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.