Friday, 30 October 2009

A (smelly) question?

As a beginner veggie/vegan of 30 years the comments of the last few days about being veggie as being the way forward for the planet raises some interesting questions when taken in consideration of the carbon argument. It is simply this most fertilisers come about now, or so I am given to believe, by chemical means - e.g. oil is involved.
If the chemistry were taken out of it flatulent animals (pointed out by some as a major source of methane etc.) would be needed to fertilise the earth along with plant rotations of peas etc, and plants which tie chemicals and can be used as green fertilisers.
Given that places like Edinboro' and other cities were rich sources of night soil and fed the growing populations of the new developments in the 19th etc. centuries - as in China and other places - how would many regard this as an acceptable answer to future problems? Yorkshire Bounty was very popular, I am told, but was stopped because of issues relating to this.
I am asking because if we have a basic argument, put by Singer and others, that approx. 5 K of corn produces 1 K of meat, we cannot produce cattle purely for fertiliser because the equation is out of balance. How do we meet the long-term needs of the earth? C****P can you answer please given your background?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Quakers in Transition Part 2

This is the second part of my attempt at The Friends Quarterly essay on ‘The Future of British Quakerism’ (see part 1 here). I offer it as a work in progress for your criticism and suggestions.
I feel I ought to make a slight disclaimer that this is the ‘diagnosis’ section of the essay, in which I have tried to highlight some issues that seem to me to be a matter for concern, and it does come across as rather negative in tone. There are also, of course, many wonderful, profound and life-enhancing things about Quakers, which I haven’t mentioned here, but intend to discuss in detail in the final section of the essay, if you are willing to stick with me that far…

Over the last half century British society has experienced a period of exceptional affluence and rapid social change, which have profoundly shaped the practice and values of British Quakers.
One of the most significant changes has been the growth in size and influence of a 'new middle class' of educated workers such as teachers, academics, social workers, health professionals, creative and media producers, IT technicians and managers. These socially and geographically mobile professionals have driven the increasing social liberalism of British society. They have also come to dominate Britain Yearly Meeting, which now has an overwhelmingly new middle class social composition, particularly from the ‘caring’, educational and public service industries.
Many of these new middle class professionals come to Quaker Meetings looking for an inclusive, non-dogmatic and non-hierarchical 'space' in which to explore their individual identity and to 'recharge their batteries'. For them, Meeting for Worship can be a refuge from hectic, information-saturated lifestyles and overcrowded schedules.

This experience of Quaker Meeting as a 'Quaker Space' for personal reflection has largely eclipsed the more traditional understanding of a 'Quaker Way', which involves personal discipline, religious commitment and communal accountability. Many people in Quaker Meetings do not know that there is a distinctive Quaker tradition of spiritual teaching and practice. Instead, the vacuum of teaching is often filled by other spiritual traditions, as well as the background assumptions of the dominant culture. Contemporary culture is narrowly materialist, except when it is superstitious (hence the popularity of horoscopes etc). Following this dominant cultural pattern, British Quakerism is increasingly tending towards secular and materialist interpretations of human experience, often in combination with a variety of magical practices from Reiki to homoeopathy.

Many of the progressive values that British Quakers pride ourselves on also reflect the shared world-view of the new middle class subculture, rather than any distinctive Quaker experience. Feminism, anti-racism, gay and lesbian equality and an opposition to traditional social hierarchies are all widely-shared values of the liberal new middle class subculture. These important political and ethical advances have largely been achieved by secular movements, but have subsequently been adopted as the basis of British Quaker culture. By contrast, traditional Quaker testimonies to truthful speech, personal integrity, and avoidance of unnecessary consumption and possessions (‘plainness’), which are not widely shared middle-class values, have become much more marginal to contemporary Quaker culture.

This process of assimilation to the surrounding culture is not a new phenomenon, and is not restricted to Quakers, although it has arguably gone further among British Friends than most other religious groups. Through these influences contemporary British Quakerism has become in part a post-religious movement; for many people the primary motives for participation are understood in psychological or social terms rather than religious ones.

