Helping Christians Think Wisely About Climate Change
The issue of climate change is receiving widespread attention in Canadian society and the churches. Many churches are starting to develop their thinking and theology on this critical cultural question. One church that has long supported the Kingâs University College, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC), commissioned a âCreation Stewardship Task Forceâ to study climate change and write a report and recommendations to the CRC Synod. This report will be debated at the CRC Synod, in Spring 2012, and Synod will determine whether to adopt it or not. The report is available at http://www.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/synodical/CreationStewardship.pdf. The following article, by Kingâs Professor John Hiemstra, is an appreciative but critical engagement with that Report. The article aims to sharpen and deepen our Christian understandings of the issue of climate change and the larger âecological questionâ of our time.
Economic Origins of Climate Change: A Response to the âCreation Stewardship Reportâ
Dr. John Hiemstra is Professor of Political Studies at The Kingâs University College in Edmonton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Introduction: âItâs the economy, stupid!â
My first reading of the CRC âCreation Stewardship Task Forceâ Report produced two quick, gut-level responses: (1) âSynod should definitely adopt this excellent report,â and (2) âItâs the economy, stupid!â I hasten to clarify. I meant no disrespect to the Taskforce by this second thought. It was simply a spontaneous recall of Bill Clintonâs famous electoral phrase designed to oppose the popular incumbent President George H. W. Bush in 1992.
Clinton coined the term âIt’s the economy, stupid!â to focus votersâ attention on what he thought was the sitting Presidentâs weak spot, namely the recessionary economy.
In this article, I explain why this phrase popped to mind while reading the Christian Reformed Churchâs âCreation Stewardship Task Forceâ Report. First, I show how the âCreation Stewardshipâ Report, while a very strong document, fails to focus sufficient attention on the key role of the economy in climate change. Second, the article argues that if Christians are going to help tackle todayâs environmental problems, we need a much stronger grasp of the radically distinctive character of our times, namely, we face an overwhelming âecological question.â Third, it shows how the interrelated environmental issues within the âecological questionâ are primarily generated and expressed through the economic side of society. Finally, the economy generates ecological problems, I argue, because it is miss-shaped and miss-directed by the ideology of economic growth. Exposing and countering the false and deforming idolatry of endless economic growth should be a key dimension of the Churchâs calling to publicly proclaim the Gospel.
The Creation Stewardship Report
The âCreation Stewardship Task Forceâ was created by the CRC Synod when âpublic engagementâ of climate change by several CRC denominational leaders became controversial. Synod mandated the Task Force to âidentify a biblical and Reformed perspective of our position on creation stewardship, including climate changeâ and to issue a report. It aimed to help the CRC denomination, its agencies, members, as well as partner denominations to develop a deeper biblical understanding of climate change. The Report makes a very helpful and thought-provoking contribution to this aim. It will significantly deepen and broaden the Churchesâ understanding of creation stewardship and climate change.
The Report correctly argues that environmental problems, and certainly climate change, are at their deepest levels spiritual and moral issues. It identifies a number of key religious themes running through the climate change debate, and does a great job of sketching out an alternative, biblically-rooted, spirituality of creation care. The Report identifies and elaborates sound ethical principles and does a strong job of explaining the science behind climate change. It proposes a host of useful activities for churches to undertake. I strongly encourage readers to set aside an hour next Sunday and read the online Report! The CRC Synod will debate and decide whether to adopt the recommendation of this Report in June 2012.
Failing to ânameâ the economy
The Report strongly supports the claim that climate change is âlikely due to human activity.â This âlikelihood,â the vast majority of scientists say, is âa greater than 90 percent probabilityâ that climate change is happening (p. 52). In everyday life, the Report continues, if we know there is âa greater than 90 percent probabilityâ that we will suffer a very destructive event or process, we would definitely act now. But what âactionsâ should we undertake, according to the Report? It rightfully, and helpfully, identifies âhuman-induced climate changeâ as a âmoral, ethical, and religious issue,â thus requiring acts of these types. But oddly, the Report stops short of explicitly naming climate change also as an economic issue. If climate change occurs largely in the realm of âhuman activitiesâ we call economic life, then the Report should have clearly named this and explained how this works.
