Tag Archives: sustainability

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)


Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)

A Past Future: chapter 29

You know how old science fiction tells you more about the time in which it was made than the future? I think Qf&p chapter 29, ‘Leadings’, is a bit like that. It was compiled for 1994, when this Book of Discipline was new.

Some of it stands, of course. Predictions about the future are about people, and people don’t change that much. 29.01 talks about walking with a smile into the dark – just as much of a challenge in any age. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved, but there are plenty of other places in the world where you can talk to the “men of violence” mentioned in 29.08.

On the other hand, a lot has also changed.

Some of the leadings which are seedlings in this chapter have grown and blossomed into flowers. 29.03 and 29.18 talk about what we now call sustainability. We have stuck with the inter-faith dialogue mentioned in 29.14, and this work has borne some fruits.

Some positions are clear and consistent but surrounding society hasn’t changed – at all, or in the direction we’d like. 29.09 talks about the arms trade – the technology has changed, but the trade is still happening and Quakers are still protesting it. 29.10 talks about not paying taxes for war purposes – but when I submitted my most recent tax return, HMRC provided me with a handy and horrifying graph to show that more of my money is spent on the military than the environment. (See Conscience for the ongoing campaign.) 29.12 and 29.13 were both written in 1987 – but the poverty they discuss is still very much part of British life in 2017.

Some issues haven’t been taken up by Quakers in the way the authors of these passages hoped they might be. 29.04 talks about the anti-vivisection movement: as far as I know, Quakers in Britain don’t have any united position on this, and while many would want to reduce animal suffering, many still eat meat, and I think most would accept that some medications are best tested on animals. As far as I can tell as a white person, the problems of assumptions about race and ethnicity identified in 29.15 are just as much of an issue now as ever.

Other issues which have been areas for Quaker discussion or even decision aren’t mentioned here. Questions about sexuality and marriage aren’t in this chapter (although they were, as I understand it, on the radar at Yearly Meeting 1994). Questions about gender diversity, assisted dying and end of life care, drug legalisation, and mental health don’t appear here, but have all been raised by meetings since this was written.

Which bits of this chapter do you relate to, and what feels outdated or absent?

Unity of… what? Chapter 25

Quaker faith & practice chapter 25 is short chapter, at only 15 passages. I’ve read it a couple of times before – but always to find out ‘what Quakers say about’, and not for personal inspiration. Reading it now, a few questions occur to me.

What do I make of this language about ‘creation’? I don’t have the strong ‘nope! wrong!’ reaction to the term ‘creation’ which I know some people have, but I do see that talking about ‘creation’ implies a ‘creator’ – and although that can be a God/dess whose creative energy flows alongside that of the material universe (or even is the creative energy of the material universe; panentheist, pantheist, pannontheist anybody?), there is little discussion of creation among Quakers and so the standard use of the term tends to be set by seven-day creationists. I think that very few Quakers in Britain today think the world was created in seven days. Some have ways of interpreting the story to make it true in a mythological way, capturing some essence about the way people are – such as the fear of chaos. More probably rare think about it, or don’t consider it relevant to their religious lives. (I don’t have any evidence for this, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts. I wouldn’t like to assume that understandings of the term ‘creation’ mapped neatly onto approaches to ‘God’, but obviously they might be related – how?)

What did Quakers think about these issues between 1772 and 1957? There’s only one early Quaker passage in this chapter – William Penn writing in 1669 – and two from John Woolman in 1772. All the rest are twentieth century. Did those great Quaker industrialists never write about right use of resources? Perhaps they didn’t, or perhaps we disagree with them, or perhaps I am not alone in being ignorant about their ideas.

What would we say now? The passages also stop in 1994, when the chapter was composed. In the last twenty years, scientific knowledge, public opinion, and Quaker understandings of sustainability have all shifted considerably. The 2011 Canterbury Commitment is a landmark in that change, but a lot else has happened as well. Becoming a low-carbon, sustainable community has for some Quakers, myself including, become a significant part of our testimony to the action of God in our lives – or, if I can slip between different patterns of use of the word ‘testimony’, a Sustainability or Earthcare Testimony has been added to many people’s ideas about what it means to be a Quaker today.

My own leading to witness in this area wavers, and helpful suggestions often butt up against the limits of my financial and emotional capacity. I have just written and deleted a paragraph here in which I defended my inability to do X, Y, and Z, which would all lower my carbon footprint but are not feasible at the moment. I recognise the leap to defense from the other side as well – it’s the leap people make when I say ‘I mainly eat vegan’ and they say ‘oh, I could never be vegan because…’. Only months before I moved from vegetarian to vegan, I was saying exactly the same things. I think that at the time I said them, they were true. I certainly believe people who say them to me now. My experience was of a shift – a gift of grace from the Goddess – which enabled me to see that this was a change which I could make.

It was also important to me to see that this change was worthwhile even if it wasn’t complete. When what love requires is a paneer korma, I seek to enjoy it for what it is – and look for a vegan option again at my next meal. (And again this position might sound defensive: sometimes it really does feel like letting go of guilt, and other times I suspect it’s just a suppression of guilt as I fail to face my own failures.)