The debate about ‘non-theism’ is a symptom of this growing conformity of British Quakerism to the dominant culture. As entirely materialist explanations of human life have come to monopolise our culture, so traditional Quaker language and practices have become less credible to many Quakers and attenders. This has made central concepts such as ‘God’, ‘worship’ and ‘testimony’ problematical for many, and they are increasingly being re-interpreted in purely secular terms. Core Quaker practices such as the ‘Meeting for Worship’ and ‘Meeting for Worship for Church Affairs’ (or more commonly ‘Business Meeting’) are also called into question by a materialist world-view.

The Quaker understanding of ‘vocal ministry’ in Meeting as a response to a specific leading of God is unintelligible in purely secular terms. For this reason spoken ministry in some Meetings inevitably tends toward the familiar categories of secular public discourse – political speech, moral lesson, group therapy or Radio 4 review. Similarly the practice of the ‘Quaker Business Method’ rests on a shared commitment to collective discernment of the will of God for the community. In a secular context this can only be practiced as a form of ‘consensus decision-making’ aimed solely at an outcome that is broadly acceptable to everyone who turns up.

The overall tendency of this process of secularisation is to threaten gradually to evacuate British Quakerism of any distinctive content. The accepting, tolerant and inclusive ‘Quaker Space’, orphaned from the challenging tradition of the ‘Quaker Way’, risks losing a living connection with the Spirit that has the power to nourish and to transform.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Angry Planet

Some more thoughts which came from another online discussion. See my previous "Age of Simplicity" posts below on this blog for the previous instalments in this train of thought ... this is really rambling and I will come back and rewrite it at some point. But here goes.

We were discussing the recent action by Climate Camp activists seeking to shut down the dirty coal power station at Ratcliffe on Soar, Nottinghamshire. This led to a discussion of the wider causes of global warming and how to understand them and make use of this understanding.

The conclusion I came to was that there are at least two basic approaches or schools of thought on global warming - (1) it's a single issue - possibly even a technical problem which needs a technical fix; or (2) it's a symptom or extreme result of other basically ethical problems in human society (consumerism, inequality, overpopulation, etc etc - you take your pick). Many people got for type (2) views which they simply read off from their existing political viewpoints (left, right or whatever) more or less directly. I certainly tend towards type (2) views (the ones which say there are reasons why we got to this point), because you can't exclude ethics from the solution.

If it was possible, you could, for example, probably contain global warming quite effectively simply by killing the richest six billion people in the world, thus keeping the environment basically stable with enough capacity to accommodate the other two billion quite comfortably. But that wouldn't be OK, even if it was practical. Even if the climate is a single, stand-alone, technical issue, the range of acceptable technical fixes does not include inventing ways of killing six billion people.

So I find myself believing that global warming is a symptom of moral flaws in human society - or at least a matter of human moral responsibility in conditions of imperfection. But even going this far, I have to face one obvious absurdity in my thinking. It feels funny to sound like you're arguing that the global climate system is somehow melting down deliberately like some kind of rebellious teenager in order to prove that rampant consumerism is a bad thing (or whatever). Ultimately the climate isn't, in fact, trying to make any kind of a point by going into meltdown. It's just blindly happening. Weather has no conscience and doesn't care if we practice consumerism or not. We just happen to have come up against the hard limits of our natural resources: that doesn't prove we did anything wrong. When the coal and oil measures were laid down in the Carboniferous, or when the atmosphere condensed, these things weren't measured out according to the predicted good behaviours of a small tailless primate which would not evolve for hundreds of millions of years. The fact that we are now running out of oil and atmosphere cannot have moral implications. It just means we were unlucky enough to evolve with big brains on a small planet.

But this isn't enough either, because our response to global warming has to be ethical. We can't accept inhuman perspectives or solutions to a human problem, and this means we do, in fact, have to consider global warming as an ethical problem. Or, put another way, we have to accept that the weather has implications not only for our survival but also for our conscience.

If we do this, then the really weird thing is that inevitably, sooner or later, we end up acting as if we think the planet is telling us off. We have to behave as if the planet is angry - and we have to do this even though we know that this is a completely irrational way to think.

