Righteous Anger

I’ve been wondering about the place of righteous anger and opposition in a spirit-led, non-violent witness for a better world. This partly goes back to conversations with Friends over the last six months following the Quaker statement on the Gaza conflict. And in her comment Jill Weston speaks of having “enemies” and of “campaigning against” being the most effective approach in our response to climate change.

After the recent killings in Paris, several Friends spoke in my local Meeting for Worship, sharing their reflections about how our Quaker Peace Testimony speaks to that situation. An important part of the public response has been solidarity with the victims: “Je suis Charlie”, “Je suis Ahmed”, “Je suis juif”. Perhaps some new bridges are being built among communities in Paris.

One Friend spoke of the massacre of Algerian demonstrators by Parisian police at Pont St Michel in 1961. Much of the violence in the world today is so obviously part of a cycle – reverberations from past violence, whether in European colonialism, the Crusades, or the two millennia of antagonism between Jews and Christians. Western politicians stoke the fires of that cycle of violence with their rhetoric about evil and their “war on terror”.

Understanding the systemic roots of violence and injustice is a vital step in seeking to live our Testimony. But perhaps the hardest step – whether we are thinking of Paris, Gaza or climate change, is acknowledging our own responsibility. By which I do not mean that we are to be blamed for the violence, but that we do have some agency and that we are called to claim it. Intentionally or not, I participate in an economic and political system which contributes to the violence in our world. I help to shape the way things are through my choices, and through the choices I don’t actively make: the home I live in, my work, diet, travel, use of time and money, daily interactions with other people and with nature.

For some Friends, claiming our agency connects to expressing righteous anger and opposition. This is uncomfortable for me. But I need to acknowledge that anger in general is uncomfortable for me. When I have expressed anger with people I don’t know well, it has usually backfired. Yet I know that expressing anger is part of the normal repertoire of behaviour for some people. Perhaps it works for them. Perhaps it’s even healthy sometimes.

There were headlines last week along the lines of “Pope says: insult my mother, you’ll get a punch”. But what he actually said (according to The Independent) was: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch”.

I have sometimes experienced constructive outcomes from expressions of anger in the context of a secure, loving relationship. It hurts, but it can crack the shell of silences, half-truths and other habits that aren’t working. It can communicate to our loved ones that we need them to pay special attention, perhaps to re-examine their assumptions and expectations.

Where there is no secure foundation, I think anger is more likely to drive people apart. My experience of anger is that it can be exhilarating, it can give me a feeling of energy and strength, but it also goes with a feeling of separation from the person with whom I feel angry.

One yearly meeting, I think in 2010, Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave an introduction to a session on the Quaker Testimony on equality. She commented that her work on equality for women in science was not testimony because it was motivated by anger, and true testimony is based in love. Harvey Gilman responded during the session that we need to “tender our anger into love”.

I believe that if we are really to address the seeds of war, injustice and climate change, we need to find ways to answer that of God in the perpetrators. We need to build bridges with them. For me that means in particular working on mutual understanding, mutual compassion, and mutual trust. That is how Gandhi worked; it is how Nelson Mandela worked. It is true that Gandhi and Mandela were part of communities where righteous anger was also being powerfully expressed. But there are always plenty of people ready to do that.

Anger can be a healthy response and a great source of energy. Acknowledging and channelling our anger is vital if we are to stay healthy and make a difference in the world. But if we want to be part of a nonviolent revolution, we must tender our anger into love.

Quakers and climate change: a systems perspective on change agency

This post considers how and where Quakers can best contribute to the human response to climate change. It has four main sections:

  • Section 1 seeks to map out some of the systems and processes shaping climate change and the human response to it.
  • Section 2 considers our aims in seeking to intervene
  • Section 3 summarises what is being done by others, and where there are gaps
  • Section 4 considers some of the approaches, strengths and resources Quakers might bring to address the gaps
  1. Systems and processes

Climate change, its causes and the potential human responses to it are all part of multiple interlinked complex systems (Figure 1). The totality of these is beyond description, and this section just offers a brief sketch of some of them.

Figure 1. A few of the interlinked classes of systems contributing to climate change and the human response to it

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 1

Interlinked complex systems

A first class of systems is studied by scientists – the atmosphere, oceans, ecosystems, the sun, human and animal physiology and biology. These are probably the best understood in terms of verifiable scientific observation and theory.

Another class of systems is studied mainly by economists and engineers – markets for capital and commodities, processes of technological innovation and transfer, and economic growth. These systems are often quite well understood in ‘equilibrium’ circumstances but theorists have had limited success in introducing human psychology and culture to their models.

