A Planet On
By Rowan Williams
17 April 2005
often in recent decades, the two big "e" words - ecology and
economy - have been used as though they represented opposing concerns.
Yes, we should be glad to do more about the environment, if only this
didn't interfere with economic development and with the liberty of people
and nations to create wealth in whatever ways they can.
Or, we should be
glad to address environmental issues if we could be sure that we had
first resolved the challenge of economic injustice within and between
societies. So from both left and right there has often been a persistent
sense that it isn't proper or possible to tackle both together, let
alone to give a different sort of priority to ecological matters.
But this separation
or opposition has come to look like a massive mistake. It has been said
that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment".
The earth itself is what ultimately controls economic activity because
it is the source of the materials upon which economic activity works.
That is why economy
and ecology cannot be separated. Ecological fallout from economic development
is in no way an "externality" as the economic jargon has it;
it is a positive depletion of real wealth, of human and natural capital.
To seek to have economy without ecology is to try to manage an environment
with no knowledge or concern about how it works in itself - to try to
formulate human laws in abstraction from or ignorance of the laws of
It is time to look
seriously at the full implications of this. We need to start by recognising
that social collapse is a real possibility. When we speak about environmental
crisis, we are not to think only of spiralling poverty and mortality,
but about brutal and uncontainable conflict. An economics that ignores
environmental degradation invites social degradation - in plain terms,
It is no news that
access to water is likely to be a major cause of serious conflict in
the century just beginning. But this is only one aspect of a steadily
darkening situation. Needless to say, it will be the poorest countries
that suffer first and most dramatically, but the "developed"
world will not be able to escape: the failure to manage the resources
we have, has the same consequences wherever we are. In the interim,
we can imagine "fortress" strategies (with increasing levels
of social control demanded) struggling to keep the growing instability
and violence elsewhere at bay and so intensifying its energy.
And we are not talking
about a remote future. There are arguments over the exact rates of global
warming, certainly, and we cannot easily predict the full effects of
some modifications in species balance. But we should not imagine that
uncertainty in this or that particular seriously modifies the overall
picture. On any account, we are failing.
It is relatively
easy to sketch the gravity of our situation; not too difficult either
to say that governments should be doing more. But governments depend
on electorates; electors are persons like us who need motivating. Unless
there is real popular motivation, governments are much less likely to
act or act effectively. There are always quite a few excuses around
for not taking action, and, without a genuine popular mandate for change,
we cannot be surprised or outraged if courage fails and progress is
minimal. Our own responsibility is to help change that popular motivation
and so to give courage to political leaders. And this means challenging
and changing some of the governing assumptions about ourselves as human
One of the reasons
sometimes given for not being too alarmed by predictions of ecological
disaster is that we are underrating the possibilities that will be offered
by new technologies. But to appeal to a technical future is to say that
our most fundamental right as humans is unrestricted consumer choice.
In order to defend that, we must mobilise all our resources of skill
and ingenuity, diverting resources from other areas so that we can solve
problems created by our own addictive behaviours. The question is whether,
even if this were clearly possible, it would be a sane or desirable
way of envisaging the human future.
All the great religious
traditions, in their several ways, insist that personal wealth is not
to be seen in terms of reducing the world to what the individual can
control and manipulate for whatever exclusively human purposes may be
most pressing. Religious belief claims, in the first place, that I am
most fully myself only in relation with my creator; what I am in virtue
of this relationship cannot be diminished or modified by any earthly
power. In the environment there is a dimension that resists and escapes
us: to reduce the world to a storehouse of materials for limited human
purposes is thus to put in question any serious belief in an indestructible
We have to return
constantly to what sort of structures and sanctions might assist in
making effective a change in our motivations and myths. We could imagine,
for instance, a "charter" of rights in relation to the environment
- that we should be able to live in a world that still had wilderness
spaces, that still nurtured a balanced variety of species, that allowed
us access to unpoisoned natural foodstuffs. It may be that the time
is ripe for an attempt at a comprehensive statement of this, a new UN
commitment - a "Charter of Rights to Natural Capital" to which
governments could sign up and by which their own practice and that of
the nations in whose economies they invested could be measured.
A manageable first
step relating particularly to carbon emissions, supported by a wide
coalition of concerned parties, is of course the "contraction and
convergence" proposals initially developed by the Global Commons
Institute in London. This involves granting to each nation a notional
"entitlement to pollute" up to an agreed level that is credibly
compatible with overall goals for managing and limiting atmospheric
pollution. Those nations which exceed this level would have to pay pro
rata charges on their excess emissions. The money thus raised would
be put at the service of low-emission nations - or could presumably
be ploughed back into poor but high-emission nations - who would be,
so to speak, in credit as to their entitlements, so as to assist them
in ecologically sustainable development.
seldom give much space to environmental matters; governments need strengthening
in their commitments and need electoral incentives to be involved in
the sort of internationally agreed aspirations But it is because the
ecological agenda is always going to be vulnerable to the pressure of
other more apparently "immediate" issues that it cannot be
left to electoral politics alone. We still need a steady background
of awareness and small-scale committed action, nourished by some kind
of coherent vision.
argued regularly that some religious attitudes are part of the problem;
once again we have to ask whether religion is part of the solution.
Religious faith should steer us away from any fantasies we may have
of not "interfering" with the environment (the first planting
of grain was an interference), but it tells us that our interaction
with what lies around can never be simply functional and problem-solving.
becomes in this context a crucial element in that renewal of our motivation
for living realistically in our material setting. The loss of a sustainable
environment protected from unlimited exploitation is the loss of a sustainable
humanity in every sense - not only the loss of a spiritual depth but
ultimately the loss of simple material stability as well. It is up to
us as consumers and voters to do better justice to the "house"
we have been invited to keep, the world where we are guests.
The author is the
Archbishop of Canterbury
News & Media (UK) Ltd.