174 26.2.12 Morland Lent 1 The End of Growth?
May the words of my lips and the thoughts of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.
In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus wrote the first edition of his 'Essay on the Principle of Population'. This set out the idea that population growth would not go on unchecked: it would be stopped by war, famine and disease.
No doubt many of you were taught about this at school. I certainly was. And like the eagerly-awaited Second Coming, it hasn't happened. Since then, there have been many successors to Malthus, all saying that 'sooner or later it would happen'. World population has gone on growing exponentially. In 1800 there were perhaps 1000 million people in the world. By 1900 we had yet to reach 2000 million. We passed 3000 about 1960; 4000 about 1970; 5000 about 1985; 6000 in the late 1990s; and we are up to 7 billion now.
This has been achieved, apparently despite the predictions, by the use of our brains, by technology, by inventiveness and by the use of energy, much of it fossil fuel.
In the last 10 or 20 years, there have been more and more people warning that this really can't go on. The natural reaction is to point to Malthus and observe what happened to his ideas, and carry on exactly as we are.
The most recent book that has come my way is 'The End of Growth', by an American economist, Richard Heinberg. Ah, well, we can go back to sleep now. We don't concern ourselves with American economists.
Sorry, no we can't!
I picked the book up, thinking that it would be Malthus all over again. It isn't.
The underlying point is that this 'Growth' which we are all trained to think is a good thing, can't go on. It depends on the use of fossil fuels. We've burned in a couple of hundred years the stored energy of the sun collected over billions of years. The lowest-hanging fruit has already been picked, and the cost of getting the more difficult resources is going up and up. The rest of the world is wanting its share of the goodies. Whether or not you accept that man's activities are contributing to climate change, you can't deny that supply and demand are causing prices to go up and up.
And it's not just fuel. Our cunning technologies are using ever-rarer minerals. We become dependent for the supply of these materials from people on whom we perhaps would not want to rely.
I'm not suggesting that technology will not go on developing. Of course
it will. Every week we read reports of exciting new developments. But
we could do with digging a bit deeper into our assumptions.
News items seem always to be focussed on growth. A fall in house prices is presented as something undesirable. Try that on a youngster keen to get on the ladder. And you can argue that it's all Monopoly money anyhow. In most cases, a house is sold only for the money to be spent on the next one, so we are not any better off.
And then there's GDP. We were told a little while ago that if things carried on this way, we'd be back to the living standards of 2003. Big deal! I don't remember being specially hungry or cold in 2003. Our holidays that year took us to South Wales at Easter and Ireland in the summer.
The real point is that until the financial bubble burst, people were relying on the supposed increase in the value of their houses to borrow money to pay for things that Grandma would have said they should save up for. We all wanted instant satisfaction, and we wanted it now! Plenty of little voices kept saying that it couldn't go on, but somehow, it did!
And there were plenty of people sending us credit cards in the post every
day, encouraging us to buy things we couldn't afford and probably had
little use for.
Heinberg's book doesn't ignore or deny all the developments that are going on. But it does produce huge amounts of data showing that we simply can't go on like this. The whole world does not contain resources sufficient to give developing countries the same standard of living as we have, let alone the standards the Americans have. There is going to have to be a bit of give and take.
At this point, anybody over retiring age is going to want to put their hands over their ears and hope that 'it will be OK for the rest of my time here'.
Don't do that. Listen a bit more. At the simplest and most selfish level,
we probably care about what will happen to our own children and grandchildren.
Heinberg's final chapter gives suggestions for how we might proceed. He
sees hope in community cooperation and in small-scale schemes. (Remember
'Small is Beautiful', published in 1989 by E F Schumacher, a British economist?).
Perhaps this is where I should pause in case you are wondering why we
are getting a lecture in economics rather than a sermon.
Well, we are not. However many reasons you can find for not going on as we are, for us as Christians, there are going to be at least two more.
In our first lesson today, we heard part of the story of Noah and the Ark, specifically the bit about God's covenant with mankind. However you understand this tale, the underlying truth for me is that God created the world and saw to it that in due course mankind would emerge. And He makes a covenant that seedtime and harvest shall not fail. The earth will have resources to feed us all.
Covenants, though, have two sides. In our turn, it becomes our responsibility to look after the earth and its resources. If we squander them, we have only ourselves to blame.
It's our business to use our brains and our skills and talents for the
common good. Hence nobody is suggesting that we should not be engaging
in technological development. Revert for a moment to the question of energy.
There is enough energy coming from the sun every hour, we are told, to
give us all we need for a year. The problem is that it is so diffuse and
it is hard to store. The fossil fuels we are using have solved those problems,
but only over billions of years. Geological time has concentrated the
sun's energy (converted into trees or sea creatures) and compressed and
stored the result. Much work is going into making our use of energy more
efficient - using less energy for the same result - and into finding ways
of concentrating the sun's energy and storing it. But we have a long way
Meanwhile, perhaps we should consider a bit of sacrifice. And here, of course, is the second way in which Christians should be concerned. Sacrifice has been a part of religious practice from the very earliest times. At one time it was just a matter of trying to propitiate vindictive gods. We've moved on from there. Now we have a faith the centre of which is Jesus' sacrifice of Himself.
Sacrifice - giving beyond the call of duty, giving beyond the point where
it hurts, giving of our time and our talents to help others, following
Jesus' example - this sacrifice is what the church should be about. We
don't always like to be reminded of it. We aren't always very good at
observing Lent. (Just a handful of people turned up for the Joint Service
on Ash Wednesday evening, though I know there were more in the morning.)
And if our half of the Covenant, plus sacrifice, isn't enough, what about Justice. A central part of Jesus' teaching was about justice and fairness. We really can't bury our heads in the sand and say it's none of our business and we can't do anything about it and anyway I'm too old/ young.
Of course there are things beyond our personal control, but we can lobby those who do have influence. And on a local level, we can find ways of working together to help each other and to minimise our use of resources. Perhaps our expectations are too high. One day last week, I drove to Shap four times. All right, it's not that far and there must be far greater sins. But it makes the point that because it's easy to do, we come to expect to be able to do it, and we ignore even the total cost to ourselves, let alone the cost to the earth.
You would think that with communications as easy as they are, we could do lots more car sharing. But it's too much trouble, and I want to go NOW.
I very much hope that locally generated electricity will prove to be the boon we are told to expect it will be. Whether we will ever be able to get away from a National Grid, with all its transmission losses and unsightly towers, who knows.
And there must be scope in all our lives for lots more recycling, re-using, mending. Too often we just can't be bothered. And isn't it nice to have new toys? Sacrifice?
It's a delight to go round the more remote parts of Scotland and find old-fashioned hardware shops and grocery shops still thriving. For us, it's too easy to pop into Penrith or Appleby, perhaps several times a day. With a bit of forethought, we could surely do without some of those trips. And if we had a village shop, we might do without more of them. 'But I want it now: I don't want to wait until next week's delivery.' Sacrifice?
Well, there are proposals for a village shop, and there are examples
every week of places where there is one and it's thriving. They probably
involve volunteer labour. They might well involve higher prices. Sacrifice?
Nobody invited us here for an easy life.
I'm not offering sackcloth and ashes or even recommending that the church should be cold and uncomfortable.
What I am trying to suggest is that God has signed His side of the Covenant. It's our business to keep to our side. If this involves some sacrifice - and it will - then the outcome of that could be greater justice and fairness for the world.
We all have a part to play.
And now to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed
as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and praise, henceforth
and for ever. Amen.