November 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.
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!
Back in the early 1970s, when I was quite young, I entered a competition to design the car of the future. I drew some sleek rocket-powered thing that hovered above the ground – very space-age. And it was the space-age. We were still sending men to the moon. The future was going to be amazing. We would have colonies in space. Our homes would be filled with labour-saving gadgets and robots and our food would be swallowed as a pill (“Take your protein pill and put your helmet on” – David Bowie in 1969). We would be able to speak to each other via our wristbands or maybe a video-phone on the wall. In all sorts of ways, we imagined a future quite different from the present in which we were living.
In a blog post for Dark Mountain, John Michael Greer argues that over successive decades, our imaginations have narrowed and the futures now portrayed in our stories are not radically different from our real lives. He says a great deal more that is worth reading, not least about different understandings of time in the world’s great civilizations, and perhaps I’ll write about that soon. But this observation about the poverty of the modern imagination set me thinking.
Perhaps one reason why the future is much like the present these days is that we’re just pretty pleased with ourselves. We’ve done very well and our lives are pretty good and so as long as we can keep up-grading our phones, that’s as much future as we need. The sight of cathode-ray tubes and QWERTY keyboards in The Matrix or Blade Runner should give us pause for thought in our hubris: the future looks back and scoffs. But still, we have progressed nicely… as long as you don’t look too hard around the world; as long as you don’t see what it’s like when others pay the cost of the progress of the few.
Maybe that kind of denial is another possible reason for our lack of imagination. This is Greer’s argument. Our sense of progress has worn thin. We are tired of having to continually upgrade, when every upgrade costs us more and gains us less than the last one. It’s getting harder to close our eyes to the devastation brought to the earth by deforestation, by mining, by intensive farming and by just about every other feature of how we live today. The unspeakable things we’ve always feared were lurking underneath the shiny stone of progress are starting to creep out. (As Gustavo Gutierrez said in 2015, “The poor are beating on the gates of the rich in their thousands, demanding to be let in.”) The stone is getting hotter. We dare not think about climate change and rising seas and many of today’s coastal mega-cities being underwater within a generation or less. When the future is so damn scary, it is hard to look at it for long. The future won’t look back and scoff, it will scream. So we have to stop our ears and close our eyes and find some narrative fascination in a slightly improved phone and some robotic toys for the super-rich.
The future is going to be radically different from the present, whether we like it or not. Greer argues (more or less) that we have to pluck up the courage to lift our eyes from the lackluster screen of our present imagination and look the future in its unimaginable face.
To write like this feels like heresy. I am supposed to be telling people that if they make a few changes to their lifestyle (change the lightbulbs, eat less meat, fly and drive less, etc) they can help keep the world much as it is now. To say anything else feels like doom and gloom and giving up in despair. However, I wonder if the opposite is true. It may be that clinging to the idea that we can conserve the present is worse than despair, because it is a despair that denies the truth. Post-Paris and the pledges that didn’t add up (despite the laudable goodwill of COP21); post-the 2015 and 2016 elections that have driven climate change off the political agenda in UK and US; and the prospect of the south-east of England being turned into an oil-field (with the moral blessing of the Church of England, let alone the determination of the UK Government), I think the truth is that we are stuffed. At least, we are stuffed if the un-stuffed alternative is to keep things more or less as they are now.
I don’t think I want to keep things as they are now. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, not least amongst people, animals and plants that are bearing the cost of oil-and-debt-fuelled free-market capitalism. We need a different world and it looks like we’re going to get one anyway. Predictions of a climate-changed world are only predictions, because the change is unprecedented in human history and we have no experience to inform us. But we can start thinking about what will help make life possible for as many life-forms as possible. One of the obvious things is to work at re-building broad-based communities rather than the like-minded bubbles encouraged by social media. Such communities will really exist – real bodies in proximity learning how people can belong to each other with grace, generosity and care, and applying those lessons in the wider world and to include all life.
The task of conventional climate campaigning remains valid (and vital), because we need to keep the temperature rise as low as possible by removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible. What I’m suggesting here is that this cannot be at the expense of also addressing adaptation to a changed future in which as much life as possible can thrive.
It is going to take great courage to turn away from the re-assuring lies of our present culture. It is going to take renewed imagination and love to face a frightening and uncertain future and engage with it. But I think there is hope if we do it together.
