The green bishop

2010-11-03 00:00

“THE primary cause of our current environmental crisis is to be found in our present global economic system,” said Bishop­ Geoff Davies when delivering the 10th Ruth Edgecombe Environmental Challenges memorial lecture­, titled “Economics and the planet”, on the local campus last week.

“It is the rich, so-called developed nations that have established a life-style standard that is now totally unsustainable. And what has caused this? Our economic system.”

Davies, who was SAB Environmentalist of the Year in 2009, first became involved with environmental issues while he was a priest in Botswana in the seventies. “I couldn’t keep silent­ when I saw how fragile and interconnected everything was, when I could see the impact of dense human­ population on sensitive environments.”

Neither did Davies keep silent while he was the director of the Department of Mission for the Anglican Church in South Africa between 1980 and 1987, not that many listened, as there was little interest among church people then in a green agenda­.

In 1987, Davies was appointed the first bishop of the newly formed Anglican­ Diocese of Umzimvubu, covering East Griqualand and the northern half of the former Trans-kei. Based in Kokstad, he promoted environmental education in the church and a community-based sustainable agriculture programme. He was also an outspoken critic of the proposed N2 toll road and titanium mining on the Pondoland Wild Coast.

Davies retired in 2003 and in 2005 founded the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SACFEI), a faith-based NGO. “It’s a multifaith organisation and demonstrates that the different faiths can work together,” he says. “All the faiths show a concern for the environment.”

Among Christians, Davies promotes the use of the The Green Bible, an edition of the Christian holy book in which passages featuring the environment are printed in green. “It encourages people to read the Bible with green spectacles. When you do that, you can see that God is green.”

Not surprisingly, Davies is often referred to as the “green bishop” and he thinks the green message is finally beginning to get through. “Films like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth made people aware of climate change and the environment. In the past people would say ‘what do you mean by the environment?’ We are only now beginning to re-cognise our responsibility because we are totally dependent on the environment for our survival­.”

Davies is also involved in the interface between science and religion. “Science helps keep our feet on the ground whereas faith gives us hope, inspiration and meaning.” But, as he made clear in his lecture, Davies is no creationist. “I see no difficulty in God using evolution to bring about his purposes. In fact, I now see that understanding evolution is really helpful in making us realise just how intricately we are part of the rest of life on this planet.”

Davies sees two main causes for the environmental challenges confronting us such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and habitat destruction, and those are overpopulation and consumerism or overconsumption. It’s the latter he identifies as the main culprit. “Overconsumption, or consumerism, is so dangerous because it is driven by our current neoliberal economic system that flourishes on our instinct of self-centredness, acquisitiveness and greed, and is premised on covetousness, the last — you will recall — of the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments.

“Because it appeals to our basic desires of ‘I want’, consumerism has become, in the words of Ernst Conradie­, ‘the most successful religion­ the world has seen’.”

And it’s flourishing here in South Africa. “Far from achieving our liberation in South Africa, we have become economic slaves as we pursue our consumerist desires that have now made us the most unequal country in the world, with huge poverty­ levels and increasing environmental destruction.

“My greatest disappointment following our democratic elections is that a government of the people — so soon after coming into power in 1994 — forsook Ubuntu in pursuit of neoliberal capitalism, lured and dazzled by the glitter of consumerism. Africa had something inherently valuable, which could have been a gift to the world, in Ubuntu. In forsaking it, which we have done, we have sold our African soul to Mammon­.”

Although our current economic system encourages us to pander to our self-centred instincts, Davies says that human beings are not just selfish creatures, but can also be generous and altruistic. “So how do we influence our basic instincts to be concerned about others — to be other centred? I believe that it requires the reassertion of principles and values­.

“The environmental threat from both overpopulation and overconsumption can be addressed by applying the principles of justice and equity, which are biblical, but are also called for by almost all religions.”

Davies says the new direction we must take should see justice and equity­ applied to all life, not just human. “The first and fundamental principle is to recognise that we are totally dependent on the wellbeing of this planet — our only home — and that our priority must therefore be caring for this planet, its people and all life on it.  We must place the planet first. We must put planet and people before profit.”

Davies says that we must radically transform our economic system. “The crises facing us call for a foundational transformation of our economic structures. We should aim to develop a culture that sustains the planet rather than seeking to acquire wealth and material possessions.”

This requires the adoption of what Davies calls “transcendent values”, values that must be upheld by all nations. “ ‘The supreme challenge’, to quote George Soros, ‘is to establish a set of fundamental values that applies to a globalised society’. These values are upheld by the religions of the world, particularly the values and principles of justice and equity.”

Davies also advocates a system of law — “Earth jurisprudence” — that will give nature legal rights. This would go hand in hand with a form of global governance “so that environmental regulations regarding biodiversity­ and climate change are applied across the globe”.

He also suggested the establishment of a single currency to bring greater justice and equity to the world and developing countries in particular and the adoption of a global energy price, like the oil price “so that rich nations do not export their polluting industries to developing countries, lured by cheaper energy, as has happened in South Africa”.

Finally, Davies called for people to have the courage and boldness to speak out. “In the past, the environmentalists were seen as the utopians, spoiling the fun of those wanting to make money, often out of so-called development. Environmentalists are now the realists, calling for accountability and responsibility to future generations. It is up to faith communities to call the governments of the world back to being answerable to transcendent values and not short-term economic advantages. The future of life on the planet is dependent on this happening.”

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