Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Carbon Pricing and Trinity 13

On my Facebook page I regularly post the Collects, that is the special prayers for the week, that are prescribed in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.   I find it a helpful exercise to get to grips with these prayers and the ideas behind them.  Sometimes, despite the archaic language, they feel as though they might have been written yesterday.  At other times there is a grinding of mental gears as my thought world and Cranmer's fail to mesh.

In Anglican-speak this week is the "thirteenth after Trinity", and there is a bit of that grinding as I use the Collect for the day:

Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What grinds the gears for me here is the language of reward, especially perhaps of seemingly arbitrary reward.  What exactly is the connection between "this life" and the "heavenly promises"?  Not that arbitrary rewards don't motivate.  I am motivated to work out because it allows me to check a box on an smartphone app which no-one will see but me!  Every instructor knows that a grade can be a powerful motivator.  But instructors also know that the student who is motivated only  by the grade is missing the point. 

As far as the collect goes, I think that there is some theological gear oil that can be applied.  The "heavenly promises" - the vision of God - are not some unrelated payback for gritting our teeth and doing good in this life, the way an A grade may be payback for slogging through fifty word problems.  Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. (C.S. Lewis) So the "heavenly reward" just is what the earthly journey has always been aiming for.  Conversely, the "earthly journey" has been made possible by heavenly power right from the start ("of whose only gift it cometh" - echoing Paul's blunt "This, not from you, gift of God" in Ephesians 2:8).

I find this reflection helps me get an angle on Pope Francis' skepticism about carbon pricing, though. If I read him rightly, the Pope is concerned not merely about "actions" (the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions or whatever) but also about "motives".  And he fears, I think (or maybe I am just projecting my own thoughts onto him) that carbon pricing, however effective it may or may not be in changing people's actions, does not affect their motives at all - in fact, it leaves the structure of financial incentives undisturbed and just changes a few coefficients.  I  would feel differently (and perhaps Pope Francis would too) if we got to carbon pricing as a result of a true social consensus about emissions reduction.  Then perhaps we could smile and give grateful thanks for the little social nudge that the emissions regime provides to help us do what we know is the right thing anyhow - just as I can smile to myself at the way my smartphone manages to motivate me to work out - to do what I really want to even when I feel as though I don't.  

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