A conservative’s case for conservation

The Rt Hon. Lord Deben of Britain’s Conservative Party employs faith and free-market principles to take on right-wing resistance to stewarding creation.

Comments offered last month by Cardinals Peter Turkson and Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga have many—especially in the United States—worried that the upcoming eco-encyclical will be an endorsement of socialism. Or worse. But not everyone on the Right disagrees with ecclesial criticism of how capitalism is often practiced today.

In the United States, ConservAmerica, a group founded by Republicans, is sympathetic to such views. And overseas there is the formidable John Gummer, Lord Deben.

“The Koch brothers are wrong and they are damaging the world—and they are spending their money to go on damaging the world,” said Lord Deben in a recent interview with Catholic Ecology. “And as Christians we should be exposing them. Because it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable for people to use their power and their strength [this way], because this is rape.”

Lord Deben is an outspoken, charismatic member of Britain’s Conservative Party. He served for sixteen years as a British minister in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and in 1992 took the role of Secretary of State for the Environment. There he was lauded by the environmental community as “the best Environment Secretary we ever had.”

In 1997 he founded Sancroft, a consulting agency that advises companies on corporate responsibility strategies. Lord Deben is also Chairman of the United Kingdom’s Government’s Committee on Climate Change.

His passionate concern for creation and neighbor is inspired by his Catholic faith and informed by his career in conservative politics. As a government regulator myself, it was delightful to chat with Lord Deben about a range of issues at the forefront of the Church’s growing engagement of ecology.

On conservation, faith, and conservative politics

“If you’re a Christian, you approach [issues of business and governance] from the point of view of stewardship—from the point of view that the world is not ours. We didn’t create it. It was something that was given to us. ... And if you think of it in those terms then you have to accept that you have a responsibility to look after that which you have been given. Because in that sense you’re lent it. And the concept of stewardship is very central to the Christian gospel. So if you are responsible for the environment, you are naturally a believer in conservation.”

And believing in conservation is at the heart of conservative thought, or should be, Lord Deben said.

“Of course in Britain we still retain the proper sense of the meaning of the word conservative. It’s very close to the word conservation. It’s about passing on to the next generation that which had from the last, but also enhancing it. Because there is also the parable of the talents. If you have ten talents, you have to make them work properly. These two biblical insights [stewardship and using one’s gifts for the common good] seem to me to be absolutely central to one’s understanding of the role of government and the environment.”

“If you think of sustainability, it’s about doing more with less. I can’t think of a better definition of how you make a profit." Lord Deben

Lord Deben maintains that capitalist practices, when authentically understood and appropriately practiced, are inherently sustainable and can be carried out in moral fashion.

“I never understood why the extreme right—particularly the tea party right in the United States—does not understand that the problem that they won’t face is that the market is very imperfect if you allow people to dump the cost of their production on the community instead of charging for the cost of the production.”

The free marketer should be “very keen on environmental costs,” said Lord Deben. “If you put a lot of smoke in the atmosphere and that destroys other people’s trees and other people’s health, then you ought to pay for that. Pay enough to make it worth your while cleaning up your act.”

But isn’t all this a form of Socialism? Isn’t talk of reimbursing the poor and paying for environmental harms rooted in Leftist ideologies?

Not at all, said Lord Deben. “It’s a right-wing concept that the market demands a proper price and the real problem is that we don’t do that.” He said it’s wrong to believe and accept that individuals can “dump their cost” on the community as a whole.

“That isn’t a conservative view. That’s very much, in my view, a very destructive individualistic view which we can’t uphold.”

On sustainability and sin

In 1997 Lord Deben founded Sancroft, a consulting firm that helps clients understand that meeting environmental and social responsibility demands are not costs. “Very often they can be profitable enterprises,” Lord Deben said.

“If you think of sustainability, it’s about doing more with less. I can’t think of a better definition of how you make a profit. If you do more with less you make more money. Why is it that people find this so difficult to understand?

“If you are able to conserve and reduce your inputs, then not only are you helping to protect the environment, you are protecting your profitability. And of course you’re avoiding costs that you will have to pay later. Because sooner or later society will charge you those costs. Because someone has to pay and in the end people will demand that you pay it. So it’s very much better to get yourself organized well before incompetent politicians start telling you what to do.”

Here again Lord Deben allows his faith to inform his understanding of the world. “The older I get the more I see the Book of Genesis as absolutely crucial in understanding human beings,” he said.

“I’ve got a commitment to love my neighbor ... And it doesn’t stop if I am running a business.” Lord Deben

In other words, the failure of businesses to operate in a moral and sustainable manner can be understood with the Christian belief in Original Sin. Lord Deben describes this theological concept in part as a “myopia,” or a “tendency of human beings not to understand the realities of life because they are very short-sighted.”

