Easter is a time to celebrate resurrection. It is a time of new life, springing from the bare dearth of winter, and of new light shone onto the dark problems in our hearts and minds. It is a time from which to draw inspiration as we seek to hatch a new world, and new ways of life, just as the chicken hatches from the egg or the tree puts on its fresh leafy plumage. For Nature is always evolving and resurrecting itself: life springs in some form or another in every place on Earth, no matter how extreme. Nature will go on, whether we remain a part of it or not. But if we, as humans, are to live stable, happy lives in a future world that is as green and vivacious as it is today, and are to be able to provide for all our needs as a species living in a world of equality, we must look afresh at the behaviours we have come to adopt.
Climate change is real. The people it currently affects and will affect, in their billions, are real. But so is the power we have to change the future prospects of humanity, both individually and through the governments we elect, real. We live in a society debilitated by waste and excess, inequality and a lack of common direction, where material ‘growth’ is elevated to become an ends in itself. It is this mind-set that leads us to destroy our environment, which is our most cherished possession, freely received, in the pursuit of supposed wealths of our own creation. So, in the spirit of Easter, which is a celebration of great news to Christian peoples worldwide, let us seek new ways to relate to our natural environment as well as to each other, in order to bring about good news for the people of today and tomorrow across the globe.
Reforming the mind-set of the rich world in order to avert dangerous climatic changes that will primarily affect the poorest societies requires different actions to be taken by governments and by individuals. Whilst the responsibility for the pollution that leads to suffering and death amongst the poor lies with the richer individuals who chose to partake in energy-intensive activities, the onus cannot be placed upon each individual to change their behaviour of their own accord. The societal pressures not to do so are too great, and the costs incurred to each individual are unjustifiable, unless a significant number of others follow suit. Going against what has become the norm in the rich world is simply too difficult for most people to do of their own accord to the extent that would be necessary to avert climate change.
For example, previous generations survived without the use of polluting central heating systems to keep homes at, say, twenty degrees Celsius even in the winter. The only reason that, in general, people who are neither elderly nor ill, and so do not necessarily require houses that are comfortably warm all the year round, expect to be able to have them nonetheless is that it has become ‘normal’ to do so. If the only person in an entire town to have central heating knew that using it would cause disastrous climate change, they would of course not use it, knowing that otherwise the responsibility for all the subsequent damage would lie with them. But if everyone around you has central heating, rolled out at a time when the adverse effects of its over-use were unknown, it is very difficult to become the only person not to use it, and to live in the only cold house on the street.
The same is true of many other polluting activities the rich world currently engages in. The root of the problem is that we are innately inclined to seek to keep up with our neighbours: once a technology becomes standard, we feel left out if we do not have it for ourselves. This has been an essential driver of capitalist growth in consumption for decades. Think about the adoption of more and more advanced televisions and telephones: no matter how advanced these technologies are, we are never satisfied with what we have when our peers have something even newer and ‘better’.
Yet, every individual’s greenhouse gas emissions above the pre-industrial average do make a difference. Dividing up our country’s total emissions amongst our population, and comparing this to the total number of people who will be affected by climate change demonstrates that if any one of us gives up the orthodox, wasteful ways of our current society it has a real, beneficial effect on somebody’s life somewhere by at least delaying the adverse weather they will experience. Every kilogram of carbon really does count. We each individually cause real harm every time we switch on the light or start the car, and individually owe a so-called ‘duty of justice’ to those that we injure to reduce our emissions.
But if we are to save humanity as a whole from dangerous climate change, everyone needs to live a much less polluting lifestyle. To bring this about, it is essential that the government acts to inspire mass change. It is the duty of governments to bring better our society by actively reconstructing our infrastructure and our expectations alike. An elected government must serve the best interests of the society that elected it: it must advise and guide them, coordinate efforts to improve lives and protect the populace from exploitation by individuals or corporations bent on exploiting our resources to the detriment of others. Through economic incentives and the education of the populace, governments across the rich world need to bring about a change in direction, away from continual growth and towards sustained prosperity; away from material accumulation and competition and towards happy, sustainable living and equality.
This change needs to happen across all areas of society. Over the Easter term, we present a series of articles that will explore how governments and individuals can work together to transform the way in which we manage sectors including energy and transport, agriculture, waste and more. These transformations promise not only to improve the prospects of the other people and other species with which we share our planet. The most important factor in public well-being is not material wealth but equality. By bringing this about, we can therefore create a society that is happier as well as less materialistic, exploiting the best of current and future technologies as well as interacting more closely with the natural world.