(I was planning to include some biblical reflection in this post, but I think it’s long enough already! The bible, especially in the prophetic literature, contains a lot of courageous analysis and critique of dysfunctional and unjust (and complacent) societies, alongside far-seeing imagination of how things could be different. See my article on Isaiah 11 in the ‘Bible studies’ section if you’re interested.)
At the end of August, Mrs Mabbsonsea and I celebrated 25 years of marriage with a short trip to Berlin. We first met there in 1989, spending two weeks on the same volunteer team. It was just three months before the Berlin Wall fell in November that year and we have wanted to re-visit for some time and see how the city has changed.
What people seem to be finding hard to believe, as we bore them with our holiday stories, is that we travelled there by train. Not part of the way, but all the way. And back. Who would do such a thing? It cost two or three times as much as air travel and took much longer – about 14 hours, door-to-door.
Flying uses a lot more fuel per km than trains, short flights more so as a greater proportion of the journey is take-off and landing. For that reason, I have decided not to fly. I have been thinking about the givens we work with. For many in my society, their non-negotiable given is that they should be able to do what they want (if they can afford it, and if not, get it on credit). Two examples: they should be able to travel where they want and they should be able to use as much electricity as they want when they want it. But what if the non-negotiable given is the chemistry of the atmosphere? For that to be non-negotiable, other compromises will need to be made, which may be costly. I am lazy and a product of my culture and I don’t make enough of those compromises, but one thing I am doing is not flying.
Travelling by train from Brighton to Berlin, changing in London, Brussels and Koln, gave us a sense of the distance we were travelling. Through the window of the train (except when we were in the Channel Tunnel) we could see how we were moving across the earth. A high-speed train distorts this a bit because I don’t have much of a reference point for what 250 km/h really means, but this sense of place and movement was enhanced on the outward journey because the high speed train broke down. We had to board a slow train at Brussels and travel for an hour and a half through Belgium. At Verviers, buses had been laid on which took us on an extraordinarily scenic tour through the Ardennes to Aachen. There we caught another slow train to Koln. None of the sense of the distances or the grandeur of the countryside or the width of the River Rhein, or views of the cathedrals at Koln or Aachen (where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800), would have happened from a plane. Nor would a nostalgic glimpse of the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s historic suspended monorail, which I rode during a school trip in 1980. I think a train goes too fast for my soul to keep up, but it is a whole lot less disconnected from reality than an aeroplane.
Berlin is a long way from here. I think that length of journey is about my limit. So there is a lot of the world I will never see, even if I manage to cobble together enough leave at some point to do a more complex expedition. Part of me feels a bit sad about that, but then even without my flying ban, I couldn’t visit everywhere. I read recently that Jesus lived a fulfilled life without seeing the Grand Canyon. Our greedy consumption of as much oil as we can afford has removed many of the limits to our expectations, but like most over-consumption, it doesn’t seem to have made us happier or better people. Perhaps it is time that we put some limits back on what we will do individually, in order that the limits might be expanded on the chances of the world having a flourishing future.
We loved our trip to Berlin. It’s a fabulous city, with so much thought-provoking and interesting history, incredible architecture and with a great big wood in the middle of it. I’d recommend a visit … but only if you travel there by train!
I say I hate meetings, but I seem to spend a lot of time at them and prioritise them in my diary. I suspect that’s because I secretly like them. There’s something about being on a committee that makes me feel important. I like being with people, too, especially if they’re my friend or if they’re important, or both. Some decisions are important and have an impact, especially if someone acts on them. My confession is that, more often than should be, that someone is not me.
I think I need to balance the talking with more action. That’s not to say I don’t do anything already. In fact, Mrs Mabbsonsea and I think hard about how we live and have taken quite a lot of steps over the years to live less destructively and more creatively. But I am becoming conscious of how often I make excuses (probably there’s a meeting I have to go to) and how little I dirty my hands. And I want to change.
Last Friday I went on my first student demo. I’m 50 years old and have never been on a student demo. It was part of the global day of action for fossil-fuel divestment. I was tempted to say, it’s my first day off in 2 weeks, I’m tired, I’ve got lots of little jobs to do in the house, blah blah. But I want to change and become a man of action – a man with dirty hands – and so I went to Sussex University and helped make a web of red ribbons across the square for the red lines (like 1.5C temperature rise) we mustn’t cross but that we will cross if we keep giving financial support to the fossil-fuel industry, and I joined in with the chanting and talked to some people about what was going on and then helped take it all down again and went home.
