Sustainability is the watchword of our time. I wonder if it is the most widely shared ethic in today’s world; certainly it is seems to pop up frequently in the aspirations of people and organisations in the English-speaking world. From farming to investing and from industry to government, sustainable living and working seem to be the right kinds of living and working. So I want to reflect on what sustainability means, and how it fits within a Christian ethic.
One widely used reference point is the Sustainable Development Goals produced by the United Nations. These seventeen areas of aspiration, published and adopted by the UN in 2015, cover a wide range of areas including poverty, wellbeing, education, equality, working conditions, climate, ecosystems, and peace and justice. “Sustainable” here is coupled with “development”, so overall these so-called Global Goals may reflect a wider set of aspirations than those implied by “sustainability” itself. Having said that, perhaps the most succinct definition of the latter comes from a UN report of 1987 1, where sustainable development is that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Thus far, sustainability sounds rather like bringing social justice to bear on economics. It could even be taken as how to manage exploitation so that it can continue forever!
But that’s not how sustainability (or sustainable development) is usually understood. It’s most often evoked with the word “green”, or with reference to “protecting the planet”, and its main concern is with the “health” of the non-human ecosystems and the overall biosphere in which all human life is embedded. “Health” is a metaphor here (ecosystems don’t catch diseases), but not compromising the ability of future generations certainly implies protecting the wider planetary systems that will carry the effects of today’s actions to those who come after us. The primary focus is on ecological and, increasingly, climate systems.
Although “sustainable” isn’t a biblical term, our embedding in a wider creation is prominent in the Bible. Animals, trees, mountains, the sky, weather, seasons, and so on are everywhere, as we might expect in any ancient literature. And people are assumed and expected to live in some kind of harmony with their environment, as indicated in many parts of the Law given to Moses, and reiterated through the Psalms, prophets and teachings of Jesus. There isn’t anything about air pollution or carbon emissions, but there’s enough to endorse an ethic of living gently on the land, as far as God allows (sometimes He judges in favour of the land – see 2 Chr 36:15-21!). Indeed, the biblical writers don’t have a concept of nature, so that they could urge us to protect it. Rather, everything is creation. ‘Nature’ is a product of the elevation of humans to quasi-divine status that took place with the 18th-century Enlightenment. When God disappears from a society’s consciousness, humanity takes on the role of defining truth and construing reality, and in the process comes to set itself apart (i.e. become sacred): ‘nature’ is what we’re separated from. And this is surely where the problems of despoliation, pollution and extinction arise (even if abetted by the expropriation of Genesis 1:28 2). An authentic Christian worldview is about finding our place in God’s creation, fallen as it is, so that we can join in God’s project of reconciling all things to Himself.
I think a Christian perspective on sustainability can actually go further than this. Looking back, the command to “have dominion” and “subdue” is immediately qualified: human food is vegan (check Gen 1:28-29!). This is part of the cultural mandate developed through Genesis 2, which indicates “listening to” and “serving” the Garden. Looking forward – with the future-oriented UN definition of 1987 – while we await the restitution of all things at Christ’s return (Acts 3:21), we are called to be faithful servants, sustaining not just ourselves and future generations, but also other creatures and their habitats, as far as we can, as the whole creation groans in its birth pangs (Rom 8:22). Attempting to abort the rest of creation would be an unthinkable sin!
What does this mean, practically? Are there ways in which Christians’ sustainable lifestyles, investing, policy-making or business leadership should differ from prevailing best practice? Surely there’s something important in how we integrate sustainability with the other, related but different, norms that characterise God’s kingdom. What does a Christian agenda for sustainable development look like? Please share your thoughts below – or discuss with a friend… or contribute to the next UN report!
 World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report)
 The thesis of Lynn White Jr. was that this verse alone accounts for the ecological crisis of the West: Science 155: 1203-1207.
Further reading ideas:
- Bartholomew and Goheen (2014): The Drama of Scripture: Finding your place in the biblical story (also see brief glosses here and here)
- Resources at A Rocha (who have two field centres in England, and in many other countries too)
- Resources at John Ray Initiative
and please share your recommendations in comments below…