Climate change as – at best – a secondary issue

Climate change (and Peak Oil) are two symptoms of a much deeper problem, the Limits to Growth. That problem can be simply stated: in a finite environment, the exponential growth of one element within that environment is unsustainable. Our western industrial capitalist system has been growing exponentially for some two hundred and fifty years – accelerating over the last sixty or so – and this is unsustainable; in other words, it will come to an end. I believe that it will come to an end over the next twenty or thirty years or so, not by our own conscious choice but because we have gone into ‘overshoot’ and we are presently crashing into the wall at 100mph.

The original Limits to Growth report outlined the various problems that would manifest themselves and cause the system to break down: resource limits, pollution, overpopulation etc. These can all be understood as symptoms of the underlying problem, the idolatry of growth. Peak Oil, for example, is only one example of a resource constraint; other fossil fuels (and uranium) also go through a peaking cycle, but there are also very significant issues related to the availability of potable water, fish stocks and many others. Climate change is one form of pollution, but again there are others, less global but no less significant for those affected by them.

With all of these single issues it is possible to address and solve that particular issue. The force of the Limits to Growth argument is that even when one is solved, the others then become more acute. In other words, there is a systemic issue to be addressed: we need to tackle the root problem of growth itself; we need to shift to a steady-state economy. If this is done then all the subsidiary problems will be dealt with. Even if climate change is true, and – marvellously! – action is taken to address the problem and it is “solved” – the underlying issue remains. The same applies to the problem of Peak Oil. All it would mean is that we have dodged one bullet; if we don’t address the root causes then we will simply have to keep dodging more and more as time goes on, until one day one hits us and kills us.

Sometimes, I have the sense those who advocate radical action to deal with climate change miss this bigger picture (that’s certainly true of any politician who talks about climate change whilst also talking about ‘growth’ for example). The risk is two-fold: first, that the wider issues fail to be addressed through an over-emphasis upon one subsidiary aspect; second, that if too much weight is placed on climate change as the dominant problem – and it turns out that the issue is either false or not as bad as presently thought – then not only will effort have been wasted but those who may have been persuaded to address important problems on the back of climate change will become disillusioned and sceptical about the wider issues as a whole.

More fundamentally, as a Christian, my concern is with the habits of life that are bound up with the ideology of growth; the systematic cultivation of deadly sins by the advertising industry, for example. The problem of growth is, at root, a spiritual problem; it is a dislocation of our values, a distortion of our human nature. That is what the church needs to address – our human sinfulness which gives rise to these problems. We must be wary of jumping on particular band-wagons, stick to what we know best, and do the job that Jesus commanded us to do, remembering that “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
(2 Chron 7.13-14)