Thursday, 26 February 2015

Wall of separation – environment…

And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination.

If the plethora of homogeneous portraits of a neatly-bearded Jesus are anything to go by – you know the ones: at the centre of stained-glass windows; coloured Catholic effigies; in Ladybird books… – the fading phenomenon that is ‘hipsterism’ didn’t originate in Shoreditch, in the 1990s; nor even in the 1940s, in America; but in downtown Nazareth, sometime around the year dot.

However, this doesn’t mean that there’s been the corresponding solid ecological patrimony you might expect (just the opposite, sadly…) at the sacred heart of organized western religion for the last two thousand years; nor that we particularly equate the church (more specifically, its ‘modern’ construct, the Church of England) with environmentalism. (Mind you, we don’t equate it with “a double upside down mocha macchiato with soy – low fat, no fat, no lid [and] make it taste like Christmas too”, either. Well, not really.)

Nevertheless, if the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter Who is my neighbour? is anything to go by, the Church of England is keen to make sure it now doesn’t get left behind in the race towards saving (what’s left of) our “green and pleasant land” – undoubtedly one of the many reasons Iain Duncan Smith (despite, or because of, his oft-boasted “Catholic background”?) rapidly attempted to bully yet another typically soft target he thinks(?!) won’t fight back. Methinks he may be in for a shock…

If the responses of the media and the PM are typical of our political culture, it is unfit for purpose. Thoughtful reflections on the electorate’s disengagement are conjured into party political statements to be rubbished on party political terms. Seemingly, the church’s views matter enough to raise alarm.
Malcolm Brown: Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England

Perhaps it’s because we are so divorced from the natural world that we consider ourselves immune to the damage we inflict. As the Indian proverb says: “When you drive nature out of the door with a broom, she’ll come back through the window with a pitchfork.”
– George Monbiot: The Guardian

When even the Labour party’s Protecting our environment election ‘issues’ webpage – “A Labour government will re-establish Britain as a global leader on climate change” (which almost sounds like it’s going to try and increase pollution and levels of carbon dioxide and methane…) – has no mention of alternative power sources, but instead leads with criticism of “fun and optimistic guy” Dave ‘Hug a Husky’ Cameron’s only slightly more feeble, flood-diluted policies; and the Green party is struggling both with credibility questions and “discovering that the road from being, in effect, a pressure group that puts up candidates to being a party with real ambitions can be punishing”; I am both gratified and grateful that there is still an established, public-facing organization that has the confidence to talk openly and urgently about one of the most pressing problems we have to confront. (Frankly, the planet can just about look after itself; and will recover – or re-emerge in a different form – once we have disappeared in a large puff of smoke of our own making. But, as a species of temporary inhabitants, we are rapidly approaching the point of no return with regards to our own viability.)

According to its own guide and thematic groupings, below are the sections that the House of Bishops highlighted under ‘Environment’ (in bold – although, as before, I have expanded their extracts to show how they fit within the complete numbered paragraphs):

[2] Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God. But we are not made in isolation. We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed. This is the starting point for the Church of England’s engagement with society, the nation and the world. All that we say here follows from this. Anglicans do not have a single view on which political party has the best mix of answers to today’s problems. As bishops we support policies which respect the natural environment, enhance human dignity and honour the image of God in our neighbour.

[27] It is vital to find better ways of talking about many fundamental questions facing us today. To name only a few of the major questions which contemporary politics seems determined to avoid, we need a richer justification for the state, a better account of the purposes of government, and a more serious way of talking about taxation. Most of all, we need an honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet.

[117] People will commit to the long term if they have a stake in it. Intergenerational justice depends upon sharing power and decision making now. By enabling people to build a stake in the communities they are encouraged to live, not only for the day, but for their grandchildren’s future – and, on behalf of future generations, to cherish the created order rather than viewing our environment as a commodity to be consumed.

To my mind, the preceding two paragraphs in the letter are also relevant – completing the ‘Our grandchildren’s future’ page:

[115] Our grandchildren’s future, not just the wants of the moment, must be factored into economic and political priorities. When prosperity – and, for the least well off, survival – appears to depend more on luck than merit and when rewards seem divorced from virtue, there is no incentive to invest in a future we will not ourselves enjoy. Why build the foundations of the next generation’s future if it could be swept away by the throw of the economic dice?

[116] This shows why economics must be understood as a moral discipline. A thriving economy needs investors who look to the long term. But when the economy has pursued short term profit and stopped thinking long term, people’s rational behaviour follows suit. It is hard to promote virtuous living when the shape of the economy sends a very different message about human responsibilities.

Reading these, it’s not difficult to see why the supposedly “quiet man” IDS exploded, is it? “Will no-one will rid me of these troublesome priests?!” The Conservatives seem to care as much for the environment, for the long-term future, as they do for the deprived and disabled (and about as much as I care for the Conservatives – ‘care’ is simply Not What They Do (not externally, anyway…)).

There are a couple of other paragraphs worth quoting from, I believe – before I go on to analyse my reactions to, and thoughts on, the bishops’ proclamation. Firstly, judging austerity in the section ‘Debt and a humane economy’…

[109] …Is it sustainable? Have the medium and long-term implications been taken fully into account so that the interests of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are factored in?

