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Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit: Poverty and Inequality in a Time of Climate Change

Speech of the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the Community of Sant'Egidio in Bologna, Italy

16 October 2018

Speech of the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the Community of Sant'Egidio in Bologna, Italy

Challenges of our time

That we are living in an era of unprecedented abundance is evident even as we take a quick look around us now. Markets are brimming with tradable commodities and shops are filled with an incredible array of gadgets and things. So much so that that the sheer number of options before us can be more incapacitating for our decision-making processes than liberating – what sociologists and psychologists now term the ‘paradox’ or even the ‘tyranny of choice.’ That humanity has reached dizzying heights of scientific knowledge and technological achievement also cannot be denied. We can extract oil from sand for instance with innovative processes. We can move entire mountains with cutting edge equipment to get to the gold deposits beneath it. And as people gain more education and skills, productivity levels have been steadily increasing (and our workloads too).

Still: in such a world and in such a time, nearly a billion people – many of them residing in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean – are deprived of the barest necessities that are needed to support life, particularly food, water and sanitation, and a roof over one’s head.

The stark contrast between these two realities is reflected in various measures of socio-economic inequality. Many of them indicate that the chasms between rich and poor are widening particularly within countries, whether ‘developed’ and ‘developing.’ That eight men (yes, they are all men!) can accumulate and possess as much wealth as half of the global population or 3.5 billion people put together (as per a 2017 Oxfam report) is quite astounding and cannot but raise all sorts of theological, moral and ethical questions.

Poverty and inequality are critical themes that Christian theology has engaged with for many centuries. For instance, and more recently, the Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez points out that poverty is not simply about material deprivation or living on less than USD 2 a day. Rather, poverty is nothing less than a “degrading force”; it “denigrates human dignity.” “To be poor is to be insignificant”, he says. It “means an early and unjust death.”

Today, however, we cannot talk about poverty and inequality without talking about the other immense challenge confronting our generation: climate change. Just a week ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its newest research: a wake-up call it is hoped for our leaders and societies.

The IPCC report reveals that global temperatures have already warmed by 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels and the effects are already being experienced from powerfully destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean, forest fires in Europe and North America and water shortages in Africa and many parts of the world. It points out that we are well on track to passing 1.5 degrees Celsius in around 20 years or so. It indicates that crossing this threshold will lead to a 10 cm sea-level rise and will heighten the risk reaching of tipping points such as the melting of polar caps and therefore multi-metre sea-level rise that would inundate low-lying islands and many coastal cities. The interrelated threats of drought, famine, displacement, conflict and species extinction will also increase with a half degree rise from 1.5 C to 2 C – the less ambitious target governments agreed to in Paris in 2015.

The IPCC report reiterates that our sisters and brothers subsisting in poverty and deprivation and experiencing vulnerabilities and disadvantages will continue to disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change including through the erosion of livelihoods, escalating food prices, water insecurity and massive displacement – though they contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions that cause warming.  As a 2013 World Council of Churches (WCC) statement puts it: “Victims of climate change are the new face of the poor, the widow and the stranger that are especially loved and cared for by God (Deut. 10:17-18).” In other words, climate change is not only aggravating poverty, it may very well entrench it as communities are locked into build and rebuild cycles with ever-decreasing means and resources.

Roots of poverty, inequality and climate change

Theological perspectives on poverty are of course varied, and it is not my intention to summarise them here and now. Still, there is I think greater recognition in the theological debates of the last century that poverty is not an outcome of fate or laziness or lack of faith in God. Progressive reflections point to poverty’s rootedness in structural injustices or dysfunctional economic systems that privilege a few while marginalising many others. Oxfam notes, in their 2018 report, that the world’s 2000 plus  billionaires saw their wealth surge by USD 762 billion – a figure that is enough to banish extreme hunger and poverty seven times over! Indeed “poverty is not inevitable,” Gustavo Gutierrez observes (neither one may add are the worst consequences climate change…if we act now). Like climate change, poverty is “human-induced” and can be undone. Redistributive measures for one can make considerable headway in combatting it.

More broadly, it is clear that tackling poverty entails tackling inequality and climate change; and addressing climate change also entails addressing poverty and inequality (there is admittedly some symmetrical beauty to this). For instance, Andrew Bradstock (2009), the public theologian from New Zealand points out reducing inequality is vital to our efforts to safeguard our increasingly fragile ecological systems. Many of our governments are promoting consumption-driven economic growth. But “the reason we buy things is less because we need them than that growing inequality has put pressure on us to maintain standards relative to others. Contentment has less to do with actual wealth than relative wealth, a factor which explains why we continue to pursue economic growth despite its apparent lack of benefits.”

In this vein, the economist Jason Hickel from South Africa underlines that interrogating and uncovering the myths of economic growth as a pathway to development and of consumption as a means to attaining genuine happiness are critical steps to combatting the existential problems of poverty and climate change. This is particularly relevant for those of us who are here today. For questions of whether economic expansion ought to be a goal in and of itself and of things and money as sources of happiness are again deeply theological, moral and ethical. One of the key tasks before us then as churches, Christians and people of faith is to examine and criticise these perspectives according to our scriptural teachings and spiritual values – unceasingly and in as many platforms as possible.

Responding with love and justice

As Christians we are called to love God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Matt. 22: 24-30); and a 2013 WCC statement on ecological debt and eco-justice further challenges us to “expand the boundaries of who are neighbours are” to embrace all of God’s wondrous creation. This foremost Biblical commandment “to love” continues to be the very foundation for Christian engagement in key issues of poverty, inequality and climate change.  Acting in love means acting in justice. Or as the American theologian Paul Tillich (1963) beautifully puts it:

“Love does not do more than justice demands, but love is the ultimate principle of justice.

Love reunites; justice preserves what is to be united.

It is the form in which and through which love performs its work.

Love is formless without justice.

Justice is thus driven by love, gives form to it.

Love does not come after justice but permeates it.

Love and justice are ontologically united.

The test of love, therefore, is whether justice is achieved –

justice is the sign of love in the relation of being with being. That is to say:

if there is justice, then there must be love; if there is love, then there must be justice.”

The question then is: How do we live in loving and just relations with our sisters and brothers, especially those in need and poverty, and with all of creation? This entails nothing less than deep solidarity.

“Deep solidarity is an essential part of our baptismal experience. For those of us living in locations of power and privilege – through class, gender, race, caste, etcetera – it is a spiritual and political expression through which we immerse ourselves in communities who struggle for life in the midst of the ‘impossibility of life’ and then act together with, not simply for, our sisters and brothers… We demonstrate such a witness by living in a spirit of repentance [and] reparation” (WCC 2014).

Friends, if we are to banish poverty in our world, if we are to live sustainably, God invites us to build a different kind of economy – an Economy of Life – where we, human beings, celebrate the sacred gift of life; where we tend the Earth that sustains us with love and respect for all creation; and where all of us, sisters and brothers, jointly develop systems of sharing and enjoy the basic necessities of life.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
World Council of Churches general secretary