Exceptionalism

Britain Yearly Meeting, the annual gathering of British Quakers a couple of weeks ago, had ‘Privilege’ as its central theme, with focuses on diversity, inclusion and climate justice.  I was asked to organise two short sessions on ‘Exceptionalism’ in the context of climate justice. We asked:

  • Do we find excuses or justify our ‘normal’ actions and choices, knowing that they harm people, communities, ecosystems and the future of life on earth?
  • Are some harms truly justified as healthy self-care, or necessities in our work for much-needed social change?
  • What is our experience of applying individual and corporate spiritual discernment to such questions? And have we found ways forward that feel rightly led?

People spoke of dilemmas about flying as part of their work to address the climate crisis; of choices about car use in enabling their children to engage in educational and social activities; and of some of the ways exceptionalism comes into campaigning and activism, for instance in claiming some kind of rational or ethical high ground.

Exceptionalism is a way of thinking that allows ‘us’ to behave badly because we see ourselves as somehow superior or special compared with ‘them’. Perhaps ‘we’ have a unique purpose in the world, or a particular connection with God.

When governments justify their use of torture or invasions of other countries, the exceptionalism may be apparent. The conversation is much more nuanced in the context of climate-related harm and injustice; there is little consensus about what constitutes bad behaviour. Where that consensus exists, it relates to large scale actions such as opening a new coal mine. At the level of the individual, it can be exceptional to refuse to engage in high emission behaviours.

Yet behaviour that seems normal in middle-class Britain is exceptional. There is a sense of entitlement to flying, driving, high levels of meat and dairy consumption and centrally heated homes – behaviours that contribute to the climate crisis and are not available to most of the world’s population. They were not available to our ancestors and probably will not be available to our descendants. We live at an exceptional moment in history.

Exceptionalism is mixed up with privilege and with what has been called implicative climate denial. We may recognise the climate emergency, the biodiversity crash, the extremes of economic inequality, but it is a huge step to acknowledge the implication that we should stop doing the things that contribute to these tragedies.

I am part of the problem. I have money in so-called ethical investments which contribute to supporting our toxic economic system. I live alone in a house while people sleep on the streets a couple of miles away.

Holding that awareness is deeply uncomfortable. It is hard to stay with the shame. I look for ways to justify my choices.

Sharing our dilemmas with others can be helpful. One of our speakers had held a family council to understand everyone’s needs and consider how best to meet them with minimum use of a car. Others have asked for clearness committees – in this Quaker practice a small group gathers with the ‘focus person’ who is seeking clearness, and asks questions to support them in probing deeply and discerning their way forward.

Quakers and other people of faith often speak of finding inner peace through spiritual practice. But participants in our Exceptionalism session had not found a place that feels ‘OK’. Perhaps it is right to be uncomfortable. We are part of a planetary disaster.

And perhaps there is a kind of peace to be found. But it is not in pretending that we are OK – rather it is in developing our capacity to stay with the discomfort.

Zero Carbon Quakers?

Are you ready join with Friends sharing our journey towards zero carbon living in a zero carbon society? About 100 have already signed up for this project, including 11 volunteers for the steering group.

In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. It brought a stark message: warming of 1.5-2°C would pose a much greater risk to life on Earth than we had previously imagined. It would include Arctic and Antarctic melting with sea level rise of 6-9m, accelerating loss of biodiversity, and a sharp increase in human  suffering and mortality through heatwaves, disruption of food and water supplies, increased prevalence of diseases, and the mass migration resulting from all of these.

We are already close to the ‘budget’ – the total of CO2 emissions over the last 150 years or so – that would result in warming of 1.5°C. The IPCC communicates in terms of risk, and essentially it says that if we carry on with current global emissions until 2030 (i.e. 12 years since the report was released) we will have a 50% chance of passing the threshold that would commit us to 1.5°C of warming.  They offer scenarios that offer a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C through a 45% cut in global emissions by 2030, reaching net zero by 2040-2060. Reductions of this level would require a multi-systems transformation covering law, markets, technology, governance, social structure, culture and much more.

The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was established by the 2008 Climate Act to advise the Government on climate targets and strategy. It published a report in early May 2019 responding to the updated science. It says that the UK should aim for net zero emissions of CO­2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2050 – but the CCC portrays this as a way for the UK to maintain its leadership in a global effort to limit warming to ‘well below 2°C’ rather than below 1.5°C. Britain would be going faster than other countries, because of our greater responsibility for historical emissions and capacity for emission reduction.

Extinction Rebellion calls for net zero in the UK by 2025. If this were part of a global effort to reach net zero by 2030, it would give us a better chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. It is physically possible, but only if we approach climate change as a real emergency that changes everything. It could be an inspiring, exhilarating journey. It would also require a willingness to tolerate inconvenience and discomfort, and a capacity to cope with some people losing a lot while others benefit. Many kinds of jobs would be lost, while new areas of work would be created. It would probable result in a much healthier and fitter population through adopting a largely plant-based diet and abandoning cars. Some people would probably die earlier, while others would live longer.

Friends of the Earth and the Liberal Democrats call for net zero by 2045; and the Green Party has long held a target of 2030, which is also the timeframe used by the Centre for Alternative Technology in developing its ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ scenarios.

Whether the timescale is five or thirty years, we will have to more or less eliminate fossil fuels from our energy system and make deep reductions in industrial emissions – especially from the metals, cement and chemicals industries. We will have to radically change land use from pasture to woodland and make deep reductions in populations of ruminant animals (cattle, sheep and goats). A later target would give time for the development and deployment of more renewable resources, for a shift to electric cars and for insulation of much of the UK housing stock. It would even be possible to maintain some aviation using biomass fuels or possibly batteries. Achieving net zero by 2030 or earlier would mean largely abandoning cars, flying, meat and dairy. We would also have to live in much colder homes. There would probably be a transformation in the world of work too, moving to a much shorter working week and lower earnings, combined with a reduction in material production and consumption.

Where are Quakers in this picture? How are we led to engage in system change and self-change? In 2011 Quakers in Britain committed to becoming a ‘low carbon, sustainable community’.  Quakers have been at the heart of many of the major efforts including Extinction Rebellion, the Transition movement, local government declarations of climate emergency, anti-fracking actions and more. Many Friends have made deep changes in the way they live. But we have also been aware of the need to make this a joyous, empowering journey, and to be careful of blame and guilt. In our Yearly Meeting 2011 Minute 36 we reminded ourselves that Friends should ‘keep in their hearts that this action must flow from nowhere but love.’

There is no one right way of working for change. Some progress will come through top-down actions by government, some through innovation in technology in behaviour, some through communities and networks of people taking and sharing responsibility.

The ‘Zero Carbon Quakers?’ project aims to develop a community of Friends supporting each other on our journey through listening, conversation and worship together. We will be formed of