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.

Noah

For those of you who like bible studies, I’ve written a new one about the end of the story of Noah. Click on the link here – Noah After The Flood – or use the menu. It’s developed from an older study and explores the darker side of the story and its challenges for these days of extinction and rising seas.

For those of you who don’t like bible studies, I’ll be writing something else soon!

 

Loss

I have been to three events in recent weeks that seemed to me to reflect the sense of loss I’m feeling in this post-Brexit, post-US-election, post-sabbatical world.

The first was a local gathering to show solidarity with the protectors at Standing Rock. I’m against unconventional oil extraction and the infrastructure that makes that oil accessible. If we are to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 Celcius, we need to keep most of the known reserves of oil in the ground, let alone develop new sources. img_20161112_135113There are all sorts of other reasons to oppose pipelines like Dakota Access, carrying tar-sands bitumen thinned down in a cocktail of dangerous solvents across wilderness, under the Missouri, etc. The risks to life from inevitable leaks are just too great. Anyway – about 100 people gathered in Brighton in the rain to express our solidarity, and it was a very moving and spiritual time.

The second event had a similar theme, but closer to home. It was a picnic on Leith Hill, the highest point in southern England, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the proposed site of an exploratory oil drill. Most of the Surrey/Sussex Weald has been carved up for oil and gas extraction licences. Some drills have already gone ahead, but Leith Hill has become a major focus for protest.img_20161203_115909 It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the North Downs countryside, heavily wooded, where vehicle access is along narrow ancient sunken roads with mature trees growing out of steep banks. The thought is that if they can drill for oil here, nowhere is safe. (It would be fracking if the Government hadn’t changed the legal definition of fracking). I grew up not far from here and often came to Leith Hill on walks or cycle rides and so I admit to a sense of sentimental attachment – I don’t want this beautiful woodland and farmland ripped up to make way for concrete pads for heavy industrial equipment or the roads widened and new roads put down for heavy trucks to access the concrete pads. I particularly don’t want that destruction to be for the sake of oil that, if we burn it, will contribute to all this dying anyway, while some rich people get richer as a result.

The third event was more explicitly about loss. November 30th was a day of remembrance for lost species, with events held all over the world to mark and mourn this 6th great extinction event (and the first in human history) in which we are living.img_20161130_185433 In Brighton, we processed through the town with a model of a Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), made in the form of a Chinese dragon. The last Thylacine died in 1937. On the beach, we gathered around the Thylacine. We named some species that have become extinct, and others at risk of extinction. We also named people, plants and animals, for whom we are thankful – including the environmental protectors at Standing Rock and Leith Hill. Then we cremated our Thylacine. It was, again, a very moving and spiritual occasion.

I think I live in a death-denying culture. At many funerals now, people are encouraged not to wear black, and the mood is often one celebrating a life rather than mourning a passing. In some ways, that’s a good thing, but it leaves a great truth unexpressed – that I have lost someone I love deeply, that they are no longer here, that the manner of their passing may have been cruel, painful and undignified and this gaping loss has ripped my world apart. It feels as if acknowledging this is a heresy against the Myth Of Progress that underpins the modern worldview. But, sometimes the darkness needs to be cursed, even if at the same time you light a candle.

I think we need to name and curse the darkness. We need to own up to the loss we feel as the world changes. Grief will come out some way or other and maybe that is one way of explaining, at the wide level of society, the anger that has been expressed in the ballot boxes this year in the UK, USA and elsewhere.

In particular, I think it is important that we name and mourn the evil that is the extinction of so many species of animal and plant. This autumn’s report issued by Zoological Society of London and the World-Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the world has lost 58% of wildlife since 1970. Much of this is attributed to human activity, just as global warming and climate change are. I am angry about the destruction of the rain forest in Borneo, epitomised in the sad faces of orphaned Orang-utans, all for the sake of palm oil. I am angry about the destruction being wrought on earth through pollution, intensive farming and the burning of oil. This is not progress – unless you only look at selective stories of human well-being. Otherwise, it is a bloody mess.

Maybe, if we can find ways of expressing grief for destruction and injustice, and find ways of supporting each other in that grief – not to deepen the vortex but to uncover sources of love and courage between us – some creative, caring action will emerge. I wonder if action that doesn’t emerge from love discovered in the darkness will simply be angry, shallow and ineffective.

One of the things that struck me in all three of the events I’ve described, was a sense of unity, which was sometimes articulated. It echoed in an article by Charles Eisenstein about Standing Rock, in which he essentially said, how you play is what you win. If our protests and our action are expressed in the binary us-and-them terms that have caused the problems in the first place, then further division and destruction will be the result. What I hope for is a world of kindness, grace and peace between all beings. If I try to work towards that in a framework of thinking that sees oil executives or farmers as my enemies, I won’t build peace. I might, just possibly (because the powerful are powerful) win an occasional battle, but I won’t win the peaceful, loving world I long for. War doesn’t make peace. Peace makes peace and love makes love.

It’s all starting to sound sentimental, but then I think of the Christmas story and, despite the best efforts of the cards and carols and nativity plays, there’s little in the life of Christ that was sentimental, from his humble birth to his execution, but there’s so much about love: love in action (non-violent direct action, if you like) that is good news to the poor, that heals division and embodies hope of new life for all the earth.

Animal House

A sad moment yesterday.  While shopping in Brighton with Mrs Mabbsonsea, we noticed that one of my favourite shops, the Animal House, is closing down this weekend.

The Animal House was like going into a zoo.  It was stuffed full of toy animals, plus masks, puppets and other animal-related goodies.  It was a great source of props for children’s talks and services.  Now where will I find a donkey mask to disguise a monkey puppet on Palm Sunday?  I don’t like internet shopping – I like going into a shop and browsing and dealing with a real person at the till.

There’s also nostalgia in my sadness.  My younger son has loved stuffed toy animals since he was a baby, and the Animal House was like Aladin’s Cave to him.  I remember bringing him there on day trips to Brighton when we lived in London.  Even as recently as last summer, we had a good long browse in the shop together and then had a milk shake from Shake-away next door.  Happy days, no longer available.

There’s some moral point lurking here somewhere, I’m sure.  I asked the tiger puppet I bought yesterday at a huge discount if she had any wisdom to share, but she just kept the silence – one reason why stuffed toy animals are such wise, good companions, especially when you’re feeling a bit sad.