Spiritual transformation as the root of economic and environmental sustainability

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

                                                                                                                              – Romans 8:19 -21

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Being both an environmental economist as well as a follower of Christ has given me a unique perspective regarding what is truly necessary to achieve both economic and environmental sustainability.

Traditional economic models teach us that economic development is deeply dependent on the success of the industrial sector. This is based on the assumption that the industrial sector has the largest capacity of any of the economic sectors to absorb the growing labor supply in urban areas due to increased urbanization. Here is the theory in a nutshell: increased employment leads more production, higher profits for firms; higher wages for workers; more disposable income; and, ultimately, more consumption. Economic development. A striving and healthy economy. Great, that’s what we all want, right? But where in this economic model do we account for the millions of pounds of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, lead, DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, sewage, and other chemicals released directly into the air or water as a result of industrial-based economic development?

The classic economic answer – increased income will address the negative environmental issues associated with economic development. This is based on the belief that after people reach a certain level of disposable income, they begin consuming more “luxury” goods. Environmental goods are considered  “luxury” because  their consumption increases as income increases.

A study based on the Russian economist Simon S. Kuznets hypothesized the relationship between environmental quality and economic development using a mathematical representation called Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). According to empirical studies based on the EKC, environmental degradation worsens as modern economic growth occurs until average income reaches a certain point over the course of development. After this point, people become more aware of environmental degradation and start shifting their consumption patterns to more environmentally friendly goods and services.  In others words, we only start to actively care for the planet when we become aware of environmental issues; an awareness that is ultimately triggered by the number of dollars in our bank account.

The problem is that the Earth doesn’t have time to wait until we are economically comfortable to start taking care of it. Although the Earth is a self-regulating system; it’s clear that human activity is capable of disrupting it, and we have proven that we can cause a significant amount of damage that won’t be fixed by increasing incomes alone. If we continue in this economic development path, Earth’s ecosystems that support all life will be forced more and more out of balance and may come to point where they no longer have the strength to heal the wounds we inflict upon it. Bottom line – we have to treat caring for the Earth as a necessity, not a luxury.

Failure to care for the planet is not a novel concept of the past century; we have been exhausting Earth’s resources for millennia.  The Bible shows what happened when the Israelites did not put the land to rest on the seventh day, one of God laws for agricultural production (Exodus 23:10-11). God’s people disobeyed His law, causing the spiritual, social, economical, and environmental systems to collapse and forcing the Israelites into to exile in Babylon.

The problem is that we are reaching a tipping point As Romans 8:22 says:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

Science has proven that we are making poor choices regarding our stewardship of the planet, but a close examination of our own motivations makes it clear why we make the choices we make regarding our care for the Earth (or subsequent lack thereof). We want faster economic growth to have higher income because we live in a culture of instant gratification that shapes so many of the choices we make, even without us realizing it. This is the root of the problem – the fallen nature of humanity and there is only one way to change this (and hint: it isn’t a salary raise or a new green technology). It is the beautiful, transformative, renovating love of Jesus; it is only when we are fully transformed by Christ from our inner being to our outer lives that we are able to fully embrace our role environmental stewards and care for the Earth as God intended.

For a cleaner and greener consumption and production in our economy look at  http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy

For further information about the recent climate change debate look at http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2013/04/08-climate-economies-robertst

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