Good Lives guest blog 3: low carbon

April 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is my final guest blog posted on Woodbrooke’s  Good Lives project. The three postings are a series exploring British Quakers’ “Minute 36” commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community www.quaker.org.uk/creating- just-and-sustainable-world.

Previous postings addressed Community, and Sustainable; this third article takes a look at low carbon.

Carbon matters because of our addiction to finite fossil fuels, and because of the significant influence of greenhouse gases on climate change. Going low carbon tackles these two related issues: a low carbon economy and behaviours increase energy security and help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

There’s no measurable number in “Low”, so the emphasis at this early stage in the Minute 36 or Canterbury Commitment must first be lower carbon: let’s make a start on what we can do, without worrying too much about exactly how we need to reduce by.

Back in the heady days of December 2009, at the time of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, there were still hopes of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. That now looks increasingly unlikely: see, for example, http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1783.html

I remember in 2010 waking up one morning and thinking, We’re not going to make that 2 ⁰C limit. That realisation wasn’t a place of inward despair, but rather it felt like an acceptance of an unwelcome but real truth: from now on I would view a rise above 2 ⁰C as part of the context within which we are now living – with all its desperately serious consequences. As the journal article referenced above coldly notes: “We find that current emission trends continue to track scenarios that lead to the highest temperature increases.”

It’s important to keep hold of hope. This Vaclav Havel quote keeps me going:

” I understand [hope] above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world … Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Or try Paul Hawken’s Commencement Address to the University of Portland Class of 2009:

“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

In the face of the probability of a 2⁰C rise, and given increasing globalisation and its climate consequences, it’s no wonder people wonder why they should bother taking action.

But there are many logical as well as spiritual justifications, and here are a few:

If we learn how to live lower carbon lifestyles at an individual level, then that makes action more likely and more possible within families, and within our local communities (such as neighbourhoods or our Quaker meetings), and then in the organisations we support or work in, in wider societies, in governments, and in countries. It’s like a ladder: if we don’t take the step of acting individually, the other steps are far less likely to happen.

Continuing the step image: to imagine a world without weapons, what would be the penultimate step we’d have to take before we achieved that world? And what would be the step before that?, and before that?, back to where we stand today. Similarly, if we imagine a truly self-sufficient world, we are not able now to leap straight to it, but we can imagine the step of individual action as being an important part of reaching it – and as that is achieved, like stepping stones, the next step becomes possible to reach.

There’s a parallel from the earliest Friends’ internal debates about slave-holding and slave-trading. Two key arguments were the Golden Rule (do to others as you would like to be done to yourself), and that the slave trade depended on violence and was thus contrary to Friends’ peace testimony.

The same arguments could be applied today: we would not wish ourselves to experience the consequences of significant global warming, yet many around the world are already doing so (300,000 deaths a year, and 3 million people affected each year attributed to climate change, according to research by Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum – and that was a study in 2009). And there’s no doubting the violence endemic in our profit-driven globalised economy.

The change we seek within Minute 36 will take time, and many more people of course than just the Quakers. It’s less than two years since the Commitment was made and we need not to default into a “let’s beat ourselves up” mindset – though action is still urgently needed. After all, it took Quakers in America a hundred and one years from when in 1657 George Fox first wrote about slavery in the colonies, to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1758 making slave-trading an enforceable breach of Quaker discipline.

Statistics and scientific predictions can reduce us to guilt-ridden despair. It seems essential to me that we ground any action not in fear, obligation, or from a place of separation from people and planet; but to act out of love, joy, and connection to people and planet. It’s why books such as Keith Farnish’s Time’s Up encourages us to start by nurturing that deep connection. Acting as though people and planet matter is effectively a spiritual practice.

As a part of that spiritual practice, we can “practise giving up”, as Pam Lunn puts it in Costing Not Less Than Everything. We can usefully get used to doing with less, and so build our own and others’ resilience, in anticipation of disruption to infrastructure and services. When roads are closed because of the weather; when we can’t fly because of volcanic ash; when in the face of all protests a post office is closed and fewer services are available locally – “treat this as practice” for the future. When the British winter went on and on – and on! – earlier this year, and newspapers carried reports of the country about to run out of heating gas, there was an opportunity to practice self-rationing gas usage (if you missed it, other opportunities to practice will no doubt arise). The island of Eigg community, which has its own electricity grid and at times needs everyone on the island to self-regulate their usage, shows what is possible when people really get the link between the availability of resources and their use.

So I’m full of hope – for the future, and for Minute 36. I do not doubt the importance of action, and the centrality of Minute 36 to modern Quaker practice and values. Perhaps one day Quakers will be as well-known for their sustaining of and relationship with the planet we live on, as they are currently celebrated for their abolitionist past.

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