wealthy economies must abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP), scale down destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use, and focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being. This approach, which has gained traction in recent years, can enable rapid decarbonization and stop ecological breakdown while improving social outcomes. It frees up energy and materials for low- and middle-income countries in which sustainably sourced growth might still be needed for development.
Decarbonising the economy means not just cutting emissions but confronting inequalities of wealth and power. The richest 1% of the world’s people produce twice the percentage of the world’s carbon emissions as the poorest 50%. Jesus sharply cautions those who are so laden with riches that their camels cannot pass through ‘the needle’ (the small gate in the wall into Jerusalem). “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”; they have already had their reward.
Big money also buys power. Delegates from poor nations to the COP 26 summit faced impossibly restrictive obstacles to their attendance and then often found themselves excluded from the negotiating areas. By contrast, more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access, more than the combined delegations of eight nations that have already been ravaged by climate breakdown, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Mozambique, Haiti and the Bahamas. Big money is dangerous to democratic justice. Justice requires clamping down on tax havens and imposing wealth taxes that are high enough to break the spiral of accumulation and redistribute the riches accumulated by the few. We need a wholly different vision for society, one that is often called “private sufficiency, public luxury”. While there is not enough ecological space on Earth for everyone to enjoy private luxury, there is enough to provide everyone with public luxury: resources that build community and wellbeing, magnificent parks, facilities for sports and arts, hospitals, transport systems, playgrounds and community centres.
We are facing nothing less than mass extinctions and global suffering on an unimaginable scale – brought about by sections of our own species. The developed world has never been in greater need of a true spiritual metanoia. If we are serious about seeking to be in right relationship with God and all life with whom we share this God-incarnate planet, we must surely reject the naysayers who argue that these proposals are ‘naïve utopian fantasy’. Do we dare and care enough to call for a radical justice revolution? What would Cuguano challenge us to do, I wonder..