|The Meeting House 'edible roof garden'|
Last year, at our national decision-making forum in Canterbury, British Quakers made a collective commitment to become a 'sustainable, low carbon community'. This presents an exciting opportunity to model how a national religious body might respond to the challenge of transition throughout its structures, practices and culture. It also highlights some very challenging questions.
Sheffield Central Meeting initially responded enthusiastically to the Canterbury Commitment, carrying out a carbon footprinting exercise to establish a baseline for the future, and replanting our small Meeting House rooftop space as an 'edible roof garden'. A project group was appointed to oversee energy efficiency improvements to the Meeting House, and to act as a support group for members undertaking any sustainability-related actions. A programme of monthly events was started, including low-carbon lunches, and workshops on recycling, energy efficiency etc.
Since that initial burst of enthusiasm though, it has proved unexpectedly difficult to maintain momentum. Our carbon footprint results are sitting on a shelf somewhere, and no-one seems quite clear what to do next. One of the obstacles seems to be that once the project group was appointed, initiatives on sustainability began to be seen as solely their responsibility, and from there it is just a short step to becoming an 'interest group', rather than a commitment of the whole community.
Having only recently recognised this, our response has been to take this dilemma back to the whole Meeting, to ask our regular business meeting to discuss 'how can we ensure that fulfilling our commitment to become a sustainable, low-carbon community becomes the responsibility of all of our members, in all of our groups, activities and processes?'
We don't yet have the answers to this question, but at least we have worked out what we are working towards. We are aiming to be a community where every activity, from social events to political campaigning and spiritual practice will embody our commitment to sustaining life and building community resilience. Our challenge is to keep finding ways of 'mainstreaming' the Canterbury commitment, so that it becomes a part of the everyday culture of Quakers, both in our personal and family lives and in all the activities that we do together.
This parallels the kind of changes that are needed throughout UK society, where a commitment to sustainability is also often regarded as the concern of a 'special interest group', rather than a truly shared responsibility. Within Quaker communities we at least have the advantage of proven practices for collective decision-making and conflict resolution, and some well-tried structures for avoiding both authoritarianism and the 'tyranny of structurelessness'.
Quakers have played a significant role in major social changes in the past, including the abolition of slavery, prison reform, and more recently championing the right to same-sex marriage. Part of the power of these campaigns has come from taking collective action within our own community first, before calling on other people to change their behaviour. It took American Quakers a hundred years to free themselves of the corrupting influence of slave owning. Once they no longer relied on exploitation for their own livelihoods, they became one of the most powerful and effective campaigning movements for the abolition of slavery throughout the world. We don't have a century to free ourselves from our reliance on fossil fuels, but if we can act much more quickly, perhaps Quakers can contribute to a wider process of transition to a life-sustaining civilisation.
A brief report on Quakers' progress nationally towards becoming a low-carbon community is available here.
This is an edited version of an article for the UK Transition Network here.