Washed-up

For years, we’ve used Ecover washing-up liquid. Ecover was one of the first manufacturers of cleaning products that didn’t contain synthetic chemicals and were widely considered to have a less harmful impact on the environment. Apart from some controversy about daphnia, they avoided animal testing. We refilled our bottles (two of them, bought years ago) at our local independent grocer. Also, it was good washing up liquid, with effective cleaning action and staying power. The toilet cleaner was good too, although we didn’t like the laundry soap. But generally, we were pleased with ethical products that also did their job well.

You’ll notice I’ve been using the past tense. A couple of weeks ago, I went to refill the bottle as usual and noticed that the grocer has switched to a different brand. It’s just not good washing-up liquid, so today I went into a larger shop in Brighton (the amazing Infinity Foods) for Ecover. They didn’t have any. When I asked about it, the assistant said they weren’t stocking it any more since it had been sold to S.C. Johnson. Apparently, that happened in January this year.

S.C. Johnson is a huge manufacturer of cleaning products. They are not known for their environmental ethics and they test some products on animals. So there is now a boycott of Ecover, combined with a letter-writing campaign, in the hope that Johnsons will change their ethics in alignment with Ecover rather than the other way around.

But I feel disillusioned. It seems that small can’t be beautiful for long in our present world. There’s a number of other brands who started off with a great idea that was going to be good for the planet and good for customers and staff, who were successful and then were bought out by some enormous industrial corporate behemoth. Innocent smoothies now belong to Coca Cola. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was bought by Unilever in 2000, although it still seems to retain ethical independence. Green & Black’s chocolate, founded in 1991 to make organic, fair-trade chocolate, was bought by Cadbury’s in 2005. Cadbury’s in turn was bought by Kraft (now Mondelez) in 2010. Cadbury-branded chocolate is no longer Fair Trade certified, and in 2017 Green & Blacks brought out their first range that is neither organic nor Fair Trade. Even if, as in the case of Ben & Jerry’s, the original ethical vision is allowed to continue, the whole thing seems to me to be compromised by a parent company that doesn’t share that original passion. There’s a danger that the ethics become no more than a selling-point rather than being core values adopted because it’s the right thing to do.

Part of my disillusion is this feeling that small doesn’t work any more. It’s not a new thing, but it’s worrying. Economies of scale lead to a greater distance between the people and the provider. The Co-operative movement in the UK is a good example. The Co-op Bank is no longer a co-op but is owned by private equity and the troubles it experienced that led to this sorry sell-out were, in part at least, due to it being too big. As a Co-op member, I’m asked to vote for people to serve on the board, but I’ve no idea who they are, so I don’t vote. Thus the governance structure of the organisation is weakened and power becomes detached and unaccountable. A local society, where the members know each other, works because everyone is personally invested in the business. It’s the same with Adam Smith’s economic model – in a small market town, competition works brilliantly, but once you expand the size of the market, the customers are more distant, the decision-making is more remote, greed is un-checked, and mergers and acquisitions result in cartels and monopolies. In the church, changes in charity law, an increasing raft of compliance demands, and just the underlying shift from a participative culture to a consumer culture means that denominations and local churches are looking to combine just to survive, but rather than bring new life, this usually seems to hasten the decline.

So what can be done? Well, for starters, I think I’ll write to S.C. Johnson to let them know I won’t be buying their products until they stop animal testing and adopt Ecover’s environmental commitment across their range. I will continue to support my local independent shops, even though it costs more. It might be about time I took my money away from the non-co-op Co-op Bank, although they’re still relatively ethical for a bank – but there are mutuals out there too. And then it’s down to me to be a participant and not a consumer. I need to find ways of keeping myself informed about the products I buy and, because that feels overwhelming, that might incentivise me to keep things simple. Also, it may help remind me that when I use a product, whatever that is, I’m not just consuming it. I’m taking part in a chain of supply that involves people, animals, plants, environment, transport, etc etc, as well as vision and values. I need to resist being privatised and bought.

