Posts Tagged ‘faith’

F(l)ail: How the Establishment Protects Itself While the Earth Declines

Today’s special guest post comes from Professor Peter G. Brown of the McGill University School of Environment, co-author of
Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy
and author of two previous books.

* * *

HOW THE ESTABLISHMENT PROTECTS ITSELF, OR THINKS IT DOES WHILE THE EARTH DECLINES.

1. DROWNING IN OUR WORRIES. One of the common problems of our news-saturated culture is “idea fatigue”. People are so overloaded by the constant barrage of new things to worry about, that they become narcotized and unable to be roused to action. We get tired of hearing about the environment, about Afghanistan, about the federal government’s latest shenanigans, about the spread of wildfire zones north and south, about countless other issues – precisely because they *are* countless and no-one’s mind can deal with them all at once.

2. APPOINT A COMMISSION. This is another of the ways in which entrenched institutions protect themselves: by encouraging a sense of powerlessness in people who might otherwise feel called upon to change them. The internal reform efforts which are then put forward by these institutions are welcomed despite their toothlessness – because they allow people to put that issue at the bottom of the worry pile, comforted that at least something is being done.

3. NARROW THE MANDATE. The current Angelides “Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission” is very much a case in point. Even leaving aside its actual inquiry process, which remains to be seen, the very questions it is asking fail to do more than scratch the surface of the problem. But, because it’s being trumpeted as a major reform, a lot of people will sit back and think “Well, at least that’s taken care of” and be distracted by the next new thing to worry about.

4. PRESERVE THE FRAMEWORK THAT LEGITIMIZES YOU. The “Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission” principally looks at how to keep capital markets stable, but pays no attention at all to the fact that these very markets are destabilizing the earth’s life support systems on which the well-being of life on Earth depends. With all the talk about the “getting the economy moving again” and the “recovery” they are able to distract everyone from the biggest disaster humankind has ever experienced. Summers and Secretary Geitner have pulled the wool over our eyes.

The word of the day: praxis

I read an article today on “The Religion of Sustainability”, in which the author calls for less theory and more practical work.

Oh for the day when we all cared about the environment and the human race and that was our single mission. When we didn’t spend most of our time in meetings and forums discussing the issues, rather we were out in the field working on the problem. How many trees have died to produce position papers and minutes from meetings only to be filed away?

I don’t think I was around during this purported Golden Age, but I’m sure it was very nice. (Although, parenthetically, this sounds a lot like the complaints I’ve heard from certain groups of feminists decrying the fragmentation of the feminist movement and wanting a return to the good old days when feminists were much more united in purpose, ignoring the fact that that comparative unity [if it existed] was largely due to the systematic exclusion of Black women, trans women, lower-income women, etc. As you gain a diversity of viewpoints, of course you’re going to have different ideas of what should take precedence, and people are going to argue about them. That’s what people do. Likewise the environmental movement, which has grown enormously and brought in people who weren’t talking each other about this stuff until recently [insert “Twitter will save us all” rant as appropriate].)

So I’m not sure I agree with this article, but it got me thinking about the divide between theory and practice.

Here’s the thing. We’re basically theorists here at the Moral Economy Project. Our core group is largely academics; our mission is largely the promulgation of ideas. I’ll admit, this took some getting used to for me. The main thing I’ve had trouble with is that it’s a lot harder to quantify progress, with theory. When you’re doing concrete physical work, there are benchmarks. Planting ten thousand trees. Reducing energy usage by thirty percent. Preventing fifty tons of electronics going into the landfill. That sort of thing.

How do you do that with ideas? Sure, there are things you can count, if you feel so inclined. Number of books sold, number of people who sign up for your mailing list, that sort of thing. But it’s really, really hard to know exactly what effect you’re having on the minds of the people who hear you. Except when they contact you directly, of course, and only a fraction of readers, listeners, etc. will ever do that.

Which I think is part of what leads to perspectives like in the article above: the idea that because physical work is more quantifiable, it’s accomplishing more, and that theorizing is therefore a waste of time, resources, etc. And I think we’ve all known people who seemed to be “all talk” and had the urge to tell them that if they were really serious they’d push off and go plant trees someplace far, far away.

