Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Climate Change, Sustainability and Christian Witness

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Climate Change, Sustainability and Christian Witness

Article excerpt

In its present usage the term "sustainable development" derives from the 1987 report of the World Commission for Environment and Development, Our Common Future (the "Brundtland Report"), which defines it as development that "meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

This formula has been repeated on countless occasions and was the guiding principle of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit (1992). However, it is open to such varied interpretations that its meaning and implications are far from obvious. Indeed, it seems justifiable to ask whether it does not obfuscate rather than help to elucidate problems. To be sure, it provides a general framework for discussing the future. It is generally acknowledged that dangers exist and that measures must be taken to guarantee the life of future generations. But opinions diverge as soon as one starts to move beyond this point.

Much depends on how one views the extent of the hazards to which humanity is exposed. There is an almost irresistible tendency to underestimate these (although the opposite inclination is also present; a mass of publications confronts us with doomsday predictions, and some intellectuals seem to obtain a certain satisfaction from painting as gloomy as possible a picture of the future). Yet once the question of the actual measures to be implemented is raised, the debate shifts from enquiring into the extent of the hazards to the question of what changes are possible and realistic under existing conditions. This shift in the posing of the problem can easily entrap us in self-deception. The emphasis is so firmly on the possibilities of implementation that the actual degree of danger involved is no longer even perceived.

The intensity of public awareness is a misleading yardstick for measuring the dangers we face. Consider some of the areas in which public awareness has fluctuated in recent decades. The debate on nuclear weapons, a major worry of the 1950s, receded in the 1960s and 1970s, re-surfacing only with the nuclear arms race between the super-powers in the 1980s. The ecological crisis became a dominant theme in the 1970s but lost much of its dynamics in subsequent years. In the late 1980s, it once again became a central concern, but since the Earth Summit in 1992 its influence has faded in many countries. Economic reversals are bringing more short-term questions to the fore. Yet these now-obscured problems have lost none of their urgency. These changes in public awareness only demonstrate the limitations of the human capacity to adjust to problems of the future.

Do the churches have any particular insights to bring to this debate? The World Council of Churches began to reflect on the sustainability of society at a time when there was scarcely any public discussion of this; and the WCC's fifth assembly (Nairobi 1975) explicitly declared that the society for which the church had to strive must be simultaneously "just", "participatory" and "sustainable".

The first definition of sustainability produced at an ecumenical conference (Bucharest 1974) read as follows:

For a short period in recent history some societies cultivated the dream

of unlimited wealth,

of overcoming poverty not primarily by sharing wealth but by increasing it

so that there

would be enough for all. Now we face a sobering return to reality. We

begin to perceive that

the future will require a husbanding of resources and a reduction of

expectations of global

economic growth. We do not expect that humanity can live as the most

extravagant have

been living, and we no longer believe that the spillover of wealth from

the top will mean

prosperity for all. There may be a divine irony in the fact that the very

technological

victories which once supported the vision of affluence, now -- by their

contribution to

increasing consumption of resources, growing population, and

pollution -- are bringing an

end to the dream of a carefree and affluent future. …

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