The Central Issue of Our Time

Published by: Mayer Hillman on 27th Jan 2011 | View all blogs by Mayer Hillman

The global atmosphere has only a finite capacity to safely absorb further greenhouse gas emissions from our continuing to burn fossil fuels. The outcome of maintaining energy-profligate lifestyles is either that we must then prevent others from having their fair share of what is left of these finite resources or must we admit that we don’t really care about the planet’s future habitability?

We must face up to the fact that individual efforts to act responsibly are obviously as good as worthless as any strategy to respond sufficiently to limiting the extreme consequences of climate change can only be assured of success if everyone is obliged to contribute to the essential massive reduction in the use of these fuels. This necessarily entails a distribution based on the principle of fairness – not of price.


However, very few people seem prepared to work out their annual carbon footprint, let alone to voluntarily live their lives according to this principle. Just think about it: what justification can there be for any individual to drive a car ten thousand miles in a year or to make just one round flight to New York for social, leisure or business purposes when each off these actions results in the release of their fair entitlement of carbon emissions for all their fossil fuel uses for well over three years! The implication of this is that the State must make it mandatory that every citizen is restricted to their fair share.


What will we do in the decades ahead when justifiably challenged by our children and grandchildren on our woeful failure to have acted sufficiently? The accumulation of evidence on climate change is already making it unacceptable for us to think that we will be able to excuse ourselves on the grounds that ‘we did not know’ the consequences of allowing people to choose whether or not to act responsibly.


To whom should we look to be in the vanguard of pressing governments to ‘grasp this nettle’? Given their moral authority, should we not expect our religious leaders to speak out far more forcefully than they do at present on this central issue of our time ‑ the survival of life on earth into the indefinite future? Are they not the ones best suited and the most likely to be effective. If they decline to do so, which institutions do they, or indeed do we, consider better suited?


Dr. Hillman has been engaged for over 40 years in social and environmental research at Policy Studies Institute. He is now Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Institute. He is co-author with Tina Fawcett of the Penguin book How We Can Save the Planet. A fuller version of this blog was published in the Church Times on 4 June, 2010. Website:



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