The Archbishop of Canterbury caricatures consumers and fires at token targets

Type: Think Pieces Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Tuesday 13 October 2009

Most people are not like Rowan Williams' caricature of consumers who find no room for life's finer experiences.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has urged families to get in touch with "the natural rhythms of the seasons," and have "a sense of connectedness to natural processes." Instead of a consumerism which "treats each person as essentially a hole that you have to keep stuffing things into," he urges "a life that is balanced, that is at home with its material and human environment." These are fine sentiments, in that most of us would want balanced lives rather than unbalanced ones, and most of us would rather be at ease with the world than at odds with it.

The good bishop moves onto more controversial territory, however, when he mentions specifics, in that he seems to have bought the entire agenda of "token environmentalism". This is where green lobbyists pick out token targets to vilify, regardless of the actual degree to which they affect things.

So-called "food miles" provide one example. Dr Williams urges us to grow food in our gardens and on allotments rather than importing foodstuffs from places like Kenya. Many of the foods we import could indeed be grown at home, but with much more energy use than is required in warmer countries. Kenya, for example, is effectively exporting sunshine with its food crops.

Furthermore, many foodstuffs are more expensive to grow locally, so we would be banning cheaper foods from poor countries that are desperate to sell us them, simply to tick off token environmental boxes.

Dr Williams also appears to have taken on board the notion that air travel should be avoided to save the planet, and tried to make his own last year flight-free. In fact flying makes a much smaller contribution than do ocean or surface transport. It just makes an easier target for the tokenists. Budget airlines, which they denounce, in fact fly greener by using newer aircraft with engines that use less fuel, and by flying with fuller passenger loads.

Even the bishop's notion of consumers as holes to stuff things into is a caricature. We all have our values and our priorities, and we express these in terms of the things we spend time and money on. The time spent working for the school bazaar cannot be spent on reading or listening to opera. The money we spend on music cannot also be spent on clothes.

Every action is a trade-off against the things we could have done instead. Of course we look down on people driven by a crass materialism which finds no room for life's finer experiences, but most people are not like that. They express themselves through their choices, in lives that do indeed balance aesthetic and sensitive experiences with material comforts.

Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.