Spiritual Steps on Sustainable Living

Abbot Christopher JamisonBy way of introduction I stand here this evening as a monk. You can tell that I’m a monk by my habit. As the Latin proverb says, however, ‘the habit does not make the monk.’ For example think of a fancy dress party. I was once invited to a fancy dress party and the first mistake I made was to accept the invitation; my second mistake was not to bother changing. I walked in and was immediately kissed on the lips by a nun. I draw a discrete veil over the rest of that evening and simply reassure you that, the habit does indeed make the monk and that it is as a monk that I speak to you.

What can the monastic tradition bring to the climate change debate? I hope to show this evening that it can bring not a whole solution but some elements that are currently neglected in environmental conversations. Historically, the monasteries of Europe have been repositories of forgotten truths and neglected texts, enabling people to emerge from the Dark Ages and rebuild European culture. I will not make such grand claims for my insights this evening but I think that the insights of the Christian monastic tradition are still significant as we look to develop sustainable living.

Learning from the credit crunch

I begin with a cautionary tale about another of my forays outside the monastery this time not to a fancy dress party but to the City of London in 2003. My destination on this occasion was the Financial Services Authority (FSA). With me was Roger Steare, a city consultant with whom I had just set up ‘The Soul Gym’, a project to promote ethical behaviour in business. In October 2002, the FSA had published a discussion paper entitled “An Ethical Framework for Financial Services”, an initiative strongly supported by the Chairman of the FSA, Howard Davies. In the Foreword to that paper, Davies notes that mechanical compliance with rules had done little to prevent problems in the financial sector and that this had serious consequences for a wide range of people. He continues with a statement that is chillingly relevant to our current financial crisis: “the principles (of the FSA) – our high level standards – are based on ethical values. But it is not clear that this ethos is fully understood or applied consistently by everyone working in the industry. This paper (An Ethical Framework for Financial Services) considers why that might be and how we might move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on firms’ and individuals’ motivation to do the ‘right thing’.” The paper goes on to say that the FSA wants “to establish a clear and explicit, shared understanding about what integrity means in practice.” So the Soul Gym was hired to carry forward that task, and in 2003 we published a paper entitled Integrity in Practice: An Introduction for Financial Services. In simple terms, we offered virtue as the necessary ethical foundation for the financial services industry and showed how the classical virtues provided a very practical basis for defining integrity. To remind you, the four classical or cardinal virtues are fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence. We asserted that to act in accordance with those virtues is to show integrity in practice and we gave illustrations from financial services to show this in operation. We concluded that the industry needed an ethical training programme alongside compliance training if it was to move beyond tick box compliance to achieve ethical integrity.

So what happened? To cut a long story short, Howard Davies retired as FSA chairman and the new Financial Services Skills Council took over responsibility for ethics. This new body sacked the man who had commissioned our paper and went back to concentrating on rule compliance. The ethical project was over, the window of opportunity was closed and five years later the consequences are clear. While there are many proximate causes of the current financial crisis, the ultimate cause is ethical. We can now see that the financial services industry was both over-regulated and unethical, a lethal combination, like a school with strict teachers where amazingly the pupils still get away with murder. Quoting Howard Davies’s prescient words again, the FSA has clearly failed to “move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on firms’ and individuals’ motivation to do the ‘right thing’.”

This experience taught me that most people today are frightened of a serious engagement with ethics in the public forum. Popular ethics goes as follows: ethics at work is rule compliance, ethics in public matters is what the law allows and the rest of ethics is labelled private. Public morality has become rule and law compliance so that public morality as morality no longer has a place in the public forum. The term ‘moral’ is now so debased that it is usually connected to ‘moralising, a pejorative term to describe people sticking their noses into other people’s business. As Howard Davies’s warning in 2002 shows, however, this debasing of the moral sphere is the key to understanding the origins of our financial crisis.

