Wednesday, 28 October 2009

'Consumption' or 'Consumerism' ?

This week's post arose serendipitously. A Friend who is part of the Quakers and Business group left me an article from Prospect magazine, assuming (correctly) that it isn't a magazine I normally see. It's an article by Amitai Etzioni, adapted from an earlier one he wrote that appeared in a US publication called New Republic. You can read the full article he wrote there, but you have to be a subscriber to read the full article in Prospect.

I can’t ‘read’ where Etzioni sits on the normal divisions of politics that we’re used to in this country. I don’t think his own position of being ‘communitarian’ works with UK right, left, liberal, or green! I suspect that in British terms he looks more ‘right’ than he does in the USA.

What he’s discussing in this article is the difference between 'consumption' and 'consumerism'. And he has an interesting outsider’s perspective on European affairs. He looks at how various countries have fared during the recent economic turn-down, and argues that France has done well because it is highly ‘statist’; Germany is less statist and has done less well; and the USA and UK are the least statist and have suffered the most. He points out that it is interesting to see the Economist magazine, usually in favour of the free market, praising France; but at the same time insisting that such a statist outcome can’t possibly last. Etzioni remarks that the French and German people have proved much less willing than the British or Americans to work ever harder, ever longer hours, just to buy more goods. So, he wonders, should we embrace the continental model more? If you follow the economic news in the mainstream press, you may have seen discussions of how France and Germany resist the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model.

‘The good life’, he points out (so now you see why this article was passed to me!) has meant many different things, and there have been many variations over time and place in terms of whether material success and conspicuous consumption form part of ‘the good life’, or not.

What Etzioni wants to do is to eradicate consumerism, which does not – he says – mean doing away with capitalism or consumption. The difference he is pointing to is framed in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: when consumption is focussed on satisfying basic needs (food, warmth, shelter, etc) it is appropriate; but when acquiring goods and services is (mis)used to satisfy higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism, which in turn becomes a social disease – and the link to the global economic crisis is obvious.

It is also self-defeating – numerous studies have shown conclusively that, beyond a certain level (about $20 000) increased income does not lead to increased happiness; and that many people in capitalist societies feel unsatisfied. What kind of culture would enhance human flourishing, rather than human consumerism?

Etzioni answers this by referring to ‘communitarian and transcendental pursuits’. In ‘communitarian’ he includes relating to family, friends and others; and also service to the community – not altruism, but ‘mutualism’. By ‘transcendental’ he means religious/spiritual pursuits, but also artistic and even sporting activity. A society focussed on these two areas would, he points out, use less of the Earth’s resources, and have a lower carbon footprint. As well as being kind to the environment, it would exhibit a greater degree of social justice, he argues.

The question, then, is whether and how the economic crisis could lead to cultural transformation. And this is why passing the article to me was so timely – this coming weekend we have the second part of the Zero Growth Economics conference: representatives from Area Meetings coming together at Woodbrooke to follow up on the inputs of the London day (see earlier blog), learn new things, and plan for practical, local outcomes. I’ll be writing about that next week.

A couple of other items of relatively recent interest link in with this discussion.

Between July and September 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked the public to consider what social evils face the UK today. This was undertaken as a modern follow-up to Joseph Rowntree’s original memorandum when he set up the trusts that bear his name:
“I feel that much of the current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness or evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes.”
I responded to the public consultation, writing about ‘competitive consumerist individualism’ – thinking that I would be a minority voice among many more people writing about racism, poverty, child-abuse, family breakdown, etc. I was, however, making the point that I believed that many of these other modern societal ills actually stemmed from our collective thrall to capitalist market economics. It turned out that I was far from alone, as is clear from the overall results. A book has now been published – a collection of essays by experts in their fields, drawing on the issues raised by the consultation. You can see a rather badly formatted Table of Contents here; or a Google preview here.

