God, climate change and the limits of self-interest

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

Yesterday, Lord May, the former UK Government chief scientific advisor, highlighted the limitations of appeals to self-interest in the course of tackling climate change.

Bemoaning the lack of international co-operation on climate change, he said that no country was prepared to take the lead and a “punisher” was needed to make sure the rules of co-operation were not broken. God, he said, may provide that ‘punisher’. Religion  “makes for rigid, doctrinaire societies, but it makes for co-operation.”

What Lord May seems to be recognising is the need for the debate about climate change to move beyond a focus on self-interest. In a world governed through the pre-eminence of self-interest, it will always be in an individual’s (or a nation’s) interests to leave action to others.

It’s the broader point that interests me. There’s need for a moral imperative: whether or not that is derived from religious conviction, and whether or not it requires the invocation of a ‘punisher’ ex machina.

Personally, I don’t find the threat of divine retribution a particularly compelling basis for establishing a moral sensibility. But, that aside, this seems to point to an important recognition: if we are to tackle climate change, then we need to sponsor wide public debate about collective interest, and the need, at times, to subjugate short-term self-interest to the pursuit of the greater common good.

Our current preoccupation with self-interest (promulgated through today’s dominant political debate, public policy trajectories, business culture, and infatuation with celebrity) cannot deliver public demand for the changes that are needed.

Tom CromptonGod, climate change and the limits of self-interest


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  • Dave Key - September 8, 2009 reply

    it doesn’t really matter what the source of fear is (could be God/god could be a charismatic dictator). Lord May is uttering the pre-amble to eco-fascism!

  • Alastair McIntosh - September 8, 2009 reply

    Too right about not vibing the divine retribution song an dance, Tom. That’s what gets the the spirituality of love a bad name. I’ve been doing research recently on divine wrath, especially Calvin’s penal substitution atonement theory. What’s interesting is that it’s all rooted in the 11th century atonement theory of Anslem of Canterbury. He was an abbot in Normandy at the time of the Norman conquest of England, and then became Archbishop of Cantebury. His atonement theory, known as the Satisfaction theory, was hugely influential in Catholicism, but especially, in later Protestantism. Basically, he was coming out of a feudal family (with an abusive father, ho hum), and his whole model of the relationship between people and God was based on that between tenants and feudal lord, thus, he suggested, Christ had to die to appease God’s wounded sense of honour and thereby satisfy such blood lust.

    Also, at Greenbelt one of the trustees turned me on to a study of early Christian iconography, from which I have surmised the following for something else I’m writing. They attribute the shift towards violence as coming in mainly with the crusades which, of course, were consonant with feudlism.

    In their study, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire, the scholars Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker describe a five-year “pilgrimage” in which they studied the iconography of early churches. They conclude:

    “It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century…. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.” He most certainly was not…. In early Christian understandings, even heaven was a dimension of this life; it was the mysterious abode of God from which blessings flowed upon the earth.”

  • Graham Game - September 9, 2009 reply

    Many books could be written about the difference between religion & spirituality!

  • Alexandra Stubbings - September 13, 2009 reply

    Fascinating that Lord May chooses to invoke a wrathful, Old Testament-style ‘God of the Book’ as necessary divine punisher. One could, after all, argue that by removing the divine from the immediate and local physical realm (taking spirit out of the springs and into the celestial sphere, such beliefs made possible the process of profaning, and consequently the use and abuse of our natural environment. And what need is there for divine retribution when we are reaping what we sow more directly and immediately?

    Perhaps, rather than appealing to a vengeful God that most, including most Christians, would consider an anachronism, we might focus our energy instead on re-sanctifying and identifying with the natural world of which we are part.

    Further, if God is intended here to play the external role of our conscience, if we split off our own ability to judge right and wrong and surrender it to a higher authority, we potentially lose the ability to learn and make informed choices. Bob Doppelt has pointed out that paternal organisational cultures look to Government – to a higher authority – for direction. Perhaps this appeal to the highest authority is the ultimate manifestation of that psychological urge.

    Rather, yes to moving the debate beyond self-interest and towards a dialogue about the tragedy and opportunity of the commons, about how we develop a conscience of community, and how to re-discover the sacred in the prosaic.

  • Howard Silverman - September 29, 2009 reply

    Tom, I admire your writings. I’ve also been exploring personal/social/ethical approaches to climate issues in an online journal, People and Place.

    I agree with your statements elsewhere about consumerism. Still, i wonder about your broadly stated conclusion here about the self interest. Does not self interest serve as a motivator for some of the people some of the time, or even all of the people some of the time?

    A few reference points in counter argument:
    **A price on carbon is essentially an attempt to align incentives so that self interest serves the common good.
    **Appeals to competitive innovation (a form of self interest), a la Tom Friedman, seem to have appeal for some.
    **In the Cold War, the recognition of Mutually Assured Destruction was thought to have aligned self interest with a greater good.

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