development poverty sustainability

The Restorative Economy

Restorative-EconomyOne of my most interesting freelance jobs over the last couple of years has been a series of background papers for a new Tearfund campaign. I’ve been waiting to see what would come out of it at the end of the process, and last week the campaign finally launched. It’s called ordinary heroes, and it brings together the development and sustainability agendas in a new and important way.

There is much to celebrate about the number of people lifted out of poverty, rising global life expectancy, and the spread of education. But as long as climate change and other planetary boundaries are in overshoot, those gains remain fragile. What’s more, the billion or so people who haven’t yet shared in the gains of the last half century may be locked out. To finish the task, development agencies need to talk to us in the rich world too.

The campaign is explained in the accompanying report, The Restorative Economy, written by Alex Evans and Richard Gower. It describes the trap we find ourselves in: “in our current model, the more we succeed in economic development, the more we fail on environmental sustainability… We believe that the present golden age can be extended to everyone, and to future generations. But our present path will not take us there.”

Neither will our political system deliver the change we need. There is too much inertia, too many vested interests. If there is to be change, it will need to come from the grassroots.(Naomi Klein reaches similar conclusions, through a different route, in her book This Changes Everything) And that movement will not rise out of more information – out of telling people how vitally important climate change is. Instead, it needs to tell a different story.

As a Christian agency, Tearfund draw on the Bible to find that alternative narrative, but it’s one that will be familiar to most of us: the jubilee. This was the Old Testament command to cancel Israel’s debts every 50 years, free any slaves, and return land to its original owners. It was designed to reset the nation’s assets, ensuring that inequalities were not passed on and propounded into future generations. It’s a powerful idea that was used to underpin the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign.

What does that look like today? The report summarises the direction as ‘a larger us, a longer future, and a better good life‘, as I wrote about a few weeks ago. Taken together, they suggest that we could consider a ‘restorative economy’. That would be an economy that ensures everyone can meet their basic needs, that keeps inequality under control, and respects environmental limits. It would also be one in which people restored environmental damage and fractured communities.

If you want to know what they might mean practically, the authors offer ten ‘transformative policy ideas for a restorative economy’. The list includes the circular economy, a 21st century Green Revolution for Africa, and a rebalanced tax system that includes a Land Value Tax. It insists on the importance of markets for lifting people out of poverty, and suggests ways to make them work better for the poorest. It calls for a zero carbon economy on a contraction and convergence basis.

Because this is a campaign aimed at all of us, it’s not a list of demands for governments. We all have a responsibility to live within environmental limits, respond to poverty with generosity, and use whatever power we have to press for change. “We think that the triple challenges of poverty, environmental sustainability and inequality are the defining issues of our time” says the introduction of The Restorative Economy. “Our response to them should guide how we live, how we vote, what we buy and how we pray.”

I feel like I’ve been waiting for someone to put together development, consumerism and the environment in this way for about a decade, so I’m pretty excited about this campaign. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it as it unfolds, and you can expect to hear more about it in the next few weeks. In the meantime, The Restorative Economy: Completing our Unfinished Millennium Jubilee is well worth reading.

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