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Friday, April 22, 2005

6:30 pm edt

The Independent

Rowan Williams: A planet on the brink

The Archbishop of Canterbury warns that the price of our
continued failure to protect the earth will be violence and
social collapse

17 April 2005

Too often in recent decades, the two big "e" words - ecology and
economy - have been used as though they represented opposing
concerns. Yes, we should be glad to do more about the
environment, if only this didn't interfere with economic
development and with the liberty of people and nations to create
wealth in whatever ways they can.

Or, we should be glad to address environmental issues if we could
be sure that we had first resolved the challenge of economic
injustice within and between societies. So from both left and
right there has often been a persistent sense that it isn't
proper or possible to tackle both together, let alone to give a
different sort of priority to ecological matters.

But this separation or opposition has come to look like a massive
mistake. It has been said that "the economy is a wholly owned
subsidiary of the environment". The earth itself is what
ultimately controls economic activity because it is the source of
the materials upon which economic activity works.

That is why economy and ecology cannot be separated. Ecological
fallout from economic development is in no way an "externality"
as the economic jargon has it; it is a positive depletion of real
wealth, of human and natural capital. To seek to have economy
without ecology is to try to manage an environment with no
knowledge or concern about how it works in itself - to try to
formulate human laws in abstraction from or ignorance of the laws
of nature.

It is time to look seriously at the full implications of this. We
need to start by recognising that social collapse is a real
possibility. When we speak about environmental crisis, we are not
to think only of spiralling poverty and mortality, but about
brutal and uncontainable conflict. An economics that ignores
environmental degradation invites social degradation - in plain
terms, violence.

It is no news that access to water is likely to be a major cause
of serious conflict in the century just beginning. But this is
only one aspect of a steadily darkening situation. Needless to
say, it will be the poorest countries that suffer first and most
dramatically, but the "developed" world will not be able to
escape: the failure to manage the resources we have, has the same
consequences wherever we are. In the interim, we can imagine
"fortress" strategies (with increasing levels of social control
demanded) struggling to keep the growing instability and violence
elsewhere at bay and so intensifying its energy.

And we are not talking about a remote future. There are arguments
over the exact rates of global warming, certainly, and we cannot
easily predict the full effects of some modifications in species
balance. But we should not imagine that uncertainty in this or
that particular seriously modifies the overall picture. On any
account, we are failing.

It is relatively easy to sketch the gravity of our situation; not
too difficult either to say that governments should be doing
more. But governments depend on electorates; electors are persons
like us who need motivating. Unless there is real popular
motivation, governments are much less likely to act or act
effectively. There are always quite a few excuses around for not
taking action, and, without a genuine popular mandate for change,
we cannot be surprised or outraged if courage fails and progress
is minimal. Our own responsibility is to help change that popular
motivation and so to give courage to political leaders. And this
means challenging and changing some of the governing assumptions
about ourselves as human beings.

One of the reasons sometimes given for not being too alarmed by
predictions of ecological disaster is that we are underrating the
possibilities that will be offered by new technologies. But to
appeal to a technical future is to say that our most fundamental
right as humans is unrestricted consumer choice. In order to
defend that, we must mobilise all our resources of skill and
ingenuity, diverting resources from other areas so that we can
solve problems created by our own addictive behaviours. The
question is whether, even if this were clearly possible, it would
be a sane or desirable way of envisaging the human future.

All the great religious traditions, in their several ways, insist
that personal wealth is not to be seen in terms of reducing the
world to what the individual can control and manipulate for
whatever exclusively human purposes may be most pressing.
Religious belief claims, in the first place, that I am most fully
myself only in relation with my creator; what I am in virtue of
this relationship cannot be diminished or modified by any earthly
power. In the environment there is a dimension that resists and
escapes us: to reduce the world to a storehouse of materials for
limited human purposes is thus to put in question any serious
belief in an indestructible human value.

We have to return constantly to what sort of structures and
sanctions might assist in making effective a change in our
motivations and myths. We could imagine, for instance, a
"charter" of rights in relation to the environment - that we
should be able to live in a world that still had wilderness
spaces, that still nurtured a balanced variety of species, that
allowed us access to unpoisoned natural foodstuffs. It may be
that the time is ripe for an attempt at a comprehensive statement
of this, a new UN commitment - a "Charter of Rights to Natural
Capital" to which governments could sign up and by which their
own practice and that of the nations in whose economies they
invested could be measured.

A manageable first step relating particularly to carbon
emissions, supported by a wide coalition of concerned parties, is
of course the "contraction and convergence" proposals initially
developed by the Global Commons Institute in London. This
involves granting to each nation a notional "entitlement to
pollute" up to an agreed level that is credibly compatible with
overall goals for managing and limiting atmospheric pollution.
Those nations which exceed this level would have to pay pro rata
charges on their excess emissions. The money thus raised would be
put at the service of low-emission nations - or could presumably
be ploughed back into poor but high-emission nations - who would
be, so to speak, in credit as to their entitlements, so as to
assist them in ecologically sustainable development.

Election campaigns seldom give much space to environmental
matters; governments need strengthening in their commitments and
need electoral incentives to be involved in the sort of
internationally agreed aspirations But it is because the
ecological agenda is always going to be vulnerable to the
pressure of other more apparently "immediate" issues that it
cannot be left to electoral politics alone. We still need a
steady background of awareness and small-scale committed action,
nourished by some kind of coherent vision.

Ecologists have argued regularly that some religious attitudes
are part of the problem; once again we have to ask whether
religion is part of the solution. Religious faith should steer us
away from any fantasies we may have of not "interfering" with the
environment (the first planting of grain was an interference),
but it tells us that our interaction with what lies around can
never be simply functional and problem-solving.

Religious commitment becomes in this context a crucial element in
that renewal of our motivation for living realistically in our
material setting. The loss of a sustainable environment protected
from unlimited exploitation is the loss of a sustainable humanity
in every sense - not only the loss of a spiritual depth but
ultimately the loss of simple material stability as well. It is
up to us as consumers and voters to do better justice to the
"house" we have been invited to keep, the world where we are

8:50 am edt

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