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.
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.
It’s now three weeks since I finished my sabbatical and returned to work and I am really struggling to adjust. Three months of camping and hiking and staring at trees (as well as a few other trips and things) must have really slowed me down and it’s been quite a shock to come back to the pace of ‘normal’ life. I think I hadn’t realised how fast the merry-go-round was spinning until I tried to climb back on it. It’s just exhausting. And I think, “Why?” Why are we so accepting of such a fast pace of life, or is it just me who is struggling to cope?
Trees have a different timescale. I read somewhere that oak trees take 300 years to grow, 300 years to live and 300 years to die. To sit and spend a couple of hours watching the leaves flutter on a tree is less than a blink of an eye to the tree. I find myself wishing I could just be amongst the trees again, because I think life seems to make more sense in the woods.
At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, are insects like the Mayfly, who lives in its adult state for just one day. In Rob Cowan’s brilliant book, ‘Common Ground’, he writes about the day of the adult mayfly and weaves that story around a story of some young people seizing the moment and living for the day.
Somewhere between the 300,000 days of an oak tree’s life and the one day of the mayfly, is my life. I wonder, what is my natural time? What is the natural pace for a human life? I can’t sit around all day staring at trees as if I’ve got all the time in the world, because I don’t. Some things have to be done, to live, to work, to love. But they don’t all have to be done right now as if today is all I have and I must frenetically pack as much into each minute as possible. In fact, much of the living, working and loving can only happen well if given time for paying attention, to listen, to think and to feel. How can we – how can I – live like a human being in a mayfly culture?
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!
Yesterday I set out on a hike from home, over the Downs, to a campsite in the woods about 12 miles away. It was always going to be quite a challenge as I haven’t walked that far with a big pack since my legs were younger, but I liked the idea of doing the round trip from home on foot (although Mrs Mabbsonsea’s offer of a lift for the first mile was too good to turn down – and perhaps that signified what was to follow …)
I hadn’t gone more than half a mile, at 9am, before the sweat was pouring down my face. It wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity. Without a breath of wind, the humidity was so high that you could feel the water in the air. I pressed on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, miserable and tired. Shortly after crossing the by-pass, out of the town and into the fields, and after much dithering, I gave up. I turned around, walked back to the nearest bus stop and caught a bus home. The weather had beaten me.
After a shower, a change of clothes and lunch, I loaded my pack into the car and drove to the campsite. Well, I had already paid for it, and I really wanted to spend a night in the woods. I had a fantastic time, with a splendid view of the Downs from my clearing. I listened to the birds, I watched the sunset and I watched my camp-fire until bed-time.
Staring into the flames, it struck me how ridiculous I was being and that I’m a very bad ecologist. Nature had made my plans unworkable, so I beat nature by burning some petrol – precisely the kind of thing I object to when moaning about patio heaters, air travel and politicians saying we have to keep the lights on. I like to argue that we have to start accepting limits to our behaviour and our consumption, e.g. if the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re going to have to make a cold drink because there isn’t any electricity (burning fossil fuels not being an option). But here was I driving my car because I’d booked a campsite and arranged the time away and I was going to go, come rain or high humidity.
I could let myself off the hook a little by saying that our leisured consumer culture runs deep in me. But the truth is that I had choices at every step but I didn’t think it through. Another truth is that I had a lovely stay in a rather quirky but rather fabulous woodland campsite (Blackberry Wood, near Streat, for those of you within striking distance). If I hadn’t planned it and booked it, I know it wouldn’t have happened at all. But how do I live more in harmony with the weather in my highly-scheduled life? I don’t want to wait until the costly tech is no longer available – I want to do the right thing now. I have much to learn … and there’s some irony with this lesson in that the trees started to teach it to me in Blackberry Wood on my motoring trip.
I spent a few days on Dartmoor, camping in a small oak wood up the valley of the River Erme. Piles Copse is an ancient woodland, once part of a farmstead. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place, ascending from the river up into dark, impenetrable, boulder-strewn woodland, filled with oaks so old they have beards. It was fantastic to spend time in it.
