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CEL conference: Rt Hon John Gummer MP
Chair of the Commission on Sustainable Consumption
Saturday 6 July 2002

John Gummer gave a thought provoking talk on 'Sustainable Consumption' at Christian Ecology Link's conference in Sheffield on 6 July 2002. Here are the points he made as recounted by Jo Rathbone from the notes she took during the talk:

"We ought to be significantly encouraged that the facts of life are catching up with the beliefs of the church which has for a long time explained that the Fatherhood of God demands justice in the world. We now have a post empire world where rich countries have insisted on patterns of trade and development to which all others must adhere. But we must beware a simplistic view of trade or consumption: we now have more variety, more choice that was dreamt about 20 years ago. The nature of trade and consumption has changed. But what does that mean?

"But we must beware a simplistic view of trade or consumption:"
Trading nations have become the great and rich nations of the world. Trade appears to create wealth and is more likely to create wealth in poor countries but this is not unalloyed in the benefits it provides. The system has been designed by those in power with their own interests in mind, although it might be said that they have had the interests of others in mind also. Campaigners lobbying on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) must be accurate with facts, otherwise they will not be believed on the issue of morality. Trade does increase wealth, and all great nations have built up their economies through trade expanding across borders, for example the French Revolution where restrictions across internal borders created starvation in some areas and excesses in others. This is true in today's world. We now have a system of trade which has created enormous wealth in some parts.

Into this system of international trade the WTO was set up to establish international rules. It couldn't increase the wealth of those entering the trade system, but in a simplistic equation, something is missing. Free trade is subject to parameters to protect the vulnerable: we expect our food and other products to come up to particular standards, and therefore 'free trade' is actually 'freedom within limits'. For example let's take milk: we would all think it wrong to sell adulterated milk. But when trade is taken to the global scene, ethical constraints are not believed in for the vulnerable. Responsibility has to catch up, as it did in Britain in the nineteenth century. In the world structure there has been a failure to recognise that need to carry responsibility as well as free trade to all. In fact, free trade is only the first of many issues which teach us that there is an interdependence which is a practical necessity as well as a moral demand. As Christians, we have been taught interdependence because we are children of God.

"Issues which demand everyone to work together are becoming a necessity, rather than achieved from the basis of goodness. "
Issues which demand everyone to work together are becoming a necessity, rather than achieved from the basis of goodness. The Kyoto Protocol depends in everyone joining in - everyone counts, even those who haven't mattered in the past. This realisation is painful for nations who have been used to making decisions without others, and which are having to realise that others matter and need to be brought in. It is wrong to assume that decisions by rich nations are always selfish - there is often 'good intent' - but even after such declarations of good intent, rich nations still assume that they 'know best'. With regard to Kyoto, it hurts to acknowledge that China and India and Myanmar are just as important as Britain. China's large population will overtake the US in CO2 emissions.

The other painful thing to acknowledge is that decisions that we as a nation have disagreed with have been right, such as EU regulations to improve water quality, or on preventing CFC emissions through appropriate disposal of fridges. In the same way as in a marriage, we can't choose the times we have to be together, so with international relations, we share the planet and have to work and live together all the time. This is difficult for the US. They are burdened with the absolute belief that what they do is for the benefit of all, they believe that they are bringing civilisation. With Kyoto, the US is being challenged at the most difficult point - it requires interdependence to solve the problem. But even though the US has got through denial of the problem, they are now denying the answer, and the answer is tough. A deal needs to be made with India and China, and it requires justice - in fact, the US has to do a deal which increases justice or there is no deal.

Sooner or later the time will come when a deal will have to be made anyway. Disasters are coming into people's consciousness through the television.

Responding to these issues from the point of view of Gospel statements is difficult. It is more difficult to handle wealth than less wealth (handling poverty is quite a different question). If we don't have, then we don't have to deal with temptation. With rising living standards and consequently expectations, the choices become difficult. The poorest have now what the richest didn't have 100 years ago, for example. And in this context of a comparative notion of poverty, consumption is a difficult question. One cannot simply say that we will consume what is 'necessary' as this notion has changed over time.

To show how complex the issues of globalisation are, let's look at Kenyan beans being sold in supermarkets in this country. A whole series of questions arises for which there aren't easy answers.

  • If we don't buy the beans, someone loses their job,
  • but growing beans uses a chemical - methyl bromide - which damages the ozone layer.
  • Should the UK then insist on a change in production techniques,
    and would such a question be posed anyway, surely this is a question of governance?
  • What would be the impact on democracy? Should we insist? Are we right? Would this constitute an infringement of sovereignty?

  • Then there are questions such as should we eat beans out of season?
  • Should we restrict choice?
  • Are they the right price? The price in the supermarket doesn't cover the full environmental cost of transporting beans.
These are questions about consumption which concern the 'global commons', and how we are to handle an interdependent world.

Three propositions to end with:

1. The need to recognise interdependence, in the context of safeguarding wealth, extending wealth and preventing poverty, solving the global problems of the ozone layer, and climate change. We have to act in common if we are to act at all.
2. Creating a situation in which justice or a greater degree of equity is a necessity not just a desire from our point of view.
3. Christians have a particular responsibility. The issues are complex and difficult, and Christians need to reinvest in the Creation Myth to address them. God created the world and all in it, and therefore it requires reverence. It was not made by us but was given to us. We need to recover reverence, stewardship and reticence (don't grab, but think, consider and use minds capable of reflection) then see a way forward.

We are at the beginning of an exciting time, the beginning of the challenge that this new millennium offers, where justice becomes a practical necessity and not just a theological proposition.

Later in the discussion someone brought up the topic of Ecological footprints.

And here is the hymn at the end of the conference.

Hymn at end of CEL's Conference

Link to Sir John Houghton's Talk at the same conference

Copyright © 2002-2007 Jo Rathbone, John Gummer and Christian Ecology Link     email: CEL
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