Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been looking at how American Quakers changed from condoning slavery, and some Quakers being slave-owners or slave-traders, to in 1758 making slave trading an enforceable breach of Quaker discipline. I was inspired by a quote from Bill McKibben: “Since all of us are beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.” [1] (my emphasis)

Given how endemic slavery was to the economy and society at the time, few people could have imagined the situation ever changing. If we knew how Quakers internally made that shift, might there be valuable lessons for those working to inspire change today in response to climate change?
Here is the article I’ve now written: Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change; I would be very interested in your responses or comments.

[1] Quoted in the Guardian on 30 November 2012 by Anne Karpf, Climate Change: You Can’t Ignore It http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/nov/30/climate-change-you-cant-ignore-it

“… a substantial multi-century climate change commitment”

October 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

I was privileged to hear Piers Forster give a talk in Leeds last week – he is one of the lead authors on the recently-published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/#.Ul0ZkNJwq3s.

This two-size Summary for Policy Makers makes for easy reading: http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/ar5/ar5_wg1_headlines.pdf

From Dr Forster’s presentation, I took away the awareness that the carbon emissions to date are such that there will be little difference, regardless of the short-term steps we take, in warming in the next 30 to 40 years.

On that basis, adaptation (responding to the immediate effects of climate change on people and communities) need to be as equal a priority in the short term, as our efforts to mitigate future change.

Beyond those 30-40 years, however, the predictions change wildly based on whether we continue with business as usual or whether we can move successfully towards an economy and lifestyle low in carbon (and also low in methane and nitrous oxide emissions, two other atmospheric significant drivers).

So the more we strengthen now our capacity to mitigate future emissions, the more manageable the future will be.

The quotation in the title of this post refers to carbon emissions. The Summary for Policy Makers states:

“Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond (see Figure SPM.10). Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.”

In short, as regards carbon emissions, the legacy of the future is already set for years to come.

But I’m also struck by the phrase “a substantial multi-century climate change commitment”.

What if that phrase was used to describe our collective response: substantial enough and relevant enough to meet the scientific and social evidence, with a two-hundred year timescale in mind, and the commitment, energy and resources to match?

Collation of guest blogs available

May 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Woodbrooke has put together a compilation of my three Good Lives’ Blog guest posts, exploring British Quakers’ commitment to becoming a low carbon sustainable community. The .pdf is available here.

In an authorly sort of way I’m very pleased with them, but would of course welcome any feedback, or be in touch to continue the discussion about these complex global issues.

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.

Good Lives Project, guest blog 2: Sustainability

March 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here is the second of my guest blogs on Woodbrooke’s Good Lives Project – you can view the original post at http://woodbrookegoodlives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/sustainability-and-minute-36.html

This article explores the second element of British Quakers’ “Minute 36” commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community.


What does sustainability mean in the context of Minute 36?What are we doing or would like to do that we can call sustainable?

Out in the wider world, sustainable is often used by organisations or governments to describe environmentally-friendly practice. This sometimes means “We’re using less energy than we did before” or “We’re trying to do less harm than we did before”, or even “We’re trying to mitigate some of the harm that we nevertheless choose to continue to do.”

A more sophisticated use of the word is to describe the conversion of economies or behaviours towards the targets needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. As we would need at least three planets for everyone to live a UK-equivalent lifestyle, the steps that humankind is currently taking are nowhere near big enough to justify calling them sustainable.

Is there a better definition?

To my mind, sustainability has a very pure meaning: if something is sustainable, it has the capacity to adapt and continue indefinitely.

The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, defined sustainable development as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition describes a pattern of behaviour which in theory could continue forever. However this definition views the earth and its resources from a human point of view: resources must be conserved because we need them for future (human) generations. In reality, though, we are part of the ecosystem, and one of many species. The definition makes no reference to the web of life of which we are part; it implies that resources are available primarily to keep our way of life going, at the expense of other species if necessary.

A more recent definition of sustainable development feels to me to be a step forward: “Development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends” (1) – though I’m still wary of that word “generations” if it’s only about humans.

Sustainable lifestyles

Whether or not these definitions are adequate, my sense is that they are weakened if we use sustainable for anything less than that which can exist or continue indefinitely. It is certainly weakened if it is used as greenwash or to imply that something is being done when in reality not enough is being done.