How does a commitment to caring for the environment connect to other aspects of Quaker testimony? Chapter 25 makes some of these connections – to simplicity, to economics, to peace – but I sense some other areas which could be explored. How do environmental concerns connect to our changing ways of working, especially our exploration of ways of using technology well? How does sustainability connect to our way of worship, especially if I am right that our understanding of ‘creation’ is now somewhat vague? (I’m glad to see my friend and colleague Stuart Masters engaging with other modern Christian thinkers around these issues.) Can traditional Quaker insights about the possibility of transformation in this life, turning away from sinful things when we have worn them as long as we can, and the need to stick close to our Guide help us to get through those tangles of defensiveness, guilt, desire to change and the fear of change which so often knot us up in inaction on issues around sustainability?

Sustainability: a garden image

If you have a garden or an allotment, it can be useful to, from time to time, walk through and get the big picture. As you go, you’ll note what’s doing well, what needs harvesting or dead-heading, what needs some TLC and where the weeds are outgrowing the plants. While I was at Yearly Meeting this year, through a chain of thoughts too tedious to recount here, it occurred to me that this image might help me to work out what’s going in with my attempts to lower my carbon footprint and live more sustainably. So here is a tour of my sustainability garden.

Let’s start with one of the oldest plants – ‘eat less meat’ in sustainability terms. I’ve been growing a tree of vegetarianism for a long time, and it flowered into nearly-vegan a couple of years ago. It still needs looking after – there a times when choosing not to eat diary is choosing not to eat, and I’m not actually up for that. (Eating out, mainly, especially when there are other people’s needs to meet as well.) In the more general food bed around the vegan-tree some things are organic and some aren’t; and worryingly, I’ve got all these plastic-packets growing. They’re a very tenacious weed and although I’ve cut them down a bit it seems almost impossible to stop them arriving with the food.

The next bed is transport flowers. These pretty little blue ones are walking, and those are growing well this year. (A lot of people grow cycle flowers here, too, but I don’t.) I’ve got lots and lots of these train-travel flowers this year, too, and at the back you can see the final few leaves from the couple of plane flights I grew last year. I haven’t planted any more, but I didn’t intend to plant last year’s, either – they were volunteers, so to speak. You can see a scattering of the purple getting-a-lift flowers, here and over there. No driving-myselfs this year, though, although perhaps the seeds are in the soil.

My energy-saving corner is a bit sad – a few simple things like better light bulbs have been planted, but I haven’t got space for all the fancy things they sell in the garden centre – solar panels and wind turbines and all that. I never know quite what to do with this.

Finally, I’m building a better path so that it’s easier to come and visit – and so that I can go out from the garden more easily. I’m think I might be building a path to my local council offices. They could be helping a lot with the bus-flowers, for example – you didn’t spot those? No, there are a few but they’re not always where I want them to be!

S is for… Sustainability

“To individual Friends we issue a clear call to action to consider the effect of their lives on the world’s limited resources and in particular on their carbon usage. We ask Friends to keep informed about the work being done locally, centrally and throughout the Quaker world and to educate themselves. But above all that, Friends keep in their hearts that this action must flow from nowhere but love.”

Minute 36, our Canterbury Commitment to sustainability

What would a sustainable world look like? We need to reduce our use of energy, of throw-away things, and especially of fossil fuels. In my visioning, this usually involves people working together more closely, sharing more generously, and focussing on interaction rather than material things; for other Friends with whom I have done this exercise, it looks very different. I’ve heard people speak about cities crumbling, or of more manual labour and less intellectual work. When I share my vision, people sometimes say things like ‘but you can’t expect everyone to get along’, and when I hear other peoples’, I frequently feel that as a person with chronic health problems whose talents run more to reading and writing than gardening (not that I don’t enjoy gardening!), I would have little to offer in those future worlds.

I do think that we need to look at the state of our communities, locally and nationally. Groups of common understanding, like Quakers, are good, and have a role to play; but what about groups of accidental commonality, like people who live on my street? I live in a building with three flats. I know the names of the people in the other two because I see their post, but that’s really all I know about them. It wouldn’t occur to me, when in need, to go to them for help, and I’d be surprised (not upset, but surprised) if they came to me over anything other than which night to put the bins out. I’ve sometimes thought about reaching out to people like them, and to others on my street; but the memory of the leaflet which came round a couple of years ago, moaning about how there are too many students and there needs to be a cap on rental properties, stops me. Students are busy, and non-students wish we weren’t here.

(If my readers are a typical Quaker audience, someone out there is probably thinking ‘but students are a nuisance! They are loud/messy/too many/etc.’ – I’ve heard this said in Meeting settings several times. I have no real reply; I don’t like the sound of drunken parties or bins left endlessly on the pavement, either.)

In my vision of a sustainable world, we travel less, and feel consequently more attached to the location in which we live. We move house less often, and get to know our neighbours better. We don’t dash around looking for a better-paying job, but go on living on what we have. We spend money where it’s needed – food, health – and not where it’s not – cutting our ‘defence’ budget, for example.

I have no idea how to get from here to there, though. If I get the jobs I actually want to do, I’m going to have to travel for them, move house for them, and work for promotion within them. I’m not going to get to know my neighbours. If my personal life continues as it is, I’ll probably live alone. If my health continues as it is, I’ll heat my house to ‘too warm’ and go on eating food and taking medications which are packaged in plastic. Above all, I have no idea whether that’s a reasonable course of action – it’s what most people would do, but is it right? What alternatives do I have?