Many commentators have compared environmentalism to religion. As church attendance in the West has plummeted over the last few decades, so has concern for nature tended to increase. Both trends may be independent results of growing prosperity and security; we feel more in control of our own existence, but at the same time are more aware of our impact on the planet.
But an equally compelling argument is that there is a deep need in the human psyche for a spiritual dimension to our lives and that, if this need is not met via organised religion, then the awe inspired by nature can replace this. One aspect of this manifests itself as respect for the environment and a desire not to cause harm, which is to be welcomed. However, this can be taken to the extreme by ‘deep greens’ for some of whom humans are a blight on the face of the planet, which would be better off without us. That we are apparently the only species with this capacity for self-loathing is worthy of an essay in itself.
But such an attitude - which has much in common with the views of religious ascetics - is itself a manifestation of a generalised guilt, which provides the basis for the Adam and Eve story and the concept of Original Sin. Hardly surprising, then, that some in the UN and EU are suggesting that a whole host of things which are considered bad for the environment might be taxed or even rationed to encourage ‘correct’ behaviour. It’s our fault, and we must pay the price.
This was among the topics discussed at this year’s Brussels Green Week, held earlier this month. Angela Cropper, deputy executive director of the UN development programme (UNEP) presented the new report from the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production - Priority Products and Materials. This analyses the environmental impact of consumption of food, materials and energy and makes recommendations for greater resource efficiency.
The conclusion is that agriculture (particularly livestock farming), fossil fuel use and metals (particularly iron, steel and aluminium) have the greatest environmental impact. This is hardly surprising: food is essential and energy hardly less so, with - for better or worse - a dependence on coal, gas and oil for the foreseeable future. Iron, steel and aluminium are also ubiquitous as construction materials.
To quote from the report’s executive summary: