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Extinction Rebellion’s prophecies are not new

26 April 2019

Hugh Montefiore warned of an ecological crisis 50 years ago — and offered a diagnosis and a cure, says Richard Douglas

ANYONE who has tried to navigate his or her way around central London recently could hardly have avoided the disruption caused by the Extinction Rebellion protests (News, Podcast 18 April). Campaigners blocked bridges, chained themselves to railings — even glued themselves to train carriages.

Such acts of civil disobedience are meant to convey a simple message: climate change is an emergency. The name Extinction Rebellion is designed to highlight the reality that climate change poses an existential risk to the human race — and much of creation besides us — and on a timescale that could be as short as decades, rather than centuries or millennia. Given that this is a true emergency, the campaign is saying, the time to act is now.

Of course, for many environmentalists, the time to act was then — in the past, when we first became aware of the unsustainability of our modern consumption. One of the founding voices of Christian environmentalism began preaching this message some 50 years ago this year.

In 1969, the Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, travelled to Belfast to deliver the Church of Ireland’s Annual Theological Lectures. He began in prophetic mode: “It seems to me probable that the future of man as a species may be decided in the next half-century.”

Half a century since they were delivered, his words make for unnerving reading. The man who delivered them was Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames and Bishop of Birmingham (and, from 1990 to 1995, a Church Times columnist). The lectures appeared in print in The Question Mark: The end of Homo sapiens? His theme was the dawning ecological crisis.


WHAT is so unnerving about reading these lectures today is how contemporary they feel: his warnings about the impossibility of endless growth, and the need to live equitably within our environmental means, could have been written yesterday. We have known such arguments for decades now, but we have collectively failed to do anything effective about them. Why is this?

This question is at the heart of the doctoral research that I am carrying out for the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP). It was as part of my research that I recently found myself in the quiet of Lambeth Palace Library, leafing through Montefiore’s environmental writings. He intrigued me in that his writings on this subject appeared so early in the history of modern environmentalism. He was a pioneer in this respect, not only within the Church but also in secular public life.

To read Montefiore’s words from four or five decades ago is to find material which is startlingly current — not just on the environment, but also on matters such as the UK’s entry into the Common Market.

Of course, in some cases it is mere happenstance that makes topics seem current again. But the spirit behind those interventions — a moral commitment to the common good, simultaneously worldly and built on deep theological foundations — has plenty to say to us today, irrespective of the way in which the individual topics rhyme with what went before.

And, in the case of the ecological crisis, it is not mere coincidence that this is urgent again. The same problem — our unsustainable exploitation of the environment —remains, and with all the more urgency today, owing to the lack of attention that we have shown it in the past.

What has Hugh Montefiore to say to us today in answer to the challenge raised by Extinction Rebellion? It is this: that we all need to apply a religious sensibility to our worldly consumption, and that this is the key to saving the planet. As he writes in 1972: “There is no question at all that if mankind lived by the gospel Homo sapiens could make the colossal re-orientation that is required of him.” And, more widely, so as to encompass other faiths, he says: “There is no possibility of such huge changes in personal, national and international orientation taking place except under the compulsion of strong religious conviction. . . Religion, far from being outmoded, provides the only hope of man’s deliverance.”


FOR Montefiore, the unique contribution that religion can make is to give us this knowledge: that we possess neither ourselves individually nor the world collectively; that we have received the world as a gift; and, thus, that our relationship to nature ought to be one of stewardship.

While Montefiore presents this as a cure, it is easy enough to see how it might also form the basis of a diagnosis — taking us back to the question: Why have we not acted sooner and more decisively? This is to say, one can see precisely the lack of a sense of obligation to anything beyond other private individuals as being the stumbling block to accepting “the limits to growth”.

Richard Douglas is a Ph.D. student at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is working in CUSP’s research into the meanings and moral framings of the good life. An earlier version of this article first appeared at williamtemplefoundation.org.uk/blog-hugh-montefiore.

Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column

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