07 December 2004

"Paying What We Owe" ,Hugh Kay Memorial Lecture

From: Wyn Achenbaum [mailto:wyn@attglobal.net]
Sent: Thursday, December 09, 2004 4:51 PM
To: LandCafe@yahoogroups.

It turns out that the piece which ran in the Guardian on 11/22, under the title "Paying What We Owe," (which Paul Metz posted here) was an excerpt from a longer speech which James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, gave at St. Paul's in London that same day. The full piece is on his website, and I think it worth reading. I've bolded some of the highlights...

He makes a direct connection between tithing and natural resources. The next step, of course, is recognizing that land is such a resource

(I've split the URL because yahoo keeps rejecting this, so you'll need to reassemble it if the address matters to you.)

www. liverpool.anglican.org/whoswho/jamesspeeches/
041122_Hugh_Kay_lecture. htm


Rt Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool 22nd November, 2004

It is a truism that the modern world has lost much of its connection with the earth.

It's as serious as a shopper on a shopping spree losing sight of their bank balance. The day of reckoning comes with the monthly statement. For consumers of the earth's resources there's no current account, no check on our profligacy, no evident reward for our stewardship, no government balance sheet to shock us into a different way of living. We are so removed from the consequences of our actions that we can live comfortably in denial, like a healthy teenage smoker who finds the statistics and even the pictures of smoking-related diseases and death ugly but personally unconvincing! Just as the smoking lobby questions the statistics, claims the health arguments are exaggerated and challenges the encroachments on civil liberties by a nanny state so there are those who resist the prophets of doom who predict an impending environmental crisis of epic proportions.

In this lecture I will not be rehearsing the statistics. I will not be painting apocalyptic scenarios of the future. I will not be relating stories of environmental degradation. All these things can and have been done and should be done. John McNeil in “Something New under the Sun” and Alastair McIntosh in “Soil and Soul” are just two books which are required reading by anyone who has a sense that all might not be well with the earth. We are a people with a diminishing experience of the earth. In Britain, for example, over the last twenty years the number of allotments have been halved to a quarter of a million. And, although the number of gardening programmes has increased their relationship with the earth is superficial favouring the quick-fix to the slow, season by season, engagement with the soil. We are a people who love aerial photographs of the earth but who have forgotten and have yet to feel again that our future depends upon our relationship with it. Our modern imagination has yet to be re-fired by the earth.

I am currently reading again a book I read as a child “Children of the New Forest” and discovering that seeds of my present awareness of ecology were sown by its author in my own imagination. It's a story of how three children orphaned by the Roundheads in the Civil War learn to survive hidden in the heart of a forest. I hesitate to say this because it will kill the book stone-dead for you but it's a story about ‘sustainable sufficiency'. I've risked this phrase on you deliberately to highlight the difficulties that we face. Words such as sustainability, the environment, ecology have the power like all abstract concepts to dull the imagination and to alienate the very people who need to be converted. So, in this lecture I want to add to the list of things I will not do, and say that I shall as far as possible eschew all the buzz words and phrases that the environmental movement uses to frighten the horses and people in business. Here in the City of London I am consciously addressing a business audience. Since all of us are consumers and consumers are beneficiaries of business that audience includes us all.

My lecture is based on a simple question. Do you imagine that the earth's capacity to yield resources is limited or limitless? I am tempted to ask for a show of hands! If you believe it is without limit then I am afraid that for you the lecture is now over! I am not about to change your mind. I would like to know your reasons for this view but my lecture is not designed to counter your arguments. Its starting point is that, although the planet possesses an extraordinary ability to carry capacity, it yields its resources within certain limitations. The earth is not a limitless larder. This begs a number of questions.

* What responsibility do we in the present have for people of the future? * How should the earth be used? * Whose earth is it?

It is these three questions I wish to ask and in reverse order. However, before addressing them I do acknowledge that current concerns are not so much about resources per se but about the capacity of natural systems to absorb our wastes (including CO 2 ) and to maintain biological productivity.