The metaphysics of climate change

So my first proposal this evening is that the debate about the physics of climate change must be accompanied by a debate about the metaphysics of climate change. We need rules and laws aimed at reducing climate change but they will not be enough. If we are to move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on people’s motivation to do the right thing, then our culture will need to rediscover the reality of metaphysics.

Metaphysics can refer to a particular branch of philosophy but the word ‘metaphysics’ means literally ‘what comes after the physics’ and that is the meaning I’m using this evening. My task this evening is not to debate the physics of the International Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), though let me state clearly that I accept the conclusions contained in the summary of their 2007 report. My task is to answer the question: when we’ve studied the IPCC’s physics, what comes after the physics? Laws and codes are part of the answer but my aim is to explore what else we need in order to counter the environmental degradation that their report so clearly describes.

The first metaphysical port of call for a modern person facing a public issue is the human rights agenda. Most people today believe in human rights; they are the great metaphysical success of the modern era. Contemporary discussions about right and wrong usually revolve around human rights. So, for example, discussions about the end of life cluster around the right to die and discussions about gender cluster around women’s rights. The development of human rights has succeeded in creating a framework within which to address many issues and the benefits have been enormous.

The human rights approach has, however, not provided a framework within which to address environmental issues. It has been noted for many years that there are human rights implications flowing from climate change, as people lose the means to live healthy lives in some countries. The human rights perspective helps us to measure the impact of climate change but it does not help us to remove its causes.2

Some people try to use the rights agenda by giving ‘environmental rights’ to the earth itself. A theological version of this involves a pantheist understanding of the earth as being not simply sacred but the earth as divine, mother earth as goddess. Some have claimed Christian tradition in support of such opinions. I believe, however, that Christian tradition does not support these views. I do accept the basic insight that the earth’s ecology needs to be treated as a unity and that human well-being is part of that ecology. But that does not lead inevitably to earth rights or to pantheism. Those are not the only ways to approach the metaphysics of climate change. Moreover, such beliefs strike many people in this country as alien and strange, leading to caricatures that ecology is for tree huggers. I believe that a much more robust metaphysical avenue is open to us, namely, the classical Christian tradition of the virtues. It is this tradition that St Benedict drew on in his Rule where he describes monks as ‘people who delight in virtue.’ The tradition of the virtues is weak in Britain but fortitude and justice, temperance and prudence are realities that still resonate positively in the lives of British people.

The tradition of the virtue

So how does the metaphysics of virtue work when applied to climate change? Letís take each of the four classical virtues in turn and look very briefly at their connection to environmental action. Firstly, fortitude: we are going to need courage to address our ecological problems. National and local communities will need courage to create a culture of environmental awareness and to take concrete steps to address climate change. Secondly, justice: justice will lead us to reach solutions that protect the weakest against the actions of the strong, so that third world countries are not left paying the ecological price for first world consumption. Thirdly, temperance: we will need to moderate our use of resources and develop technologies that enable us to use them more efficiently. Finally, prudence: we will need to act with prudence and not risk irreversible changes to the climate. At the same time, prudence requires us to recognise the benefits of industrial culture in relieving poverty, so we will not misuse the prudential principle to undermine those benefits. The key point to note, however, is that the tradition of the virtues insists that all the virtues are operative at the same time. So simply emphasising justice is inadequate; each helps to define the other. As we shall see later, the addition of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love generates a comprehensive picture of human action that constitutes the Church’s unique contribution.

These examples are broad applications of the virtues but even these generalised insights give the missing ingredient in the current environmental debate: the virtues provide an agreed framework within which to conduct the debate about what actions we need to take in the light of climate change. Most importantly, the framework of the virtues can be used for deciding both policy questions and lifestyle issues.

