ROOTS OF UNSUSTAINABILITY
(Thoughts prepared for JRI Conference June 2008. They are a draft, assembled in little time, set forward to aid discussion, and I intend to update and rewrite in response to what I hear at the conference.)
1. Experience with commenting on local authority strategic plans and various transport plans and campaigns for 20 years, has provided some notion of what prevents strategic decision makers therein from going all-out for sustainable plans.
2. Involvement with the Green Party has provided insight into many alternative ways of looking at things, all of which have environmental responsibility as a central reference point, both at the level of principle and the level of practical policy.
3. Involvement in the academic discipline of information systems and management from a 'critical' perspective (Frahkfurt School, etc.) has convinced me of the importance of societal systemic structures in influencing, if not entirely determining, the way people live and work.
4. A commitment to Jesus Christ, respect for the Bible and a long-term interest in biographies of those who have tried to follow Christ, has convinced me of the religious roots of our problems, and the need for a religious solution to them. In particular, it has convinced me of the need for a religious change in the heart of the people at all levels, such as has occurred in the revivals of the past and in the anti-slavery work of early 1800s, as a necessary solution.
5. In 2006 Sir John Houghton and Prof. Bob Goudzwaard (Dutch economic theorist) spoke at a WYSOCS day conference on 'Climate Change and Global Economy', designed around the idea that what JH had been speaking about needs the understanding of economic structures which BG could provide. Since then, with John Lockwood and others, I have been working with JH and BG on trying to integrate their ideas. This article is also a contribution to that.
Consider the following examples, in no particular order. Some of them make me angry, and are not as well thought-out as they could be.
- Dilution. The (Blair) UK government acknowledged the importance of climate change. The government energy policy has two pillars: reduction of climate change emissions, and security of energy supply. Guess which one always gains supremacy in policy making and practical decision-making!
- National pride. "We want London to have a world-class hub airport up with Amsterdam and Paris" was the central reason which the government minister gave when questioned about the decision to allow Heathrow Terminal 5.
- National pride. "Britain should regain the lead" seemed to be the central and most important reason Lord King (government chief scientist) gave on 21 June 2008 (BBC Radio 4 Today) for supporting research into genetic modification. That it was central is evidenced by his stating that reason twice, once when he had no answer to a question put to him.
- Touching faith in technology, and quickly grabbed solutions. Over the past ten years or so, the UK government has officially recognised the imperative to curb climate change. Its approach, however, has been to disregard the need to change lifestyles and opt instead for technological solutions like nuclear power, wind farms - and especially biofuels. But, as we are now becoming aware, this is by no means a solution. A 10% substitution of petrol and diesel fuel is estimated to require 43% and 38% of current cropland area in the United States and Europe, respectively [source: John Lockwood]. Such increases impact mostly on the poor, since they spend the greatest proportion of their income on food.
- Lobbies. A huge anti-wind lobby has grown up, resisting wind power. The reasons it puts up against wind power are, in the main, weak or spurious, mainly to do with visual preferences. When one reason is shown to be weak (e.g. fewer birds are killed than they claimed) they find other reasons (e.g. the disruption to local ecology of the construction process). But the main reason for their success is halting wind power is that much of the media has adopted their anti-wind stance, and screams loudly. It also organises voluble opposition and letter-writing. So councillors on planning committees are cowed into submission by the volume rather than the rationality of the opposition.
- Flagship Projects. Halton Borough Council wants to build a second bridge across the Mersey (Mersey Gateway). This will increase traffic and climate change emissions, as well as do other damage. But these problems are ignored, because this is a flagship project. Their vision for it is weak and unspecific. Their statement of the problems that makes it necessary is weak and ill-thought-out. The reasons adduced in favour of it are weak. The discussion of its potential to increase traffic and climate change emissions is absent.
- Refusal to acknowledge ethics. "We don't do God" Alastair Campbell told Tony Blair. There is an underlying assumption that religious and ethical stances should not impose on 'rational' political or business matters, and, in some quarters, hostility to any whiff of ethical imperative. Environmental responsibility is seen as of this kind, and is resisted by many on that grounds. The opposers then dredge up reasons to support their resistance. This occurs not only in government and local authorities but also especially in business.
- National pride. India is enjoying economic boom. It suddenly finds world-leadership within its grasp. China is its rival. So it does whatever it can to beat China and grasp at world-power status.
- Aspirations. The people of Africa, Asia, China, India who have money aspire to Western ways of living. Especially cars. And air conditioning. All of which consume power. The West sets the example.
