Andrew Basden.


(Thoughts prepared for JRI Conference June 2008. They are a draft, assembled in little time, set forward to aid discussion, and I intend to update and rewrite in response to what I hear at the conference.)


1. Experience with commenting on local authority strategic plans and various transport plans and campaigns for 20 years, has provided some notion of what prevents strategic decision makers therein from going all-out for sustainable plans.

2. Involvement with the Green Party has provided insight into many alternative ways of looking at things, all of which have environmental responsibility as a central reference point, both at the level of principle and the level of practical policy.

3. Involvement in the academic discipline of information systems and management from a 'critical' perspective (Frahkfurt School, etc.) has convinced me of the importance of societal systemic structures in influencing, if not entirely determining, the way people live and work.

4. A commitment to Jesus Christ, respect for the Bible and a long-term interest in biographies of those who have tried to follow Christ, has convinced me of the religious roots of our problems, and the need for a religious solution to them. In particular, it has convinced me of the need for a religious change in the heart of the people at all levels, such as has occurred in the revivals of the past and in the anti-slavery work of early 1800s, as a necessary solution.

5. In 2006 Sir John Houghton and Prof. Bob Goudzwaard (Dutch economic theorist) spoke at a WYSOCS day conference on 'Climate Change and Global Economy', designed around the idea that what JH had been speaking about needs the understanding of economic structures which BG could provide. Since then, with John Lockwood and others, I have been working with JH and BG on trying to integrate their ideas. This article is also a contribution to that.


Consider the following examples, in no particular order. Some of them make me angry, and are not as well thought-out as they could be.

All these contribute in different ways to unsustainability. As can be seen, the causes are many and varied, and they occur at all levels, and in all nations. The reader can provide their own set of examples. The question is: how can we understand the roots of unsustainability, and what can we do about it?


Now I want to draw together some general points. I can see three levels of unsustainability.

I will consider structures, attitudes and idolatry, and will look at some culprits. Then look briefly at what might be done.


Some examples:

In all such ways, and more, structures constrain our actions and the way we live and work, encouraging certain things and making them attractive or easy, while discouraging certain other things and making them unattractive or difficult. But structures are of our own making. They come about because of our attitudes - which also determine how we live and work - and especially idolatry.


Attitudes work at a deep level, of which we and others are largely unaware, and determine what we deem important, what we deem good and evil, what methods we countenance, etc.
We want (or aim for or aspire to) X, and as a consequence do Y. Y is harmful (unsustainable). But when this is pointed out to us, X is defended rather than repented of. Then the solutions proposed to rectify Y are resisted. Our wanting X and our resistance when challenged by Y is attitude.
Attitudes include shared, background expectations and aspirations, reactions, and deeply held beliefs and assumptions. Attitudes that lead to unsustainability include all of these.

Aspirations and expectations that lead to unsustainability:

Reactions, taken when faced with the need to take responsibility, to change our lifestyles or to take a lead, include (with those responsible for each):

Deeply-held beliefs and assumptions that lead to unsustainability:


Here is a quick overview of some of the main culprits:

However, of all the above 'us' is best. In The Independent 16 December 2007, Janet Street-Porter discussed how "the people, not their MPs, have improved transport at a stroke" taking up walking and cycling while the government dithers. Moreover, a UK Government report that was published end of January 2008 showed that the annual change in climate change emissions from the three recognised main sectors are:

This implies that ordinary people are taking action while business and transport are not.


A major factor behind many of our structures and attitudes that lead to unsustainability is idolatry. Bob Goudzwaard's [1984] book Idols of Our Time has provided insight into the shape of these religious root and how they manifest themselves as idolatry in science, technology, national security etc. According to Goudzwaard [1984:21] an idol:

Example: 1 November 2005 BBC Radio 4 report on Prime-Minister-hosted meeting of leaders of nations incl. India, China: Prime Minister reported as saying the aim is "to find a way of reducing climate change emissions without damaging economic growth." Economic growth was his idol. Now his successor's own popularity rating is threatening to become an idol, despite having claimed to have a 'moral compass' (though I still detect some morality left in him). More generally, examples of idols include national pride and standing, national security, national GDP and position against rivals, advanced technology (e.g. nuclear), lifestyle, what the media deems topical or exciting.

