Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Towards a Sustainable Future

It was the year 1899 when the then Commissioner of the U.S. Patents office was reported to have said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." While he might choose to have retracted those words even before they had hit the wires, we might do well to pause and reflect on whether all invention can be described as progress.

As we enter an era when the level of carbon in the atmosphere continues to climb to hitherto unrecorded levels - and even while we debate the implications of that - we recognise that one of the significant costs of progress remains the environment in which we live. We have, in reality, bitten the hand that feeds us hard, and wonder at its capacity to recover and adapt.

A second thought reverberates through my mind - most, if not all of this progress has been to the benefit of the West, at the expense of other parts of the world, even at the exploitation of them. When we consider how corporations have made millions by using cheap third-world labour to produce garments sold at prices which bear little relation to their production costs, we must consider whether progress for some at the expense of the majority is really progress at all.

The cost of producing many of our staples in the West has ignored the unaccounted costs - those which appear on no corporate books or tax records. While countries debate the possibility of carbon trading schemes (which would appear one small and tenuous step towards addressing the problem), there is an unspoken need for the West to recognise the need to bear much more of the cost of our lavish lifestyles.

This struck me afresh recently as I read through the Psalms, and encountered the reverberating cry, "I am innocent, Lord". I realised that this is a cry that cannot honestly emanate from my own lips. I live in a world system which is biased in my direction. I live a lifestyle which takes far more from this planet than is just or equitable, let alone sustainable. Even as I make efforts to reduce this, I realise that I am a long way from innocence. Such is not to pile up guilt, or to deny the possibility of grace, but to underline the need to give careful consideration to the way I live, to the foods I buy, the products purchased, the use of money overall. By almost any measure, living in the West invariably and conservatively places us in the richest 10% of the planet (certainly if you are reading this on a computer!). With such privilege comes responsibility, one which isn't exercised by deferring to governments for action.

The Bible begins by creating an essential link between humans and the planet: from the dust we are formed, and to the dust we return. Our link with the earth is more than merely symbolic, or at the ends of life. Until we recognise our inherent relationship with the earth, and the inherent link between the health of creation as a whole and our own as individuals and communities, we are set on a path into territories which will raise ever more critical questions about our future.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Perhaps we don't need new innovations so much as better environmental expressions.

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