“And human beings are shortsighted,” he added. “And business people are just as short-sighted as other people—not more so—but just as short-sighted as other people. And they find it very difficult to think through the demands that are changing the world, which is changing because of knowledge. And dealing with knowledge is a very important part of the Christian understanding. The Judeo Christian understanding. ... [Because] what you get in the Book of Genesis is that the problem human beings have is handling knowledge.”

Knowledge demands responsibility, Lord Deben said. And yet human beings wish to refuse this responsibility, as can be seen in many spheres of human industry.

“It seems to me that the central thing here is that if you take the businessman who won’t think through what is the effect of his supply chain—a supply chain in which people are making goods in a factory where the fire doors are locked, or where they are not properly paid, or where they do excessive overtime—he doesn’t say ‘I’m all in favor of that.’ He says, ‘That has nothing to do with me.’ Or, ‘I don’t know. I don’t see why I should find out,’ so to speak. So he takes refuge in ignorance and the fact of the matter is that … Christians are not allowed to take refuge in ignorance. If you know, you are responsible. And if you can know, you are responsible. And you can’t say I may be able to know but I am not going to. That’s when the sin comes in.”

Part of what drove Lord Deben in his work in government and what drives his work now at Sancroft is this question: what is my activity doing to other people? “I’ve got a commitment to love my neighbor,” he said. “And it doesn’t stop if I am running a business.”

On morality and business

When discussing the problems that arise from the short-sighted implementation of free-market theory, Lord Deben mentions economist Milton Friedman, the champion of the free market.

“Friedman said that your only duty is to maximize return to your shareholders. But there are two things that are wrong with that. The first is, it’s a very narrow view of the maximization of return to your shareholders. Because if you don’t make your business sustainable then there won’t be any return to your shareholders. So Coca Cola, for example, who we work with, decided they were going to do something about water because it knew that if it didn’t it would not have the license to manufacture in countries where there is a water shortage. So it had to have a system for its own shareholders’ good. All it was doing was looking a good deal forward.”

And looking forward, Lord Deben said, is being more effective for shareholders.

“Secondly, [Friedman] was wrong morally because it isn’t possible for Christians to say that my activity as a businessman is different from my activity in my family. And that seems to me to be the fundamental problem—or sin, if you like—of much of the, and let me put it bluntly, protestant individualism of American society, which talks about one’s personal relationship with God and then the relationship you have with the immediate people around. Where actually Christianity isn’t about that. Christianity is about loving your neighbor, and neighbor isn’t just the person next door to you. Your neighbor is the person that produces the cotton which is on your underpants. And you just have to accept that.”

“America has come to imperialism late but it has enjoyed it enormously. But of course it doesn’t work any longer. Imperialism doesn’t work." Lord Deben

Knowing the totality of what you are responsible for brings about a whole series of complicated questions and choices, Lord Deben said. Christianity is very helpful in answering these questions.

“What Christianity then says to you is that, it isn’t a simple issue. If you get your clothes from Bangladesh, it isn’t a simple issue of saying, ‘well I mustn’t make them in Bangladesh.’ Indeed it would be wrong to withdraw your business from Bangladesh because the only way the people will earn money, the only way the economy will work, and the only way people’s standard of livings will rise, is if there are jobs there. So providing jobs is important and you then have to decide, what is the ethical basis on which you can do it? Are they earning a living wage? Are they working reasonable hours? Are they working at a reasonable age? And if it’s a country where people work as children, then, if you’re going to stop them working as children, are you going to educate them?”

These are the ethical questions that arise once “you know,” as Lord Deben put it.

On America and other wealthy nations

Lord Deben criticized “the infuriating fact” of America law, which prompts people to “hide behind the law. So that instead of the law being something that encourages good action, the law becomes something that stops good action because people are afraid to know. Because if they know, then the responsibility can become a legal responsibility.”

He pointed to the effects that this can have on American corporations doing business with the factories in developing nations.

“It is an outrage that American companies will not join the organization that insists on proper standards [for these factories]. The reason they won’t is because, in order to avoid the law, they have to have their own organization which doesn’t put the responsibility where it needs to be. So there are a whole lot of things that derive from this, and of course the trouble with knowledge and then responsibility. Because you’ve got to do something about it. Then you have some difficult decisions. That’s part of being a human being and that’s part of being a Christian.”

Lord Deben was also sympathetic to American leaders who realized that their nation’s status as a world leader would be difficult to maintain given the global nature of today’s problems—and thus the global responses necessary to solve them.