…and, secondly, discussing ‘The campaign ahead’:

[121] We believe that these points are crucial if politics is to rise above its present diminished state. Indeed, we can develop those ideas further. In July 2014, the General Synod debated how the church contributes to The Common Good. That debate suggested some further signs that political policies were moving in the direction which this letter outlines. They included… Reflecting the obligation to secure the common good of future generations, not just our own, and addressing issues of intergenerational justice. This must include a responsible approach to environmental issues.

Returning to the “Indian proverb”, above, that George Monbiot quotes: around here, you would think that it would take real effort to be “so divorced from the natural world”; and yet, as I keep saying (increasing the dent in the nearest wall as I do so), we seem incredibly skilled at taking nature for granted. (Or are we simply taking the micturition: through habitual laziness and instant gratification…?)

So what is to be done to dissuade people from – or penalize them for (as this is where we really need a little proscription) – driving half a mile (or less) to the shop, to collect their morning paper or a loaf of bread; from driving their ill-exercised children short distances to the school or pre-school; or even, astonishingly, from transporting their dog in their 4x4 – which I have witnessed far too many times – to a nearby field for a short walk (and so that their pet can defecate all over some poor farmer’s crops, as well as the local footpaths), as they currently do…?

So, if those of us who live amongst some of the most beautiful and apparently idyllic fields that England has to offer, struggle to engage – for instance, why is there not a row of public electric vehicle charging points in the parking bay that stretches from the Peacock to the Reading Rooms: facilitating the hum of residents on their way to work…? – how do we genuinely and passionately reflect “the obligation to secure the common good of future generations, not just our own, and [address] issues of intergenerational justice”, in all that we do, as prompted by the House of Bishops? (And I don’t just mean rolling out detailed, beautifully-presented research on sustainability when we’re attacked by developers; only to then shove it in the back of a dusty drawer: never to see the light of day again.)

Well, I think together with “prompting” us, the bishops also go some way to providing the answer – and you do not need to believe “that every human being is created in the image of God” (or need to drive to church every Sunday) to subscribe. As they say: to begin with “we need an honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet.” To which I would add that we also need an honest account of how we must live now.

Being political issues, though, climate change, as well as how we deal with it, are often discussed in fudged, rhetorical terms – and yet, being also blatantly scientific issues, backed up with incontrovertible evidence, there is nothing equivocal about them. It’s like that lump you can feel on your breast, or on your testicle – you’re frightened of the consequences; and yet you’re also ‘happy’ to let it fester until the time you eventually turn up at the doctor’s: when you’re told it’s too late, and you only have a certain, limited amount of time to live. Is it laziness? Is it embarrassment? Is it a feeling of powerlessness? All of these things can be overcome. Trust me. But not by some eleventh-hour, suddenly-newly-developed miracle cure…. The cost of doing nothing is far, far higher than the cost of doing something. And we’ve known this for years.

Perhaps a better simile might be be realizing that your customary fifteenth gee-and-tee of the night ain’t right. There are, of course, twelve steps for that – and the solution (sorry) is in your hands. This time, though, maybe the ‘cure’ is more psychological than physiological…? Similarly, there are twelve steps that you can work your way through, as an individual, as a household, to do your bit for climate change. Before it’s too late….

And, if we all carried them out (in unison; in harmony) – building “the foundations of the next generation’s future” – and the Government incentivized them with enthusiasm, and sensible economic policies: legislating for reward, penalizing nonconformance, and thereby encouraging us with both carrot and stick “to cherish the created order rather than viewing our environment as a commodity to be consumed” – who knows what might happen…?

Undertake these things community by community (as I have pleaded so many times before – and which, as the Church of England has obviously also realized, is crucial) – ‘gamifying’ those neighbourhoods’, villages’, parishes’, districts’ efforts… – and I believe we’d wake up one morning to find that it hadn’t been quite as difficult as we’d envisaged (and we’d all be sharing cute little Tysoe Energy LLP electric cars, powered by the beautiful, sleek, new Edge Hill windmills…)!

Baby steps for individuals; but requiring a mammoth change in the way politics is practised in this country, if it “is to rise above its present diminished state”. That’s the real stumbling block: simply believing that change can happen; not being frightened of it; and knowing that you can play a part in it.

“We have lost faith in any of the large available understandings of how structural change takes place in history,” the philosopher Roberto Unger said in a recent lecture in London,“and as a result we fall back on a bastardised conception of political realism, namely that a proposal is realistic to the extent that it approaches what already exists.” This is the whole of British politics encapsulated in two lines: unless a policy looks exactly like what the mainstream parties are suggesting; unless it can be funded by minor tootling on existing tax instruments (and even that will be called a “raid”); unless it will leave the fundamental structures totally unperturbed – then it is the most outlandish idea that anybody has ever heard.
     Therefore, nobody in opposition… should ever get into a conversation about how they will fund something without first underlining that the way things exist at the moment is completely wrecked. The status quo is broken; it’s not even static, it’s constantly worsening.
– Zoe Williams: The Guardian

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