Saturday, 8 November marked the 25th anniversary of one of Margaret Thatcher’s most consequential speeches. It was delivered to the United National General Assembly and, in the time honoured fashion, she began by telling her audience what she was going to tell them:
“When I last spoke here four years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations, the message that I and others like me gave was one of encouragement to the organisation to play the great role allotted to it.
“Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.”
If David Cameron were to do that today, he’d immediately be accused of being out-of-touch, of obsessing over an issue far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary voters. Indeed, in the welter of editorials and opinion pieces that would be sure to follow, you could bet your house on at least one columnist describing environmentalism as a ‘religion’.
It’s an accusation that’s been made many, many times (especially in regard to climate change) though on each occasion the individual concerned seems to think that the point they’ve made is both original and insightful.
It should be obvious that the same might be said of any cause that arouses great passions, including the Euroscepticism of some of the most prominent anti-greens. (Do they ever stop to consider the motivations of Zac Goldsmith, who is both passionately green and Eurosceptic?)
Perhaps the reason why environmentalism gets stuck with the religion label is because the issues involved are so vast in scope. Margaret Thatcher certainly recognised what was at stake:
“…as we travel through space, as we pass one dead planet after another, we look back on our earth, a speck of life in an infinite void. It is life itself, incomparably precious, that distinguishes us from the other planets.
“It is life itself—human life, the innumerable species of our planet—that we wantonly destroy. It is life itself that we must battle to preserve.”
She wasn’t shy of using religious references either:
“What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate—all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.
“We can find examples in the past. Indeed we may well conclude that it was the silting up of the River Euphrates which drove man out of the Garden of Eden…
“The difference now is in the scale of the damage we are doing.”
As the first British Prime Minister to have a science degree, Margaret Thatcher had a lot say in her speech about the power and potential of human reason. Ultimately, however, it was our religious sensibilities that she appealed to:
“We need our reason to teach us today that we are not, that we must not try to be, the lords of all we survey.
“We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself—preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder.
“May we all be equal to that task.”