Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Analysis 10: 'Saving the Planet': What's the stake?

For your reason urges you to it, and yet you find it impossible. Endeavour, therefore, to gain conviction – Blaise Pascal

In Analysis 9 I suggested that one way to face global warming (GW) is in the spirit of Pascal’s Wager. But what course of action does wagering on GW (if that's what we wager on) prescribe?

Where’s the problem?

If it’s not global capitalism that is the villain, and if the market is not demonic but an amazingly flexible and efficient, self-regulating mechanism that is morally and politically neutral, then what is the problem?

To identify the problem – at least for the Christian – is easy. To coin a phrase, ‘It’s human nature, stupid’. It’s human nature to want things to sustain and protect and amuse us, and to make life easier. It’s human nature to want more than we can use, to be greedy. It’s not the ‘environment’ of advertising and the media, - another arm of global capitalism that is also continually misunderstood - that causes consumption to rise, and to change former luxuries into necessities. Global capitalism is not tyrannical, nor is Tesco an army on the march, or like some rapacious pirate. Consumption, whether selfless or necessary consumption, or wasteful or extravagant, is the consequence of human nature.

If we decide that the prudent thing at present is to gamble on GW, then how are we to motivate ourselves to do this? We return to our earlier question. What does it mean, to wager on GW? Action is called for. After all, wagering involves placing a bet. What sort of a stake are we inviting ourselves to put down?

Pascal invited those who are inclined to wager on the existence of God to take action to help them make the leap of faith, to motivate themselves to believe. There was a cost, as he outlines.

Be aware that your inability to believe arises from your passions. For your reason urges you to it, and yet you find it impossible, Endeavour, therefore, to gain conviction, not by an increase in divine proofs, but by the diminution of your passions.,,,,There are people who know the road that you wish to follow; they are cured of the disease of which you wish to be cured. Follow they way by which they began; by behaving as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having masses said etc. This will bring you to belief in the natural way, and will sooth your mind.
‘But that is just what I am afraid of.’

And why? What have you to lose? (Pensees, trans. Krailsheimer (Penguin), 158)

For us there’s a cost too. But what cost? Let’s explore a bit what this cost could be, and should be.

The will of God

What should we do?

At this point (if not before this point) someone might say, ‘But surely all this talk of Pascal and wagering is, from a Christian point of view, highly cynical and perhaps outright sceptical’. The implication of this is: Surely as Christians we should follow God’s will.

What Christian could demur from this suggestion? And the idea that the diversity of species has intrinsic worth is attractive to the Christian. The universe is not simply to be used, but also to be enjoyed, even though enjoying and using must often compete with each other.

But what is God’s will? What are we to do when we are in a state of ignorance of the future but nevertheless forced to make decisions? As we noted before, not to do anything is in effect to choose one of the options. We can simply fold our arms, at little or no personal cost, and carry on as before. How do we identify what God’s will is?


One current way to attempt to identify what God’s will is, and to motivate people to action, is to moralise. So we are told that pollution is ‘theft’ (an interesting variation on Proudhon’s claim, ‘Property is theft’) (57) To drive a car is like stealing someone’s watch. ‘Luxury emissions represent moral malfeasance by the rich against the poor both nationally and internationally, since they give rise both to local and global forms of pollution and other kinds of moral harms’. (57) So GW is ‘unjust’, ‘immoral’. The developed nations’ use of resources is an ‘invasion’ of the developing world. (59)

In the mouth of such moralising language starts to become Orwellian. Buying trainers at Tesco is immoral, an invasion of the poor. If this is seriously meant, then whatever credibility the case for ethical action against GW possesses is lost. Or should be lost. Not only does this language singularly fail to motivate anyone, the moraliser stops being serious. Calling someone guilty does not make them guilty, and the causal connection between consumption and GW, and GW and impoverishment, is precisely what is at issue. Can it be that we are asked unquestioningly to believe that there are poor people simply because there are rich people? That the rich are rich just because they have deprived the poor? Is this not a little too simplistic?


Another current approach is romanticism. This is the idea that we should all once again become makers and producers and consumers of things on a local scale. If not hunter-gatherers, then we ought to become medieval villagers.

But the idea that we can head off GW by ‘returning to nature’ is utterly utopian. On a planet with six billions human beings such a suggestions is ludicrous. The proposal that we can manage without the divisions of labour (and the developed skills) which have brought such gains to the contemporary world is romantic madness.

And it may be that inside this soft, furry, romantic glove of a proposal there is (besides a disagreeable smugness) a mailed fist; Northcott proposes that the genuineness or otherwise of this return to nature, to the ancient ‘way of wisdom’ (150) should be monitored by an ‘international global legal regime which governs activities which harm the climate’! (152)

Motivating ourselves

So if in Pascalian fashion we wager on climate change being ‘anthropogenic’ how do we address the problem of human nature that is at the heart of the kinds and amounts of things people choose to consume? How do we remotivate ourselves really to wager?

Pascal pointed out that even if the wager on God’s existence was unsuccessful the gambler would not be harmed.

You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, and a truthful man. Certianly you will be without those poisonous pleasures, ambition and luxury. But will you not have others? I tell you that you will gain in this life………you will finally realize you have gambled on something certain and infinite, and have risked nothing for it. (159)

He invited his friend to wager on the existence of God, something with infinite value. By comparison, attempting to alleviate GW is a finite, temporal good. Yet the logic is the same in each case. There are courses of action that are good even if they fail in their objective.

