We need to get a bit angrier about climate change. That was the message delivered by the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt in a recent lecture. I think he is right. We got very hot under the collar during the banking crisis. We fumed during the relentless revelations about MP’s expenses. But (somewhat ironically) global warming does not seem to make our blood boil, despite the fact that the stakes are so much higher.
But I think we need a bit of love too. Because the extent to which our fury is constructive depends on what is behind it, as well as how it is directed. And in both recent cases, it was largely misplaced. MPs and bankers bore the brunt when the real target for outrage should have been the systems we were ourselves complicit in creating and perpetuating.
It is easy to vent our spleen at a small minority – particularly if they are wealthy or powerful. Not only does it make us feel better to have a good rant at someone else’s expense(s) but such scapegoating relieves us of our own responsibility to change, or take action to help others to do so.
But when MPs finish their two and a half month summer holiday, it will be a return to business as usual. Barring another spate of scandals, the anger will have subsided and with it, the momentum for reform. The moves for constitutional change – for fixed term Parliaments, proportional representation, caps on donations to political parties - will seem far less important.
The same is already true for the economic system. The green shoots of recovery seem to be taking hold. If, in a couple of months, they are believed to be growing nicely, we will all set about once again nurturing our pension funds and cultivating our mortgages.
Beneath the surface the rotten roots will remain, however. The significant correlation between the ‘safety’ of MPs seats and the expenses claimed will not have been addressed. The holy quest for growth based on the virtue of debt and the righteousness of capital will continue unabated, albeit a little more reverently.
It will have been the anger directed at those who bought duck-houses or received excessive bonuses which will have scuppered the chance for change.
Excessive focus on the failures of a few corrupt actors leads to a lack of accountability for the systems and culture that caused such things to happen in the first place. It works against substantive reform rather than in its favour. It only reinforces the idea that a little more regulation, or one more law will make everything alright.
Anger needs to be underpinned by love. Love is not only a better motivator, it is a better catalyst for change. Love endures after the anger has subsided. It helps to focus our anger in the right directions. And love of apparent enemies – whether they be reckless bankers or corrupt MPs – would see them as victims of a system that needs to change radically, not the hated who need to be punished and regulated to make everyone feel a bit better.
This is all the more true when the stakes are higher. It is good to get angry about the ravaging and abuse of the planet. But it should be our love of the earth, as well as of those already suffering from drought, disease and wars over depleted natural resources, which should ultimately spur us to action. And all the time acknowledging our own complicity in the habits, behaviours and lifestyles which need to change.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.
This article is adapted from his regular Church Times column, with acknowledgments.