Huw Spanner
Thoughts into words,
ideas into action
Curriculum Vitae



Sage Green

This was the first interview I ever did, for Third Way on the 4th August 1993. As a former director of Friends of the Earth, Jonathon Porritt (since knighted) was then still Britain’s most influential environmentalist.

Crises come in all sizes. When you talk of an ecological crisis, what do you have in mind? Do you find anything comparable in history?

This is a slow-burning crisis. If you stack up the importance of the different crises that are unfolding right now – in Yugoslavia, for instance, or in Africa – the environment may not come out top of that short-term list; but without doubt it comes top of the list early on in the next century.

Are there precedents in history? There are many examples of societies which have collapsed for no other reason than the abuse of the natural world on which they depended. On Easter Island, a whole society once had a very basic way of life, but it needed its trees and once they were destroyed the society collapsed.

In Mesopotamia, they exceeded the capacity of their land to produce wheat and barley. Through a process of gradual salinisation and over-irrigation they wiped out their own civilisation. Some of the North African civilisations – some people would even say the whole Roman Empire – collapsed through a process of ecological exhaustion.

But each of those civilisations was replaced by another. Do you see this crisis as terminal?

Certainly not for the earth. I do tear my hair out in frustration at those who talk about the destruction of all life on earth. But we are talking about a continuing attrition, through loss of biodiversity in particular, and about very serious threats to very large numbers of people, particularly in the Third World.

Many of the problems we face are only tenuously connected. Wouldn’t it be helpful to distinguish issues that threaten humankind, such as the greenhouse effect, from issues like the killing of whales, which have a strong sentimental impact but don’t pose any threat to us?

I don’t think so. It would deny the broader philosophical endeavour of the green movement to show how these different phenomena emerge from our fundamentally distorted view of ourselves and our relationship with the earth.

From a strictly reductionist point of view, one can argue that the extinction of a certain species is an entirely separate phenomenon from acid rain or whatever. That is perfectly accurate. But at a deeper level you have to look at the connections between those different issues, and that is when you start seeing them not so much as environmental problems per se but as symptoms of an inherently unsustainable economic and social order.

If you follow the logic of the sustainable utilisation of other species – the utilitarian philosophy which dominates world environmentalism today – there is no reason why we shouldn’t catch a few whales every year. Well, that ain’t enough. If we’re in the business of healing the relationship between us, other species and the earth, then the last thing you want to do is go around slaughtering other species. You can’t put that across in strictly scientific terms, but it matters just as much to the heart and soul of the green movement.

Do you see the green struggle as something that is primarily practical or spiritual?

I wish it was both equally. The huge proportion of environmental activity is practical work, whether in terms of international issues or local grassroots campaigns. A tiny proportion is in the philosophical, spiritual or religious domain.

What are the principal roots of the crisis?

You’d have to go back to the dominant assumptions that have guided the human adventure, certainly since the start of the Industrial Revolution, if not the Renaissance. Some would take it right back to the origins of Judaeo-Christian society.

There are at least a dozen core assumptions of industrial societies which are still absolutely powerful even though they are hardly ever acknowledged. They are to do with the nature of progress, the relationships between men and women, the relationships between ourselves and the earth. They shape our society so that it is very difficult of anybody to grow as an individual without being affected by them, impregnated by them.

One such assumption is that we can achieve progress primarily through economic growth. Then there is the notion of conquering nature rather than living with nature as a co-partner.

There are some factors the green movement tends not to mention – for example, the population explosion. Is that purely for political reasons?

Yes. I believe there is a conspiracy of silence about the issue. The left will never talk about it for fear of being identified, however indirectly, with the oppressive forces in China or wherever. Even the Church of England finds it very hard to deal with – they don’t want to upset Catholics or Muslims. The whole religious contribution to the population issue has until recently been very quiet indeed.

