Posted by: Jon | 05/12/2009

Quaking in our boots…

For some weeks I’ve displayed a poster for the London gathering of the ‘The Wave’  mass climate demonstration that took place today.

One afternoon last week a Jehovah’s Witness knocked at the door. Pointing to the poster, she asked me what God thinks about the way we are destroying the planet. I said that I imagined he didn’t much approve. Then she opened up her Bible and read aloud some pre-marked texts explaining how the wicked people ruining the world would be destroyed but all true believers would be saved.

Things became confusing when I told her that I don’t worship a God but am very concerned about the planet, so where does that leave me? She seemed put out when I suggested that religious determinism lets us off having to make personal changes in our lives. And when I queried the dominion that God granted us over the natural world, she pressed a pamphlet into my hand and went off in search of more fertile ground to sow.

When it came to it I didn’t go on the march today because I am a slightly reluctant public protestor. I recognise the importance of mass demonstrations to bring about change but such gatherings are made up of so many different factions and I have never quite worked out whose agenda I am aligned with. Should I march in solidarity with the trade unions lobbying for growth-as-usual through new ‘green’ techno-fix jobs? Or am I protesting for degrowth and frugality? Am I shoulder to shoulder with the sometimes politically naive climate justice activists? Am I a wind-farm campaigner? Or an anti wind-farm campaigner? Or a domestic extremist determined to bring the capitalist establishment down? It’s all a bit bewildering.

One person who I know has been marching today untroubled by any such doubts is Anne Brewer, our local ‘green granny’. In keeping with their Quaker faith, she and her husband have for many years lived a happy lifestyle of low consumption and voluntary simplicity that we might all usefully learn from. But she doesn’t preach or evangelise; she just gets on with it.

My own religious upbringing was C of E in that hands-off sort of way that observed only the ritual of Sundays. And as Sundays have become just another shopping day, my church attendance is now confined to weddings and funerals – and perhaps at Christmas-time to re-connect with the meaning of the festival, long buried under wrapping paper and the detritus of the most important quarter of the retail year. But I do have spiritual beliefs and I respect the values of humility and tolerance common to different world religions, especially those that are not left behind at the service but genuinely underpin a philosophy for living. And, whilst I find my own ungodliness means I cannot commit to any particular faith or creed (in the same way as I cannot commit myself to marching), the earnest simplicity of the Quakers has always appealed to me.

I have a small personal experience of the quiet integrity of the Society of Friends. The unquestioned conventions of our own childhoods led Louise and I to have our own children baptised – we thought of it as keeping their options open so they could make their minds up later. The couple we asked to be our son’s god-parents happen to be Quakers who have subsequently been wonderfully supportive of both our children throughout their lives – and continue still to be so. As a sadly negligent god-parent myself, their faithfulness to their commitment puts me to shame.  

Quakerism grew out of the troubled religious politics of the C17th and was widely derided because of its refusal to compromise its spiritual values. Quakers have no leadership structure and historically would not ‘bow down’ to societal hierarchies and authorities. They would pay no tithes to the established church, they refused to take up arms and they were early upholders of the equality of women. For these peaceable egalitarian values they were regarded as heretical fanatics, in much the same way as those who dare to mention global warming in public are now accused by some of religious zealotry.

Recently even the typically inoffensive Anglican Church has come under attack for ‘spending more time preaching climate change than the gospel of salvation’. And it is indeed true that the Anglican and Catholic churches, along with other world religious leaders, have begun to take a firm moral stance on the issues of sustainability and climate justice.

But we no longer need to belong to a religious faith to legitimise a desire to live in accordance with our moral beliefs. Fired executive Tim Nicholson made legal history recently when an employment appeal tribunal ruled in his favour that climate change belief is a philosophical faith and therefore enjoys legal protection against discrimination. My heart leapt at this news that the tide might now be turning and, instead of swimming against the overpowering current, I might at last be carried along in its flow.

Commenting on the case in the Guardian, Andrew Brown argues that “we are doomed without a green religion”. He writes how in modern society morality is considered a matter of individual choice and moral values viewed as no more than personal opinions. But he regards climate change as I do; a ‘global tragedy of the commons’ in which personal freedom of choice to act will never be enough. In facing up to the predicted impacts of global warming, he says…

“Not to act, not to coerce, itself becomes immoral….Compulsion will be needed but compulsion alone won’t do it. People aren’t made like that. They need to believe in what they are forced to do. They need idealism, and that will also mean its dark side: the pressure of conformism, the force of self-righteousness, huge moral weight attached….They need, in fact, something that does look a lot like religion.”

It seems to me that the Quaker approach to social activism has much to offer as a model for how to win over hearts and minds. Unassuming ‘green granny’ Anne Brewer clearly has a zest for life and family that is not constrained by the mindful consumer decisions she makes or the possible ‘privations’ of her close to zero-carbon home. But Anne’s commitment doesn’t end at her front door. She is communally active in the local Green Forum and she edits and writes for the national Quaker environmental publication, ‘earthQuaker’.

Another thoughtful Quaker voice speaking out in these troubled times is Alistair McIntosh, the Scottish land-rights campaigner, environmentalist and academic who championed the community purchase of the island of Eigg. Alistair is a fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology and lectures widely on sustainability, non-violence and environmental issues. A regular speaker on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, in his book ‘Hell and High Water’ he has written tellingly about climate change and the human condition and of the hope and healing that might be found in reconnecting individually and culturally with spirituality in our lives.

James Lovelock, the independent-minded scientist who evolved the Gaia theory, is also a Quaker. Whilst working for Nasa in the 1960s, he evolved his hypothesis that the earth’s biosphere, its oceans, soil, geology and atmosphere, form a ‘living’ self regulating entity that creates optimum conditions for life on the planet. Usurped into the vocabulary of the New Age, the Gaia hypothesis was for many years widely ridiculed by the scientific establishment, but gained credence as a theory as ecological science has developed and now seems particularly important in understanding how human activity influences changes to the climate.

Lovelock seems a cheery soul, apparently not at all downcast by his conclusion that the human species is fast approaching an unhappy end. A moral basis of truth has always underpinned his scientific work and he has expressed regret over how he unwittingly contributed in his 1950s research to the industrialisation of agriculture. I don’t doubt that his Quaker faith sustains him and has influenced his independent thinking and the often dissenting views that led him to be an unfashionably early champion of nuclear power the first to detect the atmospheric CFCs that caused the hole in the ozone layer. The man who invented the microwave and the electron capture detector is disarmingly humble. At the end of ‘Homage to ‘Gaia’, his 2000 autobiography, Lovelock writes of Gaia/Nature “I know I am a part of her and that my destiny is to merge with the chemistry of our living planet”.

As someone who not infrequently finds myself at odds with convention, I suppose that Quakerism’s dissenting origins make it naturally appealing to me. But my interest runs deeper than this. In our stridently noisy and clamorous world, opportunities for calm contemplation are rare and it is the quiet reflection of the Quakers that I feel particularly drawn to. In her book, ‘Silence’Sara Maitland distinguishes between Quaker silence and that, for instance, of the disciplined obedience of the Trappists or the acquired skills of meditation that in Zen practice brings enlightenment only through withdrawal from awareness of the self.

The Quakers do not retreat from the secular world but engage with it and contribute to it. The silence of a Quaker meeting seems to me both egalitarian and optimistic. It is the silence of a gathering-up of community that expects to be broken and resumed again; a regular and unifying opportunity for attentive listening and reflection from which spring simple, often understated, but nonetheless deep and meaningful actions. If I ever do manage to find a religious conviction that makes sense of things for me, I think I would feel most at home with the Quakers.


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