- Mistaken view of what to aspire to. A friend of mine in rural Uganda was sent some money to purchase a cycle. But someone there told her "For only a little more you can get a motorized bike" and she was sorely tempted. I dashed an urgent letter pointing out of the continual need for fuel, and she chose a cycle. But in the developing countries, such as India, the bicycle is disparaged as the poor man's form of transport, so people are urgent to get a fuel-consuming mode. An Indian friend of mine was astounded, when in the Netherlands, to find that all there use cycles, and photographed ranks of cycles to take back home.
- False statistics. The UK government claims that Britain contributes only 2% to climate change, and makes the implication that if we reduce our CCEs it will make no real difference. Not only does that reasoning ignore the fact that we are only 1% of the population, but it ignores the fact that we import many goods from China etc. and the manufacture and transport of these generates CCEs for which we are ultimately responsible.
- Protecting one's popularity. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with low popularity, hardly ever speaks about climate change (except in support of nuclear power?)
- Environment not deemed important. It was reported (early June 2008, BBC Radio 4) that Gordon Brown would meet George W. Bush, US President, and that they would discuss a variety of important topics. The list of topics was long - but conspicuously did not include climate change. Why not? (a) because the media filtered it out of the list (b) because Brown thought it less important than the other topics (c) because Bush wanted to ignore it?
- Lack of media airing. Some years ago, I was in the audience of Any Questions. One of the panel members was a Minister of Transport. I posed a transport question, with overtones of unsustainability. No transport question was asked, despite the Minister being there. Afterwards I asked why not. "We select according to what is topical" came the reply from Jonathan Dimbleby and his assistant. It seems climate change and unsustainability are hardly ever 'topical'. Catch 22: they won't be if they are never discussed. I see this on most media: the environmentally responsible view does not get aired, examined, discussed, explored, refined on the media as much as it should.
- Boredom with the topic. Climate change has moved from being 'untopical' to 'boring' or 'old hat' so quickly that I missed the period when it was topical and interesting! So, again, it does not get the airing it deservies, and people think they know all there is to know about it - when they know very little.
- Whipping up paranoia. Road fuel costs rise. Media whips up paranoia and anger, to try to get UK government to scrap the autumn rise in fuel duty, which has already been postponed from last year.
- Government sensitivity ('cowardice'?). UK government has been running scared of the media for some years. September 2000 had road fuel protestors that took government by surprise. October 2000 major storms, a taste of climate change. November 2000 fuel protestors tried again but abysmally failed (only two protestors turned up at Ellesmere Port, for example); they had lost all their support. But the UK government, running scared, caved in and abolished the fuel duty escalator, which was actually starting to prove effective, because it not only increased costs but also sent a message 'road use must fall'.
- The excuse of low incomes. On 27 May 2008 I wrote to My member of parliament (Mike Hall) asking him to convey my views that high road fuel prices is a good thing, not bad. He replied, effectively refusing to do so, saying "Petrol prices are starting to hit those on low incomes ..." Perhaps he fails to realise that even those on 'low incomes' in the UK have more to purchase fuel than those who are most affected by the climate change have for food.
All these contribute in different ways to unsustainability. As can be seen, the causes are many and varied, and they occur at all levels, and in all nations. The reader can provide their own set of examples. The question is: how can we understand the roots of unsustainability, and what can we do about it?
UNDERSTANDING ROOTS OF UNSUSTAINABILITY
Now I want to draw together some general points. I can see three levels of unsustainability.
- What we do and how we live and work, which is ...
- ... (a) constrained by structures of society that we accept, and (b) deeply influenced by our attitudes.
- Both of these are themselves distorted by idolatry.
I will consider structures, attitudes and idolatry, and will look at some culprits. Then look briefly at what might be done.
- Technological infrastructure. BBC radio is becoming digical, which consumes more power than does analog radio. On the switchover, I won't be able to listen to the radio unless I consume more power.
- Transport infrastructure. The UK rail system is not being expanded. So we are still restricted in what journey we can make by rail.
- Tax structure. VAT is charged on refurbishment, but new-build carries no VAT.
- Hidden subsidy. Airlines gain a £10bn fuel subsidy from the UK government, partly because they do not pay tax on their fuel [The Independent, 9 June 2008]. Bus and train companies do pay VAT.
- Legal structures. Health and safety rules often lead
- Media structures. It is very difficult to get a good environmentally responsible message across on the media. The awareness of climate change etc. by e.g. news interviewers is often rather shallow.
- Structures of sociality. This is a subtle one. We offer people lifts in cars out of courtesy; we would feel discourteous if we offered instead to walk the guest to the station (even if we pay their fare). The impact of the belief that we must be hospitable more than is strictly necessary is not often recognised.
- Political structures. Democracy means elections. Elections means you have to be liked by the people. Being liked by the people prevents you telling them the hard truths, and especially never suggesting the people need to change their lifestyles.
