Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Quakers in Transition part 3

At the risk of trying your patience, here is the third and final part of my attempt at The Friend competition essay on 'The Future of British Quakerism' (the first part is here and the second here). I've found your comments on previous sections very helpful so please do let me have your criticisms and suggestions (and Peter do pull me up on any 'purple prose'...)

The last half century of rapid economic growth and globalisation was made possible by cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, which is now entering a period of permanent and irreversible decline. Our economy and society is fundamentally dependent upon cheap energy - especially oil, which enables the long-distance transportation and supply chains that are the basis of our globalised economy.

As rates of oil production start to decline, the energy available to power our society will become increasingly scarce and expensive. Renewable sources of energy will become increasingly important, but they cannot provide enough energy to substitute for declining oil. This is largely because of the sheer volume of energy currently derived from oil, and the much higher costs of energy production from renewable sources. These additional energy costs are even higher for other options such as nuclear power, tar sands, and 'clean coal', along with additional disadvantages of (respectively) nuclear waste, huge carbon emissions, and the absence of working technology.

Declining energy supplies and rising prices put an effective ceiling on global economic activity. Our current economic system depends on the possibility of continuous 'growth'. That is, a constantly increasing rate of consumption of finite resources. As peak oil, climate change, and other physical and ecological constraints progressively constrict global economic activity, we are entering a new era of 'energy descent' that will have widespread consequences for our whole society.

The social effects of long-term decline in energy availability and increasing energy costs will be widespread and very visible. They include the localisation of production and supply for most goods, as long-distance transport networks become prohibitively expensive. As manufactured goods produced in China and foodstuffs from the southern hemisphere become unaffordable, local manufacturers and growers will have a competitive advantage, encouraging UK industry and agriculture.

Expensive transportation will also favour smaller, local businesses over large supermarkets and other retailers which rely on long-distance supply chains.
Commuting long distances to work and school, and frequent travel for holidays and social reasons will also become too expensive for most households. Many people will be forced to move home in order to be closer to their place of work, or to change their children's school so that it can be reached by public transport. Social and family life for most people may come to be focussed far more in their local neighbourhood, as regular long-distance travel becomes a luxury available only to a few.

British society during the phase of energy-descent could look similar in many ways to the Britain of the late 1940s, as widespread scarcity requires most people to 'make do and mend', and to grow their own food wherever possible. Rationing of essential goods may be re-introduced to prevent excessive shortages, as well as 'Tradeable Energy Quotas' to manage reduction of both carbon emissions and energy demand.

The State is also likely to come to play an increasing role in the economy and society, in order to try to manage this series of rapid transitions, as it did in the 1940s.

There may well be some significant gains in human well-being from the decline of our current economic system, especially the rediscovery of non-material goals for human life, and the rebuilding of local communities. There will inevitably also be very significant losses, especially for those with chronic and expensive medical conditions, migrants and ethnic minorities, and those without essential practical skills whose livelihoods are most dependent on the current organisation of society, welfare system and public services.

British Quakers will be among those groups that are especially vulnerable to the social consequences of energy-constrained economic contraction. As Quakers of working age are disproportionately employed in public sector occupations such as teaching, social work and higher education, that are most vulnerable to cuts in public spending resulting from declining revenues.
Relatively few British Quakers are currently employed in areas that are likely to see an increase in numbers and status; such as agriculture, engineering, skilled trades and policing, as the economy is re-geared towards core priorities of food and energy security, economic localisation and domestic security.

There are already signs of a re-ordering of political priorities away from higher education and social welfare, as the main parties have converged on a programme of deep public spending cuts, due to the crippling cost of the recent bank bailouts. As resources available to all governments become ever-more constrained by a shrinking economy, these cuts will affect growing numbers of public service employees.

Prolonged economic recession will also threaten those dependent on retirement pensions, as the value of invested assets will be affected by falling share prices and the potential collapse of vulnerable financial institutions.

Over coming decades most British Quakers will be forced to come to terms with a long-term decline in our standard of living, social prestige and life choices, which will profoundly alter the context of our daily life and religious faith and practice. As with all religious faith and practice, Quakerism is also a reflection of our daily experience of life and work. It is dependent on the economic and social conditions that create patterns of work, leisure, family and community life and political participation.

The profound changes in economic and social life that will be imposed by energy depletion and climate change will create new needs and priorities for Quakers, highlighting different aspects of our history and spiritual tradition.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Quakerism that is likely to have a new relevance during a prolonged period of economic decline and diminishing material security, is the benefit of belonging to a community of mutual aid. This was an extremely important aspect of Quaker Meetings (as of other churches and secular societies) in the period before the welfare state. As many Quakers begin to experience employment insecurity and falling incomes, due to declining public expenditure on social welfare and education, our Meetings will increasingly be needed for mutual support. Sharing of practical help, material necessities and social networks for employment opportunities, will become widespread priorities.

There are great benefits to belonging to a community of mutual aid in a period of severe economic insecurity. Belonging to a Quaker Meeting will provide an important 'safety net' for many people experiencing a rapid dislocation in their work and personal lives. Practical examples of this might include skills-sharing, mutual savings and loan schemes, benefit funds for people in severe financial difficulty, social enterprises to provide employment etc.