Idolatry warps our reasoning, and overturns our responsibility. That which contributes to sustainability is sacrificed to the idol. It is a religious dysfunction, not just a social, economic, legal or psychological one. It needs a religious solution.

Idolatry is endemic in Western society today. Too many who believe themselves to be Christians exhibit idolatry - especially when we separate life into two compartments, the God-part and the everyday part. I once met a Christian farmer during a meeting with Cheshire County Council, who was violently opposed to my Green views. Some of the American Christians idolise technology to the extent that they assume that the whole problem of climate change can be solved by technology, or they idolise their own affluence and get angry if their right to enjoy it is questioned. But, on the whole, I would say that Christians are not as bad as humanists - somewhat against the conventional message that comes through the humanist-controlled media! Idolatry is rampant in secular humanist attitudes and structures. Because humanists have no higher authority than themselves, they always tend to absolutize one or other aspects of life. Most of the examples of idolatry given above are those that are rampant in humanism.

Not in vain does the Scripture say "Righteousness [is what] exalts a nation." But 'righteousness' does not refer to personal uprightness, but rather to, as Paul Marshall [1984] put it, "right relationships among all things of the created order". Idolatry severely disrupts those relationships. So our structures and our attitudes are such as to always lead humanity towards unsustainability and other evil.


Here is part of what I believe. Maybe others have different ideas, but let us consider these; with all views a debate will be enriched. But we need action as well as debate. In brief, I believe we need a two-pronged approach:

Let us look at these.

Spiritual revival is needed because of the root of idolatry. To change attitudes throughout society in a sustainable way requires a relivious revival. A change of fashion in market demand is not enough. During the 1980s, people turned to small, fuel-efficient cars. But the heart of the people was not changed, and ten or twenty years later the people again aspired to gas-guzzlers such as SUVs. The change was not sustainable because it was merely a market phenomenon, not a spiritual change of heart of the people. A change of theoretical or philosophical outlook is not enough. There have been many of these, such as the swing from modernism to postmodernism, and yet the postmoderns are just as irresponsible environmentally as the moderns. A change of politics is not enough; this is why the Green Party is never a solution on its own, even though it might be useful as a kind of policy research institute. It is not enough even to enact policies and set targets such as the UK and EU are doing. Especially if the (media-led) people resist them.

No! We need a deep and widespread change in attitude that is sustainable, and that must be a widespread spiritual of heart of the people, at all levels and in all 'culprits'.

It was said of William Wilberforce and his anti-slavery colleagues that

"What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental ... he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world ..." p.xv in Eric Metaxas' book Amazing Grace

This is what we need: to destroy an entire way of seeing the world, one that has held sway from the beginning of history, and replace it with another way of seeing the world. Then structures will be changed. The structure of the British economy and society changed away from those that assumed slavery to those that did not - and then the world followed. They worked not just on one 'culprit', but on all. (It has been pointed out that slavery persists in a different form - but it has not become accepted as OK again.)

Wilberforce said "God has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [the word 'manners' at that time meant what we call attitudes]" [p.85] Note: the combination of structures and attitudes here. Unless God sets before us two great objects: the reformation of attitudes and the radical change of structures, there will be no sustainable move to sustainability.

But change of attitudes does not occur fast. It requires a major effort, and a major move among people of the Holy Spirit - a revival. Wilberforce and his co-belligerants worked on this for 20 years before they succeeded. So must we.

One contribution that Christians can make is to work out a Biblical theology in which environmental responsibility is not merely an 'eleventh commandment' but is central and compelling. One attempt at this is 'A New View in Theology' ( But theology is not enough; it requires 'preaching' that is visionary and compelling. Perhaps we can learn something from Wilberforce's varied approaches, and also from Evan Roberts of the Welsh revival of 1904, and many others - but via media and in ways suited to the people of today.

And lots more to be done. Let's get to it.

Created: 21 June 2008 by Andrew Basden.

Last updated: 22 June 2008