Public policy: nuclear power

So let me now give some worked examples in more detail. Firstly from the area of public policy and here I purposely choose a controversial area of concern, namely, nuclear power generation. There is an important debate underway about the physics of nuclear power: for example, while changing hydrogen atoms into helium creates zero carbon emissions, the construction of the reactors requires enormous amounts of carbon generating activity as does the disposal of the radioactive waste product. Furthermore, the way to run a safe reactor needs careful calculation and risk assessment. After all those issues are resolved, the fact remains, however, that Britain cannot build enough reactors to meet all our energy needs and so they are at best part of a solution. But beyond that debate, a metaphysical question can be asked: are human beings capable of running a virtuous nuclear power industry? If a virtuous power industry is an oxymoron, then no matter what the physics, we should not have one. To be virtuous, the industry would have to have created a culture of people who are courageous, just, temperate and prudent. What might that look like? We need to have that discussion as part of the debate about nuclear power. The point I am making is that we need to discuss virtue as part of the public forum debate around all aspects of climate change mitigation.

Lifestyle: greed

So having looked at the culture of virtue and how it might apply to policy issues, let’s now take a look at how virtue plays out in peopleís lifestyle and how that too is relevant to climate change. In this area, I choose as an example how the virtue of temperance can affect our lifestyle choices. We are increasingly aware that the Western lifestyle needs to change if we are to contain climate change. This is a problematic area because consumer culture is so embedded in our way of life. And of course this industrial system has brought real benefits. Too often people decry this culture’s material impact without seeing its material benefits, so what has gone wrong with this commercial process? The danger lies not simply in what consumer culture has done to our bodies but in what it has done to our souls, which in turn has led to an abuse of the material world. In this area of life, the monastic tradition offers some penetrating insights about temperance and about greed.

John Cassian was a great fourth century monk, the inspiration of St Benedict, and here is his account of greed in a monk: Greed is a work of the imagination that begins with apparently harmless thoughts. The monk begins to think that ‘what is supplied in the monastery is inadequate and can hardly sustain a healthy and robust body.’ The thought develops: ‘the monk ponders how he can get hold of at least one penny.’ When he has achieved that ‘then he is distracted with the still more serious concern of what to buy with it and how he can double it.’ This in turn leads to disillusionment with the way things are in the monastery and the monk cannot put up with things any longer so he wants to leave the monastery.

What emerges from this and other monastic writings is how deeply seriously greed was taken by the founders of the monastic tradition. The two basic insights that they offer can be readily applied to the lives of ordinary people today. Firstly, greed has its origins in the mental picture we have of our life and its needs. Secondly, if we get that mental picture wrong, it is a potential source of disintegration in the lives not only of individuals but also of communities. Armed with those monastic insights about how greed actually works, we can now look at consumer culture.

Our Western culture is saturated with goods. The economically stable individuals and households who make up the majority of our population have more stuff than they actually need. While they might be persuaded to buy some more or different versions of what they already have, business recognises this material saturation and so the present thrust of consumerism is towards selling culture as well as things. Having saturated the world of our material needs, consumerism is now taking over our need for cultural goods such as music, entertainment and even moral purpose.

Let me give an example: Nike has a section of its web site called ‘Addicts Gallery’ where runners can post comments like this from Raul: “I am at the will of a higher purpose.” On the video clip accompanying it, we see Raul go running in Nike kit and then hear him say: “I have plugged into a higher purpose, left this world and come back changed. I am addicted.” Even our souls are now consumerised and marketing is taking over not only our material imagination but also our spiritual imagination. So Nike and the other great corporations now inhabit our imagination, the place where greed is generated. Once planted there they can make us endlessly greedy. And that is exactly what they are doing.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than at Christmas. The commercial world has taken over the popular imagination at Christmas and tells us that there are only two essential parts of the festival, namely, Christmas gifts and Christmas feasting. Shopping is the key to both these activities and over the shopping frenzy is laid a sentimental short cut to peace on earth: one day a year of peace and good will, then back to normal or rather forward to the sales.

Happy Christmas?