To be fair, the 125 page Report does include a fair amount of helpful economic material. It contains, for example, a couple of paragraphs on the common etymological roots of ecology and economics. It shows how they share the root word, oikos. This word is also the root of the word used for the human âtask and privilege of caring for creation,â namely, oikonomia, which translators often render with the word âstewardshipâ (p. 28). The seeds are present in this brief discussion alone, to develop a deeper understanding of how present-day economy, its structures, institutions and practices, are centrally implicated in the unstewardly practices that are destroying the creationâs ecology, including climate change. The Report also deals with a variety of principles and concerns that have clear economic components or implications. Under âMitigation and adaptationâ (p. 46), for example, the Report tackles issues and problems that are, at least in part, economic. But much more is needed.
The Reportâs lengthy list of recommendations also stops short of explicitly tackling climate change as an economic issue. They underline that âurgent action is required to address climate change,â and properly make this appeal broad by arguing that âaction is needed at the personal, community, and political levelsâŚâ (p. 77). But then, the Reportâs recommendations focus too heavily on the institutional church, especially on âcongregations, denominational staff, leaders, and membersâ and on âmajor CRC agencies and institutions.â While several recommendations address economic activities, the Reformed approach to life that the Report is clearly following, should have produced far more recommendations on what Christiansâas âbelievers in all areas of lifeââought to do. The recommendations should have directly addressed Christians in their economic vocations, that is, as people called by God to be business entrepreneurs, workers, investors, bankers, consumers, producers, advertisers, pension and mutual fund managers, union leaders, and so forth. It should have recommended that Christian Colleges, Universities and Christian professors study how our economic offices, economic institutions, and national and global economic systems are directly implicated in causing climate change.
Understanding our times: the âecological questionâ
Why should the Report focus greater attention on the economy as a cause of climate change? My answer is rooted in the fact that today we face a dramatically novel context, something radically new, that is the âecological question.â Let me explain.
Since the early 20th century, society became aware of disappearing wilderness and natural resources, and consequently we moved to conserve and protect, e.g. National Parks. Since the 1960âs, we identified pollution threats to air, water and soil, and society and state rallied to implement significant environmental practices and policies to control and prevent some of these threats. In the 1970s, we detected serious threats to the earthâs ozone layer, and government, industry and society adopted measures and policies to stop emitting the disruptive chemicals causing this and allow the ozone layer to recover. These and other actions were distinctly âenvironmental policies,â some were successful, and in our current situation we can learn much from how society and government accomplished these actions.
When we examine the overall environmental pattern of the 20th century, however, J. R. McNeill observes that there is Something New Under the Sun: âThis is the first time in human history that we have altered ecosystems with such intensity, on such scale and with such speed. It is one of the few times in the earth’s history to see changes of this scope and pace.â We are now in a new context, in which these trends can no longer be appropriately identified and tackled as âenvironmental issues.â Although this had been true all along, the nature and scale of the ecological challenges today no longer allow us to think about, and act on, them as discrete environmental âissuesâ and âinterestsâ. They can no longer be separated from many other economic, social, cultural issues and interests and can no longer be solved independently.
In the current context, furthermore, scientific studies indicate convincingly enough that we are increasingly and rapidly approaching a variety of tipping points in many ecological systems. We see it in climate change, ballooning human population, declining populations of animal species and threatening extinctions, and resource-depletion, resource-competition and resource-conflict. This continued ecological ruin of the finely tuned balance on our planet is compounding and amplifying other interrelated issues such as hunger and poverty across the globe, our unsustainable industrial food production system, peak oil with looming fossil-fuel shortages and transitions, increasing worldwide human migrations with conflict and war, and growth-oriented lifestyles that are based on hyper consumption driven by media systems that willfully generate wasteful, âartificial needs.â
In summary, we face an integrated reality in which social, economic, cultural and environmental issues and interests are so finely interconnected and interrelated that an overarching âecological questionâ has emerged. Our current context constitutes a single integral reality. Humans are totally embedded in, and completely co-exist with, all other living beings and other natural systems in creation. This is the place in which God means us to flourish. The âecological questionâ concerns this full creational reality, because that is how God gives humans oxygen to breathe, food to eat, cells for our bodies, bacteria for various bodily functions, materials for shelter, clothing, opportunities to work, and places in which to build homes for human community. The âecological questionâ of our times, therefore, fundamentally concerns our ecologically taxing and destructive âway of life.â Our society no longer faces a suite of discrete âenvironmental problems, issues, and interestsâ which we can technically adjust and solve, but an overarching âecological questionâ that concerns our full way of life.