And yet … not in it. I could only spend a few days here because I’d carried enough food with me. I could only drink safe water because I’d brought the equipment with me to purify it (there’s a lot of poo on Dartmoor). I could only take shelter from the voracious midges because I’d brought a tent. In fact, I felt it was less a case of being in nature and more like being against nature. Being attacked by swarms of midges quickly shattered my romantic view of the peaceful community of creation. They may well, for all I know, have been thanking God for the food he’d provided for them, as I would have done if I’d caught and cooked one of the fish in the river. Thinking of Isaiah 11, maybe one glorious day the midge shall eat sap like the aphid, but even this magical sylvan grove was far from paradise on that sweltering, still, humid evening.
This struggle against nature goes almost back to the beginning of the biblical story, in the curse laid on Adam in Genesis 3. The transition from foraging to hunting to settled agriculture was possible because we learned how to subdue the earth. But in the end, the earth, on which and from which we have lived through our toil and sweat and struggle against it, will subdue us – “To the earth you shall return.” (Genesis 3.19). A ruined medieval farmstead high on Dartmoor was a good place to reflect on this. Life must have been hard for those farmers – too hard in the end, I guess.
So I think any scheme for harmony between humanity and majority-nature, and any spirituality of nature-connection, must avoid too much romance and take account of the reality of how technological humanity has evolved against nature. We are not simply animals with tools. Our use of technology over millennia has made us what we are today and if the technology were taken away, we would quickly lose the struggle. But perhaps being aware of this could help us set better limits on that struggle and on the harm it is doing to fellow creatures. Spending more time and effort in paying attention to the life around us and enjoying it, combined with humility and frank acknowledgement of how much harm we can do, might help us make vital moral choices about how we use technology and for whose benefit.
One further reflection is about the backpacking experience. Concern for minimal impact made me very aware of my footprint on this sensitive environment. I had to think carefully, firstly, about the food I took because I had to carry all the rubbish off the moor; then about how my washing waste could be minimal both in terms of where I put it and how much precious water I used; then about my own waste. The moor was very dry, so I sourced my drinking water from the river, which meant having to purify it. This took time, as well as gas (itself on a limited supply), and I had to balance keeping myself hydrated in hot weather against how hard-come-by the water was. Then there’s having a minimal impact on yourself, in the sense that whatever you want to have on the expedition you have to carry and every ounce counts. It is sobering to reflect on how little I needed on the trip compared with how much I use in normal life, when water and fuel are on endless supply, the waste goes down the drain and some nice men turn up each week to take our rubbish away somewhere, and the impact of my consumption is not borne by me. I wouldn’t want to live a nomadic life, although an increasing number of people are being forced into one. I wonder if part of the problem is thinking “This is it, this is the good life,” when in fact I am a pilgrim on a journey and not yet settled in a world of peace and flourishing. Settling too soon is, in a sense, trying to cheat God and leads to the huge levels of destructive impact that are presently threatening our civilization. As The Eagles sang so poignantly on ‘The Last Resort’ – “Call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
In my talk to a group of international post-grad students, there was a section about consumerism in relation to climate change. I critiqued our addiction to more stuff and to the latest thing and advocated a simple life that used less of the earth’s resources. At the end, I invited questions. The first question was, “Can you show us your phone?”
What could I do? I knew he’d got me. Reluctantly, I had to pull my iPhone out of my pocket. Yes, I could say it’s only an iPhone 4; I could say it wasn’t the latest model when I got it; I could say it’s not mine, it’s provided by my church. But I still felt a fraud. I’ve always known there are more eco-friendly phones on the market. There are certainly cheaper phones. There are simpler phones – do I need a smart phone? In fact, do I need a phone at all?
Last week there was a piece in The Guardian by Steve Hilton, who runs a Silicon Valley start-up and hasn’t had a phone for over three years. Hilton writes that at the end of his first week without a phone he felt more relaxed, carefree, happier. He questions the way everyone is forever anxiously checking things and says that he finds something menacing in our need to be connected and contactable all the time. He says that people are incredulous when they hear about his phone-free life, saying, “But how do you live?” The most common response, though, is, “How fantastic that must be. I wish I could do that.”
