Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

Eco-priests, repent of your green folly
Just when you think that sin has gone out of fashion, you discover it has made an unexpected comeback.

Britain’s Energy Minister Ed Miliband has joined forces with two Church of England bishops to call for a “carbon fast” this Lent.

Speaking as a true penitent, Miliband acknowledges that the carbon sin he’ll miss most is “driving short distances into town”. But he hopes his sacrifice will “easily become part of everyday life and help tackle dangerous climate change”.

Miliband takes his sin lite, which is why he sees no contradiction between something that can easily become part of everyday life and the idea of a sacrifice. His ecclesiastical mates also possess an unusual idea of what constitutes a sacrifice. James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and a fervent advocate of waging a struggle against carbon sin, has indicated he plans to install a solar hot water system in his house and has sworn that his electrical appliances will be turned off, rather than left on standby, during the night.

It’s good to know that serious sacrifice and penitence is making a comeback in the 21st century.

The carbon fast represents a semi-conscious attempt to transform environmentalism into a caricature of a religion. This campaign, led by an advocacy group called Tearfund, is based on the simplistic idea that if people in the West give up their carbon sins, poor people in the developing world will be better off.

From this standpoint the idea of original sin has been reinvented as an act of carbon emission. There are several ways that the sinner can gain absolution. Those with serious financial resources can gain redemption through carbon offsets. The rest of us need to go through the appropriate rituals - recycling garbage, avoiding disposable nappies or using re-usable bags - that provide proof of sacrifice.

Those of true faith will go a step further and stop eating meat and having babies. Those who refuse to embrace these rituals are stigmatised for their moral depravity and denounced for their crime against the planet. But the main purpose of the invention of the carbon fast is to make people feel guilty that they have a life.

There was a time when a sin really meant something. They used to be called deadly sins because they led to spiritual death and thus to damnation. These days some theologians, including the advocates of a carbon fast, wouldn’t recognise a mortal sin if they bumped into one.

So while environmentalists are looking to turn routine forms of human behaviour into eco-sins, some religious leaders are searching for activities that they can brand as a form of moral transgression. In such a climate, is it any surprise that moral entrepreneurs in the Church of England want to rebrand sin and have decided to cobble together a shopping list of new no-nos for the 21st-century consumer?

They are frequently joined by modernisers in the Catholic Church, who believe it is easier to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment than about committing one of the seven deadly sins. They think religious institutions might recover some of their credibility if they reinvent themselves as the promoters of ecological virtue, keeping a close check on the eco-sins of polluters. That is why the environment features prominently in a new list of modern sins drawn up by the Vatican in 2007.

In the name of protecting the environment a moral crusade has been launched to consume less, have less babies, even to stay married. Steve Fielding, at a Senate environment hearing, praised marriage as superior to the resource-inefficient lifestyle represented by a divorce. Once upon a time warring parents were advised to stay together for the sake of the children; today for the environment.

In previous times ancient myths about the terrible consequences of people’s aspiration served as a warning against the exercise of human powers: Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans had his eyes gouged out; Daedalus, who presumed to fly, lost his son, Icarus. Moral entrepreneurs recycled these warnings with sermons about the danger of man playing god.

In modern times the moral indictment of ambition and its celebration of restraint has been undermined by the ideals of the Enlightenment. But atavistic ideals directed at human progress are making a comeback.

We live in era where belief in human development and progress is often condemned as irresponsible. Every unexpected environmental incident or misfortune is represented as a signal of an imminent planetary catastrophe. Numerous moral entrepreneurs have embraced the cause of global warming in order to offer moral lessons about the conduct of human behaviour.

However, the moral lessons transmitted through initiatives such as carbon fasting are essentially misanthrophic. Instead of celebrating the human imagination and its capacity to transform nature, they use the term “human impact” to argue that our species is essentially a destructive force. Terms such as carbon footprint masquerade as scientific concepts but, as James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky argue in their new book, Energise!: A Future For Energy Innovation, they are essentially moral categories oriented towards curbing human behaviour.

At a time when government ministers and leaders of the church opt to embrace gimmicks such as a carbon fast, it is important to remind ourselves that any problems that people have inflicted on the environment are technical ones that are susceptible to technical solutions and not moral policing.

When people are continually told to reorganise their lives around the principles of environmental correctness, we need to be reminded now and again that the human species is, on balance, a creative, innovative and adaptable force. Yes, we face some very serious problems, many of which are man-made. But instead of adopting the role of second rate penitents, we should be investing in human ingenuity and enterprise.

First published by The Australian, 26 February 2009