On previous occasions in human history, we have, in fact, often assumed that there was a direct link between the weather and our ethical behaviour: we assumed weather and other natural phenomena (in such examples as Noah's Flood, or the destruction of the cities of the plain, and so forth) had a divine origin, often, in its destructive aspects, expressing divine anger at human immorality. It was easy to dismiss this idea entirely as superstition as long as we had the luxury of being able to regard the human and natural worlds as distinct and separate. We no longer have that luxury. Ecological catastrophe forces us, by a different route and on different grounds, to reactivate this link in our understanding. Once again, as in Old Testament days, the weather speaks to our consciences.

This might be another way in which liberal British Quakers can unite in common witness. Those of us who are out-and-proud believers in the Christian or other formulations of the supernatural can find a new and direct application of the wisdom contained in various scriptures - and also on other myths, of worldwide distribution, expressing the sense that there is a sacred consciousness and selfhood in the natural world outside us. Others among us can stress the paradox or irony involved in acting as if the planet was angry when we know all along that really it isn't capable of anger, maintain a similar sense of irony and detachment from any belief in literal or concrete meaning in the old stories, and see them instead as handy poetic shorthand for the essentially material or natural problems we are now facing. In either case the outcome will be the same: we can move forward in a common understanding rooted in Quaker heritage. In this we can therefore find a unity of witness which maintains and transcends formal disagreement - which is the kind of unity which we value most highly.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Book clubbing it

Thanks to all of you who came up with suggestions for the book club after last Meeting. Looking forward to hopefully seeing some of you on Nov 7th at 4. Some of you said you couldn't make it, or would attend based on the novels/areas of the world we were reading...but you gave suggestions. Thank you. Will probably need more in a couple months in particular.

Thought for the first meeting, it might make sense if we each started off for a couple minutes about how we reacted to the book (personal or about the style or story or whatever) - without anyone responding - so that we each have a chance to comment. Then, after we've all gone around, we continue by picking up whatever strands interest us. I've been in book groups before where that seemed to work well. Do people like this idea? They've also ended by voting books "hit" or "miss" or a scale of 1-10. Not my style, but something satisfying in the end about rating and classifying things I suppose and gives other people who couldn't attend an idea of what went on. We could do that if people feel inspired. Anything that's worked for you or that you'd like to try?

3 books to choose from for early December Book Club
So, 3 suggestions to consider at the next meeting for the December group have sort of a similarity: young female experience...all highly recommended books. I've not read any of them but they all look fantastic.

The book Persepolis is one I've heard many friends talk about. Something different: a graphic novel. No, not a comic book. One of the new, edgy genres of memoir emerging in the past 10 years lead by Art Spiegalman's re-telling of World War 2 Maus. So what is the book about?

Set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, it follows the young Satrapi, the six-year-old daughter of two committed and well-to-do Marxists. As she grows up, she witness first-hand the effects that the revolution and the war with Iraq have on her home, family and school.

The main strength of Persepolis is its ability to make the political personal. Told through the eyes of a child (as reflected in Satrapi's simplistic yet expressive black-and-white artwork), the story shows how young Marjane learns about her family history and how it is entwined with the history of Iran, and watches her liberal parents cope with a fundamentalist regime that gets increasingly rigid as it gains more power. Outspoken and intelligent, Marjane chafes at Iran's increasingly conservative interpretation of Islamic law, especially as she grows into a bright and independent teenager. Throughout she remains a hugely likeable young woman.

Persepolis gives the reader a snapshot of daily life in a country struggling with an internal cultural revolution and a bloody war, but within an intensely personal context. It's a very human history, beautifully and sympathetically told.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

Originally written when author Guene was 19, this book is about a Muslim girl growing up in multicultural Paris. Here is what a casual reader says: Guene's short novel is a great read; in Doria she has created an engaging character full of humour and imaginative asides spun from her exposure to television. There are plenty of subtle side-stories chronicling the perils of living in the poorest suburbs of Paris - stolen cars, drugs, children failing at school, social workers etc - but this is ultimately an uplifting tale of hope, of rising above one's origins and circumstances, through the beautifully rendered naivity of a 15 year old. Guene's tale also gives an insight into a largely foreign France, into a world peopled by immigrants from North Africa and showcases the culture clash in expectations between the two worlds brilliantly.