OK – it wasn’t much of an action and while it was the first student demo I’d been on, it certainly wasn’t the first demo of any kind, not by a long way. But what changed was that I ignored some perfectly legitimate excuses and went. I have another idea for this Friday, and the excuses are limbering up. I was wondering last week what I would do for Lent this year, and perhaps this is it – a kind of anti-Lent – to counter the excuses that tempt me to do nothing with the self-disciplined choice to act.
125 cyclists stopped over in Brighton on Sunday evening. They arrived late afternoon at my church, Brighthelm, where there was a reception for them, a meal and overnight accommodation.
Most were cycling from London to Paris, to arrive there at the end of the COP21 climate summit. Like the other pilgrims (see my last post, “Paris”, to which this one is pretty much a supplement), they are inspirational in their commitment to demonstrating their support for a good deal from this summit for the climate and for the world’s poor, and in acting a better world into being.
I asked one young man if he’d cycled from London. “Sort of,” he said. He’d been studying this last term in London, but comes from Seattle. “But you didn’t cycle from Seattle, ha ha,” I joked. “Actually, I did,” he replied. He had cycled from Seattle to New York, then travelled by ship to Southampton. I was seriously impressed, not only by his epic journey but by his story of the kindness and hospitality he had received from strangers as he made his way across the States. People can be amazing.
One of the resources that was essential for this man’s journey was time. Everything in our culture is fast. I complain when the broadband is slow – I say, “It’s like the old days of dial-up”, but before that I had to go to the library for information. I don’t have any more leisure time now, but I spend much more of it in front of a screen. The train from London to Birmingham takes just 80 minutes, but this isn’t fast enough for us and we are going to spend an awful lot of money to rip through some beautiful countryside to put in a high-speed line. Our hunger for more speed comes at a huge cost, financially and environmentally. If I want to travel halfway around the world, say from Seattle to London, why should I expect to be able to do it within a day? It’s a very long way and perhaps it should take a very long time. It’s only natural. We don’t need a third runway at Heathrow – take the bike instead. It’s a simple choice between spending time or saving it.
Spending the money and the oil buys speed and saves time. We have built a whole way of life around this approach and it seems to have many benefits. But we are realizing that debt and climate change are high prices to pay. It may be, too, that we lose on the one hand at least as much as we gain on the other. Spending the time buys … a new world: scenery that you’re travelling slowly enough to take in; encounters with people whose simple hospitality forms new friendships; space to think deeply and encounter yourself; a sense of place in the wide world; a sense of achievement at making a journey fuelled by the burning of glucose in your cells.
These cyclists and pilgrims show that an alternative approach is possible. They make it possible. They make it happen. Every step, every turn of the chainwheel, is a choice to think differently, to spend time and save this beautiful planet and its inhabitants.
It was a humbling experience to be in Paris last weekend when pilgrims arrived from all over the world. I had walked with the UK ‘Pilgrimage2Paris’ group for a day, between Burgess Hill and Brighton, and saw them off along the south coast the next morning. It was great to see them again at the completion of their journey. Other groups had walked from other parts of Europe. One group had come from Peru and Yeb Sano had led a walk from the Philippines via Rome. Some had cycled from the UK and one couple had cycled from Vietnam: 16,000km.
I was so pleased to meet Yeb Sano, who has been such an inspiration since he fasted at the Warsaw climate summit in 2013 following the devastation caused to his homeland by Typhoon Haiyan. We’ve fasted and prayed for the climate. We’ve stood in the sea and prayed for the climate and those already being affected by climate change. And some have walked and cycled for the climate, to be in Paris for this super-important UN summit. People can be amazing.
Sometimes I think you just have to get on with something. These are all ordinary people, just doing something because something has to be done. Fast. Pray. Walk. They are small gestures that may never be more than that, but may connect with others and build something significant. In any case, I think that small gestures, motivated by love and by dis-satisfaction with the alternatives, are easily aligned with the redemptive love of God and so tend to be transformed, and to transform, way beyond their own essence, like a seed springing to life.
All of these journeys demonstrate an alternative reality. At its most basic, this says that you can go from A to B using your own natural resources. You don’t need oil, just time. Each step, each turn of the pedals, moves you along the earth a little. The gradient rises and falls. The wind blows in your face and through the autumn grass. The rain falls and you get wet. There may not be a toilet or a shop. You are a pilgrim on the earth, connected to the land on which you travel – you don’t get that in a car or a train and definitely not in a plane. Then companions make the journey far richer, and perhaps make it possible at all. That all adds up to a powerful alternative reality.