By the way, the fact the church faces an overriding question at a particular moment in history is not new. In the early 19th century, British Evangelicals took leadership on the âslavery question.â In the mid 19th century, both protestant and Catholic churches in Europe and North America, identified a key question of their cultures as the âschool question,â by which they meant the question, how do diverse pluralist societies publicly deal with religious freedom in schooling? In the late 19th and early 20th century, protestant, evangelical and Catholic churches identified the âsocial question,â by which they focused on the societal breakdown, poverty and dislocation in their context, resulting from the deep and rapid changes brought on by the industrial revolution. Today we face an overarching âecological question.â
I should note that the âCreation Stewardshipâ Report does, in various ways, identify and talk about the integrality of environmental issues and the need for integrated responses to problems (p. 39f). It would be helpful, however, if the Report pushed this further and explained more fully the dramatic novelty of our current context. Helping readers understand the âecological questionâ is critical for discovering the leading causes of climate change.
âItâs the economy!â
How did we get to this point? In a concise overview of trends since the 1960s, the New Scientist shows the spectacular exponential growth patterns in a variety of human activities which intrinsically depend or impact on ecological systems. Among others, these trends include: rapid growth in population, GDP, foreign investment, water use, damming rivers, fertilizer consumption, urbanization, paper consumption, motor vehicles, telecommunications, and tourism. Strikingly, the rate of change for each activity or problem increases so rapidly that humanity will, with increasing likelihood, soon face the prospect of vital ecological systems [of creation] failing or becoming unable to sustain our ever-increasing human activities and impacts.
These contours of the âecological questionâ place us face-to-face with our economy. Our societyâs âway of lifeâ is based on an economic system that is now hitting the limits of several of earthâs key capacities, and in some cases, approaching them at exponential rates. This is occurring on two fronts simultaneously. First, under the assumption that resources are infinite, our economic system has begun to seriously deplete the key natural resources that are required to fuel the economic growth on which our âway of lifeâ depends. The formerly cheap and easy to secure stream of natural resource inputs is running low, becoming more and more expensive to secure, and requires increasing environmental damage to acquire. Second, under the strain of continuous economic growth, our economy is running out of space in the earthâs ecosystems to dump the every-growing stream of wastes, pollution, and impacts that society generates.
Christian economist Herman Daly concludes:
“The most important change on Earth in recent times has been the enormous growth of the economy, which has taken over an ever greater share of the planet’s resources. In my lifetime, world population has tripled, while the numbers of livestock, cars, houses and refrigerators have increased by vastly more. In fact, our economy is now reaching the point where it is outstripping Earth’s ability to sustain it. Resources are running out and waste sinks are becoming full. The remaining natural world can no longer support the existing economy, much less one that continues to expand.”
“âŚeconomists have not grasped a simple fact that to scientists is obvious: the size of the Earth as a whole is fixed. Neither the surface nor the mass of the planet is growing or shrinking. The same is true for energy budgets: the amount absorbed by the Earth is equal to the amount it radiates. The overall size of the system – the amount of water, land, air, minerals and other resources present on the planet we live on – is fixed.”
The enormity of the âecological questionâ grows even more significant when we realize that the worldâs economies now draw so much from, and dump so much into, creationâs ecological systems that we are starting to destroy some of the âcapitalâ of nature. As we continue on this trajectory, our economies are beginning to deplete earthâs ability to provide resources (e.g. wood, agriculture, fresh water) as well as its ability to absorb refuse and waste (e.g. wetlands cleansing water, atmosphere absorbing GHGs, and the ocean acidifying as it absorbs CO2). The combination of human population growth (from 1 billion in the early 19th century to 7 billion in 2011), decline of the earthâs ecological capacities, rapid growth of new national economies (e.g. India, Brazil, China), and the continued growth orientation of advanced economies all point to a single conclusion: our economies are generating an ever worsening âecological question.â
An economy possessed by idols?
Why are we doing this? Here, I happily rejoin the thrust of the Report in saying âhuman-induced climate changeâ is a âmoral, ethical, and religious issue.â
In short, the leading groups, and in some cases the majority of citizens, in many nations of the world are convinced our societies need more and more economic growth. Even the most advanced and wealthy economies presume to need constant economic growth â if not to deliver ever more stuff, then at least to keep the current system from collapse. We believe this even though natural resources are running low, we face massive environmental challenges, and many in our societies already have excessive material goods. We brush off these problems, however, with the declaration that we trust in science and technology to solve these problems. Essentially, economic growth, science and technology promise to deliver ever increasing levels of material goods and services, to increase our happiness, to solve our problems, and to give us âmeaning,â if only we put our exclusive trust in them. We have made them our âgodsâ or idols.
