Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Reflections on 'Many Heavens, One Earth' - written by Helen Rowlands

Helen Rowlands reflects on the recent ‘Many Heavens, One Earth’ conference at Windsor. For her report on the event, please see last week’s post.

Helen writes:

What messages did I bring away from the event, for myself and for Quakers?

First, I was personally challenged by the very nomination to serve by representing Friends. At the event itself, I was awed and somewhat burdened by the way in which introducing myself as a Quaker so often prompted an admiring response – ‘you guys have been doing such good work and leading the way for so long.’ Whilst many individual Friends have been and are pioneers in their thought and action (and more than one of the NGOs present testified to the contribution of Friends to their foundation), corporately we have struggled to express consistent witness. When I look at the work of other churches and faiths, I don’t see us as being particularly ‘ahead of the curve’ in environmental witness – up there with others, for sure, but not ahead. As Pam Lunn has observed, we tend more to mirror what is going on in our own local, geographic communities. Our concerns are those of an affluent, gas-guzzling society, even when we aspire to simplicity. It’s not good enough for me to feel proud (which I do!) that I belong to a faith group which tries to put its beliefs to work in the world. My own living also has to be entirely congruent with my expressed faith, and somehow to connect with people in parts of the world most affected by the consequences of our over-consumption – and I know that I fall short on both counts.

This brings me to my second area of reflection, which is about leadership. Quakers always struggle when we are asked to be represented by a ‘faith leader’. Who are our leaders? Sometimes an appointed office-holder or an employee is indeed a leader, and we should not shy away from viewing them as such – why would we want to disempower someone we have appointed, because of their skills or knowledge or wisdom, to carry out a task for us? At other times, we choose to send someone with no designated authority in the particular area, as was the case for me at this conference.

At the presentation of certificates in Windsor Castle, as we made our way forward to greet Prince Philip and Ban Ki-Moon, the audience was being given information about the faiths. We heard people being described as the ‘leader of half a million Polish Orthodox Christians’, or speaking ‘on behalf of five million Catholics in England and Wales’, or that there are ‘100 million Buddhists in China’. We learned that a single Muslim Seven Year Plan has been developed, and a single plan for Judaism through their environmental campaigning organisation, Hazon. During the conference, it was possible for the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem to announce the creation of a new partnership between major pilgrimage cities around the world – the idea had arisen during the 48 hours, and the people were there who could simply decide that it should happen.

Yet we few Quakers find it hard to get our act together in that way. Would we even want to? Maybe there is a significant contribution that arises from our understanding of dispersed, situational leadership arising from a sense of spiritual leading. We don’t have to wait for figureheads to guide us in our behaviour – we know the nudgings and sometimes the not-to-be-ignored-demands of an Inner Guide. We don’t have to wait for ‘top-down’ plans – we build movements which integrate ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ in circles of mutual encouragement, stimulus and consciousness-raising.

As we consider, for example, the impact of natural disasters or climate-induced migration on communities the world round, what could we offer towards preparing people for new forms of local leadership which are not dependent on hierarchy and therefore on communication systems that could be disrupted? Or, whilst many of us are active in geographically-based initiatives such as Transition Towns, what might it mean for Quakers to become a dispersed transition community? Could we use our differing forms of leadership to make this happen, and thus demonstrate to other faith groups how they too could do it?

And as each of us seeks to follow our leadings, to be faithful to the leadership of spirit or conscience, how does our witness speak to those around us? We all are leaders, as well as being able to decide to follow the leading of others. In our daily lives, wherever we find ourselves, we are given myriad opportunities to ‘do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8). We let our lives speak. In conversation with friends, with family, with colleagues, with people on the bus or in shops, we are also given opportunities to explain what we are doing and why. Each of these acts and conversations can gently challenge others, and each person who decides to change their behaviour contributes to a changing climate of opinion. Eventually the barons – industrial, political and religious – can no longer afford to ignore the change and we reach a tipping point where new priorities can take over. Are we anywhere near it? Our leadership, quiet or noisy, personal or public, in matters small and large – our leadership, based on values that are beyond ourselves – our leadership matters.