The other related item is the little film called The Story of Stuff. It’s a 20-minute animated film, with narration by Annie Leonard. You can download the whole film, or watch clips. There’s a book forthcoming, a blog, and all the other attendant campaigning bits and pieces. It’s very USA-focussed, but it’s good material, applicable anywhere in the developed world. Be warned – when you load the website you get a blank grey screen! You have to scroll down to get the page contents.

We’ll be showing this film at the Zero Growth Economics weekend coming up – more on that next week.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Respect due: Archbishop Rowan Williams

Last week (13 October) Rowan Williams gave a lecture at Southwark Cathedral, sponsored by Operation Noah, with the title 'The Climate Crisis: Fashioning a Christian Response' (if you go to this page, you'll find a summary of the lecture first, followed by the full text). Interestingly, the Guardian saw fit both to report the lecture and to print an extract from it.

The lecture links climate change with other aspects of the current malaise of Western society, and looks at the resources in the Jewish and Christian traditions that may help us to think about, and respond to, the crisis we find ourselves in. In passing, Rowan reminds us that the narrative in Genesis is not an invitation to dominate and exploit the earth. The economic patterns of our material consumption habits are linked into the climate change issue, in a way that chimes in with the discussions around the recent Zero Growth Economics Conference (see earlier posts below); and Rowan also refers at some length (and approvingly) to Alastair McIntosh's book
Hell and High Water: climate, hope and the human condition.

Rowan asks, in the third section of the lecture,
'When we find ourselves facing massive insecurity of this sort and when we sense that we have somehow sacrificed our happiness along the way, what is it that we have lost? And how can we work to restore it?'
He continues,
'the role of religion here is not to provide an ultimate authority that can threaten and coerce us into better behaviour; it is to hold up a vision of human life lived constructively, peacefully, joyfully, in optimal relation with creation and creator, so as to point up the tragedy of the shrunken and harried humanity we have shaped for ourselves by our obsession with growth and consumption.'
There are lots of quotable passages - but read the whole for yourself to get a sense of the argument as Rowan puts it together.

This is by no means the first time Rowan has lectured, or preached, on this vital subject. One previous occasion was 25 March this year, the 2009 Ebor Lecture given at York Minster under the title,
'Renewing the Face of the Earth: Human Responsibility and the Environment' - this is a more demanding text, both intellectually and theologically, but well worth the time to read it. (There's a link on the Arhbishop's website to listen to the recording of the lecture, but it will require you to download a Microsoft application which will then try to take control of all your computer's audio! Better to listen to it from the link on this page, which works like iPlayer, and will play direct from the webpage. It's recorded in the Minster, so it echoes a bit and is quite hard to listen to - but you do also get the questions at the end.) In this lecture, Rowan is absolutely clear about the magnitude and urgency of the crisis, makes it clear that faith is no 'get out of jail free card', but sees the times we are in as a call to spiritual transformation. Among the questioners is a non-comformist minister who says that when he raises these issues with his congregation, he is accused of 'not preaching the Gospel of Christ' - this makes clear that the challenge to faith groups is one of 'inreach' as well as 'outreach'. Quakers are not immune to this - I was told recently of Friends who questioned the work Woodbrooke is doing in this area as mere 'jumping on a bandwagon'.

During this lecture, Rowan refers to some other resources from the Church of England. One is their website devoted to this whole issue, combining practical advice and theological and spiritual reflection, under the title,
'Shrinking the Footprint'. It's a good site, and I recommend browsing around it. There is some practical advice about church buildings which could also be of use to Quaker Meeting Houses, as well as much else that is good. There's also a pamphlet called, 'How Many Light Bulbs Does it Take to Change a Christian?', which is an excellent and to-the-point title, even it you never get beyond the front cover!