Alternatively, I could just refuse to do the washing-up, on moral grounds.

The Good, The Bad and The Complicated

I have been in an email discussion this week about the rights and wrongs of generating electricity by burning biomass. In the UK, biomass is counted as a renewable source of energy, and if you simply think about burning well-seasoned wood, say in a domestic wood-burning stove, that’s almost true. In a well-managed woodland, where there’s selective coppicing on a longish rotation, the carbon released from the wood when it’s burned has only been locked into the wood for a few decades or so and if the volume of new growth is equal to the volume of wood harvested, a roughly equivalent amount of carbon is sequestered out of the atmosphere by the new tree growth. So far, so good.

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The UK is one of the world’s leading burners of biomass for electricity. Figures are hard to find, but they vary from 4.75 million tonnes in 2014 (UK Government figures) to 13 million tonnes (Biofuel Watch figure – but I think this is based on the assumption that 13 mt of green wood yields the 6.5 mt of dried pellets they claim were burned in 2016 at Drax, by far the biggest wood-burning power station in the UK). Whatever – it’s a lot of wood. Most of this is imported from North America. There is a lack of clarity about the source of the wood (Is it dead wood? Sawdust? Bark? Small trimmings? Whole trees? Are the trees clear-cut from plantations or ancient forest? How are the plantations/forests managed for the benefit of wildlife biodiversity? Are the forests expanding due to increased demand or reducing in size?). The wood is burned in the form of oven-dried pellets – presumably that’s more cost-effective than letting the wood season naturally. I wonder about the carbon emissions associated with oven-drying and then with shipping the pellets across the Atlantic, but I can’t find figures for that. There’s a lot of opacity around this industry which adds to my sense of foreboding, which in turn inclines me to think it’s a bad thing.

Drax

It’s complicated. If you’re focused on cutting out fossil fuels, burning wood instead must be good, right? If you’re focused on woodland biodiversity, it may not be (depending on how the source forests are managed). But if you don’t focus, how are you ever going to fix anything?

It’s complicated just trying to do the right thing. I want to cut out dairy from my diet. I’m struggling to do that in general, but, in any case, I wonder if it’s better to eat organic English butter, the result of a fairly simple production process and wrapped in paper, or margarine made in a complex industrial process from exotic imported oils like palm and soya and sold to me in a plastic tub? (I also want to support the milkman, who brings us organic milk in glass bottles, although the local depot recently closed due to falling demand so now he brings it in a diesel van from a town 10 miles away). What about palm oil? I’ve been trying to avoid it (impossible though that is) because of the way tropical forest is being replaced with monocultural palm plantations. But then I read that farming other oils uses much more land. I’ve been trying to cut down on plastic packaging, for example buying sauce in glass bottles, but then someone said that the carbon emissions from transporting heavy glass bottles are greater compared to lighter plastic ones.

When things get complicated, you end up feeling bewildered – no solution seems right. That quote (or is it a mis-quote? It’s complicated.) from H.L. Mencken puts it debilitatingly well: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

It’s complicated. I’m never going to solve climate change. I’m never going to save the world. But perhaps I can learn to live well – or at least live better. I think that place of resignation is a good place from which to start again. I’m never going to fix this, but if I can be more compassionate, gracious, mindful, and so on, I can be better. If I can keep a vision alive of what a saved world might look like, and be inspired by that living vision in how I live now, I can become better. There’s that bit in the Earth Church manifesto about refusing to be content with where the compromises fall, which acknowledges that there will be compromises but also that those boundaries will be pushed back as life-giving living expands. I want to explore this idea of becoming more authentically aligned with the values I aspire to. It feels more holistic, more earthed, than a technical, problem-fixing approach. Perhaps a simpler, more authentic core of living well is a good foundation, a good hub for engaging creatively with the complexity that is, and always will be, life on this planet.