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Thanks to Helen for this article.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

'Many Heavens, One Earth' - written by Helen Rowlands

I'm delighted to publish another guest post this week. Helen Rowlands is Head of Education at Woodbrooke. She was Clerk to Britain Yearly Meeting 1998-2001 and served as Assistant Clerk to the newly formed Yearly Meeting Trustees 2006-2009. She was nominated by Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) to represent Friends at the 'Many Heavens, One Earth' conference at Windsor, 2-4 November, 2009.

Helen writes:

From 2-4 November Alison Prout of QPSW and I represented Friends at the ‘Many Heavens, One Earth’  conference in Windsor. It was a gathering of 100 or so faith leaders from around the world, and about as many representatives of NGOs and campaigning organisations. The event was jointly sponsored by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Its intent was to celebrate commitments being made by faith bodies to action on climate change, to encourage further such developments, and to bring the influence of faith communities to bear on political decision-makers prior to the Copenhagen summit.

Alison Prout receives certificate from Ban Ki-Moon.

Helen Rowlands receives certificate from Prince Philip.

Some two years ago, the UNDP launched an appeal to faith communities to express long-term commitment to environmental change in the form of seven-year plans:
‘For many, the environmental crisis has created fear and anxiety about the future. It is a time when the major religions of the world must take a lead - sharing their wisdom, their insights and their hopes, and working through their faithful to address these issues in a holistic and comprehensive way.’
Quakers in Britain came to this a little late, but meetings around the country responded rapidly and it was possible for Meeting for Sufferings to adopt the Statement on Climate Change. This statement was endorsed by the Europe and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation, as well as by several yearly meetings in Canada and the USA which met during the course of the summer. Alison Prout prepared a summary of action already taken or planned by local meetings, by Britain Yearly Meeting and by our major institutions such as Friends House and Woodbrooke. Together, these documents were accepted by ARC as representing a Quaker Long Term Plan.

ARC’s suggested framework for such plans includes seven areas. In each category, I give just one vivid example of one faith group’s commitment. You can explore the web links given to find many more – they will lift your heart!

1. Assets: The religions of the world have astonishing assets - as well as their outreach to 85% or more of the world's 8 billion people, they also own some 5% of forests, are connected to more than half of all schools, own and manage most of the world's tourist destinations, organise some of the most active tourism enterprises (in terms of pilgrimage) and control some 7% of all financial investments. How can positive use be made of these assets?
The US-based Regeneration Project works through its ‘Interfaith Power and Light’ campaign to use the joint purchasing power of over 10,000 congregations to campaign for renewable energy and energy conservation.

2. Education and young people: this includes looking at school curricula, the impact and use of school buildings, youth organisations and camps, and the all-age educational potential of activities such as eco-twinning of communities. How are faith leaders making the most of the potential of teaching and preaching to influence congregations?
In 2006 some quarter of a million Baha’is participated in study circles, devotional meetings and school classes on the environment. Such courses, and the acts of service associated with them, are seen to ‘represent a significant transformative process for Baha’i communities worldwide.’ The environment is the focus for the next five years of all such Baha’i education initiatives.

3. Theology, wisdom and guidance: how can faith communities draw upon their traditions to change minds and hearts in a way that is consistent with their teachings? We are encouraged to explore traditions of simple living; the training of teachers and leaders; theological understandings of the nature of crisis and adaptation; the importance of sacred places; liturgy, prayer and the foundational stories of faiths.
In Mongolia, Buddhists have worked with ARC, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Bank to rediscover ancient sutras, or texts, which had been lost or hidden during the Soviet/Communist period. These texts told people about the sacredness of the landscape around them - and prescribed which mountains and forests were particularly sacred and should not be logged or hunted "lest the goddess flood your village." By retranslating this old wisdom, ancient ecological knowledge has been preserved and acted upon.

4. Lifestyles: have we undertaken full audits of all our practices as faith communities? Are we supporting and encouraging simple living? Are we making the most of practices such as fasting or pilgrimage as opportunities to bring about lasting change in individual lives?
One of the most successful countries in voluntary curbing of population growth is Iran – and it was brought about as much through religious teaching as through economics and legal structures. Islamic leaders quoted the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) saying that a man should have only as many children as the earth can support, while issuing fatwas (or ‘permissions’) encouraging contraception. From 1986 to 2001 the rate of population growth decreased from 3.2% to 1.2%.