The CRC Report also points to idolatry on several occasions (p. 10, 103). What the Report needs to do more of, however, is show how idolatry enters into, shapes, and directs our current âway of life,â including our economy. We need to identify how idolatry has misshapen our economic goals, our forms of organizing and directing economic life (including our economic institutions and professions), and show how these are generating the âecological question.â Certainly, a key task of the church is to publicly proclaim the Gospel in opposition to the day-to-day manifestations of idolatry and ideology! Happily, the CRC Report is very helpful in illuminating the key biblical ideas and principles by which Christians can expose and oppose economic growth ideology and idolatry. The liberating and redeeming Gospel of Jesus offers a new direction for our âway of lifeâ and for an alternative economy.
If I am correct that economy and ecology are intimately connected, then Christians need to change how we engage these issues. Thereâs a lot that we can say on this, but I limit myself to four points.
First, studies such as the CRCâs âCreation Stewardship Task Forceâ Report need to identify and analyze more adequately the ways economies are causing the key environmental challenges of our time. This includes identifying and countering the ideologies and idolatry that shape so many contemporary economic practices. It is also time to identify which concrete forms of economic practice we need to adopt to move the economy into tune with stewardly existence on earth (including what âappropriate entrepreneurshipâ ought to mean).
Second, Christians need to recognize that âtechnical adjustment solutionsâ will no longer fix most environmental âissues,â and certainly not climate change. The seriousness of the âecological question,â as I have described it, requires us to think more deeply about problems in our âway of lifeâ and economy. The âtechnical adjustment approachâ to solving environmental problems is failing frequently today, and I would argue, has produced the âecological question.â Tackling the âecological question,â including climate change, demands we articulate a biblically-informed analysis of society, the economy, and the driving ideologies. This larger biblical understanding is desperately needed to move beyond technical adjustments to the status quo. It will allow us to devise âre-orienting action stepsâ to address environmental problems, such as climate change, within the larger society, economy, and to do so while attending to their deeper spiritual roots, as the CRC Report rightly argues.
Third, the solutions we propose must be simultaneously shaped by biblical concern for both stewardship and social justice. We cannot allow our legitimate concern for stewardship to negate social justice nor a passion for social justice to push aside stewardship. The Report recognizes this when it warns that climate change affects the poor more negatively than the rich, and that policies enacted to mitigate climate change could do so as well (pp. 74-76)! But we also need to do more than simply add them together. Indeed, the countries of the global south (formerly called the Third World) are owed a massive ecological debt by the global north. We have used disproportionately large shares of the worldâs resources, often originally drawn from the global south, while all too often leaving behind new ecological problems and a diminished resource base. Thus, while the global south owes the north a large financial debt, the north owes the global south a large ecological debt. We need eco-justice which works to heal the environment while simultaneously being shaped by social and distributional justice. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important this is.
While pursuing eco-justice and social justice in tandem, however, we must never lose sight of the growing âecological question.â We are running up âecological debtsâ not only to the poor in the global south but also directly to the earth! By overexploiting resources, weakening and destroying the productive capacities of the earth, and overusing its waste-absorbing capabilities, we deplete the earth itself! The consequences of owning this debt to the earth can be summarized as follows: we are building a massive ecological debt to our children and grandchildren, and their children, for they will bear more of the risks, less of the benefits of the resources we use today, and will foot the bill to repair and clean-up our damage! [See the Reportâs warning, p. 75.]
Fourth, I have refrained, in this article from dealing directly with the governmentâs calling in the ecological question. Clearly, the tight intertwinement of our economy, economic growth ideology, and resulting ecological destruction requires decisive leadership from political officials. We leave this concern, however, to a future article.
Notes and Sources
CRCâs âCreation Stewardship Task Forceâ Report: accessed December 20, 2012, at http://www.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/synodical/CreationStewardship.pdf.
J. R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An environmental history of 20th century, New York: Norton, 2000.
New Scientist reports: âThe increasing rates of change in human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Significant increases in rates of change occur around the 1950s in each case, and illustrate how the past 50 years have been a period of dramatic and unprecedented change in human history Accessed May 9, 2011 at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14950-special-report-the-facts-about-overconsumption.html.
Herman Daly, Special report: Economics blind spot is a disaster for the planet, New Scientist, October 15, 2008, http://www.newscientist.com/article.
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