So what do I say instead of sustainability when describing human economic or environmental activity?

The closest I’ve got so far is the phrase ‘responsible practice’. By this I mean practice which takes into account the effect of our behaviours on people and planet. Essentially, this means how we use, process and dispose of the earth’s resources; but it also includes the impacts on biodiversity and on other human beings in relation to dignity, human rights and aspiration.

We cannot halt immediately the damage that is being done, nor repair what is irreparable. But we can learn as much as we can about our impact – in human as well as ecological terms – and we can take as big steps as we possibly can, as quickly as we possibly can, to reduce and ultimately avoid those impacts.

That for me is responsible behaviour from a global standpoint. It doesn’t rescue us in anyway – it leads us into evaluating and negotiating our practice, especially if we’re part of a community working out sustainability together; the conversations explored in last week’s article are inevitable and ultimately provide the way through.

Another sustainability?

To sustain something has another meaning too: to nourish or enliven something.

Rather than thinking of sustainability as forever enabling us to consume resources, I hope one day we may use “sustainable” to describe human practice which truly nourishes and enlivens the earth. After all we have drawn from the planet, the time I think has come for more sustaining in return.

(1) http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/redefining-sustainable-development-by-david-griggs

Woodbrooke Good Lives Project – Guest Blog 1

March 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

With thanks to Maud Grainger, Faith in Action Tutor at Woodbrooke, below is the first of three guest posts of mine on the Woodbrooke Good Lives Project. You can view the original post at http://woodbrookegoodlives.blogspot.co.uk/

Community and Minute 36

This post is the first of 3 guest posts. Before we begin, John Gray tells us a little more about his background and I leave you to his words.

I was brought up a Quaker, and I am an attender at Friargate meeting in York. I originally qualified as a solicitor, and since leaving the law in 1994 I’ve worked and volunteered in the not-for-profit sector, including at the Quaker UN Office in Geneva and with local Friends caught up in the ethnic-political conflict in Burundi. For the last twelve years I have been a freelance organisational consultant and coach, specialising in organisational and individual change, and inquiry approaches into ethical and environmentally responsible practice.

In the summer of 2011, Britain’s Quakers at their Yearly Meeting Gathering, the business assembly of Friends in Britain, made an historical corporate commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community www.quaker.org.uk/creating- just-and-sustainable-world The commitment has since become known as the Minute 36 Commitment, or the Canterbury Commitment, drawing the name from where the Yearly Meeting Gathering took place.

These three guest blogs on the Good Lives blog explore in turn the three elements of the Minute 36 Commitment: community, sustainable, and low carbon.

Community and Minute 36

For me the greatest challenge and opportunity in the Minute 36 Commitment are not the aspirations to sustainability or low-carbon, but rather that we aspire to these things as a community.

Even as we sat in the Yearly Meeting Gathering session, it was clear that for some Friends the aspects of targets and accountability were problematic, and for some, the words  baselines and frameworks were in themselves contradictory to the concept of community.

Recent articles and correspondence in The Friend echo this. What does it mean if some members of the community are not the least interested in committing to become a low-carbon community? If I’m in community with someone who has different views, do I ignore them? Tolerate them? Try to influence them? Will Minute 36 remain a silent topic? What is our response to the work of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Woodbrooke and others in enabling us to live this commitment in practice?

My guess is that within any typical Quaker meeting there will be a range of views about the Canterbury Commitment. There will be those who regard the Commitment as central, perhaps the most significant, aspect of their Quaker witness in the world today. There will be a few who do not regard human-made climate change as an established fact and thus requiring no action. There will be another group, perhaps larger in number, who are accepting of the evidence but who do not believe that changes in behaviour individually or as a meeting are appropriate responses. For everyone, there will be levels of comparative ignorance or misunderstanding of the evidence, and emotional response to the Minute 36 commitment which at their strongest could include passion, fear, anger (at themselves or at other people), resignation or despair.

This range of responses is also likely to be found in Quakers in their other meetings –committees, special interest groups and Quaker-led organisations. I mention these because the Commitment refers to corporate as well as individual action, so wherever any Friends are meeting or working together in the expression of their Quakerism.

The strength of the wider public debate on environmental issues – its critical language and vehemence, the blame-culture and vested interests (on both sides) – is unlikely to embolden Friends who are wondering how on earth to begin the conversations with their fellow Quakers.

