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.


Peter Lawless said...

Hello Simon, thought I do not disagree with many of your points I am wondering if another perspective of a more historical nature may need to be included in that what is seen as basically ethical problems in human society has its roots in the desires of the few i.e. governments and capitalists who were caught up in notions of progress, the desire to create markets and a genuine belief, by some, that the standards of living of many could be improved. It however struck me very clearly a few years ago that in reading Will Hutton's 'The State We're In' was in many respects effectively an updated version of Engels 'The State of the Working Class In England' from the mid-Nineteenth Century and we must not forget that many, in the so-called affluent west are still doing little more than eking out an existence.
We can analyse the issues now by virtue of hindsight but how many people considered themselves to be acting unethically when they were seeking to better themselves; to try to live up to the expectations which they were being constantly fed?
We are living what even in the 1960's was a dream existence. Who would have imagined the boom in consumerism, home technology (including this laptop which I am using) and they way it is being driven by media and the people employed to tell us what we need before we even know we need it. Reading Vance Packard - 'The Waste Makers', 'The Hidden Persuaders' - whilst at school in the 1960's sounded warning bells as did Rachel Carsons in 'Silent Spring'.
Yes we need an understanding and a way forward but who is going to tell a significant part of the world's population that they cannot have what others took for granted even 50 years ago. It is not simply a matter of halting consumption which may be taken on board only by the few. Excepting holidays twice a day the road outside my door is blocked by those delivering and collecting children to and from schools in vehicles which seen to indicate a degree of rough terrain I cannot relate to. Yes I know that Sheffield's roads are bad but surely they are not that bad?
In terms of expectations I feel that people believe that they have the right to engage in a peacock like display of their wealth and are prepared to drive over those who are offended or object to it.
At this point I am reminded of a story about Diogenes, the cynic who at an Olympic games say the young men of Athens in their finery to which he retorted 'Affectation'. On seeing the men of Sparta in their ragged dress comments 'More affectation'. Is the assumption of affectation in this matter something which we need to avoid? Some forms of Quaker simplicity as represented by the dress of some groups, particularly in the U.S., could be viewed as this.
I hope that I am not taking away from the seriousness of the matter in this ramble which is my first response to your last posting but I felt I had to say something particulary as regards the historical aspects of this. I know that such an understanding will not provide a cure but sometimes to know what has happened in the past can be of benefit whilst considering the future - or is that simply a mistaken belief on my part in presuming that the majority in the world are playing a game of catch-up? A game which could be very difficult to slow or stop.

Anonymous said...

There are over 6 billion people on the planet not 3. So is that 3 bn you would consider killing?
wonder how you do that with a minimum carbon footprint?

Simon Heywood said...

Thanks Peter. I hope the following is relevant to this line of discussion.

I'm aware that many people in the developing world are sceptical about global warming and attempts to deal with it because they are more concerned about raising their standards of living and don't see the rich world busting caps to sort out the historic problem it has created. You could hardly expect them to think otherwise. Politically, what this means is that the buck tends to get passed back and forth at the international level.

Although they are radical in lots of ways, Quakers are traditionally (I hate to admit) not consistently terribly radical about things like markets and capitalism. The movement dates from a time when capitalism was itself the new and radical alternative to entrenched feudalism, and the brute fact is that capitalism has, in fact, despite everything, led to an overall rise in living standards. Almost nobody in modern Britain is living in conditions quite as awful as those which were quite normal for medieval peasants - or modern farmers in much of Africa. I stand to correction on this point from people who have a clue what they're talking about, but I don't think this prosperity can be entirely put down to evil causes. Part of it was because our ancestors just happened upon unprecedentedly efficient ways of making and distributing lots of nice and useful stuff. The resulting prosperity cannot therefore be an entirely bad thing (and isn't seen as such by Marx, which in context of traditional left-right politics ought to settle the question I think), and it has also to be a good thing (as far as it goes) that the same benefits are now rolling out across the world. The tragedy (one among many in the history of capitalism which I'll pass over in silence for the moment, partly because they're too obvious to need pointing out) is that there just aren't the natural resources to sustain a global rise in living standards contrived in the profligate, practically unfair, and primitive ways in which our own ancestors contrived it. One of the things the world therefore now needs is a new and better industrial revolution, and as far as I can see there is going to be some role for trading, credit, and capital accumulation within it. It's still the least worst way we currently have of shifting the money from the people who have it to the people who could usefully spend it. I therefore think capitalism is going to continue, if only as something like a necessary evil, with (I would add) the proviso that any truly good person who happened to make an awful lot of money (by whatever means) would immediately go looking for practical ways of giving nearly all of it away. With the world in its current state, we may individually be entitled to get rich, but we cannot be entitled to stay rich. The real problem with capitalism, as I see it, is that this level of personal wealth redistribution happens so rarely that it seems eccentric. Among really moral capitalists it ought to be common practice.