In this context membership status will also become more important, as it determines access to scarce community resources, and brings more costly communal responsibilities. This is how formal 'membership' of the Quaker community originated in the 17th Century, in the lists of those entitled to communal support.

Other resources of the Quaker tradition will also become increasingly important over this period. A shared vision of the 'good life', which is not based on material prosperity is likely to be a powerful resource in an energy-constrained society. For many in our society, falling incomes, more limited opportunities for travel and energy-intensive consumption will be experienced as a disaster, which consumer culture has provided no resources for making sense of.

Our Quaker testimony to simplicity will take on a new significance in this context. Over the last half century for many British Quakers the testimony to 'simplicity' in lifestyle and possessions has been increasingly difficult to practice in a hectic consumer society. In our new conditions of life, it may help us to see not just the material hardships, but also the possibilities to live slower lifestyles, more connected with our local communities, and more focused on real social and spiritual values than on material consumption.

This perspective will not come easily to any of us whose life experience has been shaped by the consumer society. But the writings and example of earlier Friends such as John Woolman will acquire a new contemporary relevance in an energy-constrained society, providing a rich resource for collective reflection on those goods of life that are not dependent on material living standards.

In this new society, in which material scarcity is becoming a widespread, bitterly resented and disorientating experience, the testimony to simplicity will take on a profoundly new significance. The Quaker testimony will take the form of an acceptance of scarcity, an equanimity that does not deny the real hardships involved, but also honours the spiritual goods made possible by material simplicity of life. The testimony to simplicity will not consist of a different material standard of living to others, but an alternative perspective, which embraces material simplicity as an opportunity to pursue the true goals of the 'good life' – community, spiritual practice, useful work, and action for justice and peace.

Other Quaker traditions and practices will also offer powerful resources for negotiating the transition to a low-energy society. Any period of rapid social change involves drastic and unforeseen changes in ways of life, and a re-evaluation of expectations and values. For many people, this is likely to be deeply traumatic, as our culture has provided few resources for this kind of fundamental reflection. The Quaker tradition of discernment can offer some powerful and well-tested practices which support new ways of seeing and personal and communal transformation.

Communal discernment in the Meeting for Worship for Business, Meeting for Clearness and Threshing Meetings provide the Quaker community with powerful tools for negotiating change and conflict, which may become increasingly important to Quakers and others experiencing disorientating personal and social change.

Times of social upheaval tend to cause many people to seek new 'certainties', which appear to offer a source of assurance and stability. For this reason we may expect a growth in dogmatic religious and political groups. But many whose world views and personal expectations have been overturned by 'energy descent' will be stimulated to ask new questions, and seeking support in their process of reflection and questioning rather than a pre-packaged set of 'answers'. For them, Quaker Meetings will have some rich resources to offer.

The 'Transition Quakerism' that emerges in response to the needs of a society in energy descent will also need to place a much greater emphasis on the formation of our children and young people. One of the consequences of rapid and largely unforeseen social change is that young people will be coming to adulthood in a society for which their formal education has left them largely unequipped. The current education system reflects the perceived economic needs and social priorities of a high-technology, service-orientated economy. Few of the skills and aptitudes that will be essential to an energy-constrained society such as food production, small-scale manufacture, or maintenance and repair skills, currently receive much emphasis in the school curriculum.

As Quaker communities struggle to support young people through social changes, we may also be challenged to think more deeply about the other skills, practices and traditions that will help them and the wider society through the process of energy descent. In recent decades all aspects of the education of young people have increasingly been delegated to the school system. As we re-examine the usefulness of State-designed curricula for our young people, we may also recognise that fundamental intellectual, social and spiritual needs have often been neglected by the education system. Quaker families and communities may begin to take a greater responsibility for meeting some of these needs, by sharing and teaching conflict resolution skills, centering practices, group facilitation and decision-making, nonviolent direct action, ecological understanding and our Quaker religious tradition.

The challenges of a society in energy-descent may also highlight a new contemporary significance for many of the Quaker testimonies. Some of the potential social consequences of falling living standards include the scapegoating of migrants and minorities, fuelled by anger and resentment over competition for increasingly scarce resources. As climate change puts increasing pressure on food and water resources in climate-sensitive areas of poor countries there is also a likelihood of large-scale forced migration and civil and regional military conflict, leading to growing numbers of refugees seeking sanctuary in relatively ‘stable’ countries in the developed world such as the UK.
As the government attempts to respond to these challenges by taking a greater role in the management of the economy and society there is also greater potential for abuse of State power, corruption and militarism.

All of these challenges will highlight the urgent significance of Quaker testimonies to peace, equality and integrity. We will need to renew our commitment to becoming communities of mutual support in responding faithfully to the leadings of God, in peacebuilding, reconciliation, and speaking Truth to power, as this becomes more urgent and costly than ever. Quakerism may once again be led to become a subversive force within British society – offering refuge to persecuted minorities and publicly challenging scapegoating, violence and propaganda.

