*** DEBUG END ***

Conservatives who do not conserve

11 September 2015

The Government is selling the country’s natural and human resources for short-term profit, argues Michael Northcott


A mixed-up future? Wind turbines and Drax, in Yorkshire, the largest coal-fired power station in the UK

A mixed-up future? Wind turbines and Drax, in Yorkshire, the largest coal-fired power station in the UK

ONLY one in four of the British electorate voted for the new one-party Conservative Government in May. But in their first four months, they have torn up the hopes of the majority of citizens, expressed in the Climate Change Act 2008 (which won cross-party support) that, having led the world into a fossil-fuelled conflict with the stability of the climate, Britain would lead the world in developing a post-fossil-fuel economy.

Despite their popularity as sources of non-polluting, indigenously produced electricity in this windiest of nations in Europe, the Government has announced the end of public investment in onshore wind turbines in the UK. The Prime Minister has also said that he wants to cancel most of the feed-in tariff for domestic solar power.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has announced plans for legislation that will prevent people, through the democratic planning system, from opposing the toxification of their local water supply by the noxious technology of hydraulic gas-fracturing. And the Conservatives are planning to let farmers put Nicotinoid-treated seeds back into our fields, although they are responsible for the mass die-off of bees.

The Conservatives are also the strongest advocates in the European Commission of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTiP) (Comment, 28 March, 3 October 2014). This secretive trade deal will give North American fossil-fuel, chemical, food, health-care, and education companies the right, through an extra-judicial panel of privately appointed officials, to strike down any UK or European environmental or social law or regulation that blocks foreign corporate access to UK or European markets.

Under TTiP, Monsanto plans to import unlabelled genetically modified foods into the UK. American farmers intend to import meat and dairy products from cows fed with growth hormones. US and Canadian oil companies hope to import exceptionally climate- polluting oil from their shale and tar sands.


SINCE Lady Thatcher, the Conservatives have ceased to be conservatives, and are instead free-market revolutionaries. The only thing that these economic Bolsheviks want to conserve and grow is the wealth of corporate shareholders, investment bankers, and private landlords. It is not surprising that, under their constant attacks and market-oriented reorganisations, teachers, nurses, and doctors are leaving hospitals and schools in droves.

The people whom the Tories most want to protect are bankers, investors, and share-traders, and the beneficiary owners of the private corporations — many of them foreign, and hiding their profits in tax havens — which have taken over control of most of the essential infrastructure of this sceptred isle. Last month, the BBC announced that foreign companies would be invited to tender for delivering public-service weather forecasts.

In the media, however, on the parliamentary back-benches, and at election hustings, the Conservatives put their globalising, foreign-owning, and tax-avoiding clothes aside, and cross-dress as English or Unionist nationalists who want to conserve England for the English.

Having sold our electricity grid to the French, the airports to the Spanish, a future nuclear power station to the Chinese Communist Party, and invited Dutch and German rail companies to run our overpriced train services (using their profits here to subsidise lower fares in Europe), many Tory MPs say that they want to leave the European single market, and preserve what is left of British traditions. What a nonsense!


CLIMATE science, and the ecological crisis more broadly, is teaching us something that is completely contrary to the economics of the free-marketeers in the Conservative Party and their partners in the global elite, who are driving us headlong over the cliff of extreme climate change and species extinction. This is that we are earthlings. We are earthbound — and so is our economy.

Conservatives, however, hate the idea that there are earthly limits to money-making, and that is why they disbelieve climate science, and 70 per cent of the press in this country pedals climate-contrarianism.

If the economy is earthbound, profits and the debt-based money supply cannot grow for ever without limits. And the proceeds of an earth-restrained economy must also be terrestrially restrained and shared equitably, instead of being parked in off-shore British-owned tax havens such as Grand Cayman, which the Conservatives announced last week would not be required to publish a list of the beneficiary owners of its thousands of shell companies.

There is no haven for the victims of strengthening storms in Bangladesh, or of extreme heat in North India, or of enduring drought in Syria, and the ensuing civil war, which has brought so many refugees to Europe.

If the damage to the climate is to be stopped, and soils, species, and fresh water conserved for future generations, economic growth can no longer be the panacea for poverty and unemployment. Instead, there has to be a more just sharing in the present of the economic increase derived from the earth in each nation among those who live in it.