Simon Heywood said...

But as far as our own consumption goes in the rich world, the other brute fact is that, if the science is right, it is going to go down, one way or another - orderly or chaotic. This is a practical and unavoidable issue and it pertains no matter who thinks what kind or level of consumption is right. Quakers, however, are spookily ahead of the curve, as we sometimes have been before. By some mysterious means, the weirdness of which I think my last rambling post was an attempt to explore, Quakers somehow seem to have the foundations of a response to the practical dilemma, hard-wired in the moral and spiritual values we have always claimed to uphold. We always been pretty clear in theory about the principle that wealth ought to be used wisely and seriously for the general benefit, and excessive display or waste is therefore wrong. This is a core Quaker value with a lot of deep resonances in the various ways we approach the whole issue of wealth and what to do with it. Given the science, you could even suggest that continued overconsumption by the developed world is a large-scale violation the old Quaker injunction against gambling.

I'm frankly a bit lukewarm about targeting things like gas guzzlers and cheap flights, except possibly as symbols. I'm not enthusiastic about them, but my reasons for this don't have much to do in any practical sense with such understanding as I have about the problem of global warming. There seems to me to be no point scapegoating or antagonising particular groups just for the sake of it. The main causes of greenhouse emissions are not cheap flights or suburban humvees. They're the basic core things - ordinary home and workplace energy use. And that's not (just) rich mums in shiny jeeps on the school run: that's me. The ways we power the core activities of home and work are pivotal, and the change is going to have to be very large. We will have to consume less, consume it more efficiently, and - partly because a political solution has to be reached - distribute it more fairly and equally. Quakers I know are at the forefront of things like house design, building regulations, domestic heating and insulation, and these - along with more radical thinking like that of the Transition movement - are the (to me, often quite boring) arenas where some of the problem is going to be solved.

But basically, the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, truth, equality and peace (which, weirdly, yield the two equally appropriate acronyms of STEP and PEST) seem to form a basis for both practically surviving a rocky future and actually finding deep meaning and value in it. They serve as a moral code, as a vision of community, and at the same time simply as a survival strategy. So it looks like the Quakers are going to have to save the world again. So to speak - I'm indulging in caricature for clarity's sake on this last bit, but I hope you see what I mean.

Peter Lawless said...

Certaintly the all terrain, weather, up-down -roundabout vehicle is a symbol but is is one of a greater, or rather a number of greater laladies, in society but is is still paty of the show of affluence,
Over trhat last 25/30 years or so trust has been eroded and not just by events but by media. We have beem taught to be wary so we buy burgular alarms; we have been taught to distrust the stranger so pick the kids up from svhool. Imagine the confusion which is caused by Friends who say that 'A stranger is just not a friend we have not met yet!'. Friendship is based in meeting strangers but how many conflicting messages are sent out by not just the media but by us?
I turn out the lights after me but with trust I hope that the light is revealed to those in front of me.
yes it is not just a question of technology but how it is applied. In a similar way data is just data until someone finds a way to change it to information but, and a big, how is it changed to knowledge and wisdom?

Anonymous said...


I found your article by googling "Quakers" and "Climate change". The reason I did this google search was because I've noticed that my aging quaker parents ( and their friends) seem to have become obsessed with climate change. Worthy as this cause may be, I am rather worried about the way that they seem to be engaged in some kind of competion over who can personaly reduce their carbon footprint the most.
I'm not a quaker myself, but because of the way I was brought up I am familiar with its faith and practices. I would far rather see an emphasis on the spiritual meaning and beauty of simplicity than the current obsession with figures.

