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”.


Craig Barnett said...

Thanks for this Gordon. You might be interested in the write-up of this conference on the Woodbrooke Good Lives blog at:

You write that:
"the problems of peak oil and climate change... is a spiritual problem, not a political problem."

"If we are going to have free and democratic political change, we must first completely change our values"

I don't think it is a situation of 'either' spiritual change 'or' political solutions. Clearly there are spiritual roots to the disasters that we face today, but we need urgent political responses that can't wait on a mass conversion of humanity.
Political solutions which start from 'where people are' may well produce disastrous outcomes, but certainly less disastrous than waiting for everyone to become radically different before doing anything.
My guess is that people's values tend to follow along behind institutional changes to the framework of everyday life, which are often imposed by legislation that people only gradually come to accept. For instance, the Civil Rights Acts in the USA imposed de-segregation against bitter opposition from many White communities, who eventually came to renounce overt racism. If Martin Luther King had waited for White people en masse to be converted to brotherly love, I suspect he would still be waiting (although possible still alive).
I'm not arguing that spiritual conversion isn't important, of course, but that it is part of a wider process of social change that also includes political action.

Simon Heywood said...

Thank you Friends for these posts. Rob Hopkins in his 'Transition Handbook', following Bryn Davidson, quarters the ground very concisely according to whether (a) resources deplete rapidly or slowly - still an unknown factor; (b) whether our response is proactive (planning ahead) or reactive (waiting for the crisis and then firefighting it)- a decision which is up to us collectively to make. A moment's reflection shows that these two variables yield 4 possible outcomes: (1) rapid depletion without preparation = the nightmare scenario ('Mad Max', as Rob vividly terms it); (2) slow depletion + reactive response (a slightly less horrendous version of the same thing); (3) rapid depletion, but well prepared for = 'lean economy'; (4) slow depletion of resources, with advance planning = the best case scenario.

Politically, it is perhaps going to be difficult to argue a case for simplicity, because global warming is uncharted territory and one can always pick faults in any predictions and any policy based on them. We more or less know that the world is bound to look less hospitable in 2070 than it is now, but what we don't know is how bad it'll be, or exactly why or how. One possible value of spiritual language is that it isn't dependent on these contingencies. We always knew that the consumer society didn't really deliver real well-being or happiness, and this would remain the case even if it was economically sustainable. The fact that it isn't sustainable will increase interest in alternatives and compel us to adopt them, but in a sense this brings the practicalities in line with what was always the case in terms of ethics. So in order to argue for simplicity we don't need to know exactly how the polar icecaps or the permafrost/oceanic feedback loops are going to be looking in 60 years' time, which is a good job, because we don't currently know these things. What we have always known is that consuming loads in material terms is the last thing you want to attempt if you want to have a really good time.

Gordon Ferguson said...

Craig, there is indeed a dynamic relationship between the spiritual and the political, which does not come out in my post.

However, it is essential that the spiritual is primary. The state and its constituent political apparatus is for the spiritual well being of its citizens, and spiritual well being is achieved through working together, which includes political engagement. 'Transition Towns' is a perfect example of the latter, as I have mentioned.

Starting with the State is a different matter:
The problem with relying on the state is that the state essentially has only one mechanism for change, and that is coercion. We have to obey the law. The state can compel us to do our duty by the law, but it cannot make us love our neighbour. The law can either enhance or hinder spiritual well-being, but it cannot create it. The changes in US law brought about by the Civil Rights Act were only possible because of the spiritual initiatives of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and others. This showed people that they might be wrong, and the law, by creating the environment where the spiritual well-being of the whole community, black and white, was enhanced, finished the process. The law could never have been imposed without that initial change of values. Even then there was great resistance and resentment, and it took at least a generation for acceptance to become commonplace, and to this day it is far from universal.
It is not necessary to wait until everyone has 'seen the light' - it takes only a small percentage of people to bring about a change in values, as the founders of all religions and spiritual movements well knew, and history illustrates to us, not least through the witness of Martin Luther King.
The key thing is that it is not our job to bring about this new way of living, but to be midwives to it. The midwife assures us that there is nothing to be afraid of, despite the great pain and hardship, and that it will all be worth it in the end. As George Fox says, we are to be patterns and examples – we must have faith that the rest will follow, and in the meantime be cheerful, whilst at the same time doing all we can, practically in our communities and also politically to try and make the political system more likely to enhance everyone's spiritual well-being - then we 'shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing'.