An Olive Agenda: Our Path to Economic Opportunity and Environmental Sustainability | Sojourners

An Olive Agenda: Our Path to Economic Opportunity and Environmental Sustainability

World photo, Denis Cristo /
World photo, Denis Cristo /

An examination of current public debate reveals a divide between the “brown agenda” of economic opportunity and the “green agenda” of environmental sustainability. 

On the one hand, a “brown agenda” concerns economic opportunity, or in other words, the alleviation of poverty. In light of ongoing distress surrounding malnutrition, infant mortality, and unemployment, the brown agenda is important, urgent, and worthy of support. On the other hand, a “green agenda” relates to environmental sustainability and care for the Earth. As scientific reports affirm the reality of climate change, and in recognition of decreased access to clean water and biodiversity around the world, the green agenda is also deeply important, urgent, and worthy of support.

With the above thoughts in mind, one recognizes that both brown and green agendas are essential for the promotion of life. However, the proponents of each agenda seem to be at odds with the adherents of the other. For example, far too many with a “brown agenda” believe that the best way to reduce poverty is to reduce environmental controls, and to the contrary, those engaged with the “green agenda” too often place the needs of the Earth before the livelihoods of the poor and marginalized. As a result of this persistent struggle between “brown” and “green," progress on both agendas is limited, and our path toward economic opportunity and environmental sustainability is severely off course. 

In recognition of the ongoing tussle between economic opportunity and environmental sustainability, people of faith can offer an alternative agenda, for ultimately we recognize that the brown agenda (economics) and green agenda (ecology) are connected; as they are both about the Earth, our Oikos, the home that God has provided. In specifics, ecology, as oikos-logos concerns the wisdom of how a home functions; and economy, as oikos-nomos, is about the rules that should govern the way we run a home. As a result, while economics and ecology often clash within contemporary conversation (especially during election season), the reality is that they are deeply related, or in others words, two sides of the same coin.

The late South African theologian Steve de Gruchy offered a theological metaphor – the olive – that transcends the duality between the “green” and “brown” agendas that has disabled dialogue for the past generation. As a result, an Olive Agenda – one that combines green and brown – provides a profound metaphor that, according to de Gruchy, “... holds together that which religious and political discourse rends apart: earth, land, climate, labor, time, family, food, nutrition, health, hunger, poverty, power and violence."

Among other things, an Olive Agenda is rooted in an understanding that although our current economic system – called the “Big Economy” by Larry Rasmussen – has provided a number of contributions to modern life, its logic of boundless production, over-consumption, and unlimited growth works against “the Great Economy," a term from Wendell Berry. In other words:

"Economic production and consumption, as well as human reproduction, are unsustainable when they no longer fall within the borders of nature’s regeneration.  So the Bottom Line below the Bottom Line is that if we don’t recognize that the laws of economics and the laws of ecology are finally the same laws, we are in deep doodoo.  Eco/nomics is the only way possible."

With these thoughts from Rasmussen in mind, de Gruchy states that, while both brown and green agendas are “fundamentally right” for people of faith, “... taken in isolation each is tragically wrong – and thus we must integrate economy as oikos-nomos, and ecology as oikos-logos in search of sustainable life on earth, the oikos that is our only home.”  As affirmed by the Diakonia Council of Churches (Durban, South Africa):

"This earth that God created, this sphere that spins through space, this globe, the household in which humanity lives and seeks meaning, our only home – this must be the place where we start to think theologically about economics ... For millions of years God has shepherded the earth into existence so that it can sustain life.  To do so requires a delicate balance between human life and other life; between life, death and rebirth; between production, consumption and waste; between the needs of the current generation and the needs of the many generations still to come; and between our creative ability to shape and reshape nature, and our sinful desire to do so for selfish ends."

All together, in response to the responsibility that God has placed upon humankind to serve as stewards of the Earth, and in light of Jesus’ proclamation to accompany the poor and marginalized, an Olive Agenda recognizes that matters of economics and ecology are not only connected, but they are matters of faith, for they touch the core of God’s will for all of creation.  And so, an Olive Agenda shows that a contest between economics and ecology ultimately has no winner, for both are placed under the same house – our Oikos, the Household of God.  As a result, as disciples of Jesus, recipients of God’s amazing grace, and participants in God’s mission, we are called to create economic opportunities and make opportunities for creation care, to promote fullness of life – for all that God has created – throughout the world.  An Olive Agenda is our path forward.

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

World photo, Denis Cristo /