A third class of systems includes politics and the negotiation of laws and regulations. It also includes international relations mediated through UN and other intergovernmental bodies. This is the realm of explicit collective decision-making, studied especially by political scientists and lawyers. It is strongly shaped by the dynamics of power held by individuals and organisations. This may derive from military force, legal and constitutional rights, knowledge and expertise, financial wealth and influence (i.e. connected to the economic system) or from social groupings, networks and status.

A fourth class of systems is that of social groups and relations. This includes local communities, corporations and religious groups. It also includes professional groups and discourse coalitions. Social groups are studied by sociologists and anthropologists. They may be characterised by their degree of cohesiveness, their internal power structures, their approaches to inclusion, resource sharing and rights, and their relationships with other groups. They may also be characterised by the cultures, values, narratives, meanings and purposes they espouse and practise.

And then a fifth class of systems includes those cultures, values and narratives themselves. These evolve – or are sustained – by social groups, especially where they help to sustain existing power relations. They are also shaped by individual psychology, family relations, and religious/spiritual traditions.

Drivers of climate change

Climate change can be understood as the outcome of many mutually reinforcing processes in these various systems:

  • Development of technologies for finding and extracting fossil fuels
  • Development and diversification of fossil fuel-based technology in transport, manufacturing, heating and cooling, communication and entertainment
  • Human habits and choices leading to an ongoing growth in demand for products and services
  • Growing population, wealth and infrastructure increasing the demand and opportunities for using those products and services
  • The decline in local community, partly caused by industrial products such as the car and TV
  • Increasing connectedness over a distance, which encourages increasing travel
  • Businesses competing for market share by developing new technologies, products and services
  • The evolution of narratives supporting the “consumer culture”, validating and reinforcing production and consumption, and the desire for choice, comfort and convenience
  • Governments pursuing GDP growth through policies including infrastructure provision, fossil fuel subsidies, and tax breaks for energy intensive industries
  • Government commitment to a process of globalisation, increasing trade flows and travel
  • Systems of political funding that build links between politicians and fossil fuel industries
  • The development of narratives supporting the status quo within a ‘discourse coalition’ in politics, business, academe and the media and much more.

Climate change is “over-determined” – that is, there are many causes that reinforce themselves and each other.


Change processes

Governments and analysts tend to think simplistically about change. They often start with what I’d call a machine metaphor: government is in charge and can pull the levers to make change happen from the top down. This is the model for early environmental regulation through programmes of “pollution prevention and control”, which mostly take engineering and planning approaches (end-of-pipe solutions, relocation of large pollution sources etc.)

In the last couple of decades a bottom-up perspective has become increasingly popular. Within governments the initial impetus came from economists who advocated environmental taxes as more economically efficient than regulations, although there were very few real examples of price-based measures until the late 1990s. During the 1990s economic arguments became more sophisticated with better understanding of innovation processes as represented in evolutionary/endogenous growth models and increasingly in agent-based models. In this ecosystem metaphor the role of the government is to nourish and guide the creativity.

These two models – society as machine and society as ecosystem – treat people as automatons following instructions or incentives, and unable to make ethical choices. They are thus limited a) by what leaders want to achieve; b) what governments believe the people will accept; c) by a variety of unwanted consequences of trying to get people to do things through force or appeals to self-interest rather than through building a shared will.

There has been a trend in recent decades, at least in OECD countries, towards public consultation and stakeholder engagement, and this has been particularly encouraged as part of Agenda 21 (the broad sustainable development agreement made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992). However, governments (and most established organisations) find it hard to include people fully in decision-making because true engagement runs counter to prevailing cultures and vested interests. In most practical instances consultation remains superficial. Nevertheless some groups have experimented more with collective decision-making, often influenced by Quakers.

In real life, change involves a combination of processes – some hierarchical, top-down influences, some creative, bottom-up innovations, and some open dialogue to build shared understanding, compassion and will. However it is the last of these that most people find hardest, and this is where Quakers may have most to offer.

Agents and scales

In addition to considering different systems and processes, it may be helpful to think about the different scales on which intervention is needed. Each of the systems in Figure 1 operates to some degree at all scales (Figure 2). At different scales there may be different key agents – people and organisations that need to be engaged in any process of change.