Reading these two lectures of Rowan's has prompted me to think about the usefulness of having a figurehead who can speak with authority, facing both inwards towards the faith group, and outwards towards 'the world'. It reminds me of the recent dilemma that the UK
Green Party had - whether to have a national leader who could speak for the party, and be a point of reference for the rest of the political world. It's not straightforward, of course - because the Archbishop is saying things that I agree with, and things that I think need saying, and saying with authority, I of course think it's good that he's saying them. If he were saying things that I deeply disagreed with, I might feel that he was misusing his position! But his position does mean that his words can reach out beyond his own 'parish'. As Friends we have a different issue to face if we want our views to be more widely known - we were widely reported over the same-sex marriage issue this summer, but for less controversial issues it's not clear how our voice gets heard, either nationally or locally.

The other salutary lesson, it seems to me, from exploring the 'Shrinking the Footprint' website, is that other church groups are, thankfully, forging ahead on these matters. As Quakers we sometimes fall into the habit of assuming that we are 'ahead of the curve' on key social issues - in this instance we most certainly are not. When Woodbrooke sent out the free 'Good Lives' introductory study pack, to about 250 local meetings, we built into it a feedback mechanism that also acted as a research tool. With about 50 sets of feedback returned to us, one thing has become very clear: in places where there is a lot of activity around these issues (such as a Transition Town
group, or similar), Friends are also active, knowledgable and involved; where the local community has no such action happening, Friends are also inactive. In other words, Friends are not, in general, being leaders in our local communities in this matter (although some individual scertainly are) - we are, in general, just like the communities in which we live.

For interest, here is where the
Methodist Church has got to with sustainability. There is a book which shows, in detail, how sustainability is mandated in the Qur'an, 199 Ways to Please God; the author blogs at And in Birmingham we have have an interesting project called Faith and Climate Change based in the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Office.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Walking humbly, walking cheerfully

A bit of a change of focus this week. Last weekend we (that’s my colleague, Lizz Roe, and I) were running the 3rd module of the Good Lives programme, ‘because we need to walk humbly as well as cheerfully’. It was focussed on our spirituality, and on how we create and sustain a spiritual discipline that will nurture us as we work on the pressing issues of our time.

In case it’s obscure to any readers here, I should explain the title. It comes from two well-loved (by some people!) phrases. The first is biblical:
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8) (King James Version)
Yes, I know, the ‘man’ language is anachronistic! But the rhythm of this language is the one I grew up with, and I still find it resonant, in spite of the ‘man’.

Here it is in ‘The Message’ translation:
“But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously— take God seriously.”
Terribly ‘correct’ and ‘accessible’ – but so clunky, and no poetry in it! The version we ended up using for the Good Lives Study Pack was the best compromise we could find – the ‘God’s Word’ translation:
“The Lord has told you what is good. This is what the Lord requires from you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to live humbly with your God.”
The second well-loved phrase is from George Fox, and there are no translation problems:
“And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (Quaker Faith and Practice 19:32)

So, having run the event, I thought I’d include here some of the exercises we did with people. We did a lot of sharing in threes and in the whole group, but you could reflect on the questions by yourself, perhaps in journalling.

If you’ve never tried journalling, here are some places that might get you started:

Or you might want to gather with a couple of friends and try sharing your answers and reflections.

But first, here’s an adaptation of one of the inputs that Lizz Roe gave during the weekend:

Most faith based communities have particular things in common – it’s what marks them out and means they get included as faith based communities in dictionaries of religion!

In Britain there is huge variety, even within a single faith group, differing beliefs, theologies, and so forth; nevertheless, broadly speaking what we can say about faith groups in general is the following:

Most faith based groups have the following 8 things:

- A shared sense of what is holy, and what is meant by that
- A shared set of behaviours, practices, liturgies and rituals
- A shared set of values/ethics
- A shared understanding of God in their community (which may be that God isn’t really important, or that faith in God is not as significant as observance of particular practices etc)
- A shared understanding of the place of any scripture or holy writing or sacred texts in the community (eg as a source of authority, as an inspired set of writings, as the rule to live by etc); this understanding could be that there aren’t any such texts
- A shared understanding of the role of belief in the group
- A common personal discipline (and encouragement of it)
- A shared understanding of where power, leadership and authority reside

It’s interesting to observe that in the strongest faith based communities, there is strong agreement about all of these things in terms of shared understanding, behaviour, and ‘ideology’. In ‘weaker’ communities there might be strong shared understanding but weak shared behaviour, or strong shared behaviour but weak ‘ideology’.

