Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Passing on the baton

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the photo that's appeared in the sidebar - of my colleague Maud Grainger - and the caption that says Maud will take over this blog when I retire.

I've been posting here for three-and-a-bit years, mostly weekly, and this is the last one I shall do as the Good Lives Programme Leader at Woodbrooke. This is my last day at work, and I'm 'retiring' (whatever that turns out to mean) . . . Maud will take over the blog from the New Year. I may, of course, appear occasionally on a 'guest post', and I shall certainly carry on as an Associate Tutor for Woodbrooke (look out for 'Global Restorative Climate Justice' in June 2013).

I thought I'd leave you with something heartwarming and inspiring to look at. I wrote two weeks ago about materialism and simplicity and re-using the Earth's wealth, not squandering it. Below is a link to a YouTube clip of joy, creativity, talent, work, discipline and ingenuity. They call themselves a 'recycled orchestra' but 'upcycled' would be better (see explanation two weeks ago).

So, here to inspire you is Landfill Harmonic.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Preparing for a Changed World

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the recent Woodbrooke course, 'Good Lives: Preparing for a Changed World', and mentioned the talk on the Saturday morning of that event, given by Oliver Robertson from QUNO Geneva. Here is the text of the talk he gave us.

The way the world will change in the future is a big subject, so this post will focus just on a couple of areas – climate change and the movement of people, and climate change and peace and conflict. Moreover, everything about the future in this post is guesswork. Educated guesses perhaps, but guesses all the same. When people’s guesses turn out to be correct, they get called a savant and if they’re wrong, they get called an idiot. So you may have over 1,500 words of pure idiocy coming at you.

Possibly the most important thing to say is this: most of the changes that will likely be caused by climate change will not be new. The types of things that will happen have already happened, are already happening, which means, critically, that we also have many of the solutions.

Climate change and the movement of people

You may have heard of ‘climate refugees’. It’s a phrase which is, on the face of it, self-explanatory: people who have been forced to move because of the impacts of climate change. However, when you look at it you do realise that it’s more complicated than it may seem at first blush.

For a start, there’s the numbers. A few years ago there was a rash of reports highlighting the issue and giving estimates of the likely scale of the situation. The numbers of affected people ranged from 25 million to one billion (though this large number was people affected rather than people moving). There are some methodological issues with this and many of the different numbers can be traced back to the same one or two sources, and nowadays researchers tend not to predict numbers but just to look at likely effects and impacts.

Secondly, there’s the difference between slow-onset and sudden-onset situations. Slow-onset impacts are gradual environmental changes such as sea level rise, regions becoming unbearably warm, desertification and salinisation; sudden-onset impacts are hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. These are very different issues requiring very different responses. Sudden-onset is easier to see, though there is an expectation that slow-onset changes will affect more people.

Thirdly, there is the causation issue – how can we know that this Superstorm or that sea level rise would not have happened without climate change? And if a farmer’s crops fail, is this because of climate change or because she’s a bad farmer? If she can build an irrigation system, what then? The causation issue becomes a particular sticking point when you are trying to create legal obligations to help, such as creating a group of ‘climate refugees’ that governments should support. In addition, the phrase ‘climate refugee’ is disliked around the UN because in international law a refugee is something quite specific. It is someone who has crossed an international border and sought protection due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The environment doesn’t persecute in the same way, and politically there is a lot of fear about trying to redefine what a refugee is because it could well lead to a weakening of existing protection.

So instead the international approach is to look at soft law – non-binding standards which are frameworks of how to deal with environmental displacement. This is what was done with internal displacement and is the way things are going with other human rights or humanitarian issues. Last year the Norwegian government proposed a set of ‘Nansen Principles’ on displacement in situations of natural disasters, but they didn’t generate the hoped-for interest. So now, together with the Swiss, they have a Nansen Initiative, which is conducting research on the environmental displacement, and may later produce some recommendations based on these findings.

But why try to create a new category of ‘climate displaced persons’ at all? I think one of the reasons is that people want to move environmentally displaced persons from the category of ‘bad’ migrants (people moving to get a better job or lifestyle) to ‘good’ migrants (like refugees, though even they get a bad press these days). But it creates its own problems – what if that farmer I mentioned before had lost their crops because they’re a bad farmer? Are they not equally desperate? Are they any less deserving, any less worthy? (That is a slightly open question.) I think we’ll continue having these difficulties while we continue to categorise people into deserving and undeserving, rather than needy and unneedy. When I was in Oslo at the meeting where the Nansen Principles were created, the most interesting thing I found out was that after the first world war, when the Norwegian Fritdjof Nansen was the first high commissioner for refugees under the old League of Nations, a refugee was anyone in humanitarian need. I think this is one reason for the disconnect between the public perception of a refugee (people fleeing and in need) and the lawyers’ understanding (people meeting the Refugee Convention requirements), but it’s also a very helpful rebuttal to anyone who tells you that ‘we can’t change things and this is the way things are’. Not always they weren’t.

