Bishop of London warns of global 'peril' caused by environment, poverty and conflict


The Bishop of London warns today of global "peril" due to crises in the environment, poverty and conflict in the foreword to an apocalyptic report by a leading Christian development and relief agency.

Rt Rev Richard Chartres calls for a willingness to embrace radical ideas in order to avert disaster in the next 50 years.

Writing in Tearfund's Restorative Economy discussion paper, published today, he says: "There is peril and promise in our future and there are obvious threats which lie ahead. This report is not a contribution to apocalyptic literature but rather a signpost along the path set out by Jesus' mission: 'I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly'."

He says it is often only crises which produce real change. "But the action taken at moments of crisis depends on the ideas which are to hand. Things which appear to be off the political map one day can suddenly seem to be feasible and necessary the next."

He adds: "We live in a century of mingled promise and peril. The decisions we take now and the way we live now will have an impact on our children and on generations to come – for good or ill. The scars visible on the earth are the accumulating signs of a world in crisis – conflict, corruption, climate change. Yet with these crises, we have made the mistake of concentrating only on short term issues."

Oddly, considering the success with which its power is being harnessed by social justice agencies, Bishop Chartres, who is not on Twitter, singles out social media for particular criticism.

He writes: "Modern democracy is inextricably bound up with the new social media which tend to prioritise single-issue campaigns and campaigners. By contrast, here is a narrative that can integrate and energise a holistic approach to challenges which are interconnected but which are commonly seen in isolation. Tearfund has distilled years of experience in relief and development work into a compelling vision which touches every part of our lives."

The report makes a series of doom-laden forecasts of what lies ahead if radical measures are not embraced as a matter of urgency.

It says that inequality between nations is dwindling, life expectancy is rising and millions of children's life chances are better than their parents' were at the same age.

But it warns that the extension of this "golden age" to our children and grandchildren's generation cannot be taken for granted. "In fact, we think it is at greater risk today than it has been for many years."

It continues: "We also see dark clouds on the horizon. We're sobered by the range of trends – above all, those related to environmental unsustainability – that threaten to undermine and undo all that has been achieved."

High levels of consumption and carbon emissions have stretched the earth's systems to breaking point and there is a scientific consensus that an increase in the earth's temperature by more than two degrees will cause irreversible damage to food and water systems, inequality and poverty levels. "The latest data confirms that we are experiencing a mass extinction and that the world's vertebrate species population has declined by 52 per cent in the last 40 years," it says.

Among the solutions it proposes is a total shift to a "zero-carbon" economy – in particular by banning coal-fired power generation by the early 2020s, ending fossil fuel subsidies including the reduced rate of VAT for electricity and gas, and introducing mandatory carbon stress-testing for pension funds and institutional investors.

It also calls for governments to go much further in tackling international tax avoidance and for "reset" of land ownership. This could be through higher tax on property, such as a land value tax, and of wealth transfers, such as replacing traditional inheritance tax with a wealth receipts tax, it says.

It also calls for the burden of taxation to be shifted onto activities such as carbon emissions, pollution, waste or the excessive concentration of wealth, and away from work.

"We all face the temptation to avoid these issues and escape into the distractions that the modern world offers. Instead, we urge you to take these issues to heart – to debate them around the dinner table, in church, at work, over coffee," it says.

The report says the challenges of poverty, environmental sustainability and inequality are the "defining issues" of our time. "Our response to them should guide how we live, how we vote, what we buy and how we pray."

It says the world is in the midst of the sixth "mass extinction event" in history – the first to be caused by a single species.

"At Tearfund, we are already seeing the consequences for those whom we work with. Worldwide, more than a billion people live in water basins where human water use exceeds sustainable limits, and millions more are subject to increasingly erratic rainfall as climate change gathers pace."

It calls for a movement for change that follows in the footsteps of movements such as the anti-slavery campaign and US civil rights.

Paul Cook, Tearfund's advocacy director, said: "We've come a long way. Globally, levels of poverty have halved in the last 25 years alone. Life expectancy, health and education indicators are better than ever before, and technology has helped save millions of lives and improve productivity, especially for smallholder farmers in poor countries.

"But if we don't fundamentally change the ways we produce wealth and create prosperity, we will undo all this progress and push millions of people back into poverty."