 

Seeds of life

On Monday, the UK parliament voted, with a large majority, to expand Heathrow airport to three runways. If this ever gets built, it will raise the UK’s aviation carbon emissions to 43m tonnes by 2030. On the same day, the UK Business Secretary announced that the Government would not support a tidal barrage scheme in Swansea Bay that could have generated enough electricity to power 150,000 homes. One month ago, the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly voted to reject its Church and Society Committee’s recommendation that the Kirk move towards divesting from fossil fuels.

All of these decisions, and many others I could list, are backed up by sensible-sounding arguments, and were taken according to good democratic process; yet they will have a seriously negative impact on the lives of vulnerable people, animals and plants through the climate change they promote. In Church and civil society alike, due process and good order tends to take the world ever further from that vision of peace and justice and life in its fullness that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

In 1942, in the midst of the second world war, C.S. Lewis wrote these words in the preface to ‘The Screwtape Letters’ –

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

When Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, he used a number of different images. One was a mustard seed. In Mark 4.31-32 he talks about someone sowing a mustard seed that starts tiny but grows until it’s a plant that gives shelter to the birds. That sounds pretty innocuous until you realise that mustard was considered a pernicious weed by many in 1st century Galilee. It had its uses, but once planted was hard to get rid of and could take over a field. To sow it might be like me blowing dandelion clocks into my neighbours’ gardens – anti-social, disruptive, just downright not nice.

To take a stand for a world of grace, compassion, mercy and love in which all living beings are respected and cherished is to sow weeds in a nice field. In a world governed by money and power, neat and orderly, every act of love and generosity is sowing a weed. In a transactional world of cause and effect, of price, debt and payment, every act of grace and mercy is subversive and disruptive. It’s sowing a weed. And if we sow enough weeds, they might take over the field. A world of order and respectability that provides harvest for a few while most get little or less will be taken over by the chaos of life, love, mercy and joy.

Flower in cracked earth

I love the idea of this even though chaos scares me. Maybe that’s why we need to work together on how we disrupt this ordered way of doing things that is so harmful to so many. If we talk, think and act together, developing good relationships, building bridges across divides and building inclusive and caring communities, the chaos will be fun, positive and creative, rather than the kind of anarchy that I fear where people descend into self-interest and fascism emerges from the vacuum.

So – practical ideas, anyone? What are the dandelion seeds we can sow that will bring life to the well-ordered dead field?

Together We Can

A conversation over breakfast at a church weekend turned to electric vehicles. I made the point that I do these days, that if we simply replace current vehicle use with electric vehicles, we’ll have to burn a lot of fossil fuels to provide that much electricity and so electric vehicles may not make much difference to the bigger climate change picture. So we moved on to how different expectations of how we use transport could make the difference.

Someone mentioned that in the early days of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the US trade embargo, the cars they had were seen as belonging to the nation. If you were driving and someone hailed you, you were expected to pull over and drive them where they wanted to go. It wasn’t your car, it was our car. That’s one thought: sharing resources as things we hold in common for the common good.

Trucks platoonedAnother thought we discussed is how technology might enable more sharing. By the end of this year, the UK government intends to have trialled ‘platooning’ three semi-autonomous trucks together, driven by just one driver in the lead truck. Similar trials have taken place in the US and on continental Europe. Driverless vehicles platooned like this can drive safely very close together, potentially hugely increasing the capacity of existing roads and thereby avoiding the environmental destruction caused by building new roads. Couple up driverless technology to planning and logistics systems overseeing the needs of business – where and when the goods in the trucks need to be – and road haulage could be even more fuel-efficient. That could be linked up to weather forecasting systems so that the logistics could be planned around the likely availability of renewable energy.