Do I wish I could do that? Part of me does. It’s only two years old, but my iPhone is approaching the end of its natural life. I have to re-charge the battery at least once a day, and that’s with hardly using it. The memory is too small to update the operating system. I object to this built-in obsolescence. Amnesty International alleges that thousands of children, some as young as seven, are doing back-breaking work in terrible conditions mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt is used in the lithium batteries in our phones (and other devices) and half the world’s supply comes from DRC. By having a phone, I am the rich man for whom these African children work like slaves. It’s not the only way my consumption of stuff causes others to suffer, but it’s one way.
Maybe I don’t need a smart-phone. Maybe I don’t need a mobile phone at all. I don’t keep checking things on it. Emails only come via wifi and I’m not perpetually logged in to Facebook or a news service. I use a paper diary. If you phone me and I’m with someone, I’m not going to answer – it’s rude. But the maps are useful. Having all my contact details on it is very useful. Having a camera on me all the time is handy. Texting is the main way my son, at university 350 miles away, keeps in touch with me. And what about emergencies? Somehow we used to cope, but the world has changed and the world expects us all to have phones in our pockets.
Asking if I need something by weighing up the pros and cons in terms of my convenience, is the wrong question, I think. The real question is about the justice of the level of my consumption. The real question may be about the price paid by others for my choices, answered in attending not to my needs but the needs of seven-year-old cobalt miners.
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.
My daughter and I have been abstaining from the flesh of dead animals since Christmas. For me, it’s at least my third attempt to be vegetarian, but it feels more serious this time.
Here are my reasons:
– Eating meat or fish requires an act of violence to be carried out against a living being. That just seems wrong. I am increasingly convinced that hope for the world lies in the formation of a community of all creatures. The cow is my sister. I shouldn’t eat my sister, should I?
– Modern farming is too intensive and too many animals suffer as a result. Pigs shouldn’t be kept in sheds or behind bars. They should be in the woods, rooting around in the leaf mould.
– The amount of meat we eat in the west is unsustainable. It uses too much land, produces too much waste (not least methane), and is an extraordinarily inefficient way of converting plant protein into Mabbsonsea protein.
One problem with being vegetarian is that there’s very little choice when eating out, and so I eat far too much cheese. My objection to intensive farming applies very much to dairy farming, where sometimes cows are bred and made to produce so much milk in their first few years that they’re all milked out and go into cheap pies. The natural lifespan for the cow is somewhere in the region of 20 years. As I’m hypocalcaemic (thank you, thyroid cancer) I need to drink/eat dairy for the calcium, so I’m making an extra effort to buy organic, as that’s about the best welfare standard for the cows. But that still leaves the issues of land use, waste and emissions.
There are no cost-free easy answers to all this. There’s a price to be paid for me to be alive. An upside of a vegetarian diet is that it is making me think much more carefully about food, and I hope that becoming more caring and thoughtful might bring my price down.
Last weekend I went to the Brighthelm Camp. It started off as the church’s youth club camp in the 1920s, and those who go today are mostly the descendants of earlier generations of campers (or married to them). There was a lovely, relaxed atmosphere and I was made to feel extremely welcome.
The camp takes place in a farmer’s field in West Sussex. The only facility provided is a water pipe coming across the field from the farm. One of the first tasks on Saturday was to dig some pits, the largest being for the waste from the latrines. I helped make a gentleman’s ‘pissoirre’, which consisted of a piece of hessian cloth hung from 4 poles, to hide a shallow pit and the men urinating into it.
Over the years, the campers have learned ways for a hundred people to live happily in a field for a week. This is the water boiler. It’s wood fired and constantly topped up from the water pipe via a ball valve. The tarp behind it shelters the fire pit, over which much of the cooking is done.
This is a plate rack, hand carved years ago. The plates are washed and rinsed in galvanised baths, then put in the rack to drip and be dried by the air and the sun, or further rinsed by the rain.
My favourite feature was the shower. First I collected half a bucket of hot water from the boiler and half a bucket of cold water from the tap. I carried these to the shower tent and poured them into a galvanised bucket which I raised up a pole with a rope and pulley. Then I turned on the little tap linking the bucket to a watering-can rose and had a lovely shower!
Who needs the latest mod cons? Life can be simple – all you need is some imagination and the will to choose a different way.