Is God Green?

All sorts of environmental issues are now presented not just as practical but as moral issues - if you don't recycle, you aren't just a wasteful person, you are a bad person. In Radio 4's Start the Week today, Andrew Marr's guests included Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar turned journalist, who has put together a programme for Channel 4 called God is Green, arguing that environmentalism is a religious issue. So now it's not just practical and moral, but religious.

Another of Marr's guests, Michael Portillo, was an honourable dissenter from this view, but Dowd's view was supported by the other guests - Wangari Maathai (Kenyan environmental and human rights campaigner) and Christine Riding (curator of Tate Britain). Majority support in the studio for a moralistic approach to environmental issues may well reflect the tendency in the country at large.

Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that it is a religious question to the extent that it is a moral question. Dowd tries to make the case that it is more than that - it is embedded in the religious texts. But his example - the fact that there are 261 references to the creation in the Quran - does not seem like strong evidence that environmental care is mandated by God's instructions. So let's stick to the question of morality.

Some projected consequences of global warming, if accurate and allowed to proceed unchecked, are clearly immoral. If global warming caused the destruction of home and habitat through flooding and drought, and my actions contributed knowingly to global warming, those actions would be immoral in so far as they were reasonably avoidable, where I had done nothing to mitigate their effect.

The latter provisos are important. To some extent, my very existence is contributing to global warming. I emit carbon dioxide when I breathe, methane when I fart, and rely on production and transport of goods to satisfy my wants. I might be able to minimise my dependence on produced goods, but it is unrealistic, in a world dependent on division of labour to maximise efficiency, to imagine that I will eliminate entirely my dependence on others' produce. Were we to set that as the moral "gold standard", we would have to acknowledge that a necessary corollary of complete self-sufficiency is the abandonment of mechanisation (which requires factories for production of the machines) and chemical fertilisation, both of which have substantially increased agricultural yields. In such a world, the population that could be supported without further encroachment into uncultivated land would be very much lower than it is today. Moralists would have to explain how this dramatic reduction of world population is to be achieved (and for those religions opposed to birth control, how the lower level is to be maintained).

Any realistic moral philosopher would have to recognise that some continuation of division of labour, mechanisation and transport is necessary to the welfare of mankind. Happily, the Earth has the ability to absorb a certain amount of carbon annually. Upto a point, carbon emissions can be not only necessary to human welfare, but also beneficial to our environment. The trouble comes (in theory) when we emit more than the Earth can absorb. But as every inhabitant of the Earth is contributing to carbon emissions to some extent, it can be difficult to identify which emissions are responsible for which effects. How are we to distinguish by ethical assessment which activities are moral or immoral?

One approach is simply to dictate that certain acts are "good" and other acts are "bad" - simplistic, rules-based morality. We are told that recycling is good. The trip to the bottlebank fills the recycler with a sense of wellbeing that they have done a good deed. But what if the contents of those bottlebanks cannot be sold for a price that justifies the transport to the factory, and are instead tipped in a landfill? That is not an uncommon result. Or what if the carbon released in the travel to the bottlebank, in the transport of the broken glass to a reprocessing factory, and in the conversion of the broken glass into useful product exceeds the carbon that would have been released if those products had been produced from raw materials? Was the act of recycling moral in those circumstances? A rules-based approach to environmental morality is insufficiently flexible to be realistic. Policy to deal with global warming requires consideration of real impacts in real and variable circumstances, not one-size-fits-all dirigisme.

Another approach is to apportion equally to every member of the human population rights to emit their share of a "sustainable" level of greenhouse gases, and condemn as immoral any activities that cause a person to exceed their allocated emissions rights. But why would equal allocation be fundamentally moral? Communist economies (in China or the Soviet Union), by ensuring all had very little, were not inherently more moral than capitalist economies, where even the poorest are better off than were the majority under communism, but where allocation is inherently unequal.

One reason we accept inequality in the West (and indeed in most of the world nowadays) is that it is impossible to ensure equality of outcome, where people are endowed with different abilities and are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Which is less moral, appropriation of someone else's property or unequal allocation of wealth? Most of the world has settled on protection of property as more important than equality of allocation. If our moral rules are an embodiment of society's norms, it seems that defence of property rights is more moral than egalitarianism.

Property matters in the climate-change debate, because it is possible to take action against carbon emissions in a number of ways if one's entitlement to do so is acknowledged. One might encourage processes that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, such as the planting or maintenance of forests. Or one might contribute to the mitigation of the effects of climate change. After all, if all effects of climate change were mitigated so that no one was worse off as a result, global warming would be no issue. A practical/economic approach to climate change would allow discovery of the optimal balance between adaptation and mitigation, and valuation of the risks (which, whatever the propagandists might say, are inherently uncertain over a wide range). A moral approach to climate change says simply "thou shalt not do" this or that, as though both the science and the solutions are absolutely certain, or, as Mr Dowd put it, "the science is well-nigh incontrovertible".

The moralistic approach to climate change is not only dangerous but also silly. Wangari Maathai told the story of how a representative of the All Africa Conference of Churches appealed at the World Social Forum in Nairobi for all Christians to plant trees for Easter, because "Jesus was crucified on a tree". He was fixed to His cross with nails, but strangely there was no similar call for Christians to mine as much iron ore as possible.

Bishop Chartres of London has ruled that flying on holiday is a sin, and expects his vicars to preach that "it is now a moral obligation for Christians to lead eco-friendly lifestyles". If we are to distinguish between "essential" flying which is morally acceptable and "inessential" flying which is morally unacceptable judged mainly on the basis of whether the flight was for pleasure, work or to save lives, we are back to Puritan days.

Though it is tempting to laugh at such facile and flaccid moralism (typically CofE), it is nevertheless part of a more dangerous trend. After the reality of economic chaos during the seventies and the collapse of communism destroyed their economic arguments, interventionists were in retreat for a decade or more. But now they are back with a vengeance and they are bringing out the big guns. They cannot win the economic argument, so instead they turn to superficial moral arguments, ignoring the reality that doing the wrong thing with good intentions is not moral. That is where Mr Dowd fits into this debate.

Hugo Chavez says that "Christ was an authentic communist". One may doubt that, but there is no doubt that many of his latter-day followers certainly are. Listen to the authoritarianism in Mr Dowd's final justification of why religions should promote green behaviour: "Politicians won't confront voters....spiritual leaders without having to go to the ballot box can sometimes just say it." Where reason fails, moral authority should take its place, it seems.

We have two choices - we can live by reasoned debate and respect for the liberty of individuals (democracy and the free market), or we can live by rules handed down from on high by authority figures claiming to know what is best for us (collectivist or theocratic authoritarianism). William Hazlitt said "The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves." Most religions preach the love of others as a fundamental tenet, but it seems that too many of those religions' followers nowadays are rather fonder of themselves.