But one of the main things we’re striving for, in our re-envisioning of the world, is balance – a balance between rights and responsibilities, between pessimism and hope – between our obligations to others, to the world, to God, and to ourselves (insofar as those four things can ever be separated in any meaningful way). That sense of balance has to apply to the blend of theory and practice that makes up our movement as well.

I’m not strong on theory – that’s why all of this has undoubtedly been said before, and better. But I can’t help but appreciate its value. In their own way, the seeds of ideological reform grow into beautiful trees too.

Circles of concern, circles of influence

I just read an article in the current issue of The Canadian Friend that resonated very strongly with me. In “Making Peace With Our Place on the Planet”, Tony McQuail of Kitchener Monthly Meeting writes:

Something that has been helpful to me is distinguishing between my circle of concern and my circle of influence. If I spend a vast amount of time and energy worrying about the things out in my circle of concern, I can get pretty wound up, frustrated, and lose my inner peace. When I concentrate on my circle of influence I feel far more positive, and bring a hopeful and constructive energy to bear on situations where I actually have some impact. It helps me work on what I can do, rather than worry about what I can’t.

This is a very helpful way of thinking, to me. I spend a lot of time in this job listening to bad news, much of it coming from distant places where I can’t have much if any direct impact, or occurring on a scale too vast to be affected by individual will. This is generally the point where despair sets in.

It’s sometimes hard, too, to figure out what exactly my “circle of influence” is. I know that I could be doing more than I am. I could put in more volunteer hours than I do. I could donate more money to causes I care about. I could, when my current job ends, go and join the Peace Corps and spend the next few years building schools in Africa or whatever. The point is, there’s this large nebulous zone just outside the things I can currently have a positive impact on, full of things I could have a positive impact on if I had more strength, more willpower, more energy, less time commitments, less emotional entanglements, less ties to the place where I live – if I were, in short, a different person altogether. For me, that leads to more guilt than it probably ought to, and that feeds the despair too.

Maybe it’s helpful to remind myself what exactly my circle of influence is.

My garden is the first thing that comes to mind. A large part of Tony McQuail’s article is about his farm, and the ways in which food production is linked to oil and thence to war and violence. I don’t have the skill to grow some things (celery, so far, has been a dismal failure) or the environment to grow other things (chickens, say, or pineapples – damn you, delicious pineapples, and your inability to thrive in the St. Lawrence Lowlands!), but my boyfriend and I can generally get our quota of vegetables entirely from the garden during the peak tomato-producing months.

Another group within my circle of influence is my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, with whom I walk a fine line between wanting to mention when they’re doing something environmentally terrible (“You know you shouldn’t be seting Styrofoam on fire, right?”) and wanting to actually keep said friends. Generally I find perky enthusiasm a lot more helpful than nagging. (“Guess what I saw today! Recycled paper coffee filters! Those used to be impossible to find! Isn’t it great how many more recycled products you can get these days? I feel so much less guilty going shopping when I can get recycled stuff, don’t you?”)

Then there’s the other people in my environment, who I don’t necessarily know but who can see me bicycling, or using a refillable mug, or darning my socks on the bus, or whatever, and might think it’s a good idea. I don’t know how much that actually happens, but it’s certainly happened to me a few times. Besides, it’s a critical mass thing – how many people do you see now using reusable grocery bags? Practically everyone. There’s social pressure about it now. Several times in the past month I’ve seen people apologize (to the cashier, or to the other customers at large) for taking plastic bags. This is a positive step. (The next step is for the supermarkets to just stop offering plastic bags altogether. They’re already doing it in Halifax. Come on, Montreal, do you always want to be trailing behind Halifax??)

There’s my government, of course. Sometimes, like everyone else, I feel I have next to no impact on the decisions of the government that theoretically represents me. But I write letters to them anyway. And hey, we finally got Peter McQueen elected; that has to do some good.

There are my consumer decisions – what to buy, what to wear, where to shop. I’ve finally got my clothes-buying algorithm mostly figured out. (The Salvation Army figures prominently.)

