Towards Life-Enhancing Culture, Community and Systems: A Thought on Ecumenical Sustainable Development Goals

WCC 10th Assembly Madang workshop
Bread for All
Busan, 4 November 2013

I am delighted to be part of the discussion on the issue of the workshop organized by Bread for All. I think survival of the earth is almost the top priority issue today at all levels, from individuals to the entire creation.

At the Busan Assembly, we may be faced with numerous challenges which require ecumenical responses. However, in my view, one of the most serious challenges we have to deal with at this Assembly is the question of how to build a life-enhancing eco-community, in the face of possible human-made ecological chaos. God created by transforming chaos into cosmos, but today, we, human beings are turning that cosmos into chaos.

It seems that the Swiss delegation for Busan Assembly challenges the Assembly to give the WCC a mandate for engaging member churches for exploring Ecumenical Sustainable Development Goals, in response to international discussion on global Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

For our provocative debate, let me raise three “to the point” questions that we may need to reflect on together in relation to the possibility of launching Ecumenical Sustainable Development Goals.

Shift from Sustainability to Survival

Is the current civilization sustainable and life-enhancing or life-destroying? People may differ, but in my view, the current human civilization is not sustainable, but rather life-destructive. From an eco-justice or eco-sustainability point of view, I would describe the situation today as kairotic. It is the kind of situation described in Deuteronomy 30:19. Life and death are set before us. The current human civilization is challenged to choose life so that the humanity, future generations and the whole creation may live. This is not a question of sustainability, but a question of survival.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2013 analyses 50 global risks in terms of impact, likelihood and interconnections, based on a survey of over 1000 experts from industry, government and academia. This year’s findings show that the world is more at risk than ever, as persistent economic weakness saps our ability to tackle environmental challenges. The report even highlights so called,X Factors – emerging concerns for which the consequences cannot be anticipated or calculated. Of course their analysis is not radical at all, but even this type of report regards the current direction of development as a failure.

The current human civilization is unsustainable to the foundations of life itself. The symptoms are getting clear and massive, as manifested in the continuing world economic and ecological crisis. As the title of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s report on the seriousness of climate change indicates, “Climate Change: faster, stronger, sooner”: the ecological destruction process is faster, stronger and sooner as time goes on.

A number of data showing the urgency of crisis are available, but let me give you just one example of it since we are in Busan.

The Fukushima disaster is a typical example of the multiple crises of modern human civilization. Global Research has warned that we are now within two months of what may be humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In September 2013, Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco) has announced that within as few as 60 days, it may begin trying to remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from badly damaged pool. Some 400 tons of fuel in that pool could spew out more than 15,000 times as much radiation as was released at Hiroshima. Overall, more than 11,000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site. According to long-term expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez, there is more than 85 times as much lethal cesium on site as was released at Chernobyl.

The problem is that neither Tepco nor the Japanese government has the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle it. It “would destroy the world environment and our civilization” said Mitsuhei Murata, former Japanese Ambassador. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. Global Research says that this is an issue of human survival. In this regard, today’s issue is not as an issue of sustainability, but an issue of survival, not only for humanity, but also for the entire creation

Therefore, in my view, we need to shift our debate from the issue of sustainability to survival of the entire creation. It is not question of sustainability, but a question of survival. This means a reformist approach is not enough. Today’s critical situation requires a radical transformation of current human civilization.

Shift from Development to Envelopment

In 2011, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) published a 420 page long resource entitled “World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability”. The keyword of WBGU’s recommendations is “Transformation”. WBGU recommends that, in order to develop visions for a low-carbon society, explore different development paths, and develop sustainable technological and social innovations, a transformation process is urgently needed.

The report has a section on the role of the Knowledge Society in the transformation process. The goal should be transformation of the knowledge system. The WBGU proposes the establishment of a new scientific discipline, which specifically addresses the future challenge of transformation realisation.

Not only the transformation itself, but the process also should be transformative, they say. “One particular challenge for transformation research is the creation of a network of social, natural and engineering sciences in order to understand the interaction between society, the Earth system, and technological development. They even suggest an integral approach for the transformation process, saying, “In economics, for example, the global material flows from resources to waste products such as CO2, should be analysed.”

One of the key sectors in society for the transformation process is the area of research and education. Therefore, the WBGU recommends that transformation education should be given a higher priority in the German sustainability strategy. It should also be integrated into school and university curricula, vocational qualification, and further studies.

From my point of view, the WBGU’s perception is not radical enough. However, what does their perspective imply? It seems that at the base of the WBGU’s recommendations is the recognition that the current knowledge system does not work for ensuring a sustainable future and, therefore, a transformation process is required. The transformation process itself should be transformative and integral as well, involving all social sectors, from politics to educational institutes.