One of the pilgrims told me that she wouldn’t have described herself as gregarious, but she had learned what a wonderful and beautiful thing it is to be in community with others. After two weeks in close company, when one of the beds on offer in their lodging in Paris was in a room on its own, no one wanted to take it.
This demonstrates one way in which a gesture can be transformed into a larger reality. This person’s choice to be part of the pilgrimage transformed her desires, through experiencing a depth of comradeship that she would otherwise have avoided, but now really values. I have found something similar through my year’s fast from meat. As a meat lover, I have sometimes craved it, but I find that now that I have ended the fast, my desire for it has almost disappeared. (That is why freedom comes through discipline rather than through licence, I think). Eating less meat and, to a much greater extent, deeper communal bonds are features of a life with lower adverse ecological impact. It may even be a life that puts more in than it extracts.
Mary Grey (e.g. Sacred Longings, SCM, 2002) and others have argued that we are motivated and shaped by our desires. The negative, reductionist campaigning that can typify the environmental movement, ignores this to the peril of us all. We need our desires to be transformed so that what we long for inspires us to a better world. We need to be able to articulate those desires so that we can identify them, communicate them with others and so that they can be continually reformed.
The very recent history of Paris puts two alternative visions into stark contrast. A wounded, grieving, frightened and angry city, following the terrorist shootings on 13th November, could easily lead the world along a road of security through the barrel of a gun, and there were lots of guns on show in Paris last weekend in the hands of lots of police and soldiers. We easily slip into this narrative, which George Orwell summed up in one of the slogans of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “War is Peace”. It’s a narrative of self-defence and justifies the division, the hoarding of wealth and the utilitarian view of resources that brings us to war and ecological catastrophe. To borrow from Jesus’ parable, it’s an easy, wide, obvious road – a road you go down by default, with the flow.
On the other hand, the pilgrimages, the demonstrations all over the world on Sunday, the fasting and the praying and all the other ways in which people have shown support for a good deal from this UN climate summit, all point to an alternative. It is less obvious. It looks harder going, rocky, narrow and steep. You have to make a deliberate choice to travel it. People will think you’re stupid: standing in water – what’s that going to achieve? Well, if you’re priests carrying the Ark of God in the days of Joshua, it will open a way into the Promised Land, but you have to get your feet wet before the waters part.
The pilgrims got their feet wet. They have been changed through their experiences of the journeys they have made: the distances, the landscapes, the comradeship, the hospitality of strangers. In the deeper connections they have forged on the journeys they have chosen, the larger journey to the Promised Land is already underway.
Light-bulbs are boring. Carbon emissions are boring. Reducing your footprint is a worthy aspiration, but it’s reductive, it closes down and diminishes. It’s putting the cart before the horse.
Carts are boring. You can jazz them up, but it’s still a cart. The interesting bit is the horse at the front – that living being who can look you in the eye, who needs feeding and grooming and who might return a pat on the neck with a friendly nuzzle. Life is interesting. Tools are tools.
In the bible, in Genesis 1, there are two charges from God to creation. The first is in verse 22, at the end of the fifth day, when God blesses the fish and the birds and tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” The second is verse 28, spoken to humans: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it …” OK, the charge to subdue and have dominion is problematic, although some argue it depends how you interpret it. What I want to reflect on is the charge to humans, birds and fish to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
There is a similar two-fold charge after the flood. In Genesis 8.17, Noah is told to bring out of the ark every living thing – “birds and animals and every creeping thing” – “so that they may abound on the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” A few verses later, (9.1) the same blessing is given to Noah and his family – to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
What do you think? Have these verses been over-fulfilled by humans and it’s time to stop multiplying and scale back? Could be. Certainly, we cannot continue with a way of life that would require more than three planet Earths when we only have one. The danger of multiplication is that it leads to more and there is an urgent need for us to stop at ‘enough’.
But I want to go back to my horse and the thought that life is good. Just as environmentally-concerned Christians have morphed Genesis 1’s fearsome concept of ‘dominion’ into the gentler ‘stewardship’, I think we may be able to find a way of being fruitful and multiplying that will lead to life that is flourishing, abundant and life-giving – for all.
Here I am going to borrow from Naomi Klein (in This Changes Everything) and her contrast of two mindsets – extractive versus regenerative. An extractive mindset is what’s been governing human behaviour for centuries. We take for ourselves what we want – coal, oil, timber, ore, food, water, whatever. Our focus is on what we want, and we apply our ingenuity to solving the problem of extracting as much stuff as we want. We are just starting to realize that we need to apply some ingenuity to the problem of what we do with the waste, because there’s too much of it. To an extractive world-view, multiplication is simply about having more. We will grow the economy, multiply the value of our property, have more stuff.