Something similar could be put into place with cars and the transport of people. A ride-hailing app could be linked up to the availability of transport. So if I want to go from my house to town in 15 minutes time, I just tap that into my phone and the system would tell me the best option, whether a bus or a car share with someone driving that way anyway, and hook me up with the driver. Or it could tell me that the pool car parked nearby is available for me, and on my way I could pick up a neighbour or two. With driverless technology, the pool car could pick us all up, drop us off and either park or pick up other people and later another vehicle would take me home. The same app could tell me that I can’t go in 15 minutes time, but 10 or 20 are possible. With longer journeys, platooning could provide the same energy and planning efficiencies as with freight transport.

This was just a breakfast conversation, pooling as much ignorance as knowledge and enthusiasm. The technology may or may not help us, and in any case the gate-keeper on the road to lower-impact transport is our attitude. The choice to hold resources in common for the common good entails sacrificing the comfort and convenience we’ve gotten used to, for example driving my car where I want and when I want, without needing to consider the needs and wants of anyone else.

It did make me think, though, that so much of my environmental campaigning has focussed on individual action: changes I can make to my energy use and my other consumer choices, and the collective angle is no more than the combination of many individual actions. What if more consideration were given to the social dimension of climate action, giving primary attention to how we interact with each other? Building a stronger sense of belonging together in community may enable greater reductions in human impact on the environment than if we go it alone, and becoming less isolated may make us happier, too. In the society that emerges after the collapse of this one, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts and we will have learned that a good life is only possible through a choice to serve the common good.

Imagine you’re sitting at that breakfast table. What would you say? What do you think?

 

In Through The Outdoors

I spent last weekend on a ‘re-visioning’ workshop for people working in sustainability. The programme was a mixture of being in nature in the hill-to-hill sunshiny splendour of the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, and exercises in using our intuition to connect with that nature and our visions for our lives. There was also a strong element of what we wanted to achieve as a group going forwards.IMG_2793

It was challenging, both physically and spiritually, but I really enjoyed rising to the challenge and have come back with a fresh sense of purpose and energy.

We were a diverse group of people with a wide age range, some in business, some working in the voluntary sector or in campaigning, yet we created a good level of community, of belonging together, very quickly. I think this was simply because, on the first evening, we made a commitment to engage with the process and contribute positively for each other’s benefit. The result was not only some good and helpful intuitions into each other’s core purposes but also some ideas for how we can collaborate together on some projects.

It goes to show that when we choose to create a safe and positive space, pay attention to each other and to nature, it’s amazing what we can achieve. After a day of bad environmental news – Surrey County Council giving more permissions to enable fracking on Leith Hill; and the Church of Scotland deciding not to divest from fossil-fuels despite a church-co-sponsored resolution to strengthen climate commitment gaining less than 6% of the votes at Shell’s AGM just the day before (so much for engagement) – I feel that hope for the future lies less in carbon reduction and more in building communities of resilience and care and in finding joy in nature. My weekend in Wales feels like a sign of the good that may be possible if we put our minds and hearts to it.

Earth Church

I was sitting in church a while back and the preacher said that we might look back and ask why the German church of the 1930s didn’t speak out more strongly against the rise of the Nazis. Then he asked, What will be the issue that future generations look back to the church of the 2010s and ask why we didn’t speak out about that? The answer seemed obvious to me – Climate Change.

That thought fed into a long-growing, dis-satisfied sense that Christianity has drifted away from the teaching of Jesus, has become too interested in itself and has located too much of its hope in a non-material afterlife (going to heaven) and too little in the earthly here-and-now. While there are many Christians, and Christian organisations, involved in environmental action and campaigning, where are the churches making this a top priority?

So I thought, what would it look like to combine a desire both to follow Jesus and to care for the environment? In an attempt to explore this I’ve started Earth Church. I know many of my blog readers aren’t particularly religious, but many of you care about the environment and nature, so I’d be interested in any thoughts you have.