The right has tried to deal with it, but in such an insensitive and inept way that they have taken themselves out of the debate. The terms in which they put it – largely to do with comparing people in the Third World with rabbits – are horrific.

Are you in favour of population control?

I am in favour of doing everything we can now to ensure rapid reductions in population growth-rates. I don’t use the phrase ‘population control’ myself, because it implies that ultimately we will have to coerce people. I don’t agree with that. I think you can educate people in the advantages of restricting fertility. Family planning should be an integral part of a programme of initiatives on education, health care, access to sustainable livelihood and so on.

To talk about a stable future for the human species without family planning is to me total self-indulgence and utterly hypocritical.

Christians have always tended to have large families. Do you think it’s incumbent on us now to limit ourselves to two children rather than four?

Yes. I would say unequivocally that in the developed world good stewardship is not compatible with large families.

What holds people back from a greener lifestyle?

A very large number of people still believe it is possible to be a kind of minimalist green, to make gestures – recycling, turning off lights and so on – but not to change profoundly the ways in which we live or create wealth. Most people hope that we can more or less go on doing what we’re doing now, but just do it in a more environment-friendly way. So, there is a genuine reluctance to look deeply into the lifestyle implications of going radically green.

There is a lot of confusion. People never really know whether you can believe what you read on a packet or believe a consumers’ organisation or an environment group or a government minister. So they say, ‘If nobody really knows what the truth is, what difference does it make what I do?’

There’s a lot of apathy, a lot of indifference. There is still a certain amount of residual ignorance about some of the issues, but that is rapidly changing. Look at our schools. We are now turning out the first environmentally literate generation that we’ve ever seen in this country.

Do you feel bitter or angry when you see people not being green – throwing down litter or driving alone in their cars? Do you take your zeal so personally?

I do, very personally; but I don’t believe that lecturing and hectoring people is particularly helpful. I think we have to be patient.

Where do you draw the line in your own attempt to live more responsibly? For example, could you ever enjoy a good bonfire?

Yes, without any hesitation. I do not see myself as a paragon of purist green virtue. If I need to hire a car to ensure that I get to a meeting, I will and I’ll drive alone to be there and do the job that I have to do.

What if people accuse you of being a hypocrite?

Why? I don’t have a car, 95 per cent of the time I go by British Rail, and then I use my bicycle. But when I need to do something I see no problem.

People can get themselves into the most terrible kind of confusion here. It’s not that every single tiny little action that we do has to subscribe to the most purist green code of behaviour; it is that the thrust of our lives must be to reduce the damage that we cause through our consumption patterns.

It would be nice to think our politicians were straining at the leash of practicality, just dying to implement green policies. But they’re not, I suspect. Why not?

Lots of different reasons. There’s a lot of ideological baggage that this generation have brought with them. When they came into politics the environment was seen as a completely peripheral concern.

Then, it’s sometimes difficult to see how they can make political advantage out of it. It’s dangerous to talk about pursuing environmental policies as if everybody could win. If we’re going to change our ways, there will be some losers. And a lot of those losers are powerful people who don’t like constraints on their activities.

There are fewer votes in it than politicians would seek, and politicians are after votes. There are very few who are in politics to pursue a vision or a cause or some sense of much deeper value. I don’t say that cynically. People shouldn’t stand on a high horse and say that’s wicked – that’s how the system works.

Do you think the kind of radical solutions we need are possible under a democracy? Or does the world need authoritarian government to rescue it?

No. I am absolutely convinced we cannot make the transition to a sustainable society by any other route than a democratic one.

But if China were a democracy and had not imposed its population-control measures, there would already be a lot more Chinese, wanting fridges and cars, and a lot more strain on the earth’s resources.

That assumes that the Chinese people could never be persuaded of the merits of having fewer children. I don’t subscribe to that view. I think the advantages become self-evident with the right kind of investment in education and health care.