An extractive approach to the problem of excessive waste (including pollution) is to find ways of extracting less, mainly through becoming more efficient. We expect to maintain our way of life – keep the lights on, for example – while using less energy and other resources. It sounds worthy but it remains, at its core, extractive. It takes. Taking less is reductive and it’s still taking. And it’s like a boring cart. May as well make it a car (but a very efficient one), then there’s no need for that horse – because at the end of the day, there’s no need for life in an extractive world.
A regenerative approach would be more immersed and participative. It would be very mindful of what is put back into the natural system. We have to take – we have to eat and heat and so on. The question is, how do we give back and replenish, so that regeneration – new life – can happen? In a regenerative society, multiplication would mean putting more in than was taken out. A guiding principle would be that if you can’t add more back in, you can’t take anything out. We would live in order to multiply life.
In a regenerative world, we would pay attention to the relationships within systems. People more interested in giving than taking would naturally build strong and joyful communities. They would apply their ingenuity to inventing ways of growing food, travelling, acquiring and using energy, and so on, that multiplied life rather than diminished it. As more is put in than taken out, carbon emissions would go into reverse. But the focus would be on life, not on stuff. The focus would be on life that is abundant and flourishing, for all, including horses.
The second biggest energy company in the UK, SSE, has announced a price freeze on domestic gas and electricity until 2016. Good news for customers for the next two years, then.
That’s the limit of the good news in this announcement. Because of the expectation that this will hit the firm’s profits, they have also announced cost savings – 500 job losses (not good news for them) and the withdrawal of much investment in biomass and offshore wind generation.
Presumably, SSE’s plan is to focus on burning fossil fuels. That makes sense given the prevarication of successive UK governments over energy policy, which has discouraged investment and left the nation with little alternative. The present government is putting most of their energy into promoting fracking, with tax breaks for corporations, and financial incentives (I think we used to call them bribes) for local communities.
The only way in which fracking makes sense is if the alternative is burning coal. It’s a very short-term solution. A shale gas well will only be productive for a couple of years, if that. We will need many thousands of them in our densely populated country in order to meet our needs. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about water supply and road safety and so on, but then joined-up thinking doesn’t seem to be our strong point.
What we need to do is to invest in technologies that help us to use much less energy. We need to invest in renewable generation. We need to re-think how we generate, distribute and use electricity. (We need to move away from using gas altogether – there is no climate-friendly gas).
But while the government (and opposition parties) fail to think beyond their big idea of winning the next election, and corporations fail to think beyond the next AGM and dividend pay-out, and citizens fail to think beyond this month’s bills, we will remain addicted to ways of living that will kill us all.
There is a bigger, longer picture, that involves us all living and thriving. But who has the courage to imagine it, let alone seek to make it reality?
It was fair enough. Her old one, which had carried each of our 3 children and all sorts of baggage as well as Mrs M herself over its 18 years, had stopped co-operating.
Here, by way of contrast, is my bike:
It’s just over a year old and it’s proving to be a trusty, reasonably fast workhorse and I like it very much. But it’s no longer very shiny and the problem with spending time in bike shops is that they are full of shiny new bikes. I liked the look of a smart single-speed city bike with drop handlebars. I like the idea of the simplicity of not having gears, and a fixie would take that simplicity even further. On the other hand, it might be fun to have an off-road bike and get out into the countryside. The temptation was all too much and I had to retreat to a cafe to read my book about the non-growth economics of ‘Enough’ over a coffee and chocolate croissant while Mrs M took a couple of bikes for test rides.
How many bikes is enough? (There’s a similar question to be asked about guitars, in my opinion). The reality is that I don’t need more than one bike. It won’t thank me for being taken off-road, but it’s fine – it’s enough – for what I want to do, really. But I am a sucker for shiny new. It alarms me how strong is my urge to acquire stuff – and I’m someone who doesn’t spend much time in shops and doesn’t look at much advertising and doesn’t worry much about my image. If I find it so tempting, it’s no wonder that, as a society, we are consuming our way into oblivion.
The concept of ‘Enough’ is a good one, but I suspect it needs quantifying at a much lower level than most of us would like if we are to achieve a world in which all people and nature can thrive together.
An hour with some soapy water and a rag might restore shiny-ness to my bike, after all.