While most migration-related issues will not be new, one which might be is what are commonly called sinking islands, though a more accurate phrase is drowning islands. There are a number of nation-states, including the Maldives and Tuvalu, which are expected to completely lose all their land in the coming decades, and as one of the traditional features of a country is that it has land, this is could cause legal and well as human problems. There are some ideas about ways to circumvent this issue, such as buying up other land/islands (I understand that the Maldives has been speaking to India about this) or claiming that a country’s underwater continental shelf means it still has land. Politically, there is a feeling in some quarters that the world won’t be so vicious as to tell people who’ve just lost all their land that they no longer exist as a nation. But this could be a situation that gets ignored when it could be solved, where because we don’t have to deal with it yet, we won’t.

It can be easy in this issue to focus on the politics not the people. On the low-lying islands, people will have left before the last rock disappears under the waves permanently. Where to? That depends, and is an issue beyond small islands. The consensus is that most people will not come ‘flooding’ to Europe but will instead move a short distance. Particularly when there are sudden-onset disasters, people may return home, and displacement (whether for sudden-onset or slow-onset reasons) isn’t always permanent – some areas may be unable to support a population year-round, so circular or seasonal migration could be a more sustainable response.

It can be easy to consider the people who are moving, but it is also important to consider those who remain behind and the existing residents of host communities. People who stay behind may want to leave but be unable to do so. Often it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are left – think of Hurricane Katrina and who was left behind in New Orleans. Other times people may not want to leave – I remember hearing about one man who said “I can’t leave this island: this is where my father is buried”. At the other side, considering the hosts, who will also have needs, rights and concerns, will hopefully help to reduce levels of conflict and ensure a better outcome for everyone.

Climate change, conflict and cooperation

The other issue we have looked at is what often gets called ‘climate change and conflict’, the idea that the impacts of climate change, such as reductions in availability of natural resources like water, food or land, will cause more conflict. There have been retrospective studies about whether one or more wars were caused, ultimately, by the environment – Darfur was the one that received the most attention. However, one of the most significant differences between the study which found that the environment was to blame for Africa’s wars and the one that found the opposite was that they gave different weightings and importance to different factors when creating their computer models. Each thought that different things were important in predicting conflict. More generally, I think that the link between climate change and a particular conflict will probably never be drawn with certainty, not least because that won’t be the stated reason for the conflict: I think there will always be something more proximate, more immediate. “They have all the best land” might be a way of whipping up tension and encouraging violent conflict, but “Their economic and industrial policies have resulted in the gradual reduction of our soil quality” probably isn’t.

However, like the stoking of concerns about the ‘floods’ of climate refugees coming to Britain, warnings of ‘water wars’ have not gone unnoticed and climate change is on the radars of militaries in various countries, including in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. At the Quaker United Nations Office we have tried to break this idea of a straight line going from climate change to conflict, and have looked at what has actually happened in the past. There are plenty of places in the world with existing resource scarcity, where there is – to use the issue we explored – limited water, but actually in reality not all of them are in conflict. Researchers in the University of Oregon looked at over 1,800 international water events and found that only 28% of them involved any conflict at all, most of which was verbal rather than physical. The only recorded water war in history was between the city-states of Lagash and Umma around 2500 BCE. However, there is a school of thought that because water is so crucial to life, it may be too important to fight over. Also, we have been looking at the international situation and at the regional or community level things may be very different. Colleagues of mine are looking into this right now, so this is not yet resolved.

This issue of environment and peace is one which has sparked the interest of many Quakers. In fact, I think that you are particularly likely to find Quakers working on the climate change and peace issue, because it’s at the meeting point between an issue of longstanding Quaker concern (peace) and an emerging one (climate change).

To be clear, I am not saying that bad things will not happen, and I am not saying that things won’t get worse. But I am saying that the human impacts of climate change depend in part on human actions and choices. I am saying that we have many of the answers to these problems already. And I am saying that even if we don’t stop climate change from happening, it doesn’t mean we’re powerless in the face of its consequences.

Many thanks to Oliver for sharing this text.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Do we love ‘things’ not enough, rather than too much?

The usual criticism of materialism, whether from an environmental or a spiritual point of view, is that we are too much in love with material ‘stuff’; and either that is bad for the planet, or it’s bad for our souls – or both.

