Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Diakonia, Sustainability, and Climate Change

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Diakonia, Sustainability, and Climate Change

Article excerpt

The diaconal work of the churches, a core component of their identity and mission, has aimed at enhancing the living conditions of the people, especially the poor and more vulnerable. In this perspective, the pursuit of sustainable communities has become a common thread. Taking this into account, diakonia has had a broader understanding, looking not only at human beings but at the whole creation, which is under threat, threat being climate change. This article revisits the concept of sustainability and sustainable development from the social, political, and ecumenical perspective and confronts them with the challenge of climate change and its key discussions at international negotiations. Taking into account what the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Action by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance have been doing in these areas, based on the biblical and theological understandings of the integrity of creation and justice, the authors link the struggle for sustainability and climate justice to ongoing discussions led by ACT Alliance on the changing development paradigm and the call to join the pilgrimage of justice and peace made by the participants of the WCC assembly in 2013.

Sustainability and Sustainable Development: What Is at Stake?

Why is a concept such as sustainability still relevant today in the debate about diakonia? The reality that the planet and its resources are finite and that the current economic growth model, coupled with population growth and environmental degradation, has violated planetary boundaries is not a new realization. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, many scholars had already seen the signs that several factors would be encountered by the limits of the natural environment.

The reason, given in the 1970s by the Club of Rome, is still valid today, if not even more relevant. The Club of Rome's report, Limits to Growth, (1) and others pointed out that within the parameters of the global economy, there could be a major collapse of world populations in the middle of the 21st century and that sustainability of life as we know may not be an option. In Limits to Growth, Meadows and his colleagues negated the idea that was then prominent among the global economic community that human ingenuity could overcome all shortages, and therefore there were no limits to growth.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the ecumenical movement had already started to grapple with the issue of sustainability. During the WCC Uppsala assembly in 1968, Indian economist Samuel Parmar pointed to the fact that economic growth in so-called developed countries was leading to overconsumption and did not address the growing gap between rich and poor. In the following years, the concern for sustainability was further developed with the poignant formulation by the Australian biologist Charles Birch in his speech to the WCC Nairobi Assembly in 1975: "The rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live." The Nairobi Assembly clearly called for "a just, participatory and sustainable society."

In defining sustainability, it is useful to examine the definition of sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission (2) outlined sustainable development from the perspective of three key components. First, it is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs. Second is the implication that sustainable development has limits--limits imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. Third is the fact that human needs are basic and essential. Sustainability, then, in this regard, is also about the right to development for all, particularly the poor. This relationship between development and poor countries emerged at the WCC Canberra Assembly in 1991 when it affirmed:

   Humankind has failed to distinguish between growth and
   development. … 
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