The capacity to absorb waste brings us to the fundamental question: Do we have any responsibility or sense of responsibility to and for future generations. There are many ways of expressing what is known as ‘intergenerational justice'. I like the African proverb “We have borrowed the present from our children”. It not only emphasises our responsibility to hand on Planet Earth to future generations in good order but suggests that they have some rights in the matter. Yet this is a point of contention. The case has been put cogently by two Oxford Dons (Wilfred Beckerman and Joanna Pasek : Justice, Poverty and the Environment) that it makes no sense to talk about the rights of future generations for how can people not yet born be said to possess rights. For them the concept of inter-generational justice is a nonsense. In their defence their position is not void of morality. They believe that the best way to treat the earth is to establish justice for all now which in turn will serve the future of the earth. My own view and sense of responsibility are, of course, informed by my faith to which I shall later return. However, leaving aside this aspect, every parent senses a moral responsibility to provide for their children. Although in our society the sense of responsibility diminishes as the generation extends to grandchildren and great grandchildren, no grandparent would say they had no moral responsibility for the well being of their future generations. Leaving aside the source of this moral intuition there is a widespread recognition that a society has a responsibility for its future generations and is generally not content to abide by the motto “Eat, drink be merry for tomorrow we die”. Interestingly and significantly it is one of those ‘universalistic' moral precepts – held by almost all people in almost every culture that we have a responsibility for children of the future. We will die tomorrow, but we will leave enough for others to eat and drink. Otherwise, they will have no tomorrow of their own.

It is important to register here that as well as bequeathing a legacy to future generations we are also the heirs of an inheritance left us by our forebears. William Blake's ‘dark satanic mills' of the Industrial Revolution left their mark on ‘England's green and pleasant land' and leave us not without moral judgements about our antecedents! Whether or not you agree that we have a moral responsibility for future generations we seem not to hesitate to make moral judgements about the legacy that we have inherited from our forebears. If they had a moral responsibility for us we surely have a moral responsibility for our descendants.

If you believe that the earth is not limitless and if you believe that we have a moral responsibility for future generations how then shall we live and, in particular, how shall those in business deal and trade in the goods of the earth?

I feel this lecture is being weighed down by many disclaimers. I am about to add further to the list! I am not an economist, nor am I in business. Although, my brothers, who are, tell me I'm one of them, simply marketing a different brand! To which I reply “Well, at least I believe in my product!” I may not technically be in business but as a consumer and, as one who uses money, as a trader I am caught up like you in a world of commerce. As a citizen I pay my taxes on income and goods and National Insurance. I am persuaded that doing all this contributes to the common good.

This concept of common good needs constantly to be kept under review. Taxation provides for a degree of redistribution of wealth. (Although both nationally and globally the evidence is that the gap between rich and poor is enlarging). I find the notion of the rich helping the poor morally appealing and in tune with the teaching of Jesus. (Although I need to add here, and I hope without sounding patronising or complacent, that the poor both in Britain and overseas, are rich in ways that have made a deep impression on me). Of the range of taxes the most substantial revenue comes from taxing income and especially labour. I wonder if the time has not come for all political parties to rethink fundamentally this balance. We should gradually shift from taxing labour to levying the tax on the use of original resource. There are two reasons.

* Firstly, this would exercise more of a discipline on our use of original material which would encourage us to conserve and replenish the source. * Secondly, it would stimulate labour and encourage us to be as creative and innovative as possible in our use of the original material.

It seems to me that current industry and business are based upon using the minimum labour in relation to the resource and that we urgently need to invert the ratio into the minimum amount of resource in relation to labour.

Taxation has always been a form of social engineering based on certain values. Tax differentials and tax breaks affect behaviour. Changing the balance of taxation away from labour to resource would suit all three major political parties.

* Conservatives would welcome the rewarding of enterprise, * Liberal Democrats would value the lessening impact on the environment and * Labour would see it as a means of sharing goods more fairly.

Changes in the tax regime would need to be introduced gradually. But the merit of shifting it from one area to another would lie in keeping the overall tax-table the same and therefore making the change tax-neutral to the economy. Interventions would be needed to ensure that the poor and those unable to work had access to the basic requirements for human flourishing.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just published its own research on reducing the impact of green taxes and charges on low income households. There are real concerns that such green taxes could hit the poor disproportionately. Yet they believe it is possible to devise strategies that would relieve hardship. For example, all water could be metered and the first x litres per household member would be free. Thereafter the water would be taxed so that those using it for car washing, large gardens, swimming pools would pay water rates and water taxes in relation to greater use. This would drive down consumption while at the same time protecting the needs of low income households.

