Our society is in crisis. Many of the old bonds which have held us together – household, workplace, neighbourhood, community – are under immense pressures or, in many cases, have disappeared entirely. The common sharing of space, resources and relations has been replaced by a seductive individualism where the main purpose and drive is the pursuit of one’s own happiness. And this ‘happiness’ is achieved through the accumulation of ‘stuff’ – the acquisition of money, property, gadgets, toys, holidays and so on.
Psychologists point out that such consumption is insatiable and therefore never leads to deeper well-being or satisfaction; one novelty is merely replaced by the next. Environmentalists point out that such lifestyle patterns on a global scale are destructive and unsustainable as far as the Earth is concerned. Economists and politicians, for the most part, say that not only is this state of affairs desirable, they also suggest there is no alternative.
Once magnified on a huge scale the implications are clear: our civilisation faces the greatest challenges since at least the 1930’s and maybe since the dawn of industrialisation. Our more immediate political focus may be on the UK’s relationship with the European Union but there are much larger forces at play – namely the capacity of the Earth to sustain nearly 8 billion people at currently enjoyed lifestyles, fed by the myth of economic growth.
The science is clear – human disruption to the natural cycles of the planet are shifting the climate balance from stability to chaos. And with chaotic weather systems, chaotic societies will not be far behind. When the land and sea cannot support a regional human population, those people will have no choice but to move elsewhere. Some speak of climate collapse. We may also refer to collapsing civilisations.
This is precisely what is happening around the world. Displaced peoples are migrating to overcrowded cities and abandoning the countryside around them – in East Africa, the Middle East, India, Australia and elsewhere. The result is a flight stream of refugees that is placing immense social pressures in northern France and southern Greece, around the Mediterranean, in Central America and so on.
In the face of such enormous threats the classic response is to put up shutters and walls, closing our minds and our borders to perceived dangers from without. We attempt to re-trench into more comfortable nations or tribes, forgetting that these themselves are the hybrid consequences of earlier migrations and cultures. We should remember that we are always the products of our own histories.
The deeper response is to address the roots of the problem – poverty, debt, inequality, pollution – but these are long term issues and not attractive to short-term thinking politicians, especially for those with a vested interest in the status quo. We need also to remember that there are those who profit and benefit from the vulnerability and brokenness of others.
So what does faith have to say to these mega-challenges? In the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah, we are called to rediscover love and hope through acting mercifully and justly. This is to notice that the fracture of life is prompted by injustice – selfishness and greed that pervades a culture and traps people in oppressive circumstances. Humans cannot grow because of the weight of the burdens they face. Yet this is so contrary to building a community based on the values of respect, integrity, wholeness and peace.
The challenge to us therefore is to reverse the trends of excessive materialism – to live more simply with the natural cycles of life and more in solidarity with those who are vulnerable in all their struggles. If we were to identify ourselves less with the self-protecting elites or celebrities of society and more with the migrants fleeing persecution and death, our outlook and our attitudes could be transformed.
All best wishes – Martyn