31st May 2017 | Dave Bookless | 0 comments

Can we have abundant life without trashing the planet?

Based on a talk given at Hong Kong University, 1st June 2017

Hong Kong University Abundant Life conference posterWhat do we mean by ‘abundant life’? Both Western and Eastern cultures tend to value ‘success’ in terms of prosperity, wealth, health, long-life and security, and increasingly in the 21st century also freedom and mobility (autonomy). Yet we live with the paradox that, particularly with a fast-growing global population, the pursuit of these goals is putting increasing pressure on the natural environment, and also on social and economic stability. The conventional three pillars of sustainable development – the economic, social and ecological – are all under great strain. Economic systems built on an unending supply of cheap fossil fuels and of demand for disposable consumer products are colliding with the planetary boundaries within which we need to stay for long-term sustainability.

Moreover, there is increasing evidence that material wealth beyond a certain level creates psychological and social stresses which are destabilizing to individuals and whole societies. We clearly need economic development to raise the world’s poorest to a level where all basic needs are met, but ‘growth for growth’s sake’ needs to be questioned. What is growth for? Can economies be reconstituted in a way that is more circular or even restorative in their use of natural resources? Can economics recognize that the environment is never an externality?

These questions beg a different approach to the question of ‘abundant life’. The environmentalist Jonathon Porritt has written, ‘There are few sources of authority (let alone wisdom) in addressing these challenges that are not derived from religious or spiritual sources’ [1]. When King Solomon was offered any gift he wanted from God, he chose not money, possessions, health, security or power … but wisdom (2 Chr 1:7–12). Wisdom, as a way of understanding reality, is different from scientific knowledge and rational analysis. It is a way of knowing the world relationally. In its biblical definition it consists primarily in ‘knowing our place’ in the world: knowing ourselves in relationship to God, other people, and nature.

Truly abundant life is not found in abundance of material possessions but in the quality of our relationships. Jesus said, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12:15). We need to foster key values and virtues in our pursuit of a truly abundant life, and ensure these transform all three key dimensions of our relationships – with God, others and nature. These also need to be integrated into our educational system – our formation of hearts and minds, and into our political and economic life as well. In terms of biblically-based values and virtues that may be acceptable across cultures and ideologies I would suggest we need to foster:

[1] SDC/WWF-UK (2005). Sustainable Development and UK Faith Groups: Two Sides of the Same Coin? London, Sustainable Development Commission.

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Categories: Reflections
About Dave Bookless

Dave has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation.

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