5. Media and advocacy: how are faith-based communications media using their enormous power to be opinion-formers, both among the faithful and among political leaders?
The Muslims plan to work towards printing all 15 million Qur’ans produced every year, on paper from sustainable wood supplies.

6. Partnerships, eco-twinning and creating environment departments: faiths are asked to think about their resourcing of people working on environmental concerns, their engagement of lay people, and development of wide-ranging partnerships which enable people to achieve more together than they could separately.
The New Psalmist Baptist Church, Baltimore, USA, has partnered with one mega church in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya with a network of 2,000 churches in Africa, and another of 70 or more mega churches in the US. This combined network has fostered water and sanitation projects in Africa. Overall both congregations support 17 schools, and have created partnerships with environmental entrepreneurs, providing solar-powered water purifiers and sanitation equipment to the Kenyan slums.

7. Celebration: festivals and celebrations play an important part in building commitment and changing hearts as well as minds.
In Judaism, the festival of Tu B’Shabat  – the New Year of Trees – has become a major environmental festival with education kits, new prayers and projects helping to mobilise Judaism every year. Meanwhile the day of mourning – Tisha B’Av – marked every summer to commemorate the destruction of the two ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem, has been extended in some Jewish traditions as a lament for the destruction of the earth. The Jewish Seven Year Plan involves recovering the ecological value of Shabbat as a day to step back from the processes of creation: manufacturing, flying and technological manipulation.

Jewish delegates in procession at Windsor Castle.

Further information on the seven areas and lots more examples of actions and commitments, including a summary of Quaker activity, can be found here.

Examples of existing plans can be found here.

Sikhs in procession.

Delegates in the Waterloo Room at Windsor.

Next week, Helen will write about her reflections on the messages this event has, both for herself and for Quakers more widely.

Photo credits: ARC/Richard Stonehouse.

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Thanks to Helen for this article.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Biochar Debate - written by James Bruges

This week’s post is a ‘guest post’ from James Bruges. James was at Woodbrooke for the ‘Zero Growth’ weekend (see last week’s post) and he and I got into a conversation over Sunday breakfast aboutbiochar – so I asked if he would write something for this blog.

James was brought up in India until the age of 12, studied at the Architectural Association in London and subsequently worked in Khartoum for three years. In due course he set up an architectural practice in Bristol. His architectural interests developed in the direction of environmental design and urban planning.

He subsequently took to writing. The Little Earth Book went through four editions that had to be updated annually. It was followed by two editions of The Big Earth Book, and now The Biochar Debate. In these books his aim has been to look at global issues from a moral, rather than a pragmatic, point of view. He is a member of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, which is largely an informal group connected by email but based in Dublin. Richard Douthwaite is a prominent presence in the group. James has come to regard the western money system, which has gone global, as the primary cause of global degradation.

With Marion, he advises the RH Southern Trust, a family trust. Among the trust’s objectives are to identify initiatives that aim to achieve fundamental change, as well as to provide support for organisations in India that have been founded and run by Indians along lines that are consistent with the attitudes of Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. James feels that this connection, together with his early childhood, enables him to see issues both from the viewpoint of a wealthy country and from a country with much of the world's poverty.

James’s favourite aunt was clerk of Sydney meeting, and another aunt turned to the Society when her clergyman husband died, so Quakerism is in the family. James is a member of the Society of Friends and attends Redland (Bristol) meeting.

James writes:

James Lovelock, the scientist who coined the term ‘Gaia’ for Earth as a living system, has said that charcoal could save us from global warming. Others point out that the commercial exploitation of charcoal could lead to dangerous monocultures. This is a debate of huge importance.

Over a period of fourteen years the entire volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is brought down to earth and subsequently released. This is the carbon cycle. The longer carbon is held in or on the land the less greenhouse gas concentrates in the atmosphere. Photosynthesis is the magic by which plants capture carbon from the air and transfer it to the soil. Trees, pastures and organic cultivation retain it for a number of years. Industrial farming, on the other hand, destroys the ability of soil to hold carbon. Charcoal, properly used, can keep it in the soil almost permanently.