Given the situation in China at the point when they looked at the projected population increases in their country and the diminishing supply of resources to feed those people, they clearly had no option but to impose extremely authoritarian measures, and I have to say I’m glad that they did. I regret deeply some of the things that have happened as a consequence – the erosion of civil liberties, and appalling acts of cruelty – but the policy itself was absolutely necessary at that time.

But most of the shining examples of reductions of population growth-rates come from democracies. Look at what happened in Japan in the Fifties and Sixties, or in Thailand in the Seventies and Eighties.

People in this country are educated, but wouldn’t it be good if the Government could limit people, for example, to one car per household?

No. The fact is that people having two cars is already doing tremendous damage to very large numbers of individuals and certainly to the global environment. But that is not the generally held view in society, and to force it onto people in an anti-democratic way seems to me to be counterproductive. The likelihood of people accepting it is zero.

A far more effective way is to ensure that the Government makes people pay the full cost of the ownership of their cars.

You’re seen as a spiritual man. Would you describe yourself as spiritual, or religious – or sentimental?

I would certainly call myself a spiritual person. A large part of my work is spiritually inspired.

I would hesitate a little to call myself religious. In certain company I think I can call myself a Christian, but I wouldn’t want to stretch the definition: there are many things in my own particular faith that are not compatible with conventional Christianity. For instance, I don’t believe in life after death. I do, however, believe very strongly in most of the rest of Christianity, and feel easy about calling myself a Christian when I’m with myself or with God, as it were.

Am I sentimental? If that means openness to feeling and a deep, deep emotional commitment to people and the earth and its creatures, yes, I will own up to being sentimental.

Do you worship someone, or something?

I believe that every single particle of the earth was created by God, and therefore stands in the eyes of God in the same relationship. In that respect I worship a creator God, and I believe that that act of creation is perhaps the single most important spiritual insight which informs my life.

The Church Fathers talked about ‘the Book of Nature’. What does that book say to you?

That God is in everything, and so it is appropriate to respond to the natural world with the knowledge that it is full of God.

The distinction between pantheism and panentheism may sound a small one, but it is critical. I don’t call myself a pagan or a pantheist. I don’t worship trees or rocks or rivers as trees and rocks and rivers; but I do respond to them and feel an extremely deep affinity with the natural world as an expression of Godhead. For me, the natural world is indeed the book of God.

That is something I find lacking in a lot of my colleagues, but also I find it isn’t a reality in the lives of a very large number of religious, and specifically Christian, people.

How do you measure the value of a human being against that of, say, a dolphin?

I accept many of the criticisms that have come from the ‘deep ecology’ movement of the excessively human-centred perspectives that we bring to bear on both the spiritual and the political side of our lives. I think we are disgracefully anthropocentric, to the point that we ignore the interests of the rest of the world – I hesitate to use the word ‘rights’ – in an astonishingly short-sighted and arrogant way.

But I do not subscribe to the theory of biological egalitarianism. Whether we like it or not, the human species, by virtue of our evolutionary path, has a quite unique responsibility which I choose to interpret in terms of stewardship.

There are many people who question the notion and call it anthropocentric. There are many even within the school of creation theology – Matthew Fox, for instance – who are critical of the concept: they think it still reflects an old worldview about a servant-master relationship between us and the earth. Well, I just don’t buy all that kind of stuff. If we acted genuinely as stewards in the way that stewardship can be understood from the Bible, I think we would be living in a totally different world from the one we’re living in now.

Would you go as far as to say that God created humankind to be stewards?

No. If you track us back, along with every other species, to that moment (we assume) when all created matter – a million, million galaxies – came into being, I don’t believe that God foreordained a particular evolutionary track for our species.

But I do believe that there is a purpose in the ways in which those evolutionary patterns have unfolded, and we are part of that purpose.

Isn’t the whole concern to preserve other species in fact contrary to nature? Other animals don’t lose sleep about it. Doesn’t it go against the grain of the creation?

