Costing the Earth?

By Simeon Mitchell, URC Secretary for Church and Society

A church minister friend commented to me that he always made sure he went to meetings of the church Finance Committee, ‘as that is where the most important spiritual decisions get made.’

What we choose to do with our money – and other precious resources such as our time and energy – is a good indicator of our real priorities. As Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21)

Veterans of Finance Committees will know that when it comes to financial matters, there is often, a tension between doing the right thing and the thing that will cost least. This is true whether you are a government, a business, a church or an individual with money to spend.

Quick fixes are usually more affordable than major repairs, but are rarely the best solution for the long term. Choices that reflect kingdom values, that are good for people and for the planet, are usually more expensive choices.

We expect it to cost more to buy Fairtrade products or provide high-quality public services, or to source ethically or to a high environmental standard. Some people are in the fortunate position of being able to afford to make these choices, while others can’t or don’t give this priority.

It therefore comes as a welcome surprise when you discover an issue where making the right choice is not necessarily the more expensive option.

Research published last year concluded that the costs of cutting carbon emissions to stay within the UN’s climate targets are likely to be far less than the economic damage caused by allowing temperatures to rise. The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, calculated that 90 percent of the world’s population and especially those living in poorer countries, are likely to be better off by the end of the century if temperature rises can be limited to 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels.

As well as challenging conventional wisdom about the costs of doing the right thing, the analysis contradicts President Donald Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement which he claimed would undermine the American economy.

There is a phenomenon that has parallels at a local level too. When a church signs up to be part of the Eco Church programme, and begins a journey of exploring its environmental responsibilities, one of the first areas you look at are your energy suppliers. Many expect that switching to renewable suppliers will be a costly option.

However according to Newcastle-based environmental consultants Green Journey – which many URCs have now used to provide a free energy audit – churches are often surprised to discover that this is not always the case, especially if they have not reviewed their supplier for some time, so have ended up on an expensive standard tariff. In their pilot scheme, they enabled churches to save an average of 19% on fuel bills while switching to fully renewable sources of energy. Or, to put it more simply, saving the world need not cost the earth.

Of course, when it comes to climate change, many would argue that there is no option but to make the most sustainable choices, even if they cost more. Marks & Spencer famously called their environmental strategy ‘Plan A’ – ‘because there is no Plan B’.

While these choices are often couched in terms of being ‘necessary sacrifices’ – and those who make them heralded as environmental martyrs – this overlooks the reality that many of the things we need to do to move towards a low-carbon economy are actually positive for quality of life and human relationships.

Sure, people will probably have to fly less in the future, but improved public transport, cleaner air and better insulated homes are positive ends in themselves. Eating less meat will be better for our health, and shopping more locally brings many more benefits to people living in your neighbourhood than buying from national or international retailers.

Earlier this year I participated in ‘Living Lent’, an initiative from the Joint Public Issues Team of the Churches that challenged people to make one of six lifestyle changes to reduce their environmental footprint. It took inspiration from Christian writer Richard Rohr’s observation that ‘We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.’

With my family, I decided to try giving up meat. I thought it would be hard, but a good opportunity to lay down an entrenched habit for a while, and experience what it might be like to make a change to tread more lightly on the world. But rather than it being a challenge, I found I really enjoyed the pretext to try some new things and to get creative with less familiar ingredients. And as the weeks went on, we found it had meant a significant reduction in our household food bills too.

So if we’re to do the right thing by people and the planet, perhaps what is most important is not our financial resources but our mindset. I think that is what Jesus had in mind in the sermon on the mount. He concludes his teaching about money and possessions with words of wisdom for finance committees and decision-makers everywhere. ‘Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33)

Simeon Mitchell is the URC’s Secretary for Church and Society, and Deputy Team Leader of the Joint Public Issues Team

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