Fine-grained charcoal is called biochar. Electron microscope photographs show that even charcoal dust is riddled with cavities so that, once saturated, it retains moisture. This is the property that immediately appealed to farmers I met in India. The surfaces around these cavities (one gram of charcoal can have surface areas equal to two tennis courts) attract microbes. When biochar is ‘charged’ with compost, manure and urine, and mixed with soil, it enhances fertility. We met some banana farmers who halved their use of water and doubled their yield through using biochar over a period of four years, and their neighbours are adopting the practice.

Cletus Babu started SCAD (Social Change and Development) an NGO in southern India, 25 years ago. His main aim was to regenerate rural areas. SCAD is now carrying out trial plots using biochar to demonstrate the increased yields that result. Once farmers observe the benefit, the practice will spread. This is the most effective and lasting inducement for farmers around the world to use charcoal. Cletus is aware that the benefit to small-scale farmers could be destroyed if the process were to earn carbon credits from transnational markets: agribusiness would buy up land to ‘farm credits’ and drive small farmers into city slums.

I have been working with Feasta, on the implications for climate negotiations. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit  set an agenda based on scientific advice that could have saved us from the present crisis. At Kyoto in 1997 commercial considerations took precedence and resulted in hugely complicated procedures. These procedures need to be simplified into two categories.

(1) Two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of fossil fuels, so this is the first category. It would be easier and more effective to regulate the 400 or 500 companies that extract coal, gas and oil from the ground - the 'supply side' - than to change the behaviour of 6.7 billion people using the commercial incentive of carbon trading in the forlorn hope of reducing demand. Cap and Share is the policy for achieving it (called ‘Cap and Dividend’ in the USA).

(2) The second category includes all emissions from land-based activities, and biochar falls into this category. The carbon content of land can now be measured through remote sensing by satellites. LUCAS New Zealand does this, as does Amazing Carbon in Australia. Countries should be paid a substantial fee for the carbon pool in land within their borders. They should be heavily rewarded if this increases and penalised if it reduces. This policy is called the 'Carbon Maintenance Fee'. Feasta’s Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network has developed the theory and will shortly publish a report.

Synthetic chemicals and intensive use have degraded a large proportion of the earth’s land. Small-scale farmers manage much of it, and it is these farmers, particularly in tropical areas, who can benefit from biochar. But ‘charged’ biochar could also enable any one of us with a garden to take carbon from the air and put it in the ground. Local authorities could also turn the green waste they collect into charged biochar and distribute it.

For keeping up with the fast developing debate the best approach is simply to google ‘biochar’.

Other books:
Biochar for Environmental Management, Science and Technology, edited by Johannes Lehmann & Stephen Joseph, Earthscan 2009
Reducing Greenhouse Emissions from Activities on the Land, edited by Richard Douthwaite and Corinna Byrne, Feasta, 2009 (forthcoming).

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Thanks to James for this article.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

'A Zero Growth Economics?' - the follow-up weekend at Woodbrooke

Six weeks after the day conference in London, we held the follow-up weekend at Woodbrooke, 30 October to 1 November. It was a mammoth event, stretching Woodbrooke’s space to its limits, but it all worked, assisted by the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants. We had over 90 present, including Area Meeting representatives, QPSW staff and central committee people, and Woodbrooke staff, workshop leaders, Turning the Tide Facilitators, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who chaired our London conference day.

We started on Friday evening with Jocelyn reminding us of what we had heard in London, and then we split up into groups to talk about what we had each got from the day. Suzanne Ismail, from QPSW, then introduced the ‘talking wall’ to continue conversations that would inform the work of Economic Issues Group. The ‘wall’ was very well-used during the weekend! Anne Wilkinson from QPSW reminded us that the purpose of this weekend was to plan for practical local work that Friends to initiate or be engaged in.

On Saturday morning the conference split into choices of option groups, everyone being able to attend two different groups. This was an opportunity to hear about examples of local action that had been tried and tested – hopefully to be inspirational.

Caz and Tom Ingall, from Canalside Community Food, talked about their initiative creating a Community Supported Agriculture project on their farm in Warwickshire. They started full scale vegetable production from Spring 2007, and are now producing weekly shares of seasonal veg for over 90 local households.

