Sustainable Living

Nick Spencer, December 2005
Alert readers of the Jubilee Centre’s magnum opus, Jubilee Manifesto, published this year by IVP, may have noticed a gap in its 350 pages. The issues covered – Nationhood, Government, the Economy, etc., – are all wide-ranging, urgent and important. Yet the one topic, equally large and perhaps even more pressing, is notable for its absence.

In fact, the book’s preface acknowledges that some may wonder why so little reference has been made to the environment. The explanation given is not that the authors believe the topic to be unimportant, but because of their desire to clarify their understanding of the two great commandments of Matthew 22:34–40 before undertaking research on the environment.

With that clarification, in the form of Jubilee Manifesto, in place, 2005 has seen the first stages of a new project exploring the biblical vision for environmental sustainability. On reflection, that pause for clarification has proved far-sighted, as the question of environmental sustainability cannot be addressed in isolation but instead soon leads to a range of other issues with which it is inextricably linked .

Our initial point of entry into the wide-ranging field of environmental concerns was global warming. Now universally recognised as a reality, and all-but universally deemed to be ‘anthropogenic’ (i.e. caused by humans), global warming has been called the most serious problem facing humanity today. Although some prefer to avoid such hyperbole, few deny the immensity and seriousness of the problem.

Yet, what initially appears to be a purely scientific or technological problem – a question about the rising concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide or the need for increased fuel efficiency – is, in reality, a very human problem.

Accordingly, our initial research into global warming, and our consultations with an eminent steering committee formed to help guide the project to fruition, pointed us away from global warming per se and towards those things that you and I do, every day, often unquestioningly, such as driving to work, booking a holiday, shopping for groceries, or switching on the heating. It pointed us, in other words, towards the business of ‘sustainable living’.

Global warming starts at home

The average UK household emits around 24.6 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year (carbon dioxide comprising around 96 per cent of all UK greenhouse gases). The fact that this is approximately three times above a sustainable level gives some indication of the seriousness of the problem. [1]

This 24.6 tons can be broken up into three areas:

•       CO2 produced from energy directly used in the house, in the form of oil, gas and electricity, for purposes of cooking, space and water heating, lighting, etc.

•       CO2 produced as a result of the transportation of people, both domestic and international, by car, plane, boat, or public transport.

•       CO2 produced from the production and transportation of consumer goods (and services), such as food, drink, tobacco, clothing, household durables, etc.

It is these three mundane, everyday activities – how we live at home, how we travel and how we consume – that lie at the heart of ‘the biggest problem facing humanity today’. As one recent book puts it, ‘global warming begins at home’.

Living, travelling and consuming

What is particularly interesting about these areas, from the Jubilee Centre’s point of view, is that, in their own way, each is closely tied up with questions of social and relational wellbeing that have been central to the Jubilee Centre’s work for many years.

For example, someone who lives in a single occupancy household (i.e. by themselves) will emit, on average, 13.7 tons of CO2 every year. By comparison, a household in which three or more people live together emits 8.5 tons per capita. In other words, living together is better for the environment. Quite apart from anything else, this makes intuitive sense: you don’t turn the heating on four times higher for a family of four than for someone living alone. But from the Jubilee Centre’s point of view it provides evidence, albeit from an unexpected source, of the value of the cohesive family unit.

A second example relates to the way in which we travel. The extent to which we drive (and fly) today has an ever-growing impact on global warming. At 62.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (in 2002), emissions from personal transportation make up nearly half of all UK transport emissions, and over a tenth of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Our ever-deepening love of the car has other effects, however, some of which have been discussed in an earlier Jubilee Centre publication. [2] High levels of personalised transportation reduce local interaction time, hollow out communities, stress out families, facilitate crime and encourage a surveillance society , all of which can be linked to the static or declining levels of life-satisfaction in modern Britain. Again, a fundamental Jubilee Centre concern – that of strong and supportive relationships within one’s immediate community – is closely linked to what at first appears to be simply an ‘environmental’ issue.

A third and final example relates to the way in which we consume. The modern British love of supermarkets has an increasingly well-documented environmental impact. Supermarkets’ ever-lengthening supply chains, together with their packaging and refrigeration demands, are estimated to contribute over 3.5 per cent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, supermarkets are notorious for killing off small farms, closing local and village stores, emptying high streets, and ‘vacuuming’ money from local to international economies, and in so doing, eroding the social capital and economic stability that hold communities together.

The earth is the Lord’s…

Although biblical teaching has little to say about the specifics of domestic space heating or transportation, its teaching on trade, family and community, government and taxation, time use, inter-generational relationship, and, of course, the environment speaks to the heart of many of these modern issues of sustainability.

In partnership with the John Ray Initiative, an educational charity that develops and communicates a Christian understanding of the environment, and the newly established Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, the Jubilee Centre is currently exploring these linked areas of environmental and social sustainability.

Although the project remains in an early stage the objective is that, by working with partners and the steering committee, and by using the framework of the biblical social vision as we have come to understand it, we will be able to outline a biblically-rooted vision for sustainable living. This aims to include guidance for individuals, households, home groups and churches on how to live biblically and sustainably, as well as for policy makers on how to cement such behaviour into the structures of society.

Overall, the goal is to remind us that we are stewards not masters of creation, and that, in the powerful words of the Psalmist: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’

[1] It should be noted, however, there is much debate over what is an acceptable concentration of atmospheric CO2 and what level of domestic emissions would be necessary to stabilise the atmosphere at this level.

[2] Where do we go from here?: A biblical perspective on roots and mobility in Britain today, Jubilee Centre, 2003. Available to download from

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Category: News and Reviews

December, 2005

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