In all such ways, and more, structures constrain our actions and the way we live and work, encouraging certain things and making them attractive or easy, while discouraging certain other things and making them unattractive or difficult. But structures are of our own making. They come about because of our attitudes - which also determine how we live and work - and especially idolatry.
Attitudes work at a deep level, of which we and others are largely unaware, and determine what we deem important, what we deem good and evil, what methods we countenance, etc.
We want (or aim for or aspire to) X, and as a consequence do Y. Y is harmful (unsustainable). But when this is pointed out to us, X is defended rather than repented of. Then the solutions proposed to rectify Y are resisted. Our wanting X and our resistance when challenged by Y is attitude.
Attitudes include shared, background expectations and aspirations, reactions, and deeply held beliefs and assumptions. Attitudes that lead to unsustainability include all of these.
Aspirations and expectations that lead to unsustainability:
- Pride. The protection or bolstering of national or organisational reputation, especially relative to rivals. Example: Flagship projects,
- Vested interests. Vested interests are powerful. They are dressed up as the solution, and their own unsustainability is hidden, ignored or drowned out by the volume of adamant proposal. Example: nuclear power, genetic modification
- Affluence; greed. The protection or furtherance of the conveniences or pleasures of the well-off. Not that the well-off are wicked, but rather that we are often unaware of the impact we have or what is happening outside our circle (so we innocently say "Let them eat cake" when told "Madame, the people have no bread"). But our wickedness is revealed in our reaction-attitudes ...
Reactions, taken when faced with the need to take responsibility, to change our lifestyles or to take a lead, include (with those responsible for each):
- cowardice; an unwillingness to put oneself on the line for righteousness; "it's not politically feasible"; "the voters won't like it". (politicians and decision-makers)
- Resistance to changing our views or lifestyle. Dredging up reasons to defend our current views. Unwillingness to consider others. (business managers, and some lay people)
- Disparagement of those who take environmental responsibility seriously as "puritans", "luddites", "back to the drab 1950s", "I don't want ration books", "remember the bad ol' days of power cuts", "back to the stone age", etc. (The media and opinion-formers)
- Deceit, often self-deceit; a wilful carelessness about truth rather than actual lying. Example: unquestioning acceptance to intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that suited us. (all of us)
Deeply-held beliefs and assumptions that lead to unsustainability:
- Universal acquiescence that self-interest is OK or good; it is used to justify many unsustainable things.
- An underlying assumption in some quarters that business and politics should not be influenced by ethical considerations, and an hostility to such.
- The supremacy of competition (in the market but also in sport and politics) and the Spencerian doctrine of survival of the fittest has made business cruel and unfeeling.
- An insidious belief among politicians is a degraded notion of representing the people, which is taken lazily to mean that they must say only what the people apparently want to hear (via the media).
- Perhaps underlying all these is: Humanism, the view that humanity is supreme, and that all can be bent to its will or convenience or desire.
Here is a quick overview of some of the main culprits:
- The media. Following their own interests, and without recognising their full responsibility to society, the media both generates and echoes popular beliefs in a self-sustaining vicious circle.
- Politicians. A few are corrupt, but not many. More problematic is their cowardice in not taking a good lead, or their being swayed by vested interests.
- Business. Puts competitive advantage as the highest norm, to which all else is subjected. Environmental responsibility does get a slight look-in in those companies that espouse social responsibility. Good examples are e.g. Hewlett-Packard. But they are constrained by competitive structures of the market.
- Education. We do not weave environmental responsibility into what we teach. We teach it as part of chemistry or biology, and ignore it in business studies etc.
- Us, ordinary people. We jump in our cars without thinking, when we could walk, cycle or train. We demand, as a basic human right, two holidays in the sun each year. We leave our computers on, consuming power. We give in to adverts for things that, as it happens, commit us to ever more power consumption.
However, of all the above 'us' is best. In The Independent 16 December 2007, Janet Street-Porter discussed how "the people, not their MPs, have improved transport at a stroke" taking up walking and cycling while the government dithers. Moreover, a UK Government report that was published end of January 2008 showed that the annual change in climate change emissions from the three recognised main sectors are:
This implies that ordinary people are taking action while business and transport are not.
- from households, down 4%
- from transport, up 2%
- from industry, up 2%.
A major factor behind many of our structures and attitudes that lead to unsustainability is idolatry. Bob Goudzwaard's  book Idols of Our Time has provided insight into the shape of these religious root and how they manifest themselves as idolatry in science, technology, national security etc. According to Goudzwaard [1984:21] an idol:
- is set apart in privileged place, is given special esteem,
- determines the meaning of all else,
- determines the value of everything, and what people aspire to,
- determines whether a thing exists or is destroyed,
- directs people's lives, and reduces their freedom,
- has things sacrificed to it, or for it,
- is protected at all costs,
- is willingly submitted to,
- is never questioned, and questioners are deemed heretics,
- and often delivers the opposite of what it promises.
