I spend a lot of time thinking about my own life choices and trying to get others to think about theirs. While I also get involved in campaigns targeting government choices, what I can actually change is the way I choose to live. In my work with Churches I focus on changes people can make that will lessen their negative impact on the climate and biodiversity, looking mainly at transport, diet and energy. Many environmental campaigners take a similar approach.
So we are all reducing single-use plastic. We are hoping that the price of electric vehicles will come down by the time we come to replace our petrol or diesel cars. We are cutting down on the amount of meat, dairy and eggs in our diet, and some of us are even becoming vegan. We are trying to do our bit to save the planet.
There are two points I want to reflect on, both of which call for a more joined-up approach.
First, our individual choices have other impacts. This is particularly true in relation to diet. In the UK, generations have farmed livestock on land that is unsuitable for viably growing crops. They are not evil people. They are, in many cases, working long hours for little (if any) financial profit, on land that may be inhospitable but on which their family roots go very deep. We can argue that the land should be wild forest, but we start from where we are. (In fact, some argue that low-intensity pasture, as on many British livestock farms, is good for the climate and good for biodiversity). I think we will make more progress if activists seek to collaborate with farmers rather than treat them (or at least make them feel treated) as enemies. The National Farmer’s Union has a policy for British agriculture to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Farmers directly experience the impacts of the climate crisis; most of them, I believe, care about the countryside they live in and on which they depend for their livelihood. They are not the environmentalist’s enemies. But they are unlikely to feel very friendly towards those campaigning for the end of their livelihoods. Surely there’s enough common ground to find a creative way forward.
We need to find a creative way forward. Reducing the amount of meat and dairy in our diets is one of the biggest-impact changes we can make for the climate. It seems to me that the challenge is to manage the transition for the good of all. The British coal industry may provide a good analogy. Few sensible people today would advocate for coal. From the point of view of carbon in the atmosphere, it is a good thing that many economies, including the UK’s, have greatly reduced the amount of coal they burn. However, the closure of pits has been devastating to the communities that had been built around coal mining. Impacts are still being felt thirty years later. A government (and, as they represent us, a nation) that cared about its citizens would have managed a transition away from mining in those communities, to ensure that there were new jobs and a good local economy, rather than making whole communities victims of the kind of isolated, blinkered choice that typifies free-market capitalism. Similarly, can we not find a way of combining our goodwill and our hope to create a conversation that will lead to a managed transition to eating less meat and dairy while finding new ways for rural communities and the countryside to flourish? I think that the onus is on the environmentalists, especially urban ones, to engage more constructively with farmers. That would then be a powerful coalition to engage with government, whose participation will be crucial. Now might be a good time to have that 3-way constructive conversation, when the UK is forging new international trade arrangements. In my opinion, a managed transition that respects the environment, British farmers and consumers, will need to promote high-welfare locally grown and organic produce rather than more intensively-farmed imports.
Second, we need to join up and follow through our actions and their impacts, nurturing our values and a vision of what we hope for, so that our choices can be aligned with that deeper desire. For example, near my Church, a well-known renewable energy supplier is moving into a new office. Into the skip is going the old kitchen, the old desks, the old carpet – everything. In comes a new kitchen, new furniture, and so on. I don’t like to judge, so I hesitate to suggest that this company is simply exploiting an opportunity to make money by selling a green product, but it’s hard to believe that they are driven by a vision to save the earth when I see how they’re going about re-fitting their office.
At the root of our crisis is an extractive and consumerist attitude to the earth. Extracting and consuming different stuff is not changing the basic problem. For example, every day, Birds Eye has been putting adverts on my Facebook feed for their frozen vegan products. It’s been Veganuary, I guess – at about the worst time of year for locally-grown vegetables. So then, import from warmer places, or buy processed products from a factory somewhere … or just eat turnips and cabbage for a month. Some of the choices that look like an obvious green option, like glass bottles, or cotton shopping bags, or electric cars (or even planes), or nut ‘milks’, may have worse impacts. We need to think again and think through and remember to ask Why. Moving from where we are to where we need to be (i.e. regenerative, distributed, localised, circular economies) is going to require substantial collaboration to manage that transition with compassion and justice. I think that developing those wider and deeper collaborative relationships is the key. On my own, I easily become bewildered, overwhelmed and depressed by the choices I face and their impacts, as I bat away, like swarming flies, the various reports and statistics and shoulds and oughts. But if we can find companions for the journey and develop collaborations full of celebration but free from judgement, we might be able to build communities that mean more than what we buy, in which everyone can flourish. I think most people want a good world where life can flourish. We don’t agree on all the details of how we get there, and many of us find change hard to face, but if we agree on what we want, it’s a good foundation, so let’s talk and be friends. United we move forward.