As our society gradually learns to adapt to the new era of energy descent it will create new patterns of economic, social and political life that reflect the reality of diminishing energy availability. In the long term, any society must be able to function within its ecological and resource constraints if it is to survive. Our current 'industrial growth' civilisation has failed to do this, has encountered its ecological limits and is beginning the 'long descent' towards a much lower energy and resource-intensive society.

No one can know what the new society that emerges at the end of this process will look like. It may well develop by exploiting another non-renewable energy resource (starting from the much-reduced options left to it by our society), until it passes a depletion threshold and enters a further decline. In the long term, if a sustainable civilisation is ever to emerge it will need to develop a culture that recognises objective limits to levels of production, consumption and waste. In rejecting the goal of endless economic growth, a sustainable society will need to find other goals for human life, not dependent on material 'progress'. Quakerism has much to contribute to this new civilisation, as do other religious traditions that embody understandings of authentic spiritual goods of human life.

As our society enters its long energy descent, Quaker Meetings may come to provide both a refuge for people struggling to adapt to changing social realities, and also a midwife for a gradually emerging culture. British Quakerism could offer long-tested practices of communal support and discernment, and insights into spiritual values for human life that do not rely on material growth. Quakers, in partnership with communities of other faiths and traditions, may help to weave part of the fabric of a new, sustainable civilisation.

2 comments:

Alan Paxton said...

Craig

I've read through all three parts of your essay and here are a few tentative thoughts:

It's very good, your analysis is penetrating, but there's something missing. I think it's a prophetic dimension. The essay review panel say they're looking for a prophetic voice. I've found Walter Brueggemann’s understanding of biblical prophecy very helpful: that it offers a critique of the dominant worldview held by the powers-that-be, and that it energises people with hope that another way is possible.

I found your critique of the limitless-growth-is-possible-and-desirable worldview entirely convincing but I didn't feel very energised by your essay, specifically by the Transition alternative that you present. I felt a nagging suspicion that this is another attempt to fill the void at the heart of liberal unprogrammed Quakerism with ideas imported wholesale from outside.

Are there resources within the tradition that we could turn to in order to renew it? You suggest some, but I would like to see this discussion pursued at a deeper, more philosophical and theological level.

The dominant worldview in our society, this vision of limitless economic growth, is a materialistic pseudo-religion in which the Kingdom is manifested as shopping malls full of stuff. In Britain it is a faith in material progress that substitutes for the largely lost faith in traditional Christianity, an attempt to find transcendence through consumerism instead. It's a very impoverished account of the good life by Quaker, Christian, almost any religious standards (other than those of prosperity-gospel types).

It's also utopian, inherently unrealisable in the long term and for most people, because of the objective limits to growth you discuss so well. Therefore it's bound to come to grief.

Environmentalists like the Transition people understand this very well, but their alternatives can sometimes be implausibly utopian too - a vision of a decentralised, peaceful, co-operative society a la Kropotkin or William Morris emerging miraculously despite the billions of people and their well-armed governments chasing diminishing resources. A caricature, maybe, but in my days as a Green activist I met many people who believed in this kind of future, or at least tried to.

The future may perhaps be very grim, especially if global warming runs out of control. Maybe Quakers will have to be "planetary hospice workers", to use Alistair McIntosh's expression, in an era of mass death and species-extinction. I hope not, but it's distinctly possible. Is our spiritual practice preparing us for such possibilities?

How do we energise people with hope without seducing them with utopian illusions? Is that hope a distinctively religious, perhaps Christian, hope? What language do liberal Quakers have to articulate it?

What is the relationship of Quakerism to the utopian religion of limitless growth? There's undoubtedly an element of Whiggish optimism to Quakers, a rather complacent belief that they have been the handmaidens of scientific, social, political progress, and this does not stand up well to your critique. But this kind of Quakerism has been challenged before, by the catastrophe of the First World War for example, which led to a greater emphasis on countercultural witness, in this case a renewal of the peace testimony.

What does the Quaker Way look like when stripped of utopian thinking? What can we learn from the early Friends, who believed that the end times were at hand, that the return of Christ was imminent, and then had to adjust to the dashing of their millenarian hopes, and to long years of repression and being marginalised as a peculiar people?

I understand that you want to avoid rant, but perhaps your essay tries to be descriptive and predictive where it needs to be more unashamedly prescriptive...

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Alan
Thank you for this very helpful and insightful response. I wish it were you writing this essay instead! I have struggled to think through the issues you name here, and recognise that I haven't found a way to articulate a prophetic Quakerism that is both adequate to the challenge of the times, and also credible as somewhere that we might go from here. I will keep working at it, although I'm not likely to get much further with this essay before the deadline (end of this week).
I agree that the Transition vision is often unrealistically utopian. The view of the future I have sketched here is much darker than most Transition stuff, while still being probably over-optimistic in many respects...
I think Transition 'optimism' is often pragmatic though, as it isn't motivating for people to keep telling them how terrible things are going to be.
In friendship,
Craig