But perhaps the problem is really the opposite – we don’t love our things enough. We pick them up and discard them, we throw them away and get a new one, we don’t like the colour or the style any more. We buy too much food and then throw it away because it’s gone off – only people who have never gone hungry can do that so carelessly.

We used to have students from developing countries spending three months at a time at Woodbrooke. Those who came from the tropics and sub-tropics would be warned to bring warm clothes, but if they were coming in our winter they had no idea what ‘cold’ meant. So we would take them to the Oxfam shop to get warm sweaters and coats. They were curious about our charity shops – why had people given away these perfectly good clothes? Well, we would reply, perhaps they don’t fit any more, or they’ve gone out of fashion, or . . . and we would see the expression on their faces and start to feel the obscenity of our throw-away culture.

There’s a song by Randy Newman called I Think it's Going to Rain Today that contains the words:

Tin can at my feet
Think I'll kick it down the street
That's the way to treat a friend

If we loved our things, we would see not only the object in front of us but also the minerals or metals mined out of the Earth; the wood or fibre grown in the Earth’s soil; the insects and birds that lived in the trees when they were growing; the wind and the sun and the rain; the billions of years old dead flora and fauna that make up our plastics and our dye-stuffs, as well as providing the energy that fuels the extraction, processing, manufacturing and transporting of our goods. We would also see the labour of our fellow humans who mined and dug and tended and felled and machined and packed . . . we would see that every object contains the whole world.
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
If we practised mindfulness about all our things, if we were truly thankful for every thing, we would not lightly discard the labour of our sisters and brothers around the world, the material gifts of our Mother Earth.

So let’s go back to that old but serviceable mantra: reduce, re-use, recycle – and expand it a bit.

Before ‘reduce’ comes REFUSE: refuse to buy what you don’t need; refuse the seduction of the advertisers telling you, ‘it’s new, it’s better, you want it, you need it’. Don’t buy goods with excessive and unnecessary packaging – this includes reducing our consumption of processed, packaged food, instead buying raw ingredients and cooking properly.

Then comes REDUCE: even those things that you do truly need – food, clothes – reduce the waste, the excess; cherish each thing, see the whole world in every item.

Then there’s one that doesn’t start with an ‘R’: take care of what you’ve got. Polish your shoes to make them last longer, wash your clothes carefully, be mindful not to break things carelessly.

Next comes RE-USE: re-use something you have, rather than getting something new; and if you don’t need it any more, give it to someone who will use it – that way the labour and raw materials that went into its making are respected. Give it to a friend or to charity shop, preferably one in your local community, rather than putting it in one of the endless plastic collection bags that come through the letterbox; or sign up to your local Freecycle or Freegle.

If something is beyond re-use, there’s a step before recycle: REPAIR. Repairing brings something back into use rather than rendering it back to its components and raw materials. It’s patching and darning and mending clothes, it’s having your shoes repaired, it’s learning how to mend and fix things, skills that many of us have never learned – time to start.

And there’s yet one more before recycling: UPCYCLING – this is using something no longer needed to make something useful. The traditional craft of patchwork is a good example. So is making a garden shed out of old doors picked up at the dump.

And if it’s really beyond all of these, take it to a recycling centre (or put it in your Council's kerbside collection) from where it will be reduced to its component materials and re-manufactured into something new. If it’s organic it will be composted and ‘made’ into new growing plants.

And if you must buy something (apart from food, that is): first try to buy second-hand, or make a request on Freegle or Freecycle. Or, if suitable, see if you can borrow it via one of the exchange sites set up to do this, such as Streetbank if it exists in your area. Second-hand or borrowed reduces the total embodied carbon (the CO2 emissions that went into the making of the item) that your life is responsible for. If it has to be new, then apply as many as possible of the LOAF principles: Local, Organic, Animal-friendly, Fairly-traded.

This all starts to seem like a lot of complicated rules (and we could dream up a whole lot more) but really it all goes back to mindfulness and loving the whole-world-in-every-thing.

Other resources:
 - If you haven’t already seen it a million times, watch the short (20 minutes) video of Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff; if you’ve only seen it once or twice, it’s worth watching again to be reminded
- Download the free pamphlet by Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts called The New Materialism
- For an institutional/economic bigger picture see the article by Terry Slavin, in The Guardian: Time to turn capitalism 'inside out'

The seasonal message, of course, is: and apply all this to Christmas! And what better New Year’s resolution could there be than to expand our practice of mindfulness?
PS: Addition a few days later: for another slant on all this, see George Monbiot's trenchant and angry piece in The Guardian of 11 December - On the 12th day of Christmas ... your gift will just be junk: ‘Every year we splurge on pointless, planet-trashing products, most of which are not wanted. Why not just bake them a cake?’