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

 

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.

The future’s not what it used to be

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. space-age-2We 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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan

On Friday 17th January, my 16-year-old nephew, Dan, went to a party with some friends. He took his first ever ecstasy tablet and collapsed.  After a weekend on life support, he died on Monday 20th.   We (including my parents, both in their 80s) were with him as he slipped away, and it took forever, and it was totally heart-wrenching.

Dan’s funeral was on Tuesday.  Before a memorial service in a packed church in the afternoon, we held a private family burial in the morning.   The weather was atrocious – strong wind and heavy rain.  It seemed to match the occasion, as if nature was saying that the whole thing was just wrong.  Was it rain or the angry tears of God?  I thought of a line from Gerd Theissen’s ‘The Shadow Of The Galilean’, where the narrator, watching Jesus die, says, “If the sun could see and feel as we do, it would go dark for grief; if the earth could feel, it would quake with anger.”   The world is wrong and not as it should be and not as God would have it be … yet.  We seemed to be standing there forever, but how can you ever walk away from something like this?

The afternoon’s service was much less bleak as friends and family paid tribute to Dan and we thanked God for him. There was nothing bleak about Dan.  He lived life to the full, with an inventive mind, a keen sense of humour and huge character.  Some have said “What a waste”.  And in a sense it is utterly tragic that his life was cut short at 16 years.  But Dan didn’t waste his life.  I think I wasted opportunities to know him better and be a better uncle, but having said that, I know that what is, is; and what has been, has been.  Every day is precious, whether you’re 96 or 16, and each person puts worth into each day for those they love and maybe those further afield.  But no one lives for ever … yet.

My sister and my brother-in-law have been amazingly gracious and positive. They have lost their son, but they have refused to blame anyone for his death.  They have engaged graciously with the intrusion of the media to put a positive message out to other young people.  They have started up a charity to promote that message – The Daniel Spargo Mabbs Foundation.  There’s a link to it in this blog’s list of interesting links.

Dan knew all about drugs. He was clever and articulate, from a caring home, with loving, educated parents who took an active interest in his activities.  He did, however, have an adventurous nature, like many teenage boys.  He got to experiment with drugs once.  Drugs like ecstasy, MDMA, and other so-called recreational drugs cause many deaths (30 from ecstasy in the UK in 2013).  Most people who use them don’t react and don’t die as a result, but some do.  There was nothing remotely recreational about a 16-year-old boy with umpteen tubes sticking out of him and machines working his lungs and kidneys, lying unconscious, slowly dying.  People have argued that maybe he took the tablet in the wrong way, or too quickly, or whatever.  The fact remains that if he hadn’t taken it at all he would still be alive.  We live in an addicted culture where we tend to excuse our addictions and the various substances and habits to which we are addicted; in which young people are dying because of drugs or alcohol.  These things wreck lives and I don’t care what you think about prohibition and moderation – my lovely nephew is buried under a pile of mud in a Croydon cemetery because of one little tablet.

I hadn’t meant this to turn angry.  I think I’m angry, at least in part, because I recognise my own addictive behaviours and my failure to reach out and build better relationships and contribute to a stronger community in which we value and care for others.  Blame is one of our culture’s addictions.  In reality we are all part of a system, part of a culture, in which we are all to blame but in which the hope for change and cure lies with all of us, too.  We (me included)  need to choose life and love over death.

May Dan rest in peace and rise in glory.