More than 100 people from across Christian denominations attended the conference ‘Joy in Enough: Awakening to a new economics’ on Saturday in Birmingham, organised by Christian Ecology Link (CEL), in association with Speak and A Rocha. This marked the start of a two-year programme to develop a manifesto, rethinking how the economy could be restructured to achieve social justice, respect planet Earth’s natural limits and set people free from the obligation to consume beyond their needs.
The conference was a great success. “It is unprecedented for any CEL conference to be booked up two months in advance of the event as this one had” reported CEL Chair Paul Bodenham, “and this shows we are riding the wave of something significant”. He suggested there was a groundswell of feeling that something had gone wrong in the way ‘orthodox’ economics is serving society and the planet. The ‘Joy in Enough’ project is empowering Christians to look at alternatives, bringing together the two disciplines of economics and theology
In her opening reflection, Catholic theologian Mary Grey, reflected that she sees "a right relationship with the earth as a pre-requisite for communal well-being and flourishing, part of the vision we share of the Kingdom of God, as a kingdom, a shalom of right relationship”. She felt key questions were: “How can society find its way back from a culture of more to a culture of enough?” and “How can we break the fetters of addiction to consumerism and the domination of the free market system?” Human society is yearning, she said “for recovery of our collective soul…. where desires are satisfied and fulfilled in justice for all vulnerable communities and a sustainable economy for the Earth”. A return to the Christian roots of simplicity and joy is called for.
Keynote speaker Dr Dan O’Neill, Chief Economist at the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, based at Leeds University, suggested that the ultimate aim is a global economy should be to operate within strict boundaries or caps for emissions and resource use, and to prioritise the well-being of all over the luxurious living of the few. To that end we need international agreements on the implementation and the enforcement of such caps, which would address environmental crises, particularly Climate Change and Biodiversity loss. We need substantial reform of financial systems, including curtailing the power of the banks to create debt. Policies aimed at dismantling the ‘culture of consumerism’ created by the powerful corporate marketing processes are also necessary.
Dr O’Neill suggested a move to more local, low-carbon economic activities, including more investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Signs of change are there already, in his view, as he pointed out that in the UK there are 10,000 Community Interest Companies who take into account environmental and social priorities. Work-sharing, the just redistribution of employment hours and income will be another key requirement. The most profound call was for change in our national economic goals and the way we measure progress. With less emphasis on the GDP, much more importance could be given to measures of ecosystem health and quality, quality of life and of equality. Currently economic growth is seen as a substitute for equality of income, that when the few are wealthy their wealth will ‘trickle down’ to poorer people. In fact, this does not happen, and human society needs to engage with the distribution of income more explicitly.
During a general discussion, it was felt that church buildings should be models of sustainability and that existing initiatives should continue to be pushed, such as Eco-Congregation and the Live Simply Parish Award in the Catholic Church. Operation Noah’s campaign to urge churches to disinvest from fossil fuel companies is important, and the eco-cell initiative of CEL, which helps small Christian groups to work together to reduce their carbon footprints. Christians need to act prophetically speaking out against consumerism and living an alternative simple lifestyle. Reclaiming the Sabbath rest is another goal, and there was also a call to reclaim Christmas as a more simple religious celebration. A cheer went up around the room when Tony Emerson, a key champion of the ‘Joy in Enough’ project said, “instead of using the term ‘economic growth’, why not call it ‘economic obesity’.
The five working groups which prepared papers and workshops for the conference, will continue their work driving the ‘Joy in Enough’ agenda forward and working towards a ‘Joy in Enough’ manifesto. These include a theological group, which is articulating the imperatives in scripture and theology for a post-growth economy, and strategies for mission and evangelisation for the transition. Other groups are focusing on the big trans-boundary questions of limiting resource use, tackling emissions targets, and minimising the production of waste; reform of the financial sector; tackling social inequality and promoting work-time reductions and work sharing promoting conditions that can improve family and local community relationships; challenging consumerism. The overall thrust is moving away from a competitive, individualistic culture to one of cooperation and altruism.
It was a real joy to be at the conference - to be discussing such a pivotal topic with such interesting people. There's a real excitement in the air about where the campaign is going to go next. We'd love for you to join us. Full details of the Joy in Enough project, the conference and the working groups are available at http://www.greenchristian.org.uk/joy-in-enough
Details of Steady State Economics, an alternative economic paradigm considered at the conference, can be found at http://steadystate.org/