Laurie Michaelis gave his groups a way into the kind of work promoted and enabled by the Living Witness Project (LWP), which aims to support the development of Quaker corporate witness to sustainable living and explore ways of taking it to the wider community in Britain and elsewhere.

Jan Copley invited Friends to think about how they make choices about spending their money and the wider social and community impacts of that, in addition to the economic effects.

Roger Sawtell with a long history in the co-operatives movement, led his groups to look at co-operatives as an alternative economic model to the dominant shareholder/employee paradigm.

Gwen Prince led a groups sharing their experience of Transition Town and allied activities. Gwen and another Friend from Llanidloes Quaker Meeting started LLES ( Llanidloes Energy Solutions). Llanidloes has currently been designated a 'Green Town', part of a Low Carbon Communities Project which though not part of the Transition network is working towards similar aims.

Ian Care led a group looking at how to run local community businesses – an idea suddenly topical for Archers listeners, who will know that this is a new story-line in the saga of Ambridge! You can find out about community shops from the Plunkett Foundation.

Tony Weekes ran groups on LETS and other Local Currency schemes. While Tony was a research fellow at Woodbrooke he wrote a pamphlet called The Economic Crisis: a Quaker response (Woodbrooke Journal no. 24, Spring 2009). You can buy the printed version from Woodbrooke, price £4.50 (phone 0121 472 5171), or obtain a pay-for-download PDF version direct from the website, price £2.50.

After lunch on Saturday there was free time or a choice of two activities (plus participant-organised discussion groups). We set up a Skype link to Canada, to interact with Geoff Garver, one of the authors of Right Relationship: building a whole earth economy published by Quaker Institute for the Future (this is a link to their blog – the link to their homepage seems to be broken at the moment). Geoff talked with us (and we asked questions of him), and he gave a powerpoint presentation which you can view on the Friends House web pages.

The parallel activity was a chance to view two videos – The Power of Community: how Cuba overcame peak oil (53 mins – you can buy the DVD from the Green Shopping Catalogue); and Annie Leonard’s wonderful animated film The Story of Stuff (20 mins) – you can watch this online. Independent viewing of other DVDs we’d made available included A Farm for the Future (changing a farm over to permaculture) – made as a BBC documentary and now watchable online in five parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

From Saturday afternoon, Turning the Tide facilitators divided the conference into six smaller groups, and took them through a process of identifying real, practical on-the-ground changes that could be made by, or in relation to, our local meetings.

In the closing plenary, we identified a desire for more technical-but-accessible input on economics for non-economists. Don’t forget the Quakernomics blog.

You might also like to find out about FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability). Additionally, in the ‘Very Short Introductions’ series, there is Economics: A Very Short Introduction by Partha Dasgupta.

Also, if you read a newspaper (online or on paper) it’s worth not just ignoring the financial pages. For instance, on the day following our weekend, The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, had a very interesting piece on what’s happening now, in the wake of the recession. His Monday editorial articles are always interesting and accessible to the non-specialist. This one is called, ‘Painful death of the American dream: mesmerised by big finance, policymakers are sowing the seeds of a new crisis’.

Coincidentally, for us, George Monbiot’s weekly column the following day looked at some of the psychological issues behind consumption and climate change denial. It makes sobering reading: scepticism about human-induced climate change is increasing, not decreasing; people over 65 are proportionately more likely to be ‘deniers’; there is already experimental evidence that ‘some people respond to reminders of death by increasing consumption.’ The whole article is worth reading.

And on the same day, a piece about the sacking of David Nutt (until then chair of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs) asked questions about government’s attitudes to scientific advice – a problem that is equally intractable in relation to climate change.

So there is lots going on in the world around us that reinforces the importance of what we were doing at the weekend, and makes sure that these issues will be with us for some time to come. And as I was writing this report, a phone call came in from Eoin McCarthy from Quakers and Business Group, telling me that:
On 24th April 2010, Quakers and Business Group's Spring Gathering is scheduled to be held at Redland Friends Meeting House, Bristol. On the day, we hope to address ourselves to: Prosperity v Growth in the context of the limitations of democratically elected government and the possibilities for financial reform.