Reformation or Re-formation?


In Scotland, Sally Cogley won a first seat for the Rubbish Party

Five hundred years ago, everything was seen through the lens of religion; the church was all powerful and everywhere. But all power corrupts, and something to ignite the powder keg of dissent over the demands of the church in a rapidly changing Europe was bound to come from somewhere and through some single action.

A Catholic monk nailed his ninety-five demands, or theses, to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. Martin Luther’s action on the 31 October 1517 is now credited with the tumultuous changes, not all good, which constituted the Reformation and the significant curtailment of the power of the Catholic Church.

Today, the developed world finds itself beset by challenges, not over the adherence to the Latin language in church, but of the demands for continuous economic growth.

About a hundred years before the Reformation, John Wycliffe from the sanctuary of his Oxford college published his polemical demands, probably written in Latin, for the use of the English language instead of Latin in church. Wycliffe inspired the Lollards, fittingly derived from the word ‘lollaer’ – a mumbler (of prayers) to mount a popular heretical movement. He translated the Bible into vernacular English. But because fewer than half the country could read English, his siren voice was ahead of his time. Yet a marker was laid on the path to change.

In England, during the following century English literacy surged, and living standards peaked in 1510 after many years of improvement. In 1514, Erasmus published his satirical work ‘Praise of Folly’ which highlighted his reforming proposal through wit and humour. It delighted everyone except the senior church authorities. Meanwhile, Thomas More was finishing his famous work ‘Utopia’ which compared Christian Europeans unfavourably with an imaginary and idealised society of pagans living on a remote island.

The cumulative surge of these events and incidents can, in retrospect, be seen as the harbingers of Luther’s explosive action in Wittenberg precipitated probably by the need the Catholic Church had for money. Luther was implacably set against the sale of indulgences which were granted for temporal remission from the punishment of sin. In the furnace of ecclesiastical debate, Luther tempered his steely and unbending views. He reached a new understanding of the Christian notion of salvation, or reconciliation with God. He. And so with unshakeable certainty, he determined that ‘humans can contribute nothing to their salvation: salvation is, fully and completely, a work of divine grace.’

However, as the Church’s need for money grew, the sellers of indulgences began promising that they absolved the buyers of sin and ensured that they would be released from purgatory.

Luther vehemently objected to Tetzel, a leading emissary of the Pope. Touring Germany, Tetzel promulgated that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Christians, Luther said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

A collision was inevitable.

The consequences were both good and bad. With the Reformation, Protestantism became the established religion of England; Catholic mumbo jumbo was destroyed but so were many learned books as the riches of libraries were condemned to the pyre. The English Reformation was regarded by some as vandalism and it marked a distancing of England from the Europe of the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps it was our first experience of Brexit.

Almost one hundred years ago at the height of the Great Depression in 1932, Bernard Russell wrote a seminal paper, ‘In Praise of Idleness’ warning about feeding the God called ‘Economic Growth’. He noted firstly that ‘Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone.’ That was obvious. In the Great War with all the men in the armed forces or otherwise occupied in the war effort, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before the war. Secondly, he noted, ‘Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.

Was this a first shot across the bows of the ship ‘HMS Continued Economic Growth’?

More recently, environmental groups have acted against fossil fuel use by warning of the danger of climate change and global warming. World-wide conferences starting with the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and followed by regular global conventions from Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 onwards. Fossil fuels cause global warming was the message, but economic growth demands fossil fuels.

Now we come to the thesis, not yet nailed to any government door – they are all too heavily guarded by police – that we must shift from taxing labour to taxing resource use. Re-new, Re-cycle and Re-use are the new 3 R’s and the new Re-Formation.

‘Zero Growth’ means no waste and, driven by the growing scarcity of materials and fuels, the disciples of ‘Zero Growth’ are calling for a taxation shift from labour to materials. They believe it would generate employment, and probably increase revenues for the state and surely help to redesign the economy and phase-out waste.

But this is not only about waste; it is also about the material cycles. If resources are cheap the incentive to run a throw-away society is higher, if materials are more expensive the incentive goes in the direction of a circular economy. The usual thinking regarding economic incentives is that taxes should be placed on the scarce resources in order to limit their use whereas the abundant resource can remain untaxed. During the last century, labour had been scarce whereas resources had been considered abundant and this is why traditionally the former had been taxed and the latter hadn’t. But during that century the world’s population doubled. The current economic crisis in Europe shows that we are doing things wrong; as the unemployment statistics show labour is abundant -yet heavily taxed!- whereas resources are not taxed albeit growing increasingly scarce. Isn’t it time to shift taxation from labour to resources?

When that happens we will see an explosion in the re-use and repair market and the cost of materials will force built-in repairability, re-usability, and re-cyclability in any product. It will also make the enforce the ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ concept because producers will be a lot more interested in getting the materials back and in closing material and energy cycles.

In comparison to other world regions, the EU has almost exhausted its resources. From now on importing products and resources from the rest of the world will become more and more expensive and the EU needs to prepare for this new economic climate. Waste is increasingly becoming a sign of inefficiency that we can no longer afford.

Waste markets, like any other markets, are driven by price. If the cheaper option is to landfill or burn waste, recycling is unlikely to take off. For instance, in countries such as Bulgaria, Portugal or Slovakia the average cost of landfill is below 20 euros per tonne. At that price, there is little incentive to separate waste and to recycle it. But prices can be changed. Governments can use taxes to give individuals and councils incentives to change their preferences. Some enlightened EU countries have put taxes on landfill and incineration in order to make reuse and recycling more economic.

At the same time, new thinkers such as Rutger Bergman with his idea The Solution to Everything: Work Less’ are Erasmus-like chipping away.

In Scotland, Sally Cogley won a first seat for the Rubbish Party.

Five hundred years ago a variety of incidents and events led to the Reformation which changed Europe for the better, but not without sacrifices. New heretical ideas today are required against the God of Economic Growth.

What will we think in 500 years time? Did we seize the moment?


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