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Environment: Get the values right to avert climate disaster

22 September 2023

Everything else is detail, leading voices in the environmental struggle tell Huw Spanner


IN JUNE — the hottest June on record both in the UK and globally — the NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in The Guardian: “We’ve passed into a ferocious new phase of global heating. . . I’m terrified by what’s being done to our planet. I’m also fighting to stop it. You, too, should be afraid while also taking the strongest action you can take.

“There has never been a summer like this in recorded history: shocking ocean heat, deadly land heat, unprecedented fires and smoke, sea ice melting faster than we’ve ever seen or thought possible. I’ve dreaded this depth of Earth breakdown for almost two decades. . . Now it’s here. And mark my words: it’s all still just getting started.”

The bio-ecologist William Rees, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, has described today’s “techno-industrial” culture as “fundamentally dysfunctional” as it “is systematically — even enthusiastically — consuming the biophysical basis of its own existence”. Humankind, he says, is behaving like a “malignant parasite” to the earth.

Mike Berners-Lee, a Fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University and author of There is No Planet B: A handbook for the make or break years (2021), says that we are faced with “not just a climate crisis but a ‘polycrisis’: a whole lot of different things happening at once”.

Until recently, he says, “we could get away with living as if the earth was so big and robust it could pull itself back together, no matter what we did to it. That has completely changed — and yet we have not yet adapted to that new context. It’s now very clear that if we don’t make the transition to a new way of living, we’re going to hit terrible trouble.”

How, then, should people of conscience respond? Professor Berners-Lee says that, technically, it is “entirely possible” to deal with this crisis. “If we had a coherent, integrated approach [worldwide], it would absolutely not be beyond us to transition to clean energy, develop a sustainable food system, and all the rest of it.”

The situation “is like an evolutionary challenge, and we need to respond to it with a level of global co-operation we’ve never had before. How do we share the burdens, how do we share resources in a way that is fair and equitable? We need China and Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Europe — and everywhere else, actually — all onside.

“We’re currently at war [in Ukraine, and elsewhere], and we need to be saying we’re on the same side, we trust each other, let’s solve this problem together. That looks very, very challenging.”

We can, he says, imagine much better “economic frameworks”: ways of looking at economic value that prioritise the well-being of people and planet. “It’s possible to imagine politics, too, working in a way that is participatory, inclusive, and respectful of all the people on the earth, and respectful of the planet as well.”

It all comes down to values, he says. “If we can get them right, everything can be sorted. If we can’t, nothing we can do will help us.”

The values “we urgently need to foster” are kindness and honesty. We “need to get much better at respecting the natural world, all the other species, plant and animal. We also need to get much better at respecting all people, whatever their nationality, their background, their race, their anything. We could get away with hideous levels of disrespect and inequality in the past, but not now.”


HONESTY, Professor Berners-Lee says, is “a lot more than just not telling lies”, although “at the moment deceit is just rampant in our politics, and there’s a lot of corruption as well. Really serious dishonesty is just pouring out of the current Government — and they’re not really being challenged by the Opposition.

“We need our politicians to be putting us in the picture about what’s going on as clearly as they can. We need our media to be doing the same. If I look at all the bad decisions we make on climate, they don’t have incompetence or poor judgement at their heart, but dishonesty.”

Much of the media, he says, is interested only in revenue and the vested interests of its owners. “We need to be asking very careful questions about all our sources [of information]. What is their track record on truth? What are their motives? How are they funded?”

We should ask the same questions of our politicians, and let them know we are asking them. “That is the area to push at. We need to select our media, our politicians — and our businesses, too — on the basis of honesty and kindness.”

“Tell the truth” has long been the demand of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Clare Farrell, one of its founders, identifies “bullshit” as “one of our biggest problems”. “People bullshit themselves as well as others, and everyone sort of knows they’re doing it, but they don’t want to acknowledge it, because they can’t cope with the world without it.”

She is working on a new project, promoting (“as an antidote to the powerlessness people feel”) both local “People’s Assemblies” (where anyone can show up and take part) and national “Citizens’ Assemblies” (for which people are chosen, by lot, to make up a representative sample of the population). “I hope we can build a wave of energy, and enthusiasm, and excitement, about the fact that things don’t have to be like this,” Ms Farrell comments.

“Most people are better than our so-called leaders. We must find ways to power each other up, to help each other build solidarity, but at scale. People want to be part of something bigger that is helping: making a difference, changing the conversation, or whatever. Our political system is unable and unwilling to tackle the coming collapse — that is very, very clear; and our democracy is so undermined by so many things.


“The new legislation that essentially criminalises almost any form of effective protest or resistance is making young people climate hostages. They’re being held in a situation they can’t do anything about, and are being dragged into a future they know is unliveable — which is a polite way of saying that a lot of people will die.”

She believes strongly in civil disobedience. “XR have stepped it up quite a bit in this country in the last few years. A lot of people are questioning the doctrine of non-violence at the moment. I am still sticking to that tradition, but I really advocate for acting collectively, even if it sometimes involves illegal action.”


THE climate movement has long been focused on system change, Ms Farrell says, but individual actions are important, “even if materially they add up to, basically, nothing”, because it is crucial to have integrity and to lead by example. “The people that are close to you are affected by what you do,” she points out.

One easy and effective action, she says, is to move your account to a bank that is not funding the climate crisis. “There’s not very many of them, but Triodos now offers a current account. Do it through Switch It Green (switchit.green), and then share that site with everybody you know. It takes very little time, but it really makes a difference.

“Also, look at where your pension is, anywhere your money is [working] in the world. If it’s doing bad, that’s on you. The same goes for churches: what are they doing with the power their assets give them?”

