Sunday, 12 July 2009

Imagining a Future of Abundance

View from the Pew is a monthly column I write for Newslink, the magazine of the Diocese of Limerick. This piece appeared in the issue for July/August 2009.

It cannot go on.
I think in our heart of hearts most of us realise that we cannot continue to live the way we are living now. The global civilisation we have built over the last 50 years – within my lifetime - is starting to falter. We are moving into a time of crisis. In the modern jargon, our way of life is unsustainable.

We are using up finite resources at an ever faster rate. The most obvious is fossil energy – oil, gas and coal – but there are others, including water and fertile soil. Already we have used up about half the oil on the planet; gas is following fast behind, and coal will inevitably follow, if rather later. The era of cheap energy is over.

Our agriculture and industries are damaging and poisoning the planet on which we live. The carbon dioxide we emit by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests is causing global warming, about which I have written before. Scientists advise us that at best this will be very costly, and at worse catastrophic, both for us and for all the species we share the planet with.

Growth and consumption drive this crisis.
The global economy is focussed solely on them – when they stop for any reason we have a recession such as we are experiencing now. So governments try to stimulate investment to produce more stuff, so they can levy taxes to pay for the services we all want; and corporations try to boost sales to get rid of the stuff they make, so they can sell more and make bigger profits. Advertising encourages people to desire more. Fashion encourages them to throw away the old to buy the new. People are thus encouraged to work ever harder to earn the money to keep consuming and throwing away. But all too often this is at the expense of their relationships, their communities, and even their own health, as well as the planet. Children see less and less of their parents; volunteering and community spirit dwindle; unhealthy lifestyles make more people dangerously obese. And for all the increased consumption of stuff, people are no happier than they were - even in important respects less happy, studies show.

We have no option but to change. If we do so sensibly we can preserve this wonderful planet, so that our children and our children’s children can continue to enjoy our bountiful inheritance. But if we don’t, change will be forced on us by chaos and catastrophe. If you are one of those who doubt this, you owe it to yourself and your children to investigate the issues. A good starting point would be to watch Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth (on DVD from Amazon, price £4.98) and Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff (20 min to view free at

The crisis is spiritual
Many people look for technology to fix the crisis of our time, and I’m sure that will be part of the solution. But I am convinced we need more than that. In the wise words of Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker and Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde,

The deep work must be this: to learn to live more abundantly with less, to rekindle community, and to serve fundamental human need instead of worshipping at the altars of greed.

Greed drives you and me to grasp more and more, to keep up with the Jones’s, as we ignore the damage caused to neighbours, the poor and the planet. Greed is at the root of the crisis. And greed is an old fashioned sin to which all human beings have been liable since the dawn of time. Our Christian faith has a lot to teach us about sin and how to overcome it. Jesus calls us to repent and believe in the good news, as the kingdom of God has come near. But how exactly should we respond to Jesus’s call in the face of this crisis?

I think we must all prayerfully seek answers to this question. Just as God loves variety, there will no doubt be a great variety of answers. But I believe that people in every parish should do so, and by God’s grace they are already finding their own answers. Here is a story about what a group of us in the Nenagh Union have been doing. Please let us know your stories!

Nenagh Carbon Watchers
For our Lent course this year a small multi-denominational group followed the Omega Climate Change course (see It is stimulating, focussed on the scientific facts complemented by a little theology, and I heartily recommend it - if other parishes are interested in running it I would be glad to share our experience. We looked at why it is urgent to act now; how big our individual carbon footprints are and how to reduce them; global justice issues; how quality of life can be good in a low-carbon society; and how we might take action.

At the end we were so convinced of the need to act now that we decided to continue meeting as the Nenagh Carbon Watchers group. Our first aim is to support each other in our efforts to reduce our household carbon emissions – repentance must be personal, and each one must confront his or her own lifestyle. It should save us money as well as helping the planet. And we also aim to promote in our community the changes in lifestyle needed to flourish in the inevitable low-carbon, sustainable future.

We took the initiative to ask the election candidates standing in the Nenagh area to outline their positions and tell us what they would do if elected. We published their responses on our website (, and local newspapers also printed the questions and a report on the responses. We were pleased to note that all who responded were positive – the need for change seems to be so widely agreed now that all are in favour of it, like motherhood!

A Future of Abundance
It is difficult to imagine what a low-carbon, sustainable future will be like, except in terms of what we must give up. It is easy to see such a future as poorer, greyer and less exciting than the present. It is tempting to fall into the trap of denial, to do nothing in the hope that the prospect will go away. But if we do we will be unable to make the sensible choices and we will be forced to suffer chaotic change.

I think we need urgently to re-imagine a future of abundance, and to do so as communities, so that we can begin to create it together in common purpose. Because the future can be one of abundance, and more fulfilling than today. What we need is a vision of the kingdom of God for the 21st century.

The Transition movement is one promising approach. This aims to stimulate groups within a local community to come together to envisage what must happen for the community to flourish in a sustainable future, to begin to plan for it, and to encourage stakeholders including local councils to buy into the vision. Started in Kinsale and piloted in Totnes in England, this model is rapidly being adopted in hundreds of communities in Britain and Ireland. You can read about in The Transition Handbook written by its founder Rob Hopkins (Amazon, price £8.28). The Carbon Watchers are actively mulling over whether and how to start a Transition Town initiative in Nenagh.

And I feel sure we can learn from the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, where construction started early this year (see

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