You can take (though it’s something I’m loth to do) the utilitarian view that we should protect the biosphere because we don’t know —

But it isn’t for utilitarian reasons but for gut reasons that you want to save the gorilla or the African elephant. Aren’t your gut feelings contrary to nature?

Only if you believe that the model of Darwinian evolution – survival through aggression and competition – is not only correct but exclusively so. I don’t accept that. If you look at the work of biologists like Lynn Margulis, or go back to the writings of Peter Kropotkin, who looked into what he called mutualism in nature, you will find that evolution has as much to do with co-operation and symbiosis as it does with conflict and aggression.

So, to say that working with other species, protecting other species, is contrary to the pattern of evolution only reflects, if I may say so, an extremely narrow and partial interpretation of evolution.

Is it fair to say, then, that although you don’t believe that the human species was specifically created to be stewards of the earth, it is pleasing to the Creator if we assume that role?

Indeed. And I would take the argument further: for us not to assume that role is, I believe, displeasing in the eyes of the Creator.

You said that some people trace the roots of the crisis back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Do Greens regard Christians as allies or enemies?

On the whole, as allies. Very few environmentalists (and I regret this) have gone into that wonderfully stirring debate, started by Lynn White, about whether the Judaeo-Christian tradition has contributed to or diminished environmental pressures.

Why hasn’t the response of Christians been greater?

A very large number of individual Christians are doing environmental work. But many are nervous of a movement that concentrates on this world almost to the exclusion of the next, and by virtue of that emphasis seems to deny the validity of the next world – sometimes in an overpowering way. (These are the good reasons, by the way. There are a lot of bad reasons – apathy and all the rest.)

Some Christians are deeply uneasy about what they see as pagan tendencies in the green movement. They see any reference to tree-hugging as a sort of terrible outbreak of the worst kind of pagan recidivism, and they’re frightened. They’re frightened of the New Age and stuff like that. I really think they ought to just ease up and relax. People who subscribe to New Age values are not the kind of people they can understand; but, my God, they’re not the enemy they make them out to be!

I agree that there are some weird and wacky and even one or two quite nasty, manifestations of the New Age. But the vast mass of people who go in for New Age stuff are gentle, enquiring, often very muddled people, who don’t particularly know where to find spiritual authority but believe that a pursuit of spiritual truth is of critical importance.

The third reason is that the church has been reluctant to leap onto some opportunistic green bandwagon and start reinterpreting the texts to accommodate itself to what it thinks might turn out to be another trendy wave passing through society. I respect that intellectual rigour; but I think as a consequence they’ve been extremely conservative and have failed to engage in the theological debate a lot of green Christians have invited them into.

I think that’s changing, partly because of the number of books that have been published recently. There has been an astonishing flowering of green theology of a highly reputable kind.

Do you regard the Bible as a green book?

No. I see it as a source of explanation and authority, and something from which a great deal of extremely important teaching can be derived vis-à-vis our relationship with God’s world; but I don’t see it as a green book.

Do you find it awkward or embarrassing that Jesus did not say anything green?

I don’t think I have ever asked myself that question before. When I think of Jesus as a model, I think of him largely as a political, social and spiritual model, not as an ecological model.

If good stewardship is incumbent upon us because it would please the Creator, and yet you don’t believe in life after death, why does it matter?

I have no answer to that. It’s just what I believe.

I would add that I do believe in life after death, but not in the sense that Christians do. I believe that what will be me at the time of my death will be reincorporated into the biosphere, and I will be literally recycled into billions of other organisms.

But an integral part of the biblical concept of stewardship is that stewards give account. Do you believe you will ever give account?

I don’t believe there will be an account at the end of the day. I suppose it’s a bit like the distinction between continuous assessment and an exam. I believe that I am being continually assessed as a steward, but I don’t believe there’s going to be a final reckoning, where everything that I’ve done will be totted up and held against me for good or bad.

But I do have a sense of duty to a creator God, and I don’t find any contradiction in that.

© Third Way 1993

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