Nervous Conditions

Dangarembga's book is described by a reader in this way (and sort of sums up what I - at least - thought the point of the book group might be): "The novel gives the reader a chance to get under the skin of a Zimbabwean woman at the cusp of maturity, on the brink of making her way in the world - against the odds. Given that I'd never been to southern Africa or studied the socio-political history of the period (the 1960s and '70s), it came as a surprise to be so transported into another mindset and way of life.

Tambudzai's relationships with her family, especially her more Westernised cousin, were fascinating.

It's a very intriguing novel, which I'd recommend to anyone. As well as being a compelling read, it really gives you the chance to learn about - and experience vicariously - another time and place."

So, those are the suggestions. If you like any of them and would like to "vote" but won't be there Nov 7th, please put it in the comments.


Sunday, 11 October 2009 club

I'm going to introduce the idea of a book club at this morning's 10:30 meeting to see if people are interested. The book is Endo's Silence.

I've been part of a number of book clubs and have found reading classics okay, but I already know about those books "I should have read". The books that I've really gotten the most from and have expanded my worldview are books from other cultures that had a spiritual dimension that I had never heard of before. I find that I learn and am able to best take action when I've understood other people's situations through stories. So, this is where I would like to start. If you are interested, please join me at The Blue Moon (just down the road from the Quaker Meeting House next to the Cathedral, it offers fairtrade, organic, vegetarian and vegan food and drink) for the first meeting to decide how and where we might continue on Saturday, November 7th at 4pm.

On that day we could discuss how exactly the group might continue, but also talk about a book! The book I thought might be appropriate to start off is Shusaku Endo's Silence. Endo is a Catholic writer who has been called the "Japanese Graham Greene". For a brief background about Endo go here. His writing is simple and focuses on the question about what happens to us and our faith when our lives become difficult and circumstances seem to test us beyond our limits?

However, we are very lucky that the Sheffield literary festival, Off the Shelf, is having a talk on Endo this Tuesday (October 13) at the Cathedral at 8pm. I'm not sure if I can make it but if you are interested, you can buy tickets at City Hall or the Main Library. I think you can also just show up on the night.

I will leave a copy of Silence in the library. You can buy a copy from Amazon or order it from your favourite bookseller. The author may come up as Martin Scorsese (the filmmaker) as he writes the foreword.

So, I think this gives you enough to know if you are interested and about the kinds of books I'd like to explore over the next year. I invite people to join me in reading every month or so. I've chosen this book to begin with, but thought (and this is something that has worked well in other groups I've been part of but if someone has a better suggestion we can do that instead) in the future, we could rotate around the group. If it is your turn, you come with 3 books, introduce them and then let the group decide which one they would like to read. They would, of course, have to be easily accessible and maybe available for under £10-15 or at the library.

I hope to see you on Saturday, November 7th at 4pm in The Blue Moon. If you want to contact me about this, I will leave my mobile number and email address on the noticeboard in the Meeting House.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Midwives at the birth of a new way of living

