The selfish greed of the poor

Quite a few people now have compared the hatred of humanity (“parasites on the earth” etc) evident in much environmentalism with original sin in Christianity. Gaia is dying, or in some renditions biting back, because of the rapacity of mankind, much as in theology creation is said to be fallen and yielding thorns and thistles because of Adam’s sin.

Well, it happens that I’ve written a book, God’s Good Earth, debunking the theology of a fallen created order, and if you buy a copy you’ll help me pay off about half an hour of my winter fuel bills. The hatred of mankind that’s evident in a great deal of the climate alarmism (that wants to depopulate the planet, and so was eager to enact the energy policies that might well do so over the next few months) is not shared by Christians concerned with the same issue. But Christianity does have its own, dilute, version of this self-flagellation, which has no problem in seeing the threat of climate Armageddon as a judgement on humanity’s “greed and selfishness.”

For example, as our church is currently tackling the Book of Revelation (in an excellent way, incidentally, calling on Christians to see through the deceptions of our modern world’s “imperial” culture and resist it), I’ve been reading one of the relatively recent book-length academic treatments of the Apocalypse of John. In dealing with the “cosmic” disasters in the middle chapters of Revelation, the author suggests that in some measure human environmental ruination of the planet fulfills these visions.

Likewise, in the discussion surrounding my aforementioned book after its publication, some interlocutors suggested that the fact that a good creation sometimes works against us in God’s judgements (a fact with which I agree) might involve the self-induced ecological collapse we now see, according to them. I disagree with that idea of a large-scale environmental judgement from our own actions both on theological grounds (it’s not what the Bible says) and because I think it’s factually wrong – much more so now than when I wrote the book.

Only the other day I heard yet another Christian taking for granted that the reason we have an environmental crisis is “our greed and selfishness.” But what does it actually mean to blame climate change on sin, rather than on bad luck or (as I’ve come to believe) the normal cycles of God’s creation care?

For the secular environmentalists, the “sin” is often stated to be overpopulation (at the expense of the wolves and lynxes they want to re-introduce through re-wilding). But that won’t run for the Christian. In the first place even the UN says that the population is levelling off and there’s plenty of food to go round, especially since increasing CO2 is massively increasing crop yields and the vegetation cover of the earth overall. In the second place, the creation ordinance of God for humanity, in Genesis 1, was to multiply and fill the earth – nothing in the Bible suggests capping the population, still less trying to reduce it by fuel poverty, famine, or fomenting a nuclear war. Still less does the command advocate forced abortion or one-child policies. The earth was, in its primary function, made for mankind.

Now, one strand of the “overpopulation bad” meme that some Christians do pick up on (including me, at one time), was that it only became possible because of the development of artificial fertilizers by the Haber-Bosch process. But the fact that this process was discovered through the mass-production of high explosives in WW1 is, on reflection, no more of a minus than the likelihood that weapons metallurgy enabled better ploughshares. And the dependence of the Haber-Bosch process on fossil fuels is only an evil once one has decided that God disapproves of fossil fuels, on which more anon. The fact is that fertilizers have increased the population because they decreased the number of largely poor men, women, and children dying of starvation. That is not an evil, but a great good, unless you despise the poor as vermin.

And at this time it is the sinful blockade on Russian fertilizers, and the selfish and greedy exemptions made to it by the EU countries for themselves only, that are threatening starvation for millions in the poorer countries this winter. That is a genuine evil. Vladimir Putin, incidentally, offered fertilizers to those disadvantaged countries free last week, if foregoing payment would circumvent the blockade – but our Western “democracies” put politics over innocent lives as usual and haven’t responded.

Overpopulation apart, what seem to attract the “greedy and selfish” label most, among Christians, are those fossil fuels themselves, and how they have changed the world. Now, it is certainly true that the oil boom was, from early on, associated with the cut-throat commercial values of those like the Rockefeller family. And it’s also true that much of that lust for profit has come down to today’s oil giants. But that does not make fossil fuels evil, any more than the comparable monopolies built up by Microsoft and Apple make computing evil. In fact, the naive efforts, including by Christians, to “divest from fossil fuels,” are blind to the truth that Big Oil has been one of the major profiteers from green energy, using its old business model, and is quite willing to demonise its own core activity if it increases greenwashing profits. It’s not widely realised that the term “carbon footprint” first appeared in Oil Company propaganda.

Whether fossil fuels are to blame for the rise in CO2 levels, and whether CO2 is responsible for the recent modest warming phase, is by no means settled science, even if it is the compulsory religion nowadays. But that aside, the undeniable role of fossil fuels – as we are suddenly realising by their withdrawal – has been to alleviate poverty and make life better for the whole human race.

Maybe I don’t need to go into detail on their advantages for heating and lighting – I’ve seen many recent comments on the number of deaths caused by cooking over wood stoves indoors where electricity and gas are scarce (though I’m not entirely convinced that number is as high in reality). But any rural African hospital will confirm the value of reliable energy.

Whilst moralists may condemn us for going around in cars, motor vehicles have made more remunerative work possible for billions, just as trains and factories fuelled by coal did a century or so before. And when push comes to shove, was it really greedy for factory workers to take a train excursion to Bognor, or even for call-centre drudgery to be relieved by a week in Benidorm?