It is because of all this that the word Community in the Commitment, ‘a low-carbon community’, is for me the way forward. Friends have over 350 years’ experience of trying to live in community with each other. We began as a gathered body of people, and although the foundation of our religious experience is ‘What canst thou say?’, our spiritual practice is of corporate worship, not individual meditation. When James Naylor rode on a donkey into Bristol in 1656 in apparent imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, early Quakers’ response led in part to the establishing of processes – still in use today – of testing concerns as a way of moderating and guiding spiritually-grounded action in the world, This aspect of community, establishing norms and expectations and a willingness to support Friends in living their witness, still serves us well in our collective discernment of right ordering.

So back to those troubling words in Minute 36, accountability and baselines. My view is that accountability is the very nature of being in community with other people.

If I have views on other’s behaviour, what am I do with those views? Is it OK to fly for work? Is it OK to fly to visit family in far-flung places of the world? Is it OK to install a hot-tub in my back garden? Is it better to buy locally-grown produce or support fairtrade  producers in the developing world? if I have a larger carbon footprint than you, can we negotiate a sharing – rationing – of carbon usage?

There are no right and wrong answers to these questions – it seems to me that it is for each community to find answers together. And a starting point is to dare to name the questions.

It seems no coincidence that the sections in community and on conflict, in Chapter 10 of Quaker Faith and Practice, are next to each other. To be in relationship with others is encounter difference, and that may lead to conflict, and that conflict may be a negative destructive experience or an affirming deepening process.

These two quotations from QF&P might serve as useful starting points for Friends wishing to explore, in relationship with the Friends around them, what being a community of sustainable, low-carbon users might entail.

Our shared experience of waiting for God’s guidance in our meetings for worship and for church affairs, together with careful listening and gentleness of heart, forms the basis on which we can live out a life of love with and for each other and for those outside our community(from 10.03, QF&P)

And from 10.24:

In our desire to be kind to everybody, to appear united in spirit, to have no majorities and minorities, we minimise our divisions and draw a veil over our doubts. We fail to recognise that tension is not only inescapable, however much hidden, but when brought into the open is a positive good.

John Gray

All the water in the world

May 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

globe with all surface water collected into a small dropletThis stunning image brought home for me the preciousness of water.

We believe we are the blue planet, seven-tenths covered in water; and yet all the water collected together from the air, rivers and oceans – the water we depend on – forms this tiny droplet.

You can see the full image here.

For some this image may simply be a representation of known information in a new and surprising way; for others it might be a ‘wake up’ moment’ – in the same way that the Earthrise photograph (taken by the Apollo 11 space crew) has been dubbed the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.

Or do you remember your first reaction to this statistic: if every human being wants to live like western Europeans, we’ll need three planets to provide all the necessary resources and to cope with the waste. And make that five planets if we all want the lifestyle of North Americans.

It is known that information, on its own, is rarely enough to change behaviour. Images and statistics can sometimes help, though, in bringing a message home.

Drink of water, anyone?

Awakening Social Practice

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

This new programme is now open for bookings.

Together with co-facilitator and Oasis associate Chris Taylor, we will be addressing the key challenges that commercial and not-for-profit organisations are facing today: how to ensure future sustainability, growth and reputation, at the same time as becoming more globally responsible.

Key questions that participants can bring to this three-day programme:

  • To what extent is it necessary to think about my organisation in terms of more than just simple (economic) survival?
  • What are relevant ways in which my organisation can engage with and be effective on environmental, social and ethical issues?
  • Which models and frameworks would enable my organisation to:
    • Address the triple bottom line (economic sustainability, social good and the environment)
    • Measure impact
    • Establish effective processes for cultural and behavioural change by individuals and the organisation as a whole?
  • How do I stimulate change in my organisation to engender a purpose relevant to the 21st century?

Course prospectus: Awakening social purpose; for more information contact me, or contact Oasis  01937 541700 to reserve your place.


November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Alongside a client, Oasis is inquiring into the application of the word “stewardship”.

It is a word that holds many rich meanings; the Institute for Family Business, for example, takes Tomorrow’s Company definition of stewardship as “the active and responsible management of entrusted resources now and in the longer term, so as to hand them on in better condition.” Family Business Stewardship, 2011.

