Is consumption a sin? It’s not as simple as that

The Times March 29, 2006

The moral climate

In the past 20 years, globalisation has lifted more people out of poverty than all the international aid programmes and good works of concerned churchmen put together and quadrupled. Tens of millions of people, particularly in Asia, owe their new-found wellbeing to that great engine of opportunity, capitalism. We have found few better ways of loving our neighbour than to trade with him. So when the Archbishop of Canterbury talks, as he did yesterday, about the dangers posed by climate change and the “huge moral imbalance in the world”, we need to look hard at where morality lies. The history of the Soviet Union, China and North Korea has shown just how degrading central planning is to the human soul — and to the environment.

It is true that economic growth can degrade the environment: the noxious fumes in many Chinese cities are a case in point. It is also possible that climate change may hit the poorest countries hardest, as the Archbishop suggests. But it is not yet clear how to trade off that as yet unknowable scale of risk against the proven benefits to those countries of economic growth.

The Archbishop believes that it is not “compatible with a Christian ethic to ignore the environmental degradation that we face”. That is a perfectly acceptable proposition. The question is what do to about it. Rushing to restrict the growth of poor countries, and thus to entrench poverty, would not be entirely ethical.

The debate about climate change is not always rational: there are other forces at work. Too often, this issue is hijacked by leftist ideologues to serve an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and anti-American agenda. All would be well, they argue, if we put an end to consumption and trade. That is not fair, nor is it a productive way forward.

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