Finally (and by “finally” I mean “I’m probably forgetting something”), there’s this blog, and its literally tens of readers (“Dozens! Baker’s dozens! They come in thirteens.”). Writing for a living has always been my goal, though admittedly I usually visualise that as involving fiction. But I’ve always thought writing was one of our most powerful tools for shaping the world. The amount of positive response that Right Relationship has received over the past year has been truly staggering, and I want to make sure to keep that firmly in mind as I continue in my own writing career in the months and years ahead. I know I now have the skill to write well enough to get people interested in what I have to say; now let’s see if I can make sure I’m saying something worth reading.

Just Finance from the WCC

Hey, back to the actual topic of the blog this morning! All right!

The World Council of Churches recently published their “Statement on just finance and the economy of life”. Some excerpts:

“The current financial crisis presents an opportunity to re-examine our engagement and action. It is an opportunity for us to discern together how to devise a system that is not only sustainable but that is just and moral. Economics is a matter of faith and has an impact on human existence and all of creation.”

“Today’s global financial crisis, which originated in the richest parts of our world, points to the immorality of a system that glorifies money and has a dehumanizing effect by encouraging acquisitive individualism. The resulting greed-based culture impoverishes human life, erodes the moral and ecological fabric of human civilization, and intoxicates our psyche with materialism. The crisis we face is, at the same time, both systemic and moral.”

“Unfortunately, churches have also been complicit in this system, relying on popular models of finance and economics that prioritize generating money over the progress and well-being of humanity. These models are largely oblivious to the social and ecological costs of financial and economic decisions, and often lack moral direction. The challenge for churches today is to not retreat from their prophetic role.”

I urge you to read the entire statement over at their website.

350 in Montreal

Some days, in the environmental movement, you feel like you’re some sort of small squishy creature making brave noises just before the great corporate-political-industrial juggernaut squashes you. Some days, you feel very alone.

funny pictures of cats with captions

Saturday was not one of those days.

As everyone probably knows, it was the International Day of Climate Action, where people all over the world gathered to show support for a strong Copenhagen agreement and to demand that steps be taken to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide content below 350 parts per million, the level which scientists have determined will keep climate change within manageable limits. (We’re at 387 ppm now. Not so good.)

It was raining off and on all day in Montreal. The event I was most looking forward to was the 350 Concordia Student Bike To Mount Royal, which was supposed to start at 11 am. I biked downtown from NDG, arrived at the Hall Building, and saw…nobody. Some people were setting up a sound system behind the building for an entirely different event (something to do with Uganda, I’m not sure what they were doing exactly) and other than that and a crowd of random smokers by the doors, the area was deserted. No bikes.

Rode over to McGill to check if maybe there was an email I’d missed, and got chased out of the SSMU building by a janitor who didn’t like me bringing my bike inside. (I don’t have a lock at the moment – long and irrelevant story – and don’t intend to have my bike stolen, thanks.) Biked home to NDG, checked my email. Nothing.

So I decided to head back for the next event, which was a musical event at City Hall, supposed to start at 2pm. Rode back downtown, and as I was passing the Hall Building again, spotted a cluster of 350.org signs at the side of the building with one guy sitting next to them. Apparently the bike event had been rescheduled to 2 and everyone else had gotten the email but me. Also, we were no longer biking to Mount Royal, but to City Hall, via Place des Arts to pick up another group of riders; then we were all joining the musical event, which had been changed to three o’clock.

It was still raining lightly, and the organizer wasn’t optimistic. Apparently they’d had four hundred people register for the ride, but the weather kept most of them indoors. When we left Concordia at twenty past two, there were about two dozen of us. Most were on our own bikes, a few on rented Bixis. About half were wearing helmets, and only two of us other than the Bixis had lights going. Go bike safety! Someone asked if we were going to have a police escort. It would probably have looked a bit ridiculous.

We rode to Place des Arts and milled around for a bit. There was a fair crowd there, as apparently they’d just finished doing another event. Lots of people in paper Stephen Harper masks. I don’t think we actually picked up any extra riders there, though. Eventually we got cold enough that we needed to start moving again.

We met up with Geoff Garver and a bunch of other people at the Champ-de-Mars field outside City Hall.

That’s Geoff, me and Ed. There still weren’t nearly as many people as there would have been with good weather, but at least we were enough to make a decent crowd.

Clearly the police had expected a much larger presence as well; there were five police vans parked in the parking lot. Periodically an officer wandered by to see what we were doing and how long we planned to stick around. Nobody seemed much bothered by us. Pedestrians stopped occasionally, not many.

