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Chapter I,
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to Chapter 2

dot.gif (101 bytes) A new situation dot.gif (101 bytes) Historical roots of the situation
dot.gif (101 bytes) The current emphasis on "sustainable development" dot.gif (101 bytes) The need for comprehensive re-evaluation
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Defining sustainability

dot.gif (101 bytes) Interdisciplinary listening and questioning
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The need for new models of development

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Conflict and creative tension

dot.gif (101 bytes) The agenda for change


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Historical roots of the situation

The newness of our historical situation has burst on humankind with jarring suddenness. Efforts to reflect anew about it are cramped by old habits of thought. The historical roots of this situation are worth examining, even briefly, inasmuch as they continue to shape our identity and understanding.

The European Renaissance and then the Enlightenment burst traditional boundaries. Confidence in progress, even inevitable progress, reshaped culture. Rationality and indomitable will imbued consciousness. Modern technology and the industrial revolution enhanced human powers. The expansion of European civilization led to colonialism, only recently in retreat. Western mindsets, practices, and rapidly changing technology -- sometimes called modernization -- spread through most of humanity's social and economic relationships.

In some ways this new outlook was a biblical heresy. It echoed the biblical sense of historical dynamism, a secularized version of the belief in a God who can "do a new thing." To some, it was liberating: freed from traditional restraints, they were enabled to express creative powers. To others, it brought domination from outside and alienation from communities where they had felt at home.

In theological terms, the emerging new world order failed to take into account that humankind is made of dust, akin to all of nature. It distorted the biblical sense of dominion away from a notion of responsible care of the earth into a license to plunder. Theologians occasionally talked even of the humanization and the hominization of the universe -- language as alien both to the book of Job, with its awe before the mysteries of creation, as to contemporary astronomers investigating myriads of galaxies and black holes.

The need for comprehensive re-evaluation

A new chastening is upon us. There is spreading understanding of jeopardy inherent in weapons that can destroy civilization. And awareness is expanding that the burgeoning application of many proud achievements from the last century is changing the ecosphere, imperiling the health and life of many species, including our own. Hope remains that science and technology, which have cured some diseases and met many human needs, will diminish some present dangers. But it is impressive that some scientists, highly skilled in their professions, state repeatedly that certain problems have no "technical fix." That is, their answers require ethical, even spiritual re-evaluation of present ways of living and strengthened ethical commitment to preserving life resources.

Interdisciplinary listening and questioning

Faith offers no glib solutions to these new problems. Theology cannot prescribe policies. It was not from faith that learning came about ozone depletion, the CO2 effect, nuclear radiation, the erosion and desertification of crop lands, the extent of starvation and pollution-induced diseases. The churches must learn to listen, with some modesty, to the findings of scientists -- physical scientists, biological and medical scientists, social scientists. But people of faith will not listen as passive consumers of knowledge: scientists, economists, technocrats and other specialists will be interrogated about the values, sometimes hidden, in their findings and prescriptions. The idolatries that infect society and ourselves must be identified and exposed: idolatries of mammon (wealth), race, sexism, economic growth, status, the domination of other peoples and of the natural world.

In affirming commitments to God and to humanity, in celebrating appreciation for earth and sky as God's creation, people of faith must resist sacrificing life to economic systems, must keep such systems in perspective based on the fullness of life.

Conflict and creative tension

Even in making such affirmations, perplexities remain. Most human situations involve conflicts of values. Although we value peace, we cannot cry peace when there is no justice. Concern for living persons must be related to concern for future generations. And to acknowledge that a human life is worth "many sparrows" must be linked to respect for non-human species.  [N.B. Reference to New Testament, Matthew 10:31.]  The present tension between justice and sustainability must be faced, along with the recognition that over time, each requires the other. In the kingdom of God, we trust that authentic values cohere. In the mortal world, a creative imagination and a building of community may bring apparently conflicting values into a synergism that enhances the common life. But not all conflicts can be avoided: this document does not try to skirt necessary confrontation.

Because differing human groups have a stake in various values, conflicts of values often become contests of power. All the resources of faith and wisdom are needed to know when to try to transcend such conflicts, when to seek mediation and compromise, when to denounce predatory might.

For issues to be addressed honestly, the broad participation of people is required. The need for conversation among church people and scientists -- who are sometimes but not always the same people -- has been mentioned. Others are also needed: women and men, young and old, from different ethnic, social, national, confessional, ideological, and geographic groups.

Consultation participants from "the south" have spoken poignantly of desperate poverty, crushing foreign debts, water and air poisoned by pollutants. For some in affluent industrialized nations, the nearest "south" may be found in pockets of domestic poverty and racial ghettoes. People suffering from the oppression of present systems have experiences and perceptions of the world that are usually hidden from the more affluent, at times by careful artifice. Because oppressed people suffer inordinately and do not have access to the major communication media, strenuous effort and intentionality are needed to assure their participation in the conversations and in the communities of decision-making.

The agenda for change

The Brundtland Report and the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development have helped draw world attention to these issues. But the steps taken thus far to repair a precarious situation are pitifully small in proportion to the overwhelming destructiveness to life of present social and economic systems.

The consultation saw the need for a major reordering, both of the world economy and of regional economies. Both centrally controlled and unrestrained market systems have contributed to the present perilous situation. The future will require a combination, yet to be articulated, of personal freedom and responsibility with lawful obligations and restrictions to personal liberty.

Needed changes will not come without pain and resistance. Their structural adjustments will threaten many privileges. Only a less lavish consumption of resources by some and a more generous opportunity for others can lead to a more promising future, a sustainable planet full of life.

And the changes need to be more than economic. The economy is a sub-system -- a big and important sub-system -- within the broader system of human social organization and the ecosystem. All human societies are called to rethink the nature and destiny of human life and community. The churches, in particular, have to rethink the understandings and actions related to their beliefs about God, about being both sinners and human beings created in the image of God, about the meaning of the whole creation.

This moment of peril and opportunity arising from the contradiction in the terms of current economic models and environmental survival calls for more detailed investigation in three areas: 1) the conceptual reorientation of today's economies; 2) the implementation of economic and social changes; 3) theological understanding and the role of the churches in meeting this challenge.

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