An important bulwark against consumer Christmas is Advent. Advent is the traditional month of preparation before Christmas, a time of fasting and intense prayer, a time of eager expectation. It is above all a time to celebrate waiting as a normal part of human experience, when the Christian tradition invites us to wait for the birth of the Christ child. In Advent we rejoice that we are waiting, that there is still time to prepare a way for the Lord and we celebrate the virtue of patience. By contrast, the consumer world tells us not to wait but to ‘buy now.’ Greed cannot wait, so to learn to wait is a simple antidote to greed. Christmas has become greedy because Advent as a period of restraint and of waiting has disappeared. Most people presume that Christmas begins when Christmas products appear in the shops in November. For example, a journalist who visited Worth Abbey a few days before Christmas was astonished to find no sign of Christmas decorations anywhere. She couldn’t grasp that we were still celebrating Advent and that we wouldn’t start Christmas until the night of Christmas Eve. A credit card company once ran a Christmas campaign with the slogan: ‘Access takes the waiting out of wanting.’ By contrast, Advent puts the waiting back into wanting. Advent-with-Christmas has the potential to teach us how to enjoy the delight that comes from waiting. So the Operation Noah Advent campaign is really timely. This campaign reminds people that Advent is an important part of our heritage and it fosters the virtue of temperance that is a key weapon in the fight against climate change. Is this just Puritanism? No, if Advent becomes a time of temperance, then the Christmas feast becomes a time of heightened enjoyment, both more restrained beforehand and more joyful on the day. Happy Christmas? Yes, provided we wait for it.


The workings of temperance to contain greed is just one example of what virtue brings to people’s lives as we learn how to reduce climate change. One of the most important insights of Catholic theology is that the life of virtue can be known by all, without reference to religious doctrine. This natural law approach means that the Church urges virtue on all people irrespective of their religious beliefs and wants to work collaboratively with all those who promote virtue. The term ‘the good life’ once meant the life of goodness and virtue that all decent people aspired to lead. This was seen as a life full of delight in living well, this was happiness, not a burden to be endured. This attitude is one that we must recapture if we are to find the human resources needed to cope with climate change.

It could well be that the current economic crisis and the growing ecological crisis act as a summons to rediscover this understanding of happiness. Our current culture describes happiness as feeling good and then adds that consumption is what keeps you feeling good. In other words, happiness is the same as pleasure. If, on the other hand, we identify happiness with knowing the good and doing good, then we have a happiness that does not demand endless pleasure and endless consumption. So what does it mean to know the good? It means knowing the goodness of creation, the goodness of other people and ultimately the goodness of God. What does it mean to do good? It means to live the virtues, responding generously to other people and working positively with others. Happiness is not feeling good, it is knowing the good and doing good. There is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure and consumption but if they are not set in the wider context of the good life then they will not make us happy. The climate is reminding our culture of forgotten truths.3

Speaking in 2001, Pope John Paul II said that “Above all in our time, humanity has unhesitatingly devastated plains and valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the earth’s habitats, made the air unbreathable, upset the hydro-geological and atmospheric conditions… It is necessary therefore to stimulate and sustain the ‘ecological conversion’ which over these last decades has made humanity more sensitive when facing the catastrophe towards which it is moving.”4

I believe that this ecological conversion involves individuals and society explicitly reaffirming that the classical virtues do indeed describe the good life. The churches in Britain, together with other religious communities, have a unique role to play in this regard. The four cardinal virtues have become endangered species, but the Church has given them sanctuary. They have been protected by the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. For the Christian, the cardinal virtues are rooted in the theological virtues. Does this mean that only Christians have displayed fortitude and justice, temperance and prudence? No, because these virtues are part of being human. Nor does it mean that only Christians have thought like this. What this does mean, however, is that the Church is the principal global institution that sees in these virtues hard realities that have their own science that can be taught. In addition, the Church affirms them as an integral foursome that, when rooted in faith, hope and love, adds up to the heart of humanity. It is this totality of vision that is the Church’s special contribution. As the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Baltahsar commented: “The Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics in our time.”5

From small towns to big business

So my proposal this evening is simple but demanding: the tradition of the virtues is our greatest resource in developing the metaphysics of climate change. Just as the development of the human rights project during the 20th century liberated people from suffering so we now need a new virtues project in the 21st century to liberate us from climate catastrophe. As the guardian of the tradition of the virtues, the Church, together with other religious communities, has a special role in this new and vital project. What will it look like? How will it come about? What can I do? It is the Church’s task to take a lead in responding to those questions.