At 3:50 pm we went out on the lawn and played the note F for 350 seconds. The guy with the guitar is Brendan, the organizer of the event.

The frequency of F is 350 Hz – okay, actually 349.23 Hz, but there’s no point nitpicking, especially since we were probably pretty out of tune anyhow, as most of our instruments were the kind you can’t really tune, like pennywhistles and things. Oh, and a musical saw.

Can you tune a musical saw? I have no idea, but it sounded awesome.

After we’d done that, we formed ourselves into a 350 shape and got our picture taken. I haven’t received any pictures of that yet, so, um, here’s a picture of people in Aotearoa, New Zealand, doing it instead.

That’s where the Moral Economy Project’s Robert Howell lives, so it’s almost as relevant.

Afterwards, someone from CTV showed up with a camera and they said they wanted to film us doing a different event entirely; there’d been another Montreal event called “Jump For The Future” where everyone went up on the mountain and jumped up and down. They wanted to put that on the TV, but it had already happened, so they got us to jump up and down instead, and filmed it. We had a small child with us, which automatically makes us look better on TV.

The CTV video player isn’t embeddable, but here’s the link.

Everyone kind of dispersed after that, and I headed home along with a few other cyclists who were going in the same direction. Herding together for mutual protection is Urban Cycling 101. The ride back through Westmount to NDG was quite pleasant, actually, once we got out of the rush hour traffic around Atwater. Lots of leaves on the ground making pleasant squishing noises as we rode through them. Montreal’s official bicycling season ends November 15, which means that’s when they’ll take down the bollards protecting a bunch of the bike lanes and let people park in them and so on. There’s so few good days left.

Did we accomplish anything? I have no idea. The slideshows on 350.org are inspirational, for sure. There are certainly a lot of people willing to come out and demonstrate about this. I have no way to measure how many of those people went to their demonstrations by car; how many of them will go home and decide not to take that unnecessary flight, or buy that new TV; how many people walked by the events, or saw them on the news, and went and looked up what they were about, and started thinking seriously about this stuff for the first time; how many politicians added climate actions to their list of Things That Will Make Me Look Good To Voters If I Do Them; how many flapping butterflies’ wings it takes to start that storm. We aren’t going to know any of that until it’s been settled, one way or the other. We just have to keep on doing our bit, and hope it’ll be enough.

In the end, it all comes down to faith.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

What am I thankful for?

Ingenuity.

Integrity.

Awe.

Diversity.

Strength.

Solidarity.

Hope.

Charity in truth

Today I’m pointing you folks to an excellent summary of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Charity in Truth (Caritas In Veritate), by John Hart, a Professor of Christian Ethics at Boston University. While we find parts of the encyclical problematic, there’s no question that this is an important document which agrees in many particulars with our own concerns. In particular, the calls for subsidiarity, inter-generational justice, a better relationship between humanity and the rest of the natural environment, and the consideration of peace as an environmental concern are all ideas which we wholeheartedly support. The Quaker Institute for the Future wants to find common ground to work with people of all faiths, in solidarity for a flourishing Earth.


In the Encyclical Benedict recalls some traditional Catholic ecological/eco-justice themes and phrasing. As has been customary in Church documents, the twofold thrust is care for creation/compassion for the poor (people, peoples, nations). The major issues are protection of the planet and provision for the poor. There is a customary omission of serious consideration of population issues in terms of strains on natural goods (“resources”) by continuously expanding populations, and consequent diminished availability of goods for the poor. Benedict does rightly reiterate, in this author’s assessment, the strain on the availability of natural goods, on members of the extended biotic community. He notes especially the strain on Earth’s integrity and well being, of consumerism, greed, and political manipulation of poor nations by powerful nations, ordinarily in the interests of the wealthiest and most politically powerful segments of the dominant nations. Dangers and benefits of globalization are stated, as are issues of war and peace, migration, the rights of labor (including the right to form unions), and abuses of wealth, the market, and economic structures. He calls for intergenerational responsibility to future generations, as well as for compassion and concern for people who are suffering now. There is a strong commitment to promoting the common good versus individual aggrandizement.

For the full text of the summary, please visit the Forum On Religion and Ecology.