On the second day of her tenure as our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss took to the dispatch box in the House of Commons today to announce the first of her measures to address the current economic crisis. There was a broad welcome for her swift actions, and in particular the promise that winter fuel bills will be capped at more manageable levels than previously thought – though there are profound differences of opinion even in the Tory party itself about the correct means of funding this.
The Truss strategy is not to tax the huge profits of the big energy suppliers, but to create a system whereby the government loans the companies money to enable them to ‘buffer’ the short-term cost of energy to the customer. Unfortunately, this means that over the coming years and decades the energy companies will simply repay these loans by increasing the cost to the customer, leaving us all paying higher bills for decades.
In essence this is no ‘solution’ at all, but rather just kicking the can down the road with a smoothing and extending of inflated energy payments. It is being predicted that this particular plan for helping consumers will cost U.K. taxpayers roughly £100 billion.
There was also a lot of talk in parliament today about alternative energy sources, but sadly one still gets the impression that this is far more about obligatory rhetoric than any real understanding of the potential of the planet’s God-given resources. In particular the government’s new pledges to ramp up oil exploration and lift the ban on fracking run contrary to both common sense and good environmental husbandry.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine the world was awoken to the sudden realisation that not only does it’s increasing reliance on Russia for energy supplies need to be reversed – and quickly, but serious long-term solutions need to be found to the whole dilemma of energy consumption.
The free-fall consumerism of the West that has generated the current global energy crisis is really just decades old; there are many of us still able to remember a time without mass production, plastics, electronic technology, the internet, cheap global travel and the internal combustion engine, and back then the world wasn’t such a bad place.
Despite the increasing warning signs, our legislators still seem to be far more committed to creating new or increased sources of energy supply to fuel the status quo, rather than making any real engagement with the underlying forces that are driving the energy crisis. This is understandable as tax income, personal wealth and the economic fabric of most countries is predicated on perpetuating existing structures. Few politicians will have the bravery to question these established social and economic building blocks, or see any purpose in calling for radical changes to the social order.
But challenge we must, as time and the future of our planet is pressing. As I listened to Liz Truss’s pronouncements on the energy crisis, and the responses of other MPs in the chamber, I couldn’t help thinking of an old friend, the late Canon Professor John Atherton. Canon John, who died in 2016, was Canon Theologian at Manchester Cathedral, a renowned priest, theologian, and scholar of Anglican social in the tradition of Archbishop William Temple. He wrote widely on a whole range of global and local issues and had a profound understanding of the real issues underlying the problems of the modern, post-industrial age.
John used to describe this in terms of the ‘Chinese fridge’ conundrum – he would say that there simply isn’t enough raw material on the planet to be able to manufacture a fridge for every Chinese citizen, which is fine when the majority of the country’s population is living in rural frugality, but what happens when we drive our deeply cherished Western values and aspirations into such countries and try to convert them to free market capitalism? What happens when you tell a country that we have a whole range of luxuries here, but they can’t have them? The outcome is either mass migrations, or global conflict – and we are seeing both happening right now.
It’s simply an unsustainable notion that we can keep leading the frivolous, modern lives we are living, and all’s that’s required are more innovative and intense mechanisms to ensure its continued delivery. You can see this kind of flawed, destructive thinking at work across the whole range of legislative areas – for instance, in sexual ethics the whole emphasis of legislation over the past four or five decades has been directed at the amelioration of health problems and risks associated with sexual behaviours, rather than any attempt to question the behaviours themselves.
Back on the global fuel crisis, the same kind of flawed logic is still prevalent; we are looking for ways to fuel the things we do, rather than questioning whether we should continue to do such things at all. If Liz Truss and her new Cabinet really want to rebuild prosperity across the UK, the time has certainly arrived to look far further than just refuelling the existing economy, but rather at the fundamental economic landscape we want to leave for our children and grandchildren.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve become unexpectedly but very gratefully connected to Carmelite spirituality. At such a rather late stage in life it’s easy to become world-weary and think that there a few things that can deliver surprise and new enlightenment, but what looks my first few unsteady steps on the road to Carmel is starting to drop shafts of new light onto many old problems, and especially social and political ones.
Getting to grips with the complexity and divisiveness of the modern world is no easy task, but the starting point seems to be an acceptance that God has created everything. In our post-Enlightenment age, we tend to believe the old Biblical understanding that our planet is there to be subdued and managed, and subjugated to our will. Genesis 1:26 was understood by our Victorian industrialist forbears to be a confirmation that the resources of the planet were there for our taking, as a fundamental human right and without consequences. Despite a wholesale loss of faith across the nation we still cling to this mistaken edict, and are perplexed when our troublesome planet just doesn’t conform to our flawed convictions.
A far better understanding would be to recognise that all we have been given dominion over is the handiwork of God, and this conforms far more to His logic rather than ours. As the great Carmelite theologian and writer St Titus Brandsma put it: “I see God in the work of his hands and the marks of his love in every visible thing.”
At a fundamental level, God’s creation is wholly irrational, but because of this it functions perfectly and has equilibrium. It is only when we interfere with this equilibrium that things go badly wrong. When it comes to government affairs, this irrationality translates into putting spiritual wellbeing ahead of temporal wants. More simply – when formulating legislation think the wellbeing of the planet and people ahead of economic growth; you’ll almost certainly get things right, and prosperity will flow out of the wellbeing you have created.
Of course every legislator since William Cowper has claimed to have had the best interests of the public at heart, but few have really understood the brief. It would be well worth a prayer or two that our new Prime Minister and her team might focus on building a more meaningful national prosperity through engagement with the irrationally of God’s creation, and the more sustainable global benefits that will flow out from that.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and is founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk