Electric plug

This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.

One of the big issues that will face the new government on 9th June is how to maintain the electricity supply.

Governments struggle between two objectives. The first is to get as much productivity as possible using non-human energy supplies. The second is to avoid destroying ourselves in the process.

Coal, oil and gas, our main fossil fuels, are major contributors to climate change. We know we have to reduce them.

Renewable energy does not have this effect. Wind farms and solar panels seem to be a long-term answer. But how long-term? If we had invested in them seriously 50 years ago, when scientists first pointed out the harm done by fossil fuels, a great deal more would be on stream now. At things are, there is nowhere near enough to cover present usage.

Then there’s nuclear energy. It doesn’t affect the climate like oil and coal do, but it is inherently dangerous. It only works on a huge scale, and is an obvious target for someone who wanted to attack us. There are unsolved issues about disposing of toxic waste.

Fracking is another greenhouse gas, also bad for the environment, but beloved of the current government.

What’s the answer? Which of these should we invest in?

Questioning the need

As somebody who lacks physical energy (I suffer from ME) I have always begun every task by asking two questions.

  1. Does it need doing at all?
  2. What is the most energy-efficient way of doing it?

So I think of the energy issue in terms of these questions. Why do we need to do so much? Can’t we just decide to do less?

Here there is a big difference between the objectives of secular industrial society and, on the other hand, those of pre-industrial Christianity and most faith traditions.

When a society believes that the things we need have been provided by God, our expectation is that there is enough for everyone. The economic agenda is then a matter not of production but of distribution – to ensure that everybody has enough.

When a society derives its values from the belief that there is no god – or that God is irrelevant – it does not make this assumption. It looks as if humanity is the accidental result of impersonal laws of nature, so there is no case for presupposing there is enough to go round.

The pursuit of possessions

Unfortunately the case for greater productivity is exaggerated by a common mistake. We all tend to assume that the way we were brought up is normal. The main decision-makers belong to the wealthy classes. They have more stuff than the rest of us. Their lifestyles are usually abnormal but they think they are normal. They are tempted to believe that, in an ideal world, everybody would have everything they have – or near enough. As it’s impossible for seven billion people to have all that, the world seems mean.

Looking at our lifestyles from that perspective, secular society strives after endlessly increasing productivity. Successful government policies would mean that, year on year, we produce more, consume more and throw more away, without limit, for ever.

It’s impossible, but the prevailing neo-liberal mood traps us in it. If we produce less, people will be put out of work. The Government could, if it wanted, redistribute both work and money so that everybody plays their part and nobody has to work excessively long hours; but recent governments have been determined not to do it.

As long as our politicians think like this, there will be no limit to the amounts of artificial energy they look for. When our countryside has been dug up wherever possible for fracking, some other destructive technology will be needed. And another again.

A Christian alternative

A Christian way of addressing the issue – or more generally a God-based way – would challenge the idea that we need to do all this extra producing and consuming in the first place. God has given us what we need. We can use it, and we can be creative with it by doing new things; but the cult of ever-increasing productivity, far from helping to provide for our needs, damages the natural environment which is the true source of our wealth.

There is a limit to how much we need to produce and consume. We could do less, possess less, throw away less, and thereby reduce our electricity needs to what can be provided without harmful technologies. We could vote for a government that makes it possible.