What we do know is that where the congruence between all three is strongest, this leads to stronger faith based communities - which may or may not always be a good thing!

At the core of this are two things:

- A shared set of behaviours, practices, liturgies and rituals
- A common personal discipline

Amongst Quakers in Britain, we’re strong on the first of these, but we’re increasingly less good at the second – at a common personal discipline!

Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries would have recognised the need to meet regularly with an Elder, to read the bible (every day), to pray (every day), to read other texts, pamphlets and writings, to go to business meetings (dealing with the life of their community) as well as to attend Meeting for Worship, if they were endeavouring to live up to the Light and to make real the Republic of Heaven here on earth.

They recognised that witness and worship went hand-in-hand and would be supported by a regular discipline of prayer, reflection and worshipful discussion with another, perhaps a more experienced Quaker. What we think might work for us to sustain us for the long haul may now be different (although it’s worth asking ourselves where and what we might learn from these early Quakers), but it is the regularity of their practice that it is important to consider – it’s called a spiritual discipline for a reason, because it requires discipline to do it even when one is tired, frustrated, burnt out or fed up!

Richard Foster, an American Quaker, has some interesting things to say about this in his book Celebration of Discipline: the path to spiritual growth.

And now, here are some of the questions for reflection:

Pick one thing – the most important to you right now – that your spirituality means to you.

On a sheet of paper (maybe large, with coloured felt pens) – write down words that you associate with your experience of spirituality.

Reflect on that collection of words – what are they telling you?

In terms of a spiritual discipline, what do you actually do?

Is it helping? (In what ways, if it is? In what ways, if it isn’t?)

What do you intend to do, but don’t actually accomplish? Why is that? (time? Motivation? Resources?)

Does you have a spiritual community? If so, does it help you?

Do you need (or choose) to look elsewhere?

If you don’t have a spiritual community, would you like to have one?

What would you hope for, if you had one?

How is all this (above) for you in terms of action/activism in the world? What do you actually do?

What do you intend to do? (and what gets in the way? – is it time, motivation, resources?)

What do you want to do?

Does your spiritual community (if you have one) nurture you in this?

What might help?

* * * * *

It would be good if anyone felt moved to add some of your reflections on these questions as ‘Comments’, here on the blog. The sharing of our thoughts and experiences is one of the ways we can nourish ourselves and each other and create a community where we can speak freely of the things that matter most deeply to us.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The population question

Last week I reported on the Zero Growth Economics Conference (see post below). One of the issues that was raised a number of times, from varying perspectives, was the question of global population.

There’s a rather macabre but fascinating website on world population that displays a clock/calendar, ticking and counting the increase in world population while you’re looking at it (derived statistically, of course). It’s interactive so you can move backwards or forwards in time to see past world population, or projected future numbers.

The current figure is something over 6.9 billion (that’s US billions – ie: 6.9 thousand million). Various projections suggest that world population will peak at around 9.1 or 9.2bn by 2050, and then flatten off and start to fall (although the website above gives a different result).

Here's a useful global population growth graph, and a graph showing world population in age profile. This second graph shows the profile in 1960 and also in 2003. In these images you can see the post-war baby bulge working its way through, and then the secondary bulge of their children, and now there is a smaller number of infants – hence, as that smaller number reaches adult childbearing age, we get the conditions for the global population to peak and then decline.

