I was recently asked to write an article for our local Quaker newsletter. This is what I wrote.
Identity & Activism
What does it mean to be alive now, in the summer of 2020, and to be a Quaker living in Herefordshire?
We humans are at a critical time for our species: perhaps the most dangerous time since we first evolved about two million years ago. During that time we’ve had many challenges. We survived the last Ice Age. For the last ten or eleven thousand years we’ve thrived and multiplied during the benign climate of the Holocene era. That era is now over: we have entered the Anthropocene, the era in which we, our one single species, is now shaping the planet’s climate, the acidity and warmth of the oceans and causing the decline and extinction of countless other species. Over the eleven thousand years of the Holocene atmospheric carbon dioxide was relatively stable, fluctuating around 285 parts per million. The burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has pushed this figure up to 416 ppm, and it is still rising. We need to stabilize that figure and then get it back down to 350 ppm or less, and do so as quickly as humanly possible. That in itself necessitates changing almost everything we associate with our contemporary way of life.
But climate change is far from our only problem. Our democracies are under threat. Huge and powerful forces are funding campaigns that create hatred and anger directed towards the poor and vulnerable, foreigners and refugees. Inequality has grown more extreme. An Oxfam report recently stated that there are 2,153 billionaires in the world and that they own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. Old problems like poverty and war persist.
We as a species now have the most extraordinary tools at our disposal. We have sufficient money, resources and technology to feed, clothe and provide a comfortable way of life for all 7.7 billion of us. But that comfortable way of life would have to be quite different from how we live now. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed’. In the current context we have to say the world has not enough for anyone’s greed.
The rich and powerful shape our politics, our media and the impact we as a species are having upon ourselves and the planet. Their greed seems limitless. Their desire to keep making profits from doing business as usual seems to blind them to seeing how things could be different, and how they could be happier while being less wealthy. For humanity to have a future we will need to redeploy resources on a truly massive scale, away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, away from the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak.
The British government is failing us. They care not a jot for the poor and vulnerable, and their attempts at energy transition are confused and misguided. Many of us make personal decisions to stop flying, or not to own a car, or to reduce our overall consumption and waste by simply buying less stuff. However the impact of individual lifestyle choices is limited. We can only choose from the options available, and most people are not prepared to give up on things if others are still enjoying them. In the Second World War people accepted rationing because it was seen to be fair. Then we came together as a national community in the face of a common enemy. Now we have to come together as a global community to face a common crisis.
Would we accept some rationing, of things like flights, fuel or clothing? Would we accept very much higher rates of taxation on wealth, higher incomes and inheritance, on fossil fuels, plastics and pesticides? Would we accept the loss of our white privilege?
Of course a sustainable and better future is not all about giving things up. Money instead could be invested in wellbeing. There is so much that needs doing. We could provide useful work for billions of people deploying renewable energy and developing a hydrogen economy, in farming in ways that increased biodiversity and sequestered carbon into the soil, and in caring for one another so much better through better health and social care, better education and training. All this needs active government and intergovernmental action supporting global leadership.
Probably all of us in Hereford Quakers make lifestyle choices at least partly conscious of the social and ecological impacts of our decisions. Most of us also try to influence things for the better through signing petitions, writing to our MP and campaigning actively within political parties and pressure groups, by helping charities and being good citizens. Some of us no doubt see prayer as an active part of the process of change. Many of us are aware that we have tried all of these for decades and still so many aspects of the global situation continue to get worse. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. We have to reduce carbon emissions to zero as fast as humanly possible, yet our governments are sill aligned so closely to the fossil fuel industries. This is why so many children are on school strike, why so many of us support the actions of Extinction Rebellion and others who are taking to the streets in protest.
Sometimes climate change can feel like a distant problem that does not much effect a place like Hereford. However in an ice free world sea level would rise to a point where Hereford Quaker meeting house would be under the ocean. That I find a useful image to think about while contemplating if and when we shall all meet again in that special space, when at last we emerge from lockdown.