As a Christian who takes the Bible as authoritative in moral conduct I find that the Old Testament practice of tithing (basically, a tax on the use of natural resources) is surprisingly contemporary in its relevance. People were required to give the best tenth of the harvest to God. It was one of the earliest form of taxations. Although the harvest involved labour and in that sense was ‘product', the gift to God, the tax, was in kind and consisted of the natural resource. It was not a tax only on labour. People were aware before God and nature that “all things come from you and of your own do we give you”. This inculcated in them a sense of responsibility for the natural world and also a sense of the common good for the whole community. The idea of the ‘common good' has been prominent in Catholic social teaching which places the good of the individual firmly in the context of what is best for society as a whole.

Shifting the burden of tax from labour to resource in today's world would mean that the most successful businesses would be those who deployed labour as creatively and as innovatively as possible so as to use the minimum amount of original material in their products. Indeed, future historians may look back on previous generations and wonder with incredulity how we could have been so profligate with the earth and maybe also with a moral indignation not dissimilar from our own attitude to those who traded in slaves.

Much thinking has already been done about our use of carbon and how we might reduce the amount of emissions. ‘Contraction and convergence' has been proposed to ensure a fairer use of carbon across the developed and developing worlds. The aim is to redistribute all nations' carbon credits so as to exert a more disciplined, moral and responsible use of carbon. Currently excessive carbon emissions by richer countries are changing the climate, warming the globe, melting the ice, raising the sea-level and flooding some of the poorest countries in the world. Allowing countries to trade in carbon credits is a form of taxation that disciplines and drives down the use of original resource and allows for its absorption within the capacity of the planet. It's a simple premise: All citizens on earth have equal share of the atmosphere's capacity to absorb CO 2 . That would mean about 1.2 tonnes per person per annum by around 2030. Current U.S. consumption: 7 tonnes per person per annum!

Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunger Lovins in a book called “Natural Capitalism : the next Industrial Revolution” have convincingly shown how we might develop industry and commerce in a way that will not cost the earth. They introduce us to four central strategies.

The four key strategies are summarised by the authors as:

1. Radical resource productivity means gaining more from products and processes while using less material and energy. The development of the Hypercar is the classic example of this.

2. Biomimicry means eliminating the idea of waste by redesigning industrial processes along biological lines. We need to develop processes that mimic biological systems such as chlorophyll turning sunlight into energy at no cost to the environment and as the spider producing silk as strong as any synthetic fabric without needing to boil sulphuric acid!

3. Service and flow means changing the relationship between the producer and the consumer. The manufacturers should take life-long responsibility for their products so that they enter into a service agreement with the consumer to repair, improve, recycle and redesign the material. The classic example would be such household goods as washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators. Instead of these being dumped on a tip the manufacturer would become deliverers of a service, providing long-lasting, upgradeable durables. Rather than an economy in which goods are made and sold and dumped there would be a service-economy “where consumers would obtain services by leasing or renting goods rather than buying them outright”. Not everyone is persuaded that this can be achieved only through service agreements. However, the key point is that the manufacturer takes responsibility for recycling the material of spent goods whether sold or leased.

4. Investing in natural capital means re-investment in the biosphere as the greatest priority if we are not to bankrupt the earth. Our greatest natural resource is humanity itself. Indeed, it is the imagination and ingenuity of the human race that for many is the source of hope in the face of so many prophecies of doom. Sir Martin Rees the Astronomer Royal has written that we have only a 50/50 chance of surviving the twenty first century. Human ingenuity is both a blessing and a curse for the imagination can be put to either good or evil intent. Yet harnessed to the cause of justice and to doing the divine will on earth the human family might yet demonstrate the capacity to ensure that ‘nature is never spent' to borrow a compelling image from a poem by Liverpool poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (God's Grandeur).

These four strategies do harmonise with a biblical vision of creation and the dignity of humanity. They are not luddite. They are not based on a false nostalgia. (I like the satirist PJ Rourke's challenge to any who want to go back to the past. He says one word “Dentistry”!) Hawken and Lovins recognise the realities of the planet and the moral vision of human kind's responsibility for the earth.

