This morning our worship was led by Heston and Ted. Jonathan shared with us his thoughts on COP26 and where we might have gone wrong in our thinking about the world and our relationship to it.
Here is the text of Jonathan’s talk:
We are now halfway through the COP 26 conference on the Climate Emergency. It began with speeches from world leaders. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said:
When it comes to tackling climate change, words without action are absolutely pointless.
The London Evening Standard commented:
Apparently he didn’t get his own memo. The Prime Minister is joining the rest of COP’s eco hypocrites by returning to London by private jet.
It goes on to say he wasn’t the only one. The parking space for the conference had 400 jets in it.
I’m going to suggest that, in order to solve our environmental problems, our whole society needs to turn away from 400 years of destructive values.
What happened 400 years ago is illustrated by a changing interpretation of an old story, the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
I’ll describe the background. Then we’ll listen to the story. Then I’ll describe how its meaning was changed, giving rise to a different agenda.
Every society has some way to ask its deepest questions. Why do we exist? Who made us? For what purpose? And how should we live?
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small equal communities, sharing their possessions. Their working week was about 20 hours. When agriculture developed, there was a surplus of food. Kings commandeered the surplus and used it to pay armies and tax collectors. They usually left the peasant farmers worse off than they had been before.
What I shall focus on is how kings justified this exploitation. They appealed to their gods. A text has survived describing the justification used in ancient Babylon. The gods had created humans for the purpose of providing their food. The king’s job was to collect taxes in the form of food from the peasants, and give it to the gods as sacrifices. The purpose of human life is not to enjoy ourselves: it is to work hard to produce the sacrificial food. Of course the real beneficiaries were the ruling classes.
This story was recited every year in Babylon’s new year festival. For a while some of the people hearing it would have been exiles from the city of Jerusalem. We don’t know, but they may have been the authors of a very different creation story, the one in the first chapter of Genesis.
Genesis 1 is a hymn to a god who doesn’t need anything from us. God has created the world, and all living beings, purely as an act of generosity, to bless us. We are created to enjoy ourselves.
But. Here comes the most common argument against the God of Jews and Christians. If a good god made a good world, why is there so much evil and suffering in it?
We should not be surprised that the text of Genesis immediately goes on to answer that question. Chapter 2 tells us that God has given humans freedom. We can choose whether to live well, or to mess things up. Chapter 3 describes how the messing up happens.
These chapters are written in a different form. They have the form of bedtime stories. Good bedtime stories illustrate what life is like. They use imaginary characters, often talking animals. This one has a talking snake.
This story has been interpreted in countless different ways. For the first 2000 years Jews, Christians and Muslims understood it to say that the natural world around us, our environment, is just what we need. God designed it to bless us. What goes wrong is the human misuse of the freedom we have been given.
This is what changed 400 years ago. From the 14th century onwards Europe was riven by 300 years of plagues, beginning with the Black Death. To many people it seemed that the natural environment wasn’t such a wonderful gift.
The central figure in the change was an English government minister called Francis Bacon. Bacon is best known for establishing the principles of empirical science. He argud that science and technology, brought together, should enable humanity to put right what went wrong when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
According to Bacon, what went wrong in the Garden of Eden was not that humans became sinful but that nature was spoilt. He argued that humanity still had the power, through science and technology, to put nature back to its original perfection.
Bacon didn’t live to see how his theory got secularised. In his account, there would be an end point to all this examining nature. Eventually humanity would recreate the original perfection before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But as the drive for new technology got secularised, Adam and Eve dropped out of the story, and what we have inherited is a determination to produce more and more new technologies, endlessly.
So while medics and biologists tell us how our bodies have evolved to live well in the environment we’ve had over the thousands of years, our culture tells us to value the opposite: artificialising our lives more and more.
There have always been new technologies. The potential for new technologies is part of the goodness of the world God has given us. What changed with Bacon was that technology became the big agenda. We came to think of progress as all about developing new technologies. Whenever our society needs a solution to a new problem, the first place we look is often for a new technology.
40 years ago I attended a lecture on The Silicon Chip. We were told that computers were developing so quickly that one day it would be possible to fit a computer inside an ordinary house. Computers would revolutionise our lives by doing a lot of the work. We discussed whether we would all retire at 50, or stay in education till 30, or do a 20-hour working week.
What has happened since then is the exact opposite. We are under more pressure of work. The retirement age has gone up. Working hours are longer than they were then.
The hopes we placed in that new technology were misplaced. Genesis was right. The problems people faced then were not caused by a lack of technology. They were caused by the way people treated each other. Sometimes new technologies enable the powerful to increase their profits by making other people work harder.
The constant drive to produce more and more new technologies is bound to harm the environment, but the harm is multiplied by modern economic theories. Just as Francis Bacon saw the natural environment as flawed, so also Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo believed that nature doesn’t provide enough resources. The solution is to get people working hard to manufacture more and more products. Economics text books characteristically state that the whole point of studying economics is to learn how to maximise production. As with new technology, the proponents of economic growth don’t offer an endpoint. They don’t say that we just need so many percent and then we’ll have enough.
Going back to that lecture 40 years ago, none of us either had or wanted a mobile phone. Here’s mine. Its 2½ years old, which makes it obsolete. Already. Can I have a show of hands – who has a mobile phone older than mine? Is there any hero here who hasn’t got a mobile phone at all?
40 years ago we neither had nor wanted them. We did things differently. Gradually, what started as a luxury for a few ended up as a necessity for many as people changed the way they did things. We could say the same for lots of other things.
So to summarise. Ancient Babylonian society was driven by one dominant agenda: to provide the sacrifices the gods demanded. That agenda meant everyone had to work hard. Slackers would be punished. Today our society is much the same. We don’t talk about gods. We talk about the need for new technologies and economic growth. But once again we are driven by an agenda, an agenda that forces us to spend long hours working for someone else. And once again the real beneficiaries are the most powerful people, accumulating wealth at the expense of others.
So the Prime Minister goes to Glasgow saying they will invest in electric cars, when we really need fewer cars. He says we’ll invest in wind farms, when we really need to produce less stuff, and then we won’t need so much electricity. But the culture he lives in can’t cope with doing less. Whatever we do to save the environment, our culture wants to present it as growth.
There is an alternative. We have been given everything we need. Evolutionary biologists tell us our bodies have been adapted over millions of years to live well within the environment nature provided. If we hadn’t been so well adapted, we’d have gone extinct.
The Bible adds that all this has been given to us for a purpose. The gift of life is intended as a blessing. There is some work to be done, through which we can express our creativity, but there should also be plenty of time left over to celebrate and play.
We have also been given freedom. We have been designed to live at our best by caring for each other and making sure everybody has what they need. But we can instead benefit ourselves at the expense of other people. The agenda of constantly seeking new technologies and more wealth is an excuse for the powerful to hang onto their wealth, forever telling the deprived that a technical solution is round the corner.
The solution I hope for is a change of values. Instead of constantly striving after new technologies and economic growth, we could produce less, spend less time in paid employment, value more highly what nature provides, celebrate and share our resources more equally. I don’t know whether that jet set at Glasgow will actually show the world the way forward. But the Junktion Café does.