This Sunday, at one of the great events in East Anglia’s social calendar, the Waveney Greenpeace Fair, a Benedictine monk will dress in a recycled habit and, in a booth made of old doors, will hear the confessions of those who have sinned against the environment. “There is a huge amount of greed in the West,” Dom Anthony Sutch has explained. “We have to be aware of the consequences of how we live.”
Around the country, there will doubtless be other, rather smarter, parties, held by some of the company directors and senior executives who, it has been revealed, have enjoyed a record payout, both in salaries (up 37 per cent, about 10 times the national average) and bonuses (up 24 per cent to £26.4bn). The greed of the financial world apparently concerns the Church rather less than that shown by people who fail to compost adequately.
But Father Sutch – something of a dynamic presence within his faith and far from sackcloth-and-ashes killjoy – has probably made the right decision. The chances of saving a few souls at the Greenpeace Fair, where sincerity and concern are in the very air that you breathe, are greater than at some ghastly summer dance in a marquee. Breezily conceding that the Pope has recently set up in his own airline (“but I am told the Vatican will be planting trees every time he flies”), Father Sutch clearly sees the eco-confessional idea as something of a marketing opportunity, pointing out how his Church cares for the environment.
It is a clever idea, and well-placed. Guilt, the biofuel which propels Catholicism, is every bit as important to environmentalism. There are similarities, too, in the way that these two great movements exert their influence. Both are driven and controlled by people of such openly uncompromising self-denial as to be able to exert a strong moral authority over normal, everyday sinners.
Just as envy, lust and greed are part of the human condition, and as a result fill the confessionals every day, so those concerned about the environment will constantly be aware of their own daily sins, small and large, committed against the planet. Right now, I am writing on a pad, but the paper is not recycled. The Biro in my hand is made of plastic. My computer is on stand-by. The car outside the front door is just waiting to pollute the world for my selfish purposes. I recycle, but do I ever recycle quite enough?
At the Greenpeace Fair, the high priests of environmentalism, green equivalents of Father Sutch, will move among us, but most of those present will be sincere, middle-class types, keen to express support for the right causes but fretfully aware that, while the spirit of Gaia is willing, the flesh of the consumer is weak.
This individual guilt plays well for the green movement, as it does for the Catholic church, but it is weirdly selective. Local councils spread the word about recycling but make it difficult, because it is too expensive, for people to get rid of their most noxious possessions – tyres, batteries, paint, fridges – in a responsible way. Companies use environmental messages to sell product but continue to produce goods which can only replaced, not repaired. The government itself, smug in its support of the Kyoto protocol, nonetheless presses on with its lunatic expansion of airports.
There is a straightforward pattern here. When money enters the equation, institutional guilt quickly evaporates. So the Church and the green movement concentrate their efforts in whipping up feelings of individual shame, spreading a new form of social correctness. The Norwich Union, alert to this new trend, has conducted a survey which has revealed that nine out of 10 people admit to exaggerating the extent to which they recycle, or to underestimating their consumption. Fifty-seven per cent thought “unethical living” (newspeak for “environmentally irresponsible living”) was as socially harmful as drink-driving.
This deployment of public shame, backed by various kinds of bullying, is never used where it should be – in the direction of those earning millions of pounds more than they need. When chief executives of FTSE 100 companies earn 67 times more than the salary of their average employee and, in the same year, incomes of the poorest fifth of the country fell 0.4 per cent, something nationally shameful and scandalous is going on. One quarter of the annual amount paid in City bonuses, Martin Narey of Barnardo’s has pointed out, would halve the child poverty in the UK.
It is difficult to see why churches, charities, unions, MPs and voters have not risen up as one to protest against this grotesque level of selfish excess. Green guilt, it seems, is considerably easier to stir up than greed guilt.