I went to the one day Zero Growth Economy conference at Friends House in London on Saturday 26th September, organised by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. The contrast between the first three speakers, who all took a political stance, and the last, Quaker Alastair McIntosh, who talked on “The Spiritual Imperative in Economics” was palpable.
Miriam Kennett of the Green Economics Institute gave us “Tackling Poverty and Climate Change: Questioning Growth”, Richard Douthwaite of Feasta, Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, “The stark choice is not growth or no growth: it’s share or die”, and Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam, “Should Growth be Rationed?”.
Alastair McIntosh summed up how I felt after all this, and I think this applied to most who were there, when he said it felt like a ‘train crash in the mind’. The problems are so great, the consequences so unnerving, one becomes completely numbed, not knowing which way to turn.
This is why the problems of peak oil and climate change; how we change the way we live to be sustainable for everyone and everything on the planet, is a spiritual problem, not a political problem.
To start with a political analysis, and devise political solutions, which take people as they are, and can only respond to people’s needs and demands as they present themselves, to my mind will produce disastrous outcomes.
We will descend into chaos as governments fail to adapt and become impotent in the face of catastrophe, allowing the short term vested interests of the powerful to win out. Libertarians and survivalists will finally have their way, though whether they run out of ammo or food and water first will by then be a moot point.
As the disaster unfolds, we will, trapped in our addiction to growth and consumption and unable to find a way forward ourselves, abdicate responsibility to government in the hope that they will see us through. But the changes needed are so enormous, and so alien to people’s normal expectations, that Stalin’s enforced collectivisation and Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” will seem like children's picnics.
If we are going to have free and democratic political change, we must first completely change our values, completely change what we think the ‘Good Life’ means, and this is a spiritual problem. Whilst ever reducing our energy consumption is seen as a duty we have to reluctantly perform, we will never succeed – instead we must want to share, and see consuming too much energy as greedy and selfish – as hurting those whom we love, and therefore hurting ourselves.
We might be able to change in time, to put in place political processes to turn around our economies before it is too late. A new and joyous world beckons, but we may already be too late: we may already have hit the iceberg, and whilst we continue to enjoy our lavish lifestyles on the upper decks, the holds are already filling with water. Our main task may end up merely making sure that there are enough lifeboats to go round, and that everyone, and everything, has a place on them, but at least we will be sharing what little we have left, and comforting one another, instead of fighting tooth and nail for the dwindling scraps of our old lifestyle, whilst most, and possible eventually all, of us drown. For this time there will be no rescue – there is no one out there to hear our SOS, there is no where else to go.
The conference ended with a call for us to be midwives at the birth of a new way of living. There is no other way, but can we do it? Simon Heywood recently highlighted the need for us to move into the Quaker 'Age of Simplicity'. In the nineteenth century, our testimony to equality was emphasised as we rooted out slavery, and in the twentieth, we challenged industrialised warfare with our testimony to peace. But for these last two hundred years we have been in the main challenging other people, whereas we now have to start by challenging ourselves. I may not own a car, and may have given up flying, but we still like to travel, and, more significantly, we like to live very comfortably by burning lots of energy in our home.
We have to go back to the eighteenth century to see a similar challenge – when we Quakers kept slaves and took part in the slave trade, and the likes of John Woolman had to strive all of his life to open the eyes of his fellow Quakers to how their lives of comfort and self interest were on the backs, not of lesser creatures, but of their fellow human beings. We are in that place again, this time disdaining the whole planet.
So, to step back from that paralysing train crash of the mind, that feeling of being totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the impending catastrophe that we have made for ourselves, is to find some small things that may or may not work, but will bring us together and break the spell of the ego and the blind consumerism that feeds it. We can then build the spiritual practice of simplicity, step by small step, not in our minds and in words, but in practice, together in community.
This is the great virtue of the Transition Towns movement – it gives us a way to the future that builds community through common purpose, small achievable tasks, that added up over time might just work.
Then we will look up from our toil – there will be no fossil fuel driven machines to make light of the work – we will look up from our toil and glance at each other and see in each other the commonality of purpose that binds, and see that greater commonality over all of us, and all living and un-living things, that transcendent yet immanent other that some call “God”, and the unspoken exchange in that glance will be:
“Yes we can have a new way of living”.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Does this remind you of anyone?

The following is an extract from The Independent of 30 September 2009 about the current journey of the remains of St Therese of Lisieux:

" "St Thérèse was a simple person, she didn't do anything spectacular," ... "She lived in a convent in Normandy and died when she was 24. But she showed that through simple, everyday things you could do God's will."
"When she died she had done so little that the nuns had nothing to put in her obituary," said another pilgrim,... "But then it was discovered she had written her memoirs." The book was published as The Story of a Soul. It became an international bestseller. "She became a saint for ordinary people."
...Sister Thérèse, the 75-year-old Reverend Mother of the convent that hosted Monday's gathering. ... she has spent the last 47 years inside the monastery. ... "She didn't have visions or anything like that," the old nun said, explaining why her namesake is such a draw. "But she made people look at God in a different way. People in her time saw God as a distant figure to be feared, but she saw God as a friend." So much so that she used tu to address God in her writing – although her nuns changed this to the more formal vous in early editions for fear of shocking a general readership."

I encountered this after Meeting but as you can imagine it set me thinking about Fox and the shock of the Quakers to 17th Century society manners which happened to be something we had been talking about in the library after Lunchtime Meeting. Strange thing co-incidence isn't it?Also a learning experience when I talked about it to the friend I was with just after I read it and tried explaining Friends in their 17th Century context.