Climate change and the return of original sin

Officials want us to observe a ‘carbon fast’. It’s further evidence that environmentalism is about managing human behaviour rather than nature.

Frank Furedi

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It is reassuring to know that Britain’s energy and climate change minister, Ed Miliband, suffers from a powerful sense of guilt.

Miliband has acknowledged that he is a sinner. Today he joined the Right Reverend James Jones, bishop of Liverpool, and the Right Reverend Dr Richard Chartres, bishop of London, to issue a statement calling for a carbon fast this Lent. Apparently Miliband has seen the error of his ways. He says the ‘carbon sin’ he will miss most is ‘driving short distances into town’. For Miliband and his ecclesiastical partners, a carbon fast during Lent is something like a holy command: Bishop Jones insists ‘there is a moral imperative for those of us who emit more than our fair share of carbon to rein in our consumption’.

The promoters of this Lenten carbon fast – the Christian charity, Tearfund – say the idea for turning Lent into an environmentalist publicity stunt came from another Miliband. It says that when Ed’s brother, David Miliband, was minister for the environment, he met with the bishop of Liverpool and informed him that the Church has ‘a major role to play in changing people’s hearts and minds’. In the spirit of having a conversion on the road to Damascus, the good bishop saw the light; Tearfund says ‘a lightbulb switched on in the bishop of Liverpool’s head, and he thought that during Lent we should call for a carbon fast’.

The campaign for a carbon fast is a morally illiterate attempt to recycle the practice of fasting during Lent as a form of environmentally correct behaviour. The aim is to provide religious authority to the condemnation of everyday behaviour that green moralists find objectionable. So, the tips offered to those embarking on the carbon fast include: don’t drink water from a plastic bottle; forget about having your morning latte (it uses too much water apparently); turn down the lights; eat ‘slow food’ (fast food is too carbon-intensive); and give the dishwasher a break (1). Through rebranding these environmentalist rituals as moral obligations, campaigners hope to invest their cause with meaning.

The carbon fast is a semi-conscious attempt to turn environmentalism into a caricature of a religion. The idea of original sin has been reinvented as a wicked act of ‘carbon emission’. There are a number of ways that the green sinner can gain absolution. Those with lots of money can win redemption by purchasing ‘carbon offsets’; the rest of us will have to go through various rituals: recycling garbage, avoiding disposable nappies, using reusable bags, all of which provide proof of our sacrifice and faith. Those most committed to the faith will go further, of course, and stop eating meat and having babies. Those who refuse to embrace any of the above rituals are stigmatised for their moral depravity and denounced for committing crimes against the planet. The main purpose of the carbon fast, it seems, is to make people feel guilty about the fact that they have a life.

Increasingly, environmentalism is less about managing nature than pursuing a moral crusade to manage, and alter, human behaviour. There was a time when standards of behaviour were judged according to moral codes based on religion or on secular philosophy. Such moral ideals sought to provide guidance for those who wanted to lead a good life. Ideas about right and wrong were closely linked to our sense of humanity; acts were judged according to a robust system of human meaning. In the twenty-first century, however, moral disorientation means we find it increasingly difficult to give meaning to moral concepts. In a desperate search for moral coherence, many politicians and religious leaders have embraced environmentalism as a provisional solution to the problem. Hence the carbon fast: they fast not for religious reasons, but in order to make sacrifices for the environment.

Campaigns against climate change are more and more resembling all-purpose moral crusades. In the name of protecting the environment, crusades have been launched to make people consume less, conserve more energy, have fewer babies, and reduce human ambition. Instead of a moral code being used to judge our behaviour, human action is assessed from the point of view of its impact on the environment. So now, after all these years, we discover that staying married is better than getting divorced. Why? Because marriage is better for the planet, apparently. This novel celebration of family values was put forward by the Australian senator Steve Fielding at a meeting of a senate environment hearing in Canberra. Instead of defending marriage on the basis that it possesses some inherent virtue, Fielding supports it because it is superior to the ‘resource-inefficient lifestyle’ that comes with divorce. Once upon a time, warring parents were advised to stay together ‘for the sake of the children’ – now they are implored to stick it out ‘for the sake of the planet’.

Climate change and the return of gluttony

The way in which environmentalism resurrects the idea of sin is clear in the return of gluttony. Many greens believe that fasting should not only be for Lent, but for life; they make intimate links between people’s everyday habits and the future of the planet. Environmentalists, public health campaigners, a posse of vegetarian crusaders against meat consumption, lifestyle gurus and policymakers now claim that the obesity crisis represents a moral peril threatening the planet. So big-time fasting is called for.

Ian Roberts, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argued in New Scientist in June 2007 that ‘pandemic obesity is an energy vortex’ and therefore ‘it is time to treat it as the potential environmental catastrophe that it is’ (2). He counsels people to stop thinking of obesity ‘only as a public-health problem’ since ‘many of its causes overlap with those of global warming’. What is interesting about Roberts’ diagnosis is the way his denunciation of greedy individual behaviour is linked to a call to protect the planet from gluttonous individuals. His target is people who literally gorge themselves to destruction, and who through their immoderate behaviour threaten the future of the world. They could do with fasting – and not just during the 40 days of Lent.