There is to hand, however, an initiative that offers practical examples of the virtues in action. All over the country, Transition Town initiatives are springing up. The Transition Network describes a Transition Town Initiative as “a community working together to look Peak Oil and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this big question: ‘for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change?'” There are now over 60 towns in Britain where this initiative is underway, with groups of ordinary people looking at their local community to devise ways of being less oil dependent and emitting less carbon. They are re-imagining the life of their local community to arrive at a way of life that they think will be not only more ecological but also more enjoyable than their current way of life. Whether they know it or not, Transition Towns are reinventing the understanding of the good life as understood by the tradition of the virtues. At this point, some of you may remember the 1970’s BBC sit com The Good Life starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall as the couple seeking the alternative lifestyle. This was comedy precisely because they were doing things that didn’t work and doing them on their own in the face of scorn from their neighbour Margot. By contrast the Transition Town initiative is about finding solutions that are both communal and workable leading to a better quality of life for all. The local church can bring a strong tradition of virtuous living as a significant contribution to such initiatives.

As well as grass roots initiatives, big business is also offering examples of virtuous action. For example, WS Atkins is a British based, multinational engineering and design consultancy. Their Chief Executive Keith Clarke recently said this: “We cannot simply design a road, a building or a town, then ask key questions about energy use or environmental impact afterwards.” They are developing a fundamental change of approach to designing capital projects, what they call Carbon Critical Design. They recognise that carbon trading is not the solution and they are seeking to make carbon credit an essential ingredient in all their work. He concludes “The time has come to move from worthy discussion about climate change to action. Only then will we begin to ask the questions that really matter, if we are to ensure that we, as professionals, show leadership in the most complex issue the world faces.”6

Finally, the British Government’s Climate Change Act has set the toughest regulatory framework for reducing carbon emissions of any country in the world, with a new government ministry to oversee its implementation.

The issue of climate change is creating an unusual convergence: local communities, major private sector businesses and the British government. Those who deny the human component of climate change are now simply being bypassed at every level.

Noah: symbol of virtue in the face of climate change

In his magnificent work After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre defends the tradition of the virtues and concludes that we are waiting for a new but very different St Benedict to re-express the virtuous life in our day. We are now fortunate in having a Pope who has self-consciously taken the name of Europe’s great monastic patriarch and who is not afraid to challenge Western society’s way of life.

So let me leave you with the words Pope Benedict spoke earlier this year in reply to a priest’s question about the environment: “In fact, it’s not just a question of finding techniques that can prevent environmental harms, even if it’s important to find alternative sources of energy and so on. But all this won’t be enough if we ourselves don’t find a new style of life, a discipline which is made up in part of renunciations: a discipline of recognition of others, to whom Creation belongs just as much as those of us who can make use of it more easily; a discipline of responsibility to the future for others and for ourselves. It’s a question of responsibility before Our Lord who is our Judge, and as Judge our Redeemer, but nonetheless our Judge.”10

Abbot Christopher Jamison OSB

1 The Operation Noah Inaugural Lecture given at the Church of St Alban the Martyr, London on 11th November 2008
2 For example, the International Council on Human Rights Policy based in Geneva has published its first study of climate change only this year, 2008 under the title Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide. The title alone indicates how tentative this area still is.
3 cf. Jamison, C. Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life (London 2008)
4 Pope John Paul II General Audience 17th January 2001
5 The Glory of the Lord (volume V): The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age p.656
6 Clake, K, The Carbon Critical Design Question in Angles Issue 2: 2008

Photo: Abbot Christopher Jamison at the National Congress for Catholics working with young people. [Photo credit: Mazur/Catholic Church]