Here’s the Earth Church manifesto. It’s based on the opening verses of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – verses traditionally known as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.3-10). Every time I re-read this it’s a fresh challenge to me, but then I think following Jesus was always going to be a taller order than I’d want – as radically counter-cultural as his teaching reflects. See what you think…

Earth Church Manifesto

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7) Jesus challenged his culture and gave good news to those being crushed by it. The eight sayings that open the Sermon challenge us and point us to good news:

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.’ We aren’t here to accuse others, to wallow in guilt or to hide in despair. We don’t have the answers but we will ask the questions and explore a way to God’s kingdom with whatever companions are also on that journey and we will travel as light as we can.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ We will face with courage and honesty the loss we are experiencing in these days of crisis. We will seek solidarity with the suffering, hear and tell stories that give voice to the voiceless and search for language with which to speak the unspeakable.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ We reject power and domination and instead seek to follow the servant-example of Jesus. In so doing, we hope to challenge the idea that the earth belongs to the strong and the cunning. We hold out hope that God will raise up the humble poor and they will inherit the earth.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ Righteousness is often paired with justice in the bible. We will commit ourselves to seeking justice for all living beings, in our own daily choices and in the wider systems of society. We will refuse to be content with where the compromise falls, but will remain hungry for justice until all beings flourish together in peace.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.’ We were raised in fear through a narrative of scarcity, but we now choose to believe in a God of abundance, whose mercy is new every morning. Trusting God, we will seek to live generously and joyfully, keeping short accounts both with our own grudges and with those we have hurt, so that we will learn not to fear but to love.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’ We will form a community of grace, love and accountability, in which we support and challenge each other to stay true.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ We will avoid adopting the same divisive thought framework that has broken the world apart in the first place. While aligning ourselves against the dominant socio-economic system of our culture, we will align ourselves for people and seek the alignment of all beings with the love of God. We will seek to act now by the values of the world we hope to see: a world of grace, peace and love for all.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ As long as some humans are persecuting other humans, as well as animals and plants, we are prepared to suffer too with all who suffer as we follow Jesus, the suffering servant of God. We are not seeking success, honour, status or reward and we will not cling to such things. We would rather be outsiders following Jesus than insiders within a socio-economic system that is profoundly anti-Christ.

Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ The journey has already begun. Come and walk alongside us.

EC Logo 2

www.earthchurch.co.uk

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc: @EarthChurchURC

 

Cursing the Darkness

BeeNovember 30th is Remembrance Day for Lost Species. This evening, once again in Brighton, as in many other places around the world, there will be a procession and ritual to mourn the loss of animals and plants that have become extinct. We are in the 6th Mass Extinction Event in the Earth’s history and it is a tragedy for all life on Earth.

In this culture of progress, it is unfashionable, perhaps even subversive, to dwell on the dark side of things. We are supposed to be optimistic and believe that we will be clever enough to find a fix for every and any problem. Cancer, climate change, extinction – they will all be fixed – stop being so gloomy and join the party. Light a candle if you must, it’s better than cursing the darkness.

I think it’s time to do some cursing. The dark is dark and we need to say so, not least because living beings are suffering injustice, violence and death on the dark side of progress and shouldn’t their voice be heard?

Lament is an uncomfortable form of poetry. It screams in pain and curses the darkness. It is hard to hear. In the bible, lament is a kind of rogue genre, questioning the conventions of religion and challenging the way the world is. I think we would benefit from recovering the power of lament, because I think it is a lever that can change the world.

Last year I wrote a little about the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, in a post called ‘Loss‘. This year, I have written more. In fact, I’ve written a longish paper on the theme of Lament and why I think it could be important for us in these dark days – for the sake of endangered animals and plants and all victims of injustice, greed and complacency. Click here to read it, or use the Articles menu above. As always, I welcome constructive comments.