Ok – that’s enough statistical stuff! The first of the two graphs above shows the difference in population growth between the industrialised and developing parts of the world – and herein lies the nub of the issue. The developing countries have overall a larger, and faster-growing population; but the industrialised world lives a much more lavish lifestyle. So, although the total carbon emissions of poor countries are high, the emissions per person are of course very much higher in the rich world.

In terms of justice, rich countries should reduce our emissions drastically so that poor countries can have the breathing space to acquire a decent modest standard of living. But in terms of realpolitik there is a real problem about how to ‘sell’ this idea to the rich. The two models that try to get to grips with this are Cap and Share and Contraction and Convergence – both of which are ways of trying to achieve global justice in terms of both economics and carbon emissions.

And this brings us back to the population question: the poor are more numerous but the rich are more profligate – who should reduce their numbers? And how do we even start to have a sensible conversation about this when we have hanging over our heads the shades of both eugenics and the drastic Chinese one-child policy?

In the issue of New Scientist that came out on the day of the conference (26 September) there was a major feature on world population – unfortunately I can’t give you a link to read this series of articles, as you have to be a subscriber to get full access on the NS website. So here’s a summary.

Alison George (‘7 billion and counting’, p.35) gives an overall introduction, ending with a quote from Tertullian, an early Christian, writing in the 3rd century:
We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us; already nature does not sustain us.
This was when world population was around only 250 million – just a little over 3½% of today’s figure.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich (‘Enough of us now’, pp.36-37) argue that,
With more than a billion already going hungry, limiting population growth has to be a priority.
On the page is a quote from Jared Diamond:
“We often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies . . . they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax; we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even for now, for only one billion people.”
Then on pp.38-39 Jesse Ausubel (‘Ingenuity wins every time’) explains why he believes that technological innovation will come to our rescue – no need to worry. He is an environmental scientist, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York City. He was one of the main organisers of the first UN World Climate Conference. Who am I to disagree with such an eminent scientist? But I do disagree. I just can’t see that we can innovate in sufficient quantity and quality, quickly enough, and sustainably in terms of raw materials. On the page is a quote from journalist Brendan O’Neill in Spiked :
“You can bet that when these well-to-do worriers about the human plague on the planet talk about burdensome people causing ‘congestion, overcrowding and loss of green space’, they aren’t talking about themselves, or their friends, or their neighbours.”
Next, Fred Pearce writes on ‘The greedy few’ (p.40) and concludes,
“Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.”
He has a new book coming out in February 2010, Peoplequake.

And to round off the section, Reiner Klingholz writes on ‘The era of decline’ (p.41) discussing the societal problems that come with a declining population – fewer people in work to support a larger ageing cohort. He concludes:
“Countries that learn to live in prosperity with an ageing, stagnant population, or even one that is shrinking, will be the trendsetters for a sustainable future. Europe has the chance to develop a blueprint for these modern societies – for economies that found their wealth and well-being not on growth but on sustainability.”
On the Tuesday immediately following the Conference, George Monbiot’s regular column in The Guardian also tackled population as its topic: ‘Stop blaming the poor. It's the wally yachters who are burning the planet’. He takes a very similar position to that of Fred Pearce in New Scientist. Writing of the very rich, Monbiot says:
“The owners of these boats do more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes than most Africans do in a lifetime. ”
He goes on to argue that the rich should curb their emissions and stop calling for the poor to have fewer children. The letters page the following day included five responses to his article under the heading, ‘Planet's problems are multiplying’. The first two letters come down one on either side of the argument; the other three say, in different ways, that it’s both-and, not either-or. But on the same day as these letters, the paper carried a major article, across two pages, headlined, ‘By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry’, discussing the effects of climate change on world food production, which will decline even as population carries on rising.

So, how are we to approach this? How do we have a thoughtful and rational public debate about it? How can we put together justice, political realities, climate change, peak oil, population growth . . .? Is there ‘a Quaker view’ on all this?

Please post a comment, and let’s start practising how to talk with each other about this very difficult topic.