Simon Heywood said...

I think this is a very pertinent question of priorities which depends partly on how urgent we regard the practical issues related to global warming. If we take the worst-case scenarios, action on global warming isn't just worthy, it's urgently necessary - and rolling against rather long odds even as such. In which case, obsession is fine by me in principle. It's always possible that the science is wrong (or is being misrepresented), and things aren't that bleak, but it's my understanding that the serious scientists are more scared than the rest of us, not less scared, and attempts to refute global warming scaremongering on a scientific basis (Lomborg et al.) seem to have proved signally unsuccessful. The scary science holds up pretty well. As a non-scientist, I stand to correction on that point, but in either case it's remarkable that such dire predictions are even being seriously debated in the famously cautious world of science, and the fact that they are focuses the attention of the rest of us on the timeless (so to speak) testimony to simplicity which Quakers (among many others) have always upheld.

That's as much as I'd say with confidence at the moment, but your 'ageing Quaker' point also makes me think. Anyone who has lived through a world war (this includes anyone with memories stretching back before 1991, when I was in my early twenties) has first-hand experience of living under the real and immediate threat of general annihiliation, and knows (or ought to know) that civilisation is fragile and prone to instability, and can collapse very suddenly and extensively, if not totally. So, for me personally (and not making assumptions about any else's point of view), there is a certain measure of deja-vu about the threat of global warming. How right is it to transfer this acquired habit of fear from the issue of high-tech weaponry to the issue of climate? Only time will tell. But there's nothing intrinsically bizarre or unrealistic about that level of fear. As a species, we really are more than capable of being that much of a danger to ourselves. I can imagine that many particularly older people, and particularly older Quakers, might have acquired similar instincts over the years.

However, the practical question of urgency apart, I think you are entirely right to point out that fear is not a good base for action (if I'm taking your point right). Like all the testimonies, simplicity has to be approached in a spirit of positive celebration of life. There's a difference between accepting the dangers that exist and panicking about them. Or something like that.

Simon Heywood said...

As regards the issue of displays of affluence, the erosion of trust within society, and so forth ... yes, absolutely. Very central and difficult question. Not to wander off topic, but at the moment in our meeting we are all going through a period of tension, leading to some conflict, relating to the (small) details of how we organise our collective life as a worshipping community. Generally, what I find fascinating and instructive about all of this is my sense that we, in our own little Quaker bubble, seem to be recreating small versions of the larger conflict patterns which impede positive progress in society on the large scale: unscheduled breakdowns in trust and communication and unannounced or unilateral retreats into entrenched or polarised positions, of a kind which leaves part of the whole process of cohesion collectively 'disowned', creating a kind of ownerless 'no-man's land' in the process, where our individual and collective 'shadows' can manifest destructively with results which please nobody. If that's not gobbledegook. Anyway, displays of affluence and obsessive concern over burglar alarms, etc., strike me as larger examples of retreats into similarly entrenched positions (roughly speaking, 'me, my kids and my own selfish genes are all my concern, and the rest of the world can go hang') which make it harder for a community as a whole to take responsibility for its total position. On the very large scale, something similar is happening at the international level, where we see national governments and societies placing the immediate interests of their own members above the welfare of the species as a whole. We all have to live with our own shadows and each others', and there will always be a fair amount of argy-bargy, whether suppressed or expressed, but that's human nature and we can often find ways of living with it - indeed, in my view, it's central to the spiritual life that we welcome these things in the right way in order to transcend them. The real failure comes when the available channels of communication are inadequate to the scale of the issues addressed. Easy to say in theory, devilish tricky to put into practice. But at the end of the day, we are not like elephants or cats, who have no society or community beyond the immediate family, nor are we back in the Dark Ages where there was no society or community beyond the tribe. The webs of community, common interest, and mutual obligation are wider and more all-encompassing than our current social and political arrangements allow us to easily express. And that's a mostly unacknowledged part of the real problem.