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 2

The Intergovernmental Process

Intergovernmental negotiations constitute an intervention seeking to develop narratives, and ultimately agreements, that require and support policies and measures at national level. Climate change is different from many other kinds of international negotiation. Human rights issues such as the use of child soldiers or torture, and environmental issues such as ozone depletion or acid deposition, can generally be addressed by a government through a single statutory instrument. Addressing climate change requires a transformation of government, the economy and civic society, and it requires action throughout all systems and scales. In this transformation, national governments are not necessarily the most influential of agents. The media, business community, even the church may be more important in some countries. Top down measures will fail if there is no grassroots will for change.

In the UNFCCC the negotiations primarily involve governments, while most interaction between governments and other agents takes place within States. There is a contrast here with other post-Rio processes (in particular UN Commission on Sustainable Development), where negotiations have engaged business and civil society much more directly although with little concrete outcome.

In Figure 3 the central box shows the negotiations, taking place among government delegates in communication with their capitals. Surrounding them are the other accredited organisations attending UNFCCC conferences – who lobby the negotiators (with little access or impact) and hold their own discussions.

What really shapes the negotiations (via national governments and politics) is the world beyond, with all its many different groups, networks and organisations. They have their own cultures, values, needs and stories about what really matters. Very little of this is really being discussed in the negotiations where climate change is mainly considered as a scientific, economic and technological challenge.

Figure 3. Narrative context for the negotiations

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 3

In this context negotiators have little power. They do not have the capacity to agree the measures necessary to stop climate change because they do not control the systems that are causing it. Although the COP high level segments may include some government leaders with the capacity to make decisions about economic, industrial, social and educational policy, most of the negotiations take place among officials with little or no influence in these areas.

2.Stopping climate change

Most governments have agreed that global warming must not exceed 2°C and there are still discussions about the need for a tighter, 1.5°C ceiling. The IPCC 5th Assessment places a new emphasis on the need for a global emission budget, cumulative from about 1850, and says that this must not exceed 800Gt carbon if warming is to stay below 2°C. With 530Gt of the budget already used we have less than three decades left at current emission rates of 10Gt/y. Since there are probably about 300 years of coal and unconventional oil resources, most remaining fossil fuels must stay in the ground.

Achieving this aim implies change in all of the systems, in particular:

  • Moving towards zero global net GHG emissions by the middle of the 21st
  • This requires both maximum possible rates of improvement in the carbon intensity of the world economy (improved energy efficiency, phase-out of fossil fuels and replacement by carbon-free energy) and a reduction in material consumption
  • The transition will require humanity as a whole to make a concerted effort both to develop and apply clean technology and to change lifestyles and behaviour. And this requires a complete shift in the priorities of national economic policies and innovation systems.
  • A legal framework is needed that clearly establishes rights and responsibilities. This would most naturally be based on the Polluter Pays Principle – i.e. it is the obligation of those responsible for GHG emissions a) to stop emitting them, b) to rectify any damage caused, c) to pay compensation for any damage that cannot be rectified.
  • The depth of reduction required, and the need for a fair approach to burden sharing, requires changes in the way power is managed and exercised, both empowering the vulnerable and enabling people currently in power with interests in the status quo to cope with the transition
  • This in turn requires a shift in human relationships and social structures
  • And all of this requires people to be motivated – to connect their personal purposes and values with the wider change.

There are also broader aims for Friends in giving expression to Quaker Testimony. This means that our witness on climate change is linked to our broader witness on peace and nonviolence, justice and equality, truth and integrity, simplicity and sustainability. In this witness, the ends are inseparable from the means. Central to the work must be a commitment to answering that of God in every one.



  1. What’s being done and what’s missing

Organisations addressing climate change are more likely to work within one of the five classes of system in Figure 1 than across them. The density of work decreases on the whole as we move from the bottom to the top of the illustration.

The bottom two layers (science, technology and economics) are the most mainstream. They are well-represented in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that of many national and international organisations including universities, think tanks, government agencies and NGOs. People find technology and economics much easier to talk about than the underlying themes of power, values and social dynamics.

Explicit and open analysis of politics and power (the third layer) is largely excluded from the IPCC’s work, and from the work of many government and other institutions which have their own vested interests. There may be roles here for Quakers in creating safe spaces and processes in which some of these difficult issues can be aired.

The top two layers (social, cultural and psychological systems) are more rarely addressed in mainstream climate change policy work, but they are increasingly important for organisations involved in public and community engagement, marketing and communication. This is probably the most important gap because it relates to the issue of motivation. It needs to be understood and addressed if any real progress is to be made and it is probably the main area for Quaker engagement.

