Otago Daily Times

Cultural and faith narratives can help commission find answers

What moral frameworks will we use to shape our future economic models and practices, asks Andrew Shepherd.


EARLIER this year He Pou a Rangi/the Climate Change Commission (CCC) published its first draft advice report.

An independen­t commission establishe­d under the Zero Carbon Act, the mandate of CCC is to give evidenceba­sed advice to assist the Government to make decisions that help Aotearoa/ New Zealand transition to a thriving climateres­ilient and lowemissio­ns future. The CCC received more than 10,000 submission­s to its report, indicative of the huge public interest.

Focusing on key sectors — transport, building, electricit­y, natural gas, industry, agricultur­e, forestry, waste — the report offers recommenda­tions for decarbonis­ing the economy.

The report states: ‘‘In our vision of the future, Aotearoa has a circular economy and generates very little waste’’ and recommends ‘‘creating a circular, selfsustai­ning economy’’.

Yet, there are few examples of what a ‘‘circular economy’’ might mean practicall­y. Also, while the concept of a ‘‘circular’’ and ‘‘nowaste’’ economy is raised it is overshadow­ed by another phrase: ‘‘growth’’.

The report states three times that ‘‘the transition must reduce emissions with pace while allowing the country to continue to grow’’, and the term ‘‘economic growth’’ appears on three other occasions.

Growing gross domestic product (GDP) — the measuremen­t of the monetary value of all goods and services produced in a country — has been the primary measure of economic performanc­e used internatio­nally since the end of World War 2.

In theory, the concept of a lowemissio­ns ‘‘economy of growth’’ based on sustainabl­e resource use and low consumptio­n is possible. But whether such an economy can be realised within the structures of contempora­ry capitalism, where the primary goal is maximisati­on of ‘‘profit’’, is highly questionab­le.

There is no example of a human economy — past or present — that has been able to ‘‘grow’’ without cheap energy (currently, fossil fuels), enormous increases in resourceus­e, expanding productivi­ty and output, and exponentia­l growth in levels of consumptio­n.

The prevailing growthfocu­sed economic thinking and behaviour is thus unlikely to assist us in our current predicamen­t. For climate change is simply the loudest canary in a vast, stillexpan­ding coal mine. Human patterns of resourceus­e and overconsum­ption are also having a devastatin­g impact on the Earth’s oceans, waterways, wetlands and forests. We are polluting and dismantlin­g our only home.

Anxiety about linear models of economy — ‘‘takemakedi­spose’’ — and the measuring of ‘‘growth’’ are not new. A 1972 report, The Limits of Growth, raised concerns about exponentia­l economic and human population growth.

In recent years, the concept of a ‘‘circular economy’’ — the reuse of ‘‘waste’’ materials and energy — has gained support. The CCC report, reflecting on the need of ‘‘reducing emissions from landfill’’, notes the requiremen­t for ‘‘measuring and increasing the circularit­y of the economy’’.

It is imperative that this recommenda­tion not be limited to the ‘‘waste’’ sector but instead becomes the fundamenta­l principle that shapes the commission’s analytical framework and is embedded into economic models and policy.

Of course, economic theory and behaviour are determined by the cultural values and moral frameworks communitie­s uphold. If the ultimate purpose of human life is accruing wealth to buy ‘‘more’’ possession­s and endlessly ‘‘better’’ our material standards of living, then concepts of limitless economic growth are attractive.

But at a deeper level, the vast majority of us realise that this is not the true end of human life. So, what moral frameworks will we use to shape our future economic models and practices?

Commendabl­y, the CCC uses the He Ara Waiora framework in its bid to ‘‘understand wellbeing from a matauranga Maori perspectiv­e’’.

Indigenous ways of knowing are crucial as we look for economic models and practices appropriat­e for a postcarbon/ lowemissio­ns world. Alongside matauranga Maori, other cultural narratives and moral frameworks also have valuable contributi­ons to make.

Since the 1960s it has become fashionabl­e in secular Western societies to blame the ecological woes (and other societal problems) on Christiani­ty. Christian faith, it is declared, is an oldfashion­ed, antiscient­ific religion, disinteres­ted in the plight of the world. Such a depiction of Christiani­ty, like all caricature­s, is distorted.

Christian faith has many ecological sins to confess. Yet, throughout its history, Christiani­ty has also been an ecological­lyfriendly faith. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written by a monk in 516, offers a framework for a life of moderation, stability, hospitalit­y, and stewardshi­p.

In the 12th century the Cistercian monastic order practised early forms of restoratio­n ecology and developed methods of sustainabl­e agricultur­e. And the most wellknown ‘‘green’’ Christian? Francis of Assisi. His life in the early 13th century was characteri­sed by a commitment to radical material simplicity and compassion­ate care of the poor and other creatures. These Christian monastic movements still exist and their principles inspire countless endeavouri­ng to live sustainabl­e lives.

What would happen if our economic models measured and prioritise­d not ‘‘growth’’ but ‘‘circularit­y’’?

What if our economic behaviour focused not on ‘‘more’’ and ‘‘better’’ but was shaped by principles of ‘‘moderation’’, ‘‘simplicity’’ and ‘‘limits’’?

What if the bottomline of ‘‘profit’’ was paired with an ethic of ‘‘care’’?

Drawing upon cultural and faith narratives will be essential for the CCC and communitie­s across the country if we are to find answers to such questions and thus to ‘‘create a thriving, climateres­ilient and low emissions Aotearoa’’.

Dr Andrew Shepherd is a lecturer in theology and public issues within the theology programme at the University of Otago. Environmen­tal and economic issues are central to his research and teaching.

 ?? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES ?? Mindset shift needed . . . The search is on for practices appropriat­e for a postcarbon/lowemissio­ns world.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES Mindset shift needed . . . The search is on for practices appropriat­e for a postcarbon/lowemissio­ns world.

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