Time for creative map-reading

A Christian call for truly sustainable development by Mary Colwell

Like many people I like to walk in the country with friends, there is the promise of beauty, adventure and a destination worth the effort. However there are occasions when things don’t work out as planned. The pattern on these ill-fated walks often seems to be the same. For a long time we can keep ourselves moving along the road with mint cake and feel confident about the way, but there comes a time when feelings of disquiet and unease spread through the group. Are we sure we know the way? Nothing feels right any more, but we keep going because it is easier to hope all is well than admit we have gone wrong.

Failure is the opportunity to begin again

For a while this optimism can keep us travelling. Often someone will be supremely confident, take charge and rally forth along the track, convincing everyone else all is well. Eventually however even they falter as the track peters out and the scenery is far from what is expected. It is then time for the painful task of reassessing where we strayed from the right path and what can be done to put things right. That might mean backtracking or it may mean being creative with a map, but moving forwards in the same direction isn’t an option. Here we face a challenging psychological dilemma. Retracing steps back along to track is always disheartening. Going forwards, but with a different route is far better and more encouraging. And it is important to remember the words of Henry Ford, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently,” and we can do that by using our human capacity for creativity. On a country walk being creative with a map, using clues in the landscape, trusting intuition and rediscovering old, buried knowledge can be surprisingly rewarding – and even fun.

Something is wrong

This is how I see where we are now in the 21st Century. We, the great human family, are at the point on our journey together where uneasiness about where we are has reached a level that forces action. We have been going down the track of increasing resource use, increasing waste production, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing pollution for many years and we have found ourselves in territory that is not welcoming. Because no one checked the map we can’t really pinpoint exactly where we went wrong, but the signs all around are telling us we are not where we should be. There is far less wildlife around us than further back, the water doesn’t look good to drink and the streams are drying up. There is also an uncomfortable clammy feel in the air and so much rubbish lying around it is hard to see the earth. This cannot be the right; this is not the destination we were promised when we started the journey, which guaranteed health, wealth and an abundance of goods for all. In fact where we are is the opposite of what we were expecting. Some have far too much; others have almost nothing, and those who have the lion’s share of the goods rank amongst the unhappiest and most dissatisfied people on earth. Something has gone very wrong.

Gareth Davies-Jones, Christian singer/songwriter in his song Cost sings:

“We’ve got lives of plenty
But hearts of stone
And we’re chasing commerce,
Down telephone – lines
A sign of the times
If it costs you something you hold on tightly,
if it costs you nothing, you might throw it away.”

How true that is for the free gifts of the earth.

Finding the right maps

So, now we are putting our heads together and trying to work out how to leave this road to nowhere and we are exploring new avenues. I hope we are looking on the right maps.

It is important we don’t consider going backwards, even if it were desirable on some levels it would be impossible to retreat to the past, to coin a cliché – that is another country. It is also vital we remember and treasure the good things we have achieved over the last 100 years. There has been an overall decrease in maternal and infant deaths, many diseases that were once life threatening are now under control and we have lifted millions out of abject poverty. Of course there is much more to do, but these are laudable achievements. The task now is to take the good along with us, but leave the damage behind.

Rio+20 – the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in June 2012 – provided a valuable opportunity for group discussion on the way forward, but it is only the start of a long and complicated realignment to a more balanced way of life and a more realistic assessment of what it is to be human.

Not a time of despair but of grace

For me, this is not a time of despair but of grace. The Greek word kairos sums it up very well. A kairos moment is an opportune time in history when new possibilities arise. It is a particular point when chances are offered if we care to take them, but they need to be grasped while the hand of benevolence is extended. What is being held out to us now is a chance to become more fully human by reconnecting with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth. If we take this opportunity then equity and justice will rule, imbalance and unfairness will become history.

Is Catholic Social Teaching a compass?

Pope Benedict urges all people to respect the natural world and to live lives that are sustainable and nurturing because only then will we find harmony with all things and with each other. In 2012 he wrote “Man is not God; he is His image. For this reason he must seek to be more sensitive to the presence of God in his surroundings.” That supports the Jesuit understanding of finding God in all things, so that everything becomes holy and worthy of respect. Pope Benedict also understands the relationship between this respect for God’s creation and human flourishing. In his message on World Day of Peace in 2007 he states “Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa. It becomes more and more evident that there is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men.”

There is no doubt we are suffering from pride, greed and arrogance and from a disregard for the preciousness of the earth and all that it can offer. We have seen ourselves as central and everything else as peripheral, the earth’s only function is to serve our needs. Now however we are being offered the chance to draw back from the brink of an abyss, in the words of Pope John Paul 11, and look to a future that is different; but it will require us all to dig deep. Tim Aldred, Head of Policy and Communications at Progression asks, “Can world leaders go further and make the final Rio+20 agreement something our generation can be proud of? (People) …are looking to world leaders for courage and vision.” Courage and vision are certainly needed; one without the other won’t work. In the words of John F Kennedy, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

What is the Christian vision of a sustainable world?

For Christians the challenge is to find the vision of a sustainable world that is worth striving for. Based on Catholic Social Teaching it must include a world where all are able to access the resources of the earth, but all must live within boundaries and shape our expectations to fit with what the world can support. That may mean earning less and working less hours to reduce consumption patterns. It might mean restricting what we eat when and respecting the seasons; not assuming we can fly anything to our plates from anywhere in the world. It may mean eating less fish to allow the seas to recover. It may mean restricting our desire to travel anywhere at any time or to forgo buying updated gadgets every year. It will certainly require us all to make do and mend rather than always throw away. It will demand a more open mind which can accept challenges so that we educate ourselves about how our actions affect others around the world, and our impact on other species. Too often it is easier to close our ears to facts that confront our desires.

Not just loss, but gain

These are things we may have to restrict, but what do we gain? No doubt new technologies will appear which will make what we do more efficient and surprise us by their ingenuity. Technology on a large scale will help with storing or removing greenhouse gases and by making machines that don’t rely on fossil fuels. We will the cleanliness and efficiency of improve energy production. On a small scale our homes will certainly become more efficient, cleaner and connected to the world, reducing the need for travel. Hopefully we will create more time to spend with loved ones, pursuing hobbies or contributing to our local community. More creative thinking about how we live can be rewarding and inspiring, bringing out talents and, crucially, learning from the older generation. This may well all add to a greater sense of community as we learn to share rather than live in boxes, and, a deeper sense of a world that is not purely a larder or a resource provider, but a manifestation of God. It will also hone our core values such as instilling self-restraint, curbing appetites and giving more than taking. Alastair McIntosh explores the emergence of community out of the ashes of a stressed, industrialised world in his insightful book “Rekindling Community.”

A vision worth striving for

As I write these words I’m aware of sounding trite and rose-tinted, but we have to change. To me a simpler lifestyle with a more intricate and nuanced society that cares more and wants less is a vision worth striving for. Will the ideas discussed at Rio and the other meetings add to this vision? Only if people of faith are there to present their world view and add to the clamour of many different voice who want a say in our future. We must have a strong vision and be determined to strive for it, and not be content with others deciding our future for us. Otherwise the profound warning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will become a reality. “It is the nature, and the advantage, of strong people that they can bring out the crucial questions and form a clear opinion about them. The weak always have to decide between alternatives that are not their own.”

Mary Colwell, June 2012.
Mary Colwell is an award winning broadcaster and writer, and a consultant on faith and the environment