Every year in the UK the British Council of Shopping Centres holds a Convention. Recently they invited me to address them on sustainable development and social responsibility. This Convention involves some of the biggest retail property owners whose portfolios include the large out of town shopping malls and some of the biggest high street retailers. I offered a definition of sustainability as “enjoying the earth's resources without jeopardising the welfare of future generations”.

I called for realism and idealism. Sustainability without the recognition that we are natural consumers and born traders denies our very humanity. Consumption without sustainability is, however, short sighted and immoral. I argued that the consumer of the future would be much more environmentally aware.

As I have said and to add further to the disclaimers, I am a pastor occupying a position of leadership within the Christian church. It is for economists and politicians together with the business community to decide on how exactly we share the earth's resources with that sense of responsibility that the “rich” should have for the “poor” and the present should have for future generations. I have erred and strayed from my ways and trespassed into political and economic theory with the suggestion that we should shift our taxation from labour to resource. I know that this cannot be done at the click of a mouse and that such a change would need to be gradual and also universal for it to work for the future wellbeing of the planet. As a pastor who sees the consequences of poverty both in this country and in others I do urge those in business to embrace an ethic of the earth and a greater sense of social responsibility. Ultimately decisions taken will depend upon moral values.

Furthermore, for these strategies to work they need to be international and engage both rich and poor countries. Although I know there is some pessimism that the Kyoto Protocol has not been universally observed we need to acknowledge that even 10 years ago any such argument would have been unthinkable. These things are now within our grasp and it is to be hoped that America will engage with the international community encouraged by its principal ally the United Kingdom whose Prime Minister has set climate change as one of the priorities of his Presidency of EU and chairing of the G8 in 2005.

I have already confessed to being a Christian but I am aware that throughout the world Christians behave very differently when it comes to the future of the planet. Last year I was in America on a lecture tour which began in Birmingham Alabama, moved onto Atlanta, Georgia and then onto Charlottesville, Virginia and concluded in Washington. I was there the day America declared war on Iraq. When I booked into my hotel at Tyson's Corner on the outskirts of Washington it was the first time I have been asked whether I wanted a higher or lower floor. It was the first time that I have seriously checked the exit route from my hotel room. The nation was on amber alert.

While in Washington I was invited to assist in leading a seminar on faith and sustainable development at the World Bank. There was a range of opinion in the meeting which reflected all the different shades that I had encountered during my stay in America. Let me here disassociate myself from that strain of anti-Americanism that comes very close to racism. I admire America for so much of what it has achieved and value friendships with many Americans. However, I understand why there is so much antipathy towards this great country. I am also aware how a particular reading of the Bible reinforces how America sees itself and acts in the world. This is a gross oversimplication but there is a view read out of the scriptures that because the earth will one day end up in a ball of flames you might as well milk the earth for all that it's worth while you have time. Couple this with a view of stewardship which sees that the whole of creation has come into being for the sake of humanity and you end up with an attitude to the world and the earth's resources expressed in a cavalier attitude to consumption, the Kyoto protocol and even a conflagration in the Middle East because that is how you see the world coming to an end.

As I have tried to show in my recent book “Jesus and the Earth” there is another way of reading the Bible. Instead of reading out of the scriptures a theology of obliteration when it comes to the future of the planet it is quite possible to see a different view which recognises the sacredness of the earth and the commitment of God to create new heavens and a new earth. In America I found that the Christian Right in particular were very suspicious of the Green Movement which they saw as heavily influenced by new age and pagan ideology. It is true that in both America and here some of the leading thinkers and activists have come from beyond the boundaries of the church. It is only because the ground has been vacated by Christians that others have filled the vacuum. Central to a Christian's understanding of the universe is that all things have come into being through and for Christ. To believe it is all here simply for the human family to indulge itself, is in terms of Christian theology a blasphemy for it usurps the place of Christ. All has come into being through and for him. It is this conviction that informs a Christian spiritual and moral attitude to the world and to the earth.

To say something has cost the earth is in the end to say that it has spent that which belongs to Christ alone. It is to spend something that does not belong to us. To spend the earth is not simply to squander the resources that belong to future generations. It is to spend Christ's own inheritance. This is why for Christians it should be anathema to be involved in any business that costs the earth.

An extract of this lecture appeared in The Guardian 22 November 2004.


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