“America has come to imperialism late but it has enjoyed it enormously. But of course it doesn’t work any longer. Imperialism doesn’t work. This why it’s so exciting a time to live, why we’re so fortunate—this is the biggest change in human understanding since the Renaissance. And of course we’ve had imperialism from the beginning, when the first village bashed the other village for grazing rights. But if you want to solve climate change as a problem you can only solve it if you can do it together. It’s not something you can do by imposing on others.”

And that, Lord Deben said, means that equality among peoples must be a necessary worldview.

“The reason why we are rightly worried is because we’ve allowed people to hijack [the environmental protection] agenda, which should always have been our agenda—an agenda of a world created by God." Lord Deben

“China, and India, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all had to join in and they become, therefore, your equals. And in the post imperial world, we may claim that they are our equals—in the United Nations and such—[but] we haven’t really thought of it like that.

“The rich nations have certainly thought that the world is run for them. And now they have to understand that the world isn’t run for them and in fact couldn’t be run for them because if it continues to be run for them, then there won’t be a world.”

Once again and without prompting, Lord Deben returns to his Catholic faith for insights.

“So the concept of the brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God which were philosophical or theological concepts, now become practical necessities. And that’s very uncomfortable for the traditional right-wing, although it’s pretty comfortable for what I would call conservative parties, who have never taken the same individualistic attitude toward capitalism. So if you notice in Britain the [2008] Climate Change Act was produced by the conservative party and forced on the government. In our previous last five years when we were in coalition we produced the [2015] Modern Slavery Act, which has imposed on every company of every size operating in Britain, whether they are foreign or British, the duty to share publically every year what they are doing to eradicate modern slavery, bad conditions, in their supply chain.

Now those come from the heart of the conservative party because it’s about conserving, it’s about passing on to the next generation. And you can’t do that if you exploit people. That isn’t a possibility.

“I think this is revolutionary for most people and it is part of the Christian revolution of the first century. “

On the role of the Church

“The Church always has to be involved in politics,” said Lord Deben. “It can’t avoid that. It can’t be party political but it has to be involved in politics. And what the Church has to do in this is to show people that the Christian gospel infuses the whole of life. You can’t have the bit of life that it doesn’t apply to.”

“And if the Church doesn’t embarrass people,” he added, “then the Church isn’t doing its job. The point of the Christian gospel is that it is essentially embarrassing because it asks us things that we would prefer not to be asked." Lord Deben

So what the Church must do at all times is say “that you individually have got to think about what your responsibility is.” And if that is embarrassing for those throughout the political spectrum, Lord Deben said, “then I’m sorry but that’s what it’s all about.”

“And if the Church doesn’t embarrass people,” he added, “then the Church isn’t doing its job. The point of the Christian gospel is that it is essentially embarrassing because it asks us things that we would prefer not to be asked. And it reminds us of facts and knowledge that we would rather not be reminded about.”

This, of course, is especially true today with regards to environmental issues—especially the global variety.

“It’s crucially important that we should recognize that the environmental issues are issues about Creation,” Lord Deben said. “So the Church is there already. And if there is a criticism of the Catholic Church, it’s that the Orthodox Church has moved faster, that the Ecumenical Patriarch has gotten there very much earlier. This is because they have a very real sense of creation. And we have to recover that.”

Lord Deben said that there are other advantages that come from remembering that our faith and our environmental concerns are founded on creation.

“The reason why we are rightly worried is because we’ve allowed people to hijack [the environmental protection] agenda, which should always have been our agenda—an agenda of a world created by God. We’ve allowed people who don’t believe that to turn this into a kind of pantheism and this is a substitute for religion—a kind of morality based on a Mother Earth kind of feeling. So it is understandable that some Catholics have felt that you do not want to be mixed up with those people who are all muck and magic and that sort of thing.

“And of course you always get odd people on the edges—for instance; you don’t judge the Republican Party by Sarah Palin. It would be silly to do so. You judge things by the central core. And the central core of the environmental case is a Christian core.”

Without using the term, Lord Deben also sees a form of New Evangelization in the Church’s engagement of ecological issues.

Discussions about protecting creation are “the place where young people get closest to the Christian faith, if they haven’t been exposed to it. … When you talk about the beauty of what God has done. And one of the things that make it perfectly clear to ordinary people is that a mechanistic view of the universe is very difficult to uphold when you see the beauty and intricacies of nature. The fact is that things are so beautifully and intricately balanced."

“And so [the Church is saying that] whatever way the world happened … what is clear is that we didn’t make it. And we ought to look after it. And that’s a Christian understanding. And if you don’t understand that, you haven’t really thought about it.”

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.