WEEKS THOUGHTS TO DISCUSS: Prosperity and Growth

Sermon – Green Service – Sunday 16th February 2014

‘Our modern understanding of the good life is dominated by an economic understanding of prosperity and growth that focuses on material wants. This is deeply damaging to the environment and millions of people in our world. It also threatens our future. Our aim today is think about how we might be able to construct a broader and more sustainable understanding of these concepts that can bring hope to our world

Two Quotes from the opening chapter of the book ‘Prosperity without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet’ by Tim Jackson, which has helped our thing about this subject.

‘ The vision of social progress that drives us – based on the continual expansion of material wants – is fundmentally untenable’

And more seriously:

‘… this failing is not a simple falling short from utopian ideals. It is much more basic. In pursuit of the good life, we are systematically eroding the basis for well-being tomorrow. We stand in real danger of losing any prospect of a shared and lasting prosperity. ‘

What is Tim Jackson talking about in these quotes? Simply the fact that there are limits. Many of the things we consume are produced from non-renewable resources and they are running out. Also the earth’s capacity to process the waste and discharges from this production, most notably carbon emissions is being eroded. Do we overload and trash our earth or do we draw a line and stop this madness?

Underlying all aspects of the environmental issues we have been discussing in our Green services is our materialism and a system that drives the expansion of this. The environmental problems we face are not side issues, they are the result of the way we are running our world today.

So addressing the environmental problems that face us and that we are experiencing (i.e. floods, strong winds, droughts, etc. ) involves addressing the continued growth of the production of unsustainable material things (consumerism). They cannot be solved simply by us as individuals recycling, a move to more energy efficient and environmentally friendly products and living more eco-friendly lives – important as this is.

The environment impact (foot print) of each unit of production (say a car) has been reducing, but we have an economic system that encourages and relies on producing ever greater numbers of things (and plans for things to have a limited lifetime – planned obsolescence). We might reduce the damage of each unit of production on the environment, but if the overall numbers of units of production keep increasing we are just slowing down the overall increase.

So what can we do? Just talking about this grim situation and quoting the statistics is a recipe for despair.

At a basic level.

Halt this process and share what we have. Sharing is a vital issue. There is enough in the world for everyone if we share what we have. Also apart from the simple justice of this, there is much evidence to suggest that a more equal society has far fewer social problems – have you read the book, ‘The Spirit Level’.

However, is this enough? And how are we going to do this?

No it isn’t. No-one wants to listen.

I think we need to dig deeper and ask the question what drives this materialism. And this (in Tim Jackson’s view) is ‘a very narrow understanding’ of what the ‘good life’ is about . Or in Tim’s words what ‘prosperity’ is about.

Further, we need to think about the concept of growth. It might be difficult for us to live without some form of growth and there are many things we do that would improve society. Halting unsustainable growth and having a more just society doesn’t mean we cannot grow in other ways. Can we envision a type of growth that is sustainable?

So the question is can we offer our society a different understanding of prosperity and growth – one that give hope. Tim is encouraging us to think in much broader terms. He says that to feel prosperous, we need a sense of continuity and that things are getting better. He also challenges individualism. Of what value is my prosperity if the all around me others are suffering and the world is being destroyed.

On growth he talks about the narrow way in which economic growth is measured. For example he note that it only counts the monetary value of production and takes no account of their impact on the environment or society. If this was added or actually subtracted in to the equation the current growth would be exposed as a myth. Therefore we need real growth that is sustainable a beneficial to society and he point to things like the ‘Green New Deal’ and the need for high quality social care.

So there needs to be a vision of human progress. A sense that we are moving towards a better society for our children. A fairer world. A place where those less fortunate will one day thrive. If I cannot believe this prospect is possible, then what can I believe? What sense can I make of my own life he says.

But we don’t just need to just look to people like Tim for this. We have a powerful alternative vision for the world in our reading from Corinthians.

Corinth was a busy bustling diverse cosmopolitan city built on trade, that compares much more closely with the world of today than other contexts to which the Bible is addressed.

It had a very materialistic and divided society. It was prosperous, ambitious and competitive and it seems to me that Paul was seeking to address this and what he has to say provides suggestions on alternative values to our narrow materialism. He challenges them to be spiritual people rather than people of the flesh who are divided and quarrelling and very revolutionarily he challenges them about the idea of ownership and their egotism. He counsels humility. It is God’s world, not ours to divide up unequally and exploit he says. God gives the growth, not Paul or Apollos or some modern day entrepreneur who tells us how much more vital his or her contribution is than everyone elses. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose and each will receive wages according to the labour (not the power or control) of each. We are all God’s servants working together. This is a vision of society in which the prosperity of us as individuals is integrally tied up in the good of the community as a whole.

Concluding remarks. So why then is it that these crucial questions are not in the forefront of the debate within our society? This is a big question which we cannot do justice to today. But I would proffer two observations.

1. The first concerns the thinking of our world and the powerful influence it has one us. Materialism and consumerism are very pervasive and difficult to escape from. They dominate thinking in our society. There is hardly a day that goes by when you don’t hear the word ‘growth’ ( meaning Economic Growth – ie. a growth in material things).

2. The second concerns our thinking which we can change and this is what St Paul and Tim Jackson are encouraging us to do. Our thinking is dominated by the idea that we need leaders to bring about change, to make things better. We see it in our theology and much of church thinking. The idea of a powerful God who can fix things for us. So we look to our leaders to say something. But they remain silent, because all of this is very inconvenient. It is ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – as Al Gore described it.

So my hope today is to open up this subject and encourage you to grapple with these issues and spread this debate out into the world around us. It is also to say that there is hope. I believe the gains that have been made in terms of the welfare of society as a whole have come out of movements of people not some benign paternalistic power. That’s not a denial of God, but an understanding of a very different God that works in and among us. People getting together to work for change in many different ways and often this starts in small ways and multi-farious ways. It is up to us to speak up. And if we can start to transform our thinking we can transform our society and our world. Together we can be far more powerful that the thinking from above. So Lets get going!

Post Script to the Discussion – from the Story of Stuff

We have a problem with Stuff. We use too much, too much of it is toxic and we don’t share it very well. But that’s not the way things have to be. Together, we can build a society based on better not more, sharing not selfishness, community not division.

The legitimacy of the means to live well is part of the glue that keeps society together. Collective meaning is extinguished when hope is lost. Morality itself is threatened.

One of the key messages of this book is that we’re failing in that task. Our technologies, our economy and our social aspirations are misaligned with any meaningful expression of prosperity. The vision of social progress that drives us – based on the continual expansion of material wants – is fundamentally untenable. And this failing is not a simple falling short from utopian ideals. It is much more basic. In pursuit of the good life, we are systematically eroding the basis for well-being tomorrow. We stand in real danger of losing any prospect of a shared and lasting prosperity.

Harry Patch, the last man alive who fought for the British in the war: “Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.” http://noglory.org/

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