At the same time, there has to be a prudential covenant between present and future generations; so that wealth now is not piled up at the expense of a habitable earth and a stable climate in the future.


EVERYONE in this land since Lady Thatcher has been increasingly berated at work, including in public services, with the need to make money. The assumption is that people who merely do time in a profession such as teaching or nursing will be less effective than people motivated by performance pay and monetary targets.

The evidence, however, of a recent psychology study, "Time, Money, and Morality", suggests that when people are sensitised to think about money, they behave less morally, and less carefully to those around them (Psychological Science 25, 2014). So nurses and teachers are not motivated to care better for pupils and patients by performance-related pay — any more than bankers are motivated by bonuses to care better for their customers.

The same study also reports that, when people are sensitised to think about time and how they are using it, they make more caring and compassionate moral choices.

The results of this research ought not to surprise Christians. For Christ, the apostles and prophets, and the Fathers of the Church, obsession with money-making and wealth-creation was a grave obstacle to good character. Giving wealth away to the poor, widows, and orphans, and forgiving the indebted, were the only ways that the wealthy might hope to enter the Kingdom.

Christ’s parables of the talents, and of the sheep and goats, invite people to consider how they steward the gifts, including the gift of time, that God has given them in caring for those around them, and in making the earth more fruitful.

Hence Christian worship focuses the moral and ritual lives of Christians much more on the careful stewarding of time than of money. The liturgical year maps the life of Christ and the lives of the saints on to the seasons in the northern hemisphere. Worship on Sunday starts each working week, rites of passage mark the beginning and end of life and life events in between.

Time, in the modern sense of a precise measure of the earth’s diurnal round, was invented by Christian scholars such as the Venerable Bede, who worked out the dating of Easter by the 19-year cycle of the moon’s orbit, and the medieval monks who invented reliable mechanical clocks to set the five daily times of prayer.


WE ARE told that we cannot afford a low-carbon economy. It is too expensive: it will not create wealth like the old fossil-fuel economy. But people who say this care nothing for future generations, and for the prudential stewardship of the atmosphere, forests, oceans, rivers, soils, and species of the earth. They are shaped instead by the economics of the past 40 years, which have driven our businesses and even our public organisations into the most extreme short-termism.

It is not true that we cannot afford a low-carbon economy. All the serious studies I have seen, including those of hard-nosed management consultants such as McKinsey, suggest that when you stop relying on thermal power to heat and cool buildings and to move stuff around, you need more people in employment to improve energy efficiency, and to replace thermal and mechanical power and throwaway consumption patterns with more hands-on and local ways of making, producing, repairing, and reusing things, and so conserving the habitability of ecosystems near and far.

The Pope calls for just this in his inspiring encyclical, Laudato Si’ (News and Comment, 19 June; Comment, 26 June). Ways of generating energy, growing food and fibre, sourcing construction materials, and making electronic and mechanical devices that respect the lives of other creatures, and that do not mar Mother Earth, are already within the grasp of architects, designers, growers, and manufacturers.

Redesigning the economy this way need not cost any more in monetary terms, either, since the high capital costs of fossil-fuelled machinery are forgone in smaller-scale and more efficient devices for lighting, heating, cooling, and food, fibre, and artefact production.

And because the low-carbon economy is also more of a local economy, you reduce the enormous burden on the country’s national budget of the current vast balance-of-payments deficit, while increasing employment opportunities, and so reducing the cost of welfare in post-industrial communities whose work was outsourced overseas during the 1980s.


THE Conservatives, however, in just the first four months of their new Government, have shown that they want to end the quest for a low-carbon and sustainable economy in Britain. With their strong support for TTiP, they are also proposing to end our democratic and legal powers to share sustainably the fruits of the commonwealth of this land among present and future generations.

Many will have voted Conservative, as I did in my first General Election. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything I have written; but I have a challenge. After joining in with the singing, as I will, of the Last Night of the Proms on the radio or TV tomorrow night, including the sentiment that we shall never be slaves, why not write to your MP, especially if he or she is a Conservative?

We could ask what the party in Government will do to conserve the ecological legacy of a stable climate, fertile soils, and unpolluted water-supply for the well-being of future generations. And what they will do to ensure that our children and grandchildren do not end up as mere serfs of foreign, tax-avoiding, private corporations who refuse to share fairly with them the fruits of this green and pleasant land.


The Revd Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh. His latest book is Place, Ecology and the Sacred (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Church Times: about us

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)