Prometheus bans fire

If there is one thing I would change in my first book God’s Good Earth, it is the part on humanity’s abuse of creation, in a section I entitled, “The long history of trashing the planet.”

The basic thesis of the book was that the “traditional view” of the fallenness of the natural creation cannot be sustained from Scripture, historical theology, or science. I argued that, in all probability, the idea paradoxically arose from the same man-centredness that drove Renaissance humanism and displaced God during the ensuing centuries. This is what I called the “Promethean” principle.

This, when it was unconsciously applied to the interpretation of Genesis, rendered it impossible to limit the results of Adam’s sin to the human realm, and to God’s purposes for it, and insisted that as in the myths of Prometheus and his daughter Pandora, every conceivable “natural evil” is the fault of sinful humanity. Under this view nature, as it is in itself, is our punishment for sin.

I argued from Scripture, and from the early theologians, that on the contrary the good natural creation remains what it was designed to be, and moreover remains under the direct control of God, who uses it both to bless humanity and to judge its sins.

In the book I did, however, wish to add the caveat that creation has suffered directly from the depradations of Adamic man, and I cited examples such as the deforestation of ancient Greece to build ships for war, the wanton destruction of wildlife by the Romans for the death arenas, and more recently the near-extinction of whales by commercial hunting and the violent misuses of science.

However, what I failed to do was to apply my own “Promethean principle” to the modern ecological consciousness, which is in its own way as much a product of anthropocentricity as any destructive human activity is.

Since the book was published only last year, both my own study and the mainstream news have shown the rapid escalation of climate apocalypticism, which can only be regarded as religious, rather than scientific, in nature; and it is a religion which retains the most exaggerated “traditional” version of human depravity, without any of the redemptive purpose of Christianity, and without any consideration of Christ’s beneficient rule over all things.

It’s astonishing how easily our generation uncritically accepts the blame for bringing about the imminent collapse of the entire biosphere through our awful greed, aka the industrial revolution. But for the most part people are not talking about gas-guzzling F1 cars being flown round the world to make money from motor racing, environmentalists being flown around the world for useless conferences, nor the immense natural resources being poured into government supercomputers for the surveillance of all our lives.

Rather, in order to prevent by 2050 (or 2030, or 2025) all generation of the hideously toxic pollutant CO2 which all life, including us, has breathed out for 3 billion years, then both great and small (but especially small) must pay penance and face destruction. The great and good are telling ordinary people to restrict their unnecessary journeys, to eat processed bacteria and tofu instead of cheese or bacon, to put on extra jumpers; and now, in today’s paper, I see the UK government is hinting that gas central heating may be banned from all houses to meet the targets. Being too far out in the country for gas, we use oil – but that, I assume, will be the first fuel to go, being an abomination unto the law.

The alternatives to our fossil-fuel heating are not at all clear. There isn’t much mileage in solar heating in the British winter. Presumably we are intended to substitute exponentially more expensive electric heating – the irony being that the deficit to the grid of renewables, now that oil and gas power stations are being ostentatiously closed, is being met by a new network of local diesel generators. It’s hard to see how turning fossil fuel into electricity and sending it cross-country is more fuel-efffcient than burning it in a boiler at home – still less, how it is more efficient after that to charge your car’s lithium cells with it rather than just burn the diesel in the car anyway.

But it’s the tacit assumption underlying this, that ordinary people have ruined the planet by wanton selfishness, that needs to be challenged. I was brought up in the 1950s and 60s, in houses heated by a single coal-fire, a mobile electric fire and (in our bedroom) a puny paraffin heater which I have kept (converted to a night-light). We were lucky and relatively well-to-do, having also a coke boiler in the kitchen for hot water.

There was no fossil-fuel produced glass fibre insulation or double glazing, and no thermoplastic foam draught-proofing or wall insulation. My bedroom was on a north-facing hill, and the interesting patterns of frost inside the windows were a joy seldom seen today, and seldom loitered over then, since I avoided the cold water-bottle at the foot of the bed and evacuated the bedroom as soon as I could get my chilled clothes on.

Again, our affluence meant that my Dad had inherited his father’s 1934 Singer 9, which (after much coaxing and crank-handle turning) usually got him to work. That left Mum to take two small children on the bus to do the shopping – a lack of mobility that was one reason she could neither delegate child care nor, at that time, get a job herself.

This is not a “bad old days”story. I loved my childhood, and things were as they were for everybody after a war. But the fact that my children got to have warm bedrooms, a greater variety of fresh (because refrigerated) food, better access to information electronically, a wider experience of the world – and far fewer respiratory illnesses than my generation suffered – is a good, not an evil. Nothing in the Bible says that the virtuous life is one spent shivering, eating vegetables and restricted to one village.

But of course what I have said applies far more across a wider span of generations, or a broader geography. Before the industrial revolution, my ancestors were mostly agricultural labourers with a few minor tradesmen thrown in. They began to get time for education and bigger ideas when (at least in the Garvey clan) they became iron-workers in the industrial Midlands. Life was unhealthy and relatively short. But it was a vast improvement on that of the folks in the squalid cottage that then stood on my present property, dragging food from the soil by muscle power, without industrial fertilizers, and sometimes starving when harvests failed through lack of pesticides. That’s still true in Africa, wherever fossil energy is not easily available.

Many of my forebears were in household service. It was only the industrial revolution that, by enabling the production of fossil-fuel powered conveniences, allowed the higher-paid to make the social changes which gradually abolished the servant class. It was the subsequent spread of those conveniences to the poorer classes that freed them – especially women – to pursue gainful work and education.

And so pursuing my own genealogy specifically it was fossil-fuel that enabled my great-great grandfather John to learn read and write, to enable his son to send his daughters to school too, for my father to gain a scholarship to a grammar-school and escape a life of manual labour, and for me, at last, to go to university and end up writing this stuff for an international readership. Thanks, coal.

And now all that is being branded by the environmental √©lite, without any real discussion, as evil perpetrated by wicked oil-barons, to be abolished by 2050 through “changes of lifestyle” more than by any credible technology. That phrase, “changes of lifestyle,” needs to be examined in the light of a sober knowledge of what life was really like before abundant energy was harnessed. How does it not mean a return to ignorance, poverty and servitude?

There is an alternative viewpoint: it involves radical ideas like suggesting that the industrial revolution, despite its problems, was a God-given blessing for mankind. It involves questioning the perverted version of “total depravity” that looks at the state of the world with the assumption that it’s headed for imminent destruction and that it’s all our fault (see my list of such unfulfilled prophecies of doom here). It includes the possibility that the biblical view of God’s sovereign control of nature – including the climate – remains true today, and that God’s judgement and blessing are better lenses for understanding the world than our own “white man’s burden” to save the planet is. The future of the world is in God’s hands, not ours, whatever our accountability before him for our stewardship of it.

As Lord Monckton rightly points out, “The earth was comprehensively saved two thousand years ago – and not by us.”

Home from home 1952 – Old Jemimah (the Singer 9) made it to Devon
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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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