Rock Farm

I visited Rock Farm today. It’s a 6-acre market garden in West Sussex that’s been run as a community project called Roots To Growth, focusing on the therapeutic effects of growing things and working outdoors. It’s recently been taken on by OneChurch, Brighton.IMG_20171019_153122

Ben, who’s leading the project, showed me around. He’s keen to use permaculture principles to reduce the amount of physical workload (“There’s no point coming for something therapeutic and getting stressed by the amount there is to do”) but also to work in harmony with the plants, the people and the land. He’s also keen for this to be a place where people just enjoy being in the countryside.

IMG_20171019_153050This particular bed has been used for beans and courgettes this year, and has an apple tree at one edge. I loved the way Ben talked about putting in plants “that want to be near that tree,” meaning things like comfrey and dandelions that will attract good pollinators for the tree. The idea is to listen to the land and put plants together that not just work together but that like being together. Another principle is to listen to the people who are involved and, rather than presenting them with a long list of jobs, let them do the things around the farm that they find life-giving. It’s a model of land, plants, animals and people flourishing together. I guess that, in the big picture, the jobs that really need doing will be the jobs that, between them, the people want to do, and the work will get done. The farm might even be more productive – and certainly will be in the big picture.

IMG_20171019_152947I’ve been attracted to permaculture for several years and have tried a few practices in my garden. I love this idea of listening to the land, learning from it and working with it. Layer mulching has worked pretty well for me (layers of cardboard, compost and manure), and not disturbing the soil structure by digging works very well for me. I’ve loads to learn, though – e.g. about how different plants work together – but I think it’s a great idea.

It was inspiring to hear Ben’s vision for Rock Farm as a place where the point is not to grow as much stuff as possible, but to let people, plants, animals and the land itself flourish.

Psalm 147 – Bringing everything together

This is just to flag up, for those of you who like such things, that I’ve posted a new Creation Psalm bible reflection.

Psalm 147 brings several things together, including Catholics and Protestants. Impossible, do I hear you say? Well – have a look and see how the psalmist managed to do what the ecumenical movement has so far failed to do, and how they managed to do it hundreds of years before there even were such things as Catholics and Protestants. I make other points as well, about creation and salvation, time and space and… well, why not just click here and read it?

The day I left my auxiliary brain at home

I got to the office this morning and couldn’t find my phone. I phoned home (on the landline), and Mrs M confirmed my suspicion that it was still plugged in to the charger in the kitchen. Aarrgh! I felt naked and adrift.

Now, I am not a great mobile user. I’m not forever checking stuff. I keep notifications for apps permanently off. I use a paper diary. I don’t do emails on the phone. Some of this dates back to my early days with a smart phone, when I did use some of these features and caught myself referring to it as my auxiliary brain. At that point, I thought, “No.”

However, today I was in a mild panic. I had a couple of appointments lined up – people coming to see me – and I didn’t know how they’d get in touch to say they were running late, or whatever. What if one of my children sent me a text and they wouldn’t know I hadn’t received it?

In the staff kitchen, I told two colleagues about it and we agreed that, somehow, in the olden days, we managed fine without mobiles. One said that she had been to see Chrissie Hynde in concert the previous night, and Chrissie had stopped in the middle of a song to tell someone to stop filming and switch their phone off. We agreed that it’s rude, the way some people film concerts, and that the results are rarely worth seeing. We agreed that you get more out of a show by keeping your phone in your pocket and being fully present. One of my colleagues said that she’d read some research showing that people who don’t take photos remember more of their experiences than those who do. It’s as if you delegate some of your thinking to your phone, and lose a little bit of your ability to use that little bit of your brain. Also, you stop being fully present. Instead, you’re partly in the future, thinking about how you’ll share those photos on Facebook and how your friends will react.

I recognise that I am old, well – 52. But I do feel resistant to the idea of delegating thinking to machines. I know it is the future, but I don’t like it. What shocked me today is, even with the limits I place around my dependence on the phone, I realised how dependent on it I am.

In the end, both of my visitors turned up on time. When I got home, there were no texts waiting for me (apart from one from one of my visitors saying he was on time). I got through the day fine, with just the brain that’s in my head, just like we used to.