A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

On Bishops and Environmentalism in 2003.....

* Despite strong competition from The Guardian, from The Indy, and from the Environment Agency (EA), among many others, the EnviroSpin 2004 New Year Honours, the ODM (The Ancient Order of Doom Mongers) and the OHI (The Ancient Order of Handwringers Incompetent) must both be awarded to The Church of England, in the first instance for services to the ending of the world, and, in the second, for wet incompetence and spinelessness in the face of homophobia and bigotry within its own ranks.

Here follows a brief essay in support of the above citations (EnviroSpin is, however, confident that both honours will be refused following the growing tradition of writers for The Guardian).

Citation Comment

Since the abject failure of Marxism, the collapse of the socialist model following the end of the Cold War, and the steep decline in the relevance of many Christian denominations, including the Church of England, 'environmentalism' in the West has increasingly become a refuge for those who yearn to intervene in society for other people's good. Such ecochondriac neophytes want to 'command-and-control' every aspect of our lives. Their main weapons are rampant millenarianism - the world is forever ending - and an appeal to our deep feelings of guilt, both general and personal.

In 2003, these sentiments were perfectly encapsulated by the Right Rev James Jones, The Bishop of Liverpool, a leading evangelical churchman, who has joined the new 'faithful'. In his book, Jesus and the Earth, the planet may not survive the 21st century, and he has speculated privately, according to The Times, that we sinful humans may have destroyed God's creation [precisely which, by the way?] in 50 years, give or take a few decades. The noble bishop was also reported as declaiming, "It is much more urgent than any of us realise", and confessing that he blamed himself for super cyclones and climate change in India. Sometimes I think our hubris knows no bounds!

The spotlight on guilt is central to modern 'environmentalism' as a religion, and, in Britain especially, it has absorbed, as if by osmosis, many aspects of traditional Protestantism and Puritanism. "We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep [BSE?]. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done ["You didn't recycle that plastic bottle, did you?"]; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done ["You drove to the supermarket - just think of the emissions."]; And there is no health in us ["Not to mention all the toxic chemicals and GM food. Eat organic for purity, Annabel!"]."

Yet, it goes much deeper than this. Since Noah was a lad, we have always wanted to blame the weather and environmental disasters, from fires to floods, on ourselves and on our "manifold sins and wickedness". Here is Johannes de Trokelowe (talk about spinning a Biblical text!) on the dire climate and famines that heralded the start of The Little Ice Age in 1315: "We can see how the prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled in the English people: 'If I go forth into the fields, behold those slain with the sword, and if I enter into the city behold them that are consumed with famine.'" (Jeremiah 14.18). The 'Chronicle of Malmesbury' is equally gloomy: "Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them." (Isaiah 5.25).

Bishop Jones is in a long line of Christian doomsayers, posing the "...big ecological question: have we passed the point of no return?" This time, however, we are 'warming' and it is human-emitted carbon dioxide that is the latest witchcraft to be ground in the crucible of fundamentalist faith.

But the Earth is a tough old boot that has survived asteroid, earthquake, plate tectonics, fire, and flood since God was stirring the primordial soup. The Earth is change. Moreover, on nearly every measure, people are living better, longer, and more fulfilling lives, except, sadly, for some regions where abject poverty is a genuine reason for our guilt: farm subsidies for so-called environmental benefits and 'organic' farming in Britain - now they are something to think about.

The Eeyores of this world, like the good Bishop, are terrified that human genius and technology are, in the phrase of Martin Heidegger, 'enframing' Nature, removing its magic. They want to fill us with post-industrial angst and the nightmares of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'.

But I think it is time we left the Eeyores to ruminate in their boggy places. Even if we closed down every factory, shut down every power station, crushed every car, and sacked four billion workers, climate would still change (may be even more unhelpfully!) and there would still be super cyclones in Orissa. And in our own poverty, we would be unable to do anything to help.

But, at least, the Bishop was well-meaning in this instance. When we come to The Church of England Bishops as a conclave, by contrast, they really do have some wormwood and gall. The recent gratuitous attacks on Tony Blair (e.g., as reported neutrally in The Sun) by the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Durham* beggar belief when we recall the utter incompetence of The Church of England during 2003 in dealing with thinly-veiled homophobia and bigotry within its own sacred edifice. The chalice should think twice before calling the poisoned cup of the Prime Minister 'mucky'.

As an individual highly sympathetic to the innate broadness of The Church of England and to the inclusiveness of its parochial foundations, I deem this episode to be far more depressing than any right-on 'environmentalism'. The Church must stand firm against sectionalism and sectarianism, whatever the cost. It seems to me that the new Archbishop of Canterbury has lost his way in a worryingly short period of time.

And, for the record, the woman celebrant at the Midnight Mass I attended in Cambridge was the best celebrant I have encountered in ages.

[*See this trenchant piece by David Aaronovitch, 'Bishop Tom is not radical, he's just a classic conservative', (The Guardian, December 30, 2003).

See also this excellent blog by Oliver Kamm, 'All Gas and Gaiters' (December 31).]
And what would I wish for in 2004? A widespread acknowledgment that climate change is the norm, not the exception; that the Kyoto Protocol is just economic and scientific nonsense; but, above all, a new focus on the poor of the developing world - on the provision of energy and clean water for all.

A Happy New Year to each and everyone of you! Philip. Now I must waltz off for the Vienna Phil's (count-the-women-players) New Year's Day Concert. Chocolate cake for late-breakfast - I'll be Straussed-out by lunch!

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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