  1. Strengths, approaches and resources

Quaker spirituality is a spirituality of relationship and community, “answering that of God in every one“, I-thou relationship. Quaker worship involves a kind of communion of the individual, the gathered meeting and God (Figure 4).

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 4


Figure 4: The triangle of Quaker worship

It is the foundation for values and practices that support:

  • open listening and nonattachment to personal positions
  • valuing each individual and refraining from judgment
  • individuals taking responsibility for the whole
  • finding unity in diverse viewpoints and a way forward together

This approach is perhaps particularly suited to working with problems in complex systems, where nobody is ‘in control’ or ‘to blame’, and everyone must play a role in the solution. It is at the heart of what is needed in the social transformation to address climate change.

As Quakers we also practise a kind of collective mindfulness combined with a commitment to engaging with the world; we are a reflexive and engaged spiritual community, learning from and communicating our experience. Some of that experience derives from work under other areas of Concern, on conflict transformation and nonviolent social change. Some of it derives from our emerging witness on climate change.



The call to answer that of God in others may take many forms. Figure 5 shows three broad categories of interventions, which could be seen as

  • ‘head-centred’, focusing on truth, knowledge and understanding
  • ‘heart-centred’, focusing on feelings, caring, recognising needs and values and
  • ‘gut-‘ or ‘action-centred’, focusing on will, motivation, power and capability.
 Figure 5: Engaging that of God in every one

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 5

In trying to engage others in responding to climate change (or perhaps any issue), there is a tendency to focus on just one of these categories which may be our own area of strength, or the area where we’ve had our own breakthroughs. Often there is an expectation that if people only knew the truth – the science of climate change, the emerging impacts on ecosystems and vulnerable people – they would respond. Some activist networks, including Quaker activists, are more focused on power dynamics (the realm of action and will), seeing the problem as lying in “corporate greed” and vested interests. Ecopsychology and related approaches have tended to diagnose emotional disconnection as the problem; their solutions involve bringing people into closer contact with nature and their local communities, and encouraging them to explore their feelings about climate change. In fact, we probably need all three of these approaches.

 Figure 6. Recognising the Shadow

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 6

There may also be a call to engage with the Shadow – what nonviolence theologian Walter Wink calls the Domination System. We need to recognise the Shadow when it is manifest in the people we engage with, and in ourselves (see Figure 6). We are called to trust “the leadings of God whose light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.” But our work with agents of the system must be to answer that of God in them – i.e. to work on mutual understanding, compassion and empowerment. Opposition may be part of this but unless it occurs within a well-developed positive relationship (Gandhi exemplified this) it is likely to lead to a breakdown in communication.

In Quaker work there may appear to be a choice between working with agents or victims of the system. It is usually easier to befriend and influence victims. We may be able to furnish them with resources (knowledge, skills) to improve their power within the system. However, achieving change probably requires us to engage those in positions of power – and in nonviolent spiritual activism we recognise that the people who act for the system are themselves victims of the system. This includes the fossil fuel industry, media and financial institutions.

Quakers have been developing our witness on climate change as individual Friends, local meetings and yearly meetings. Some Friends have made radical changes in their own lives, and are involved in local and national work to ‘engage the powers’, including the Transition movement and political campaigning. Quaker organisations have been greening their buildings – like the FNCL building in Washington, but also many local Quaker meeting houses. And local and yearly meetings have a huge range of initiatives including disinvestment in fossil fuels, support for nonviolent social change, engaging politicians and so on. There may be opportunities:

  • For Quaker organisations and Yearly Meetings to work together in developing shared understanding, mutual support, collaboration and a co-ordinated approach
  • To gather written accounts of Quaker experience in their engagement with climate change – both the practicalities of reducing our emissions and the community processes of working through tensions and conflict
  • To use briefings to engage Friends in influencing local and national decision-makers

To have a significant impact on any wider transformation, Quakers would clearly need to form partnerships with organisations beyond the Religious Society of Friends. Some of the most interesting potential connections are:

  1. Organisations working with multi-stakeholder, community and other group processes
  2. Organisations focused on heart- and soul-centred or more psychologically informed approaches to climate change
  3. Organisations experienced in facilitation, through approaches ranging from scenario building to spiritual activism.

Perhaps the hardest challenge is to engage opponents of progress, such as the fossil fuel companies, and organisations that seem to be at odds with Quaker values, such as financial institutions and the military. All of these need to be part of the solution. Part of a Quaker witness must be to befriend organisations like Shell and Exxon Mobil.