You may say, we have a vote and a voice. Isn’t that enough? That is certainly positive. We can seek to form and to influence decisions about what ‘they’ – the Government, big business, the World Bank – ought to do. But even when we do exercise these rights, and vote for some political manifesto, or add our voice to the advocacy of some new policy, these activities are nevertheless rather detached from our daily lives of discipleship. By using our vote and our voice we are attempting to mandate or encourage or force others to act. But what should we do? What should we ourselves do?

So we still have not answered the question, what, if we wager on GW, ought we to do? What’s at stake?

A temptation

It is tempting for evangelical Christians to look for a text or two, or to transpose a parable or narrative into the modern world. Perhaps Job 21.1-2 warrants mineral extraction. What about that old favourite, the Jubilee principle? And what of ‘social justice’, a ‘bias to the poor’ and other undefinable proposals?

What about the famines with which the Lord judged the people of Israel? Perhaps GW, if indeed there is such a thing as GW , is ‘global warning’, a sign that the entire race is under judgment. Or, for Christians in another gear, the answer to what God’s will is has an apocalyptic flavour. Save the Planet? Maybe GW is the Lord’s way of fulfilling 2 Peter 3.10. Perhaps if we stoke up our consumption then we shall hasten the coming of this day of the Lord.


So, finally, let’s take a look at what we ought to do if we gamble on GW, and how we are to be motivated to do it. Here are some suggestions.

First, we can to resolve that any response that we make is a personal response. it’s better to think in terms of making a personal response. Start at the personal level or make no response at all. There are two or three general biblical principles that provide reasons for this approach. It takes moral responsibility seriously. Secondly, it’s a more authentic expression of faith. The world is full of people offering blueprints, often in the name of Jesus Christ, but they are frequently exempted from the effects of those blueprints themselves. These plans are for ‘what should be done’ rather than ‘what I should do’. That is inauthentic; or to use an uglier word, it can easily become ‘hypocritical’.

It’s all too glib to come up with some airy-fairy prescription such as ‘what we need is radical democracy’. The answer to the flaws in our human nature must be personal responses. We must start from where we are. That seems to be the approach of the New Testament. Walk the walk rather than talk the talk. (Or perhaps walk and talk.) And, remembering the mote and the beam, we must start with ourselves, not with pointing a finger at someone else.

Second, we may care to remind ourselves of certain things about our behaviour.

For example, we may often make bad judgments about what things will help us. We think we need something but we find that when we have it, we don’t in fact need it. Things that seem indispensable, a ‘must have’, turns out to be disappointing. Our lofts and yards are littered with the consequences of such judgments. Christians, as others, often deceive themselves about the true sources of well-being and fulfilment. We become sucked in to patterns of consumption without thinking. We are greedy and can become addicted to food and drink and clothes - even addicted to the maintenance of our own health. We follow society by trying to satisfy ourselves with things that will pass. It’s human nature, fallen human nature. We’re all in the same boat at this point.

The point of identifying these areas is to be in the position to say: ‘If I had not been so wasteful then my own resources, and therefore the resources of the planet would, in a very marginal way, be conserved’. So, one personal thing that we can do is to review our own choices. This seems to be in line with the general approach of the New Testament, with its teaching on self-examination and the need to exercise personal judgment.

Third, having reviewed these patterns of choice, we ought to take action, to change our behaviour, what we buy and why we buy it, where we judge such change to be necessary. Not only what we acquire, but what we get rid of. What of our patterns of disposal: what we part with, and how we part with it?

Bearing in mind our ignorance of the future, these are sketches courses of action that are likely to be prudent in most circumstances. (Note: This is not necessarily the same thing as not to make any changes at all). So even if it turns out that we lose the bet, and there is no GW, or the causes of such warming turn out to be beyond human control, our children and grandchildren will say ‘These were still sensible things to have done’.

And if there is such a thing as ‘anthropogenic GW’, then if we have gambled on it and taken personal action, we can be sure we are making some contribution to alleviating the planet’s growing warmth. That is, if anything at the individual human level can alleviate it. But if it turns out that there is no GW, or there is but it can’t be controlled, then these actions have still been sensible, Christian things to have done.

Fourth, we ought not to judge others. We should reject the temptation (into which the Christian church has frequently fallen, and still falls) of making our own ways of coping with life a part of the Gospel, the church’s message. How we handle our personal part in waging war on climate change (or of not doing so) is not an infallible prescription for others, much less an integral part of the Gospel. The Christian Gospel no more provides us with advice on the correct way to dispose of our household rubbish than it prescribes the correct way to grow shallots or to build a fence.

All this seems easy, but it’s also difficult. Those who have children know the effects of peer-pressure. We want to give our children what other children have. They want to be cool. We want to give them what we were denied ourselves, and so on. For ourselves, we want ease and plenty. It is difficult to be content.

Paul says that he had learned to be content in any situation, implying that it had not come easily to him, that he had to fight discontent. He also said, in the same passage, that ‘I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Phil.4 12) It’s easy to make luxuries into necessities, much less easy to have to treat necessities as luxuries. (Students of the Puritans will be aware of their attitude to ‘luxury’.)

Christians know that this world is not their home, so the idea of ‘saving the planet’ , apart from the hubris that the phrase expresses, is also a somewhat paradoxical idea for the Christian. While their short-term future is on planet Earth, their long-term future is elsewhere, in a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells. But nevertheless, and in the meantime, we want to give our children a good start, and our parents a happy ending, and ourselves as comfortable a life as is consistent with what we profess.

(Note. Page references other than those to the Pensees are to Michael Northcutt, A Moral Climate. For details see Analysis 9.)