For Dr Ruth Valerio, global advocacy and influencing director at Tearfund, “the most important message” is to consume less. “It’s not just about swapping one product for another. We are consuming too much of the earth’s resources.”

The highest priority, she says, is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to which end “we need both to reduce our energy usage, and to switch to renewables.” Buying green energy is a relatively easy win: it doesn’t take much to do, and it doesn’t have to be more expensive.

We also need to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products, she says. “The global food system is the single biggest contributor to pretty much all of the environmental issues we face today, and within that system our high meat-and-dairy diet is the single biggest factor.

“It would make a huge difference if everybody reduced their meat consumption by half. It’s quite easy to do, and it saves you money. If you still want to eat some meat, buy it from a farmer who you know is really taking good care of their land, and their animals.”

People’s plastic consumption is “increasing exponentially”, Dr Valerio says, and causing massive damage. “It’s not possible to cut out single-use plastic entirely, but as much as possible we should buy things that are reusable.” Some things just take a bit of thought. “How many centuries have people used soap for? We’ve only had liquid hand gel for a few decades, but we’ve been conned into thinking that’s what we need for our homes to look smart.”

Of course, we can get hung up on little things such as plastic straws. “The danger is that you do one thing and then think you’ve ‘done your bit for the environment’, whereas we need to be doing anything and everything we can, across the board.

“Everything we do has an impact, and we have a choice as to how detrimental that impact will be. If I choose to buy food that is truly organic, it will have been grown in a way that benefits wildlife.”

Many people cannot afford to buy organic food, or an electric car, of course — but others may see it simply as an extravagance. “As Christians, we need to think carefully about how we use our money. If I’m buying something that supports a system that does not treat people properly, or abuses the land, then before God I’m not using my money well.”

Most of all, she emphasises, we need to be aware when it comes to “bigger-ticket items”, such as buying a new house, or a new car. “For example, are we moving to a much bigger house with a bigger energy consumption? Or one that’s out of town, so we have to drive everywhere?” She argues that electric cars are better than petrol or diesel cars, “but what would be better still is if we didn’t all have private cars”.

It is also vital, she says, “to be pushing for change: speaking to our MPs, getting our churches involved, joining environmental campaign groups”.

Dr Valerio believes that we are in this plight because we have lost our connection with the natural world. “We see it as ‘the environment’, there for us to use and extract what we want. We don’t respect it or care for it. If some species go extinct we might think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit sad,’ but not much more than that.”

It’s important to reconnect with nature and to learn to love it, she says. “Seven out of eight of us in Britain have gardens, which together add up to more than ten million acres. There’s such an opportunity for us to look after our little patches of land in ways that actually do make a difference. It’s hugely rewarding — and, if we all did it, it would be hugely beneficial.”


THE starkest recommendations come from Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography at Cambridge University and author of Climate Change Isn’t Everything: Liberating climate politics from alarmism (2023), although he is sceptical about the urgency and scale of the crisis.

He insists that there are “no easy answers”: every choice we might make to reduce the burden we impose on the planet has repercussions and creates other challenges. Different people will make their judgements in different ways for different reasons, he says, “which is why I am loath to preach at people”.

He proposes eight drastic measures (but underlines that each of them has a downside): “Don’t have children, or have one fewer than you would like. This is the single biggest impact you will have on the planet. Don’t fly. Don’t eat meat — or fish, too, if you like. Buy local food. Sell your car and rely on public transport and cycling. Turn your thermostat down by two degrees. Buy second-hand clothes, or make your own. And don’t buy anything with plastic in it — good luck with that!”

Alastair McIntosh, the Quaker theologian and activist and author of Riders on the Storm: Climate change and the survival of being (2020), is happy to talk about his own success in cutting his domestic carbon footprint by almost two-thirds (by fitting his house in Govan with solar panels, an air-source heat pump, and insulation both inside and out), but prefers to focus on values.

“This is where the Church needs to be working,” he says. “Everything else — greening up the graveyard, recycling, and all the rest of it — is detail, and these things become an idolatry if we focus only on practicalities, and we wonder why our energies dry up, and it all becomes so boring, and you can’t get political support for it.

“For the Church, the most important thing is to show people the way, the truth, and the life that can enable them to live in the manner that takes away the causes of climate change; the causes of war. And that means finding our fulfilment in ways that are not based on ever-escalating consumerism.”

What drives consumerism is a spiritual question, he argues. “As God puts it in Jeremiah 2.13: ‘I gave you all this abundance, but you have built yourself cracked cisterns, cisterns that can hold no water, because you have turned away from me.’ This is where faith groups might most effectively speak to the imperatives of our time.”

What kind of society do we want to be, he asks. “We have become concerned, as Erich Fromm put it, with ‘to have’ rather than ‘to be’, whereas the gospel message is ‘to be’ rather than ‘to have’. The Church must help people to deepen in their understanding of what God is, and what community with one another in relation to God is about, and then ‘all these other things will be given unto you.’”

He sees as “fundamental” building community, and interconnection, “contexts where ‘soil, soul, and society’ can be brought together. This involves simple things, such as organising a bring-and-share picnic. Things like that can fill your life because they are time-consuming, but richly so.

“I think we need to understand the earth as the context in which the majesty of God is revealed to us. Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world. The beauty of God and the beauty of the earth, and the beauty of each other are all bound in with one another. The Church has got to take us deeper into the mystery, and wonder, and beauty, and love of God.

“That’s the only way forward that I can see. You can say, ‘Well, that’s not going to save us.’ My answer will be: ‘It is not in your or my gift to determine what will save us. We are being held in a greater hand than that. Let us turn towards its grace.’”

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