Example: 1 November 2005 BBC Radio 4 report on Prime-Minister-hosted meeting of leaders of nations incl. India, China: Prime Minister reported as saying the aim is "to find a way of reducing climate change emissions without damaging economic growth." Economic growth was his idol. Now his successor's own popularity rating is threatening to become an idol, despite having claimed to have a 'moral compass' (though I still detect some morality left in him). More generally, examples of idols include national pride and standing, national security, national GDP and position against rivals, advanced technology (e.g. nuclear), lifestyle, what the media deems topical or exciting.
Idolatry warps our reasoning, and overturns our responsibility. That which contributes to sustainability is sacrificed to the idol. It is a religious dysfunction, not just a social, economic, legal or psychological one. It needs a religious solution.
Idolatry is endemic in Western society today. Too many who believe themselves to be Christians exhibit idolatry - especially when we separate life into two compartments, the God-part and the everyday part. I once met a Christian farmer during a meeting with Cheshire County Council, who was violently opposed to my Green views. Some of the American Christians idolise technology to the extent that they assume that the whole problem of climate change can be solved by technology, or they idolise their own affluence and get angry if their right to enjoy it is questioned. But, on the whole, I would say that Christians are not as bad as humanists - somewhat against the conventional message that comes through the humanist-controlled media! Idolatry is rampant in secular humanist attitudes and structures. Because humanists have no higher authority than themselves, they always tend to absolutize one or other aspects of life. Most of the examples of idolatry given above are those that are rampant in humanism.
Not in vain does the Scripture say "Righteousness [is what] exalts a nation." But 'righteousness' does not refer to personal uprightness, but rather to, as Paul Marshall  put it, "right relationships among all things of the created order". Idolatry severely disrupts those relationships. So our structures and our attitudes are such as to always lead humanity towards unsustainability and other evil.
WHAT IS THE WAY FORWARD?
Here is part of what I believe. Maybe others have different ideas, but let us consider these; with all views a debate will be enriched. But we need action as well as debate. In brief, I believe we need a two-pronged approach:
- Spiritual revival, which changes attitudes
- Radically change all the structures
Let us look at these.
Spiritual revival is needed because of the root of idolatry. To change attitudes throughout society in a sustainable way requires a relivious revival. A change of fashion in market demand is not enough. During the 1980s, people turned to small, fuel-efficient cars. But the heart of the people was not changed, and ten or twenty years later the people again aspired to gas-guzzlers such as SUVs. The change was not sustainable because it was merely a market phenomenon, not a spiritual change of heart of the people. A change of theoretical or philosophical outlook is not enough. There have been many of these, such as the swing from modernism to postmodernism, and yet the postmoderns are just as irresponsible environmentally as the moderns. A change of politics is not enough; this is why the Green Party is never a solution on its own, even though it might be useful as a kind of policy research institute. It is not enough even to enact policies and set targets such as the UK and EU are doing. Especially if the (media-led) people resist them.
No! We need a deep and widespread change in attitude that is sustainable, and that must be a widespread spiritual of heart of the people, at all levels and in all 'culprits'.
It was said of William Wilberforce and his anti-slavery colleagues that
"What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental ... he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world ..." p.xv in Eric Metaxas' book Amazing Grace
This is what we need: to destroy an entire way of seeing the world, one that has held sway from the beginning of history, and replace it with another way of seeing the world. Then structures will be changed. The structure of the British economy and society changed away from those that assumed slavery to those that did not - and then the world followed. They worked not just on one 'culprit', but on all. (It has been pointed out that slavery persists in a different form - but it has not become accepted as OK again.)
Wilberforce said "God has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [the word 'manners' at that time meant what we call attitudes]" [p.85] Note: the combination of structures and attitudes here. Unless God sets before us two great objects: the reformation of attitudes and the radical change of structures, there will be no sustainable move to sustainability.
But change of attitudes does not occur fast. It requires a major effort, and a major move among people of the Holy Spirit - a revival. Wilberforce and his co-belligerants worked on this for 20 years before they succeeded. So must we.
One contribution that Christians can make is to work out a Biblical theology in which environmental responsibility is not merely an 'eleventh commandment' but is central and compelling. One attempt at this is 'A New View in Theology' (www.abxn.org/nv/. But theology is not enough; it requires 'preaching' that is visionary and compelling. Perhaps we can learn something from Wilberforce's varied approaches, and also from Evan Roberts of the Welsh revival of 1904, and many others - but via media and in ways suited to the people of today.
And lots more to be done. Let's get to it.
Created: 21 June 2008
by Andrew Basden.
Last updated: 22 June 2008