In summer, 2007, thirty-five theologians and practitioners from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world, met together in Changseong, Korea in order to explore together a challenging ecumenical agenda for 21st century ecumenism under the theme, “Transforming Theology and Life-Giving Civilization.” The term “Life-giving civilization” was a critical attempt to discredit the current “civilization” that brings death to humanity and the whole creation. This was a working term that will have to be fully replaced by a new one which is more organic, relational, and offers a holistic cosmo-vision.

Over the centuries in the second millennium, far-reaching development has been made throughout human civilization. Modern civilization under the processes of industrialization, urbanization and modernization has been carried out and human beings are benefitting from some of positive consequences of those developments, even though it has not been friendly to nature at all. However, we are now paying a high price for those processes in terms of multiple crises, particularly, ecological destruction.

As the final report of Poverty, Wealth and Ecology programme of WCC says, the 10th Assembly takes place at a time when the vibrant life of God’s whole creation may be extinguished by human methods of wealth creation. (Economy of Life, Justice and Peace for All, 21) The year 2020 is being perceived as an apocalyptic time, not by a certain religious groups but by secular society. I often say that the period from 2013 to 2020, around the next Assembly of WCC, will be one of the most critical periods for the entire creation.

For this reason, I am wondering whether we need to explore how to envelope the current trend and process of life-destructive human civilization, and open a new transformative process of all living beings living together in God’s justice and peace.

An Ecumenical Pilgrimage for Living Together in Gods Justice and Peace

As an initial attempt for promoting Life-enhancing culture, community and systems as an agenda for 21st ecumenical movement, the 2007 Changseong conference attempted to explore a new epistemology like the Ubuntu concept of Africa, or Sangsaeng of Asia.

Ubuntu is an expression of human relations lived in community and in harmony with the whole of creation (‘African anthropology and cosmo-vision lived in community’). Sangsaeng is an ancient Asian concept ‘of a sharing community and economy which allows all to flourish together’.

Several communities in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean have beautiful concepts that describe the good and transformative life we are talking about because many of these communities are still working for a good and transforming life for all living things, the Earth and beyond.

In Latin America, there is Sumak Kawsay, a concept that is similar to Ubuntu in Africa and Sangsaeng in Asia. Sumak Kawsay is a concept that comes out of the cosmo-vision of the Indigenous Peoples in Latin America about creation. It is an expression and praxis originating from the Kichua traditional language of the Andes. Sumak means fullness and Kawsay, life, together meaning “well being”, “good living” or “integral quality of life for all”. The expression is used as a reference to the model of development – maybe in today’s dilemma, “a model of envelopment” - that implies an organized, sustainable and dynamic economic, political, socio-cultural and environmental system, seeking an alternative to the postulates of capitalist development including all human society and all the life forms that exist on earth. Sumak Kawsay is tradition and realization in an on-going project pointing to a cosmic community. This community is built on the principles of diversity, reciprocity, solidarity and equality. This expression, its practices and spiritualities, can be in creative dialogue with Ubuntu and Sangsaeng.

In West Papua, we find a similar concept under the term, “Waniambi a Tobati Engros” modeled by the communion of the Trinity in mutuality, shared partnership, reciprocity, justice and loving-kindness.

For advancing this theological exploration, the Oikotree Movement for which I serve as a moderator, is at the moment in the process of preparing an Oikos Sophia-Praxis programme along this line. We are now preparing the first workshop that will take place in Matanzas, Cuba, in early 2015. Tomorrow, there will be a workshop organized by Oikos Theology Movement under the theme “Alternative Transformative Theological Education.”

A Challenge

In conclusion, I fully agree with Bread for All and the Swiss delegation to the WCC 10th Assembly that we need to challenge the WCC, together with member churches and the wide ecumenical network, to initiate a process of setting up Ecumenical Sustainable Development Goals, in response to the international community’s current discussion on Sustainable Development Goals, and the Post 2015 Agenda.

Personally thinking, in view of the critical period from 2013 to 2020, around the next Assembly, we need to launch something significant on the issue of Eco-Justice. The urgently critical eco-situation requires more fundamental transformation. We need a transformative philosophy. We need a transformative epistemology. And we need a transformative culture, community and systems if we, together with the entire creation, want to survive in near future.

In its Call to Act, the PWE programme proposes that the WCC and member churches should set the period from this Busan Assembly to next Assembly to make a focused commitment for Eco-Justice. Eco-Justice, eco-peace and eco-life in fullness is almost the agenda we have to set up here in Busan. This has to be supported and committed to by the Assembly, all the member churches, and the wider ecumenical community. Would it be possible for Busan Assembly make a clear commitment to eco-justice? What about launching an ecumenical pilgrimage for “Living Together in God’s Justice and Peace” for promoting Life-enhancing culture, community and systems”?

<Park Seong-Won, 4 November 2013, Keynote presentation to WCC Madang workshop organized by Bread For All, Switzerland>