Tomorrow’s Company characterises modern stewardship as a proactive rather than defensive approach, enhancing not just protecting value, “recognising the interdependence between us and the wider system of which we are part, whether it is the economy, the financial system, or the natural environment.” Tomorrow’s Stewardship: Why Stewardship Matters, Tomorrow’s Company, 2011.

Accepting that we hold the world’s riches in trust for others is a key developmental step away from the idea that we somehow ‘own’ the earth and its resources were placed there for the ultimate benefit of the human race. This view, a rights-without-responsibilities approach, has historically driven much of our approach to economic development – if it’s good for profits, why wouldn’t we do it? The importing of bottled water from Fiji to the UK is one of many remarkable consequences of this line of thought.

There are positive resonances of the historical usage of stewardship that we can learn from. In perhaps the most well-known example, of a steward overseeing a farm or land on behalf of an absent owner, we can see the following:

  • A system-wide view of the enterprise, managing all aspects in pursuit of a bigger picture that may be less visible to sub-elements within the system
  • A leadership role, exercising influence and guidance
  • Led from a place of humility – “I am not the master”, so there is limited freedom to dispose of assets or take a short-term view
  • And an approach of responsibility and caring – preserving quality and income in the knowledge that the owner will return and hold the steward to account.

The phrase ‘human stewardship’ is used to encourage us to see ourselves in a new relationship to the earth and the environment. Whilst again this is a positive step, there are aspects of this approach that could lead us into danger. Briefly stated, these are:

  • False ownership. If we are stewards, we are taking care of the earth on behalf of its owner – in this case, all humanity. This encourages careful use, taking one’s share and no more. But in truth humanity does not own the world: all life owns itself – or better still, we are co-creators.

Taking this line further:

  • We risk hubris if we think we are the ones that are tasked to “solve” the environment’s problems, that we are somehow in charge. Rightly we need to reduce our impact because of the damage we are causing to our species and others across the planet. But it is not we who decide how the planet responds – the ecosystem’s laws are far beyond our control, beyond any decisions we make take about how things ought to be.

And so:

  • A stance of stewardship may make us believe that there is a false separation between us and the planet we think ourselves stewards of. All life, all resources, all actions, all economic realities, are a subset of the planetary environment, not the other way round. We are not separate from those things we care for, at a transpersonal as well as a system / environmental level. We are the many that make up the one, the see-er and the seen.

It is for that reason that I find myself drawn towards global responsibility rather than stewardship. Not responsible in a steward’s way, of managing and overseeing. But responsible in that we know our impact, we are responsible for the choices we make, we are connected in more ways that we know about to people and to planet, and we have values, passion and commitment that makes us actors in the world. This to me implies responsibility – able to respond to what we know and what we yearn to see in the world around us.

As ever, these are developing thoughts for me, and comments and “Have you thought about…” are warmly welcomed.

Nine billion people? Get into farming!

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

I am pleased that the BBC’s Farming Today is looking at the issue of how to feed nine billion people.

Although the programme is rightly looking at technological innovations to improve efficiency and effectiveness, to my mind this is rather a political and social not technological question.

My reason is that we do not now feed seven billion people fairly or effectively. The stunning statistic, that there as many obese as there are undernourished people in the world, demonstrates the failure of ourselves as an international community.

And in the UK, we treat food production as a matter of national rather than international interest. This is because in the main this country does not experience problems with food production and supply. So politicians are more concerned to ensure continuity of supply than address the wider – global – conditions that affect that production and security.

So when there are nine rather than seven billion people, to my mind the problem will be similar but more acute. Food insecurity, such as was experienced three years ago with a rise in oil prices, will be much more evident. Changes in climate will mean more weather extremes – hotter, colder, and especially more flooding and more droughts. Banning of food exports will be much more routine, forcing every country to produce more locally. Countries like ours will be under greater pressure from international migration. Pressure will increase as to how every inch of UK soil is used: which will be seen as more important – housing, food production, areas of natural beauty, retail parks…?

So that’s my prediction – unless feeding us all becomes seen as a matter of international cooperation, and led by equity rather than market forces.

One thing is for certain: it has never been a better time to get into farming. The amount of investment that will be needed by governments, and the entwinement contribution of food production to national security, will make food production one of the most significant industries in the UK.

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