Roberts depicts the ‘global obesity epidemic’ as an ‘unlikely driver of climate change’. He says that as people have become more dependent on their cars, and other labour-saving devices, they have cut the energy they expend while ‘increasing the amount of fossil fuel they burn’. He evokes a haunting image of an ever-expanding army of fat people whose voracious appetites are creating dangerous climate change. ‘It’s no coincidence that obesity is most prevalent in the US, where per capita carbon emissions exceed those of any other nation, and it is becoming clear that obese people are having a direct impact on the climate’, contends Roberts. ‘The worse the obesity epidemic gets the greater its impact on global warming [will be]’, he says. Here, through the issue of obesity, Roberts is condemning the American way of life itself. America and its legions of obese citizens are portrayed, not only as a threat to themselves, but as a threat to the global environment and people across the world.

In previous times, religious leaders denounced sinners and accused them of being responsible for misfortunes afflicting the community. In the twenty-first century, some are rediscovering the old sin of gluttony, and rebranding it ‘obesity’. The obese lifestyle is deemed inherently sinful, and is said to pose grave dangers to humanity. According to Professor Roberts, it all starts when someone ‘decides to drive rather than walk the half mile to the office, just to get there a few minutes earlier’. This seemingly innocuous small gesture contains the potential for truly dreadful outcomes, he says. Now in full flow, Roberts points out that the indolent individual who drives to work might have ‘gained a kilogram of fat, and as the weight continues to pile on he eventually finds it harder to move around and is loath to walk or cycle anywhere’. Slothful fat people waddling around, gasping for air, soon become afflicted with ‘back pain, arthritis and shortness of breath, or worse’, claims this public health professional turned preacher.

By now, Roberts can’t resist really raising the stakes. He warns that obesity ‘increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis, infertility, gallstones, and several types of cancer’. Even worse, obesity leads to low self-esteem, ‘which leads to comfort eating and perhaps heavier drinking, too’. This descent into existential hell is bad enough for the individual and his community, but worse still are the consequences for the environment: ‘His greater bulk and higher metabolic rate will cause him to feel the heat more in the globally warmed summers, and he will be the first to turn on the energy-intensive air conditioning’.

The message of ‘eat less and help to save yourself and the planet’ is endorsed by fearmongers on both sides of the Atlantic. American public health experts and environmentalists frequently join the panics of obesity and climate change together. According to Jonathan Paz, a health science professor at the University of Wisconsin and president of the International Association for Ecology and Health, obesity is the ‘number one epidemic’ blighting the US. He claims that the leading causes of death are ‘related to either sedentary lifestyle, air pollution or motor vehicle accidents and if we could begin to confront climate change and have greener cities and more walkability and bikeability, we would have increased level of fitness, reduced air pollution, and reduced greenhouse gases’.

In recent years, the obesity-climate change nexus has been promoted by numerous public health officials. Howard Frumkin, director of the US Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, talks about the ‘co-benefits’ of tackling global warming and obesity-related illnesses through encouraging daily exercise, like walking to school or work. Frumkin argues that ‘a simple intervention like walking to school is a climate change intervention, an obesity intervention, a diabetes intervention, a safety intervention’ (3). In the same vein, one researcher boasts that he can demonstrate that ‘adopting previously recommended levels of daily exercise by substituting the distances covered during one hour of walking or cycling for car travel could help alleviate three of the most pressing problems that all countries face: oil dependence, climate change and health care’ (4). That is some claim.

Of course some moral crusaders insist that people do more than just get out of their car. Dr Robert Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health wants people to eat less meat. Apparently, global meat production accounts for 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its consumption is apparently linked to a variety of diseases, such as colon cancer. A paper published in the Lancet says that in order to minimise the health risks posed by the worldwide growth of meat consumption and of climate change, the production of meat should be substantially reduced. It appears that the benefits of cutting out meat would be further enhanced if there were fewer mouths to feed. The paper concludes that the ‘total consumption of animal foods would, of course, be reduced by the further slowing of world population growth’ (5). It seems as if our joined-up scare tactic has found another cause to embrace: the classic fear of population growth. Why stop at reducing weight? Why just fast? Why not reduce the number of people living on the planet in the first place?

At a time when government ministers and leaders of the Church embrace gimmicks such as a ‘carbon fast’, it is important to remind ourselves that moralising about our lifestyles will do little to improve the environment. On the contrary, this stigmatisation of human ambition undermines our confidence to experiment and innovate and to develop the techniques and practices that will put problems right. Instead of adopting the role of make-believe penitents, we should be encouraging society to invest in innovation and research. Instead of bowing to the divine authority of the planet, we ought to uphold the age-long project of humanising the planet.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi looked at the reframing of the seven deadly sins. Elsewhere he said that many religions are now in search of eco-salvation. Brendan O’Neill preferred calls to ‘Bring Back God’ over eco-pious Christmas sermons. Michael Cook explained how Australian bishops were taking the ash out of Ash Wednesday. Or read more at spiked issues Religion and Environment.

(1) 10 Best Ways to Give Up Carbon for Lent – Ash Wednesday 2009, Twilight Earth

(2) p21, New Scientist, 27 June 2007

(3) Paz and Frumkin are cited in Scientists suggest cutting calories and carbon dioxide could help save lives and planet, Associated Press, 12 November 2007

(4) p197, ‘Exercise-based transportation reduces oil-dependence, carbon emission and obesity’, Paul Higgins, Environmental Conservation, vol.32, no.3

(5) ‘Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health’, Anthony McMichael, John Powles, Colin Butler & Ricardo Uauy, The Lancet, 6 October 2007

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