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British pollution drives the refugees to Calais

14 October 2016

Climate change is the main cause of the migrant crisis, and government policy is immoral, argues Michael Northcott

BREXIT 1 occurred in 1533, and did not end well for the peasants. Brexit 2, polls suggest, was voted for because many people were tired of foreigners coming here and taking up jobs, housing, and services; but it, too, may not end well.

Whether people like it or not, England is connected with climate change — and has been since she began burning coal at the Industrial Revolution. And it is climate change, and not the EU, that is the main cause of the refugees who are trying to reach our shores. Brexit 1, or the English Reformation, estab­lished the cultural conditions for the Industrial Revolution, which pro­duced our modern dependency on climate-changing fossil fuels.

Brexit 1 began when King Henry VIII finally tried to settle his “matter” with the Vatican by pro­claiming himself “only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England”. Since the Synod of Whitby and, even more, the expan­sion of the French monastic reli­gious houses after the Norman con­quest, England had become in many ways part of the Holy Roman Empire.

By the 16th century, two-thirds of its lands had been given by land­owners to religious houses, most of them having mother houses in France. The English Reformation that Henry inaugurated, therefore, involved not only a break with Europe, but a large-scale land-grab by the Crown. Thomas Cromwell and his henchmen sacked religious houses and libraries, destroying 90 per cent of the art, and tearing up a long-established social order.


BESIDES destruction, there was ac­­cumulation. The Dissolution of the Monasteries presaged a wave of ac­­quisition by the Crown and English aristocrats in the succeeding 300 years.

Through many Acts of Enclosure, passed in a landowners’ Parliament (ironically known as the House of Commons), they turned yeoman farmers off the land, in a wave of environmental and social exclusion that forced hundreds of thousands into a life-destroying vagrancy.

England was the first country in Europe to destroy the city guild-, merchant-, and yeoman-led eco­nomy, which had grown up along­side the monasteries in the High Middle Ages, and which had origin­ated social protection for working conditions, and customary and envir­on­mental regulations for land use.

As the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi wrote during the Second World War, England led the way in the “Great Transformation”, which turned people into a labour market, and land into rental value. This was the historical and cultural founda­tion of the Industrial Revolution, and what we now call capitalism.


THE ancestors of those who voted for Brexit 2 lost economic and envir­onmental protections after Brexit 1, and now the Conservative Party has announced that it intends to lead the country into a post-EU free-trade “promised land” of free­dom from EU social and environ­mental regula­tion. This will happen while ending the free movement of people be­­tween Britain and Europe, which went on for hundreds of years before passports were invented.

For most of its history, the Church has not invested in nation­alism or borders. This is because Christianity represented something new in the ancient world: an ethic that was above city, or class, or ethnicity. The parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’s response to the question “Who is my neigh­bour?”, and the key to his answer was that the Samaritan was a trav­eller away from home, who made him­self neighbour to someone in need in another country.

The parable challenged Jewish and Roman mores, and gradually transformed the definition of duties owed to other people in Western culture, from fellow citizen and family member to a duty of care towards all people in harm’s way.

So there exists in European law a duty to prevent harm, as was upheld recently in a French court by a judge who quoted the parable of the Good Samaritan in the case of a driver charged with passing by an accident, when he should have stopped, to call for, or give, aid.


IN EDINBURGH last week, I had the privilege of meeting Church of Scotland mission partners from South India, Ghana, and Zambia. They testified to the already life-threatening effects of climate change and extreme weather on people in their homelands. At the same meeting, a house­holder from Aber­deen­­shire spoke about the traumatic effects of flood­ing in her com­munity.

In the devel­op­ing world, how­ever, climate change is not only wreck­­ing homes: it is destroying people’s economic livelihood, as it disrupts traditional seasonal pat­terns of food-growing, and forces families into urban vagrancy and extreme poverty.

Climate change, in the form of a long drought, was the spark for the civil war in Syria, and of continuing unrest in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is already driving millions on to the roads and seas towards safer and more prosperous places, in search of the means to life. The UK Prime Minister, however, has said that such people are “economic migrants”, and that international law ought to distinguish them clearly from “genuine” refugees.

And yet hundreds of children from climate-damaged regions are in the “Jungle” camp in Calais, less than 30 miles from England, where they are at risk of abuse, forced pros­titution, and slavery. Many of them have relatives in the UK, and a legal right to be considered for settle­ment here. But the British Gov­ern­ment refuses to let them enter here legally. They are our global neighbours, forced on to our doorstep by the ecological crisis.

Showing love to global neigh­bours who are connected to us by the pollution from our skies, which began in the Industrial Revolution, is something that British volunteers, who provide food and tents in the camp, are already doing in Calais. But our national history, as well as our Christian identity, ought to teach our Government that denying life to people whose lands our climate-pollution is harming is con­trary both to the law of God, and to the law of peoples.


The Revd Dr Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the University of Edinburgh.

This is an edited extract from a lecture delivered on Monday of last week, a podcast of which is at: www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/podcasts.

It is the second in a series of free lectures on “Who is my neighbour?”, which are being given at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, this autumn (www.smitf.org).

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