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.

Sustainability

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

Hope as a state of mind

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Reading Vaclav Havel’s autobiography of his presidency of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, has reminded me of one of my favourite quotes – a quote that both advances my thinking and inspires me to action.

Havel wrote:

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. We have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.

Hope is not a prognostication. It 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.”

Hope is an orientation of the heart

December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

It seems appropriate to post this quote from Vaclav Havel, who died yesterday.

It’s one of my favourite quotations, because it encourages hope for good in situations where the wisdom of the world (as opposed to the wisdom of the heart) would be advising one to surrender.

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. We have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.

Hope is not a prognostication. It 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.”

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