My own ancestors were Black Country ironworkers, and although their work was dangerous and dirty, their pay was better than that of their agricultural labourer ancestors, and their education and wealth increased generation by generation – just six generations took us from illiteracy to a Cambridge education and academic publications.

That is not all. Personally I refuse to own a smart-phone whilst my private data is the real product for corporations and governments, but nevertheless the mobile phone, made of hydrocarbon polymers and fuelled by electricity from gas or coal, has also made both work and education radically better for much of the world, as have computers in general. And digital machines appear to be central to the globalist world order the environmentalists espouse, for all their energy-thirst, so they seem to be an exception to the “humanity bad” rule even for the fanatics.

In brief, as I have argued before on The Hump, it is fossil fuels that made the abolition of slavery possible in a non-subsistence society. Leisure to read, or write, blogs is only possible because we have the equivalent of many slaves in fossil-fueled appliances to cook our meals, wash our clothes, take our dictation and carry us and our goods cheaply. The rich may use fossil fuels wastefully by flying to climate conferences in private jets, but such waste also existed when wealth was measured in actual slaves. The poor are neither selfish nor greedy for wanting to live securely – and neither, I would add, are the relatively better off. Far better that than a return to a slave economy.

Let me extend this idea into theology. I may have mentioned before that Michael Denton’s latest book, The Miracle of Man, got me thinking about how the very chemistry and physics of the universe prepared it for intelligent creatures like ourselves – literally like ourselves, both in outlook, size and general form. The book also shows many examples of how our world, and our bodies, are filled with negative feedback loops that maintain life-giving conditions for us despite stresses. The fact that life has prospered for 3 billion years here gives the lie to the idea that tipping-points to extinction lurk around every corner. To put it another way, fear that mankind can destroy the planet is a philosophical, or even a religious, belief no more valid than the belief that God has created a largely fail-safe world for us… a world that, according to biblical testimony, he maintains in balance until he decides otherwise.

As I’ve mentioned before, Denton, not really known for a religious outlook, points out how closely the science fits the Judaeo-Christian idea of a universe designed for us, and for our way of life, and perhaps even for our history, as the knowledge developed from our taming of fire has increased over time in response to our needs for new technology.

Part of that technology, of course, is “fossil organics,” firstly (perhaps) the pitch used by the Babylonians in place of mortar (see the tower of Babel story in Genesis), much later in the use of coal for fuel in mediaeval times as fuel-wood became scarcer with population growth, and then in the mining of oil and gas, with their multiple uses. Fossil fuels are astonishingly compact sources of energy, and it has taken only a historically short time to learn how to use them cleanly. Perhaps, in God’s providence, his knowledge of when we would “fill the earth” also made such fuels available to us at just the right time, both as a source of energy and, controversially perhaps, as a source of extra CO2 to increase plant fertility when it was most needed.

One thing that reinforces such a way of seeing things is that some scientists do not believe that oil and gas, in particular, and maybe even coal, are “fossil” substances at all, derived from living things. They argue that they were formed as complex hydrocarbons deep in the earth’s crust. The term “fossil fuels” was a nineteenth century assumption not based on knowledge of their actual origin. Arguments for this include the lack of a good theory of their creation, and their presence many thousands of feet below where fossils are otherwise found. If this turns out to be true coal, oil and gas would be yet another example of divine provision for the needs of mankind.

If we were, indeed, intended to find fossil fuels and learn how to utilise them, God would not be likely to make their use so uniquely dangerous that the planet would die as a result within a few centuries. In general natural resources are there to be used, whilst their risks and drawbacks are soon discovered and factored in – primitive man must have learned to put out fire with water as soon as he learned to use fire itself.

In every other area of life, even genuinely sinful exploitation has produced relatively small-scale damage: polluted industrial sites soon become havens for wildlife, widespread agriculture encouraged farmland species, and even rainforests regenerate, contrary to the scaremongering of some. For whatever reason, we have been created to discover truth, by trial and error, and somehow there always seems to be some incentive to correct errors, and the means to do so.

One current error is to doubt God’s providential wisdom, and to panic about the state of the world. This harms mainly the poor in our hubristic attempts to put everything right ourselves, whilst paradoxically engaging in unhealthy self-hatred for living like people. Perhaps if we concentrated more on improving the lot of everyone, we’d find the planet is actually working for us, and not against us.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The selfish greed of the poor

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    I’m with you that, whatever the natural processes involved, through his divine foreknowledge and providence God, for our benefit, placed an enormous and accessible resource of energy beneath our feet.

    “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”

    Yes, God is good: in earth and sky,
    From ocean’s depths and spreading wood,
    Ten thousand voices seem to cry,
    God made us all, and God is good.

    The sun that keeps his trackless way,
    And downward pours his golden flood,
    Night’s sparkling hosts, all seem to say,
    In accents clear, that God is good.

    The merry birds prolong the strain,
    Their song with ev’ry spring renewed;
    And balmy air, and falling rain,
    Each softly whispers, God is good.

    Yes, God is good, all nature says,
    By God’s own hand with speech endued;
    And man, in louder notes of praise,
    Should sing for joy that God is good.

    For all Thy gifts we bless Thee, Lord,
    But chiefly for our heavenly food;
    Thy pard’ning grace, Thy quick’ning word,
    These prompt our song that God is good.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thankyou, Peter.

      How much more positive a viewpoint than either that oil and gas just “happened” to form, or worse still that God put them there to trap us into polluting the world and destroying all life.

Leave a Reply