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Thought for the Day: Beware Neo-puritan responses to climate change

February 10, 2007:

By Martin Palmer

"Yesterday Richard Branson announced he was offering a prize of £10 million to the first person to invent a way of trapping carbon dioxide. In much of the media coverage, this dramatic and practical response to the problems of climate change was undermined or even mocked because Branson's Virgin airline is not only engaged in the air travel business but also in possible space travel. It's as if he can't do any good environmentally because he is already irredeemably bad. This is the way witch hunts begin.

The environmental challenge of Climate Change is fast becoming an excuse for moralising and a new form of Puritanism which is as ugly and as dangerous as, say, the prohibition of alcohol in the US in the 1920s. Prohibition was originally a fine voluntary movement to curb the excess of alcoholism, which when it became all powerful and banned alcohol throughout the USA, created massive opportunities for the gang underworld. It provoked even worse situations than the ones they sought to stop.

This week those of us who have been working on climate change for many years in the environment movement have also been coming under pressure - to sign a document promising not to fly for the next year except for emergencies. Recently Prince Charles was attacked for flying to New York to accept an environment prize. David Milliband, one of his chief critics, has also been "caught flying", as if the sin is catching.

But this emphasis on personal morality is only one small part of the real picture. The fact is that if it is as cheap and convenient to fly to Paris as it is to commute by train from the suburbs to the city centre, then it's hardly surprising that people take advantage of this. The true problem is official subsidies of cheap flights. Let's travel, but thoughtfully, and let's pay the real price - in terms of money and reparations to the environment. Self-restraint, not moral absolutes.

Restraint is a core part of all major faiths. But so is partying. Next week in preparation for Chinese New Year on Sunday week, fasting and self-restraint are theoretically the order of the day for Chinese communities. But Chinese New Year is a blow out just as Easter is the glorious reward at the end of the austerities of Lent. Every faith will tell you to practice mindfulness; to be careful never to waste what God has given. But they also want you to enjoy life, to celebrate what you have been given. Finding the sensible balance is what counts.

The environmental movement is in danger of becoming a new form of oppressive morality and of losing the real battle, when, as they will, people get tired of such emotional blackmail. We need to find that balance, not be intimidated into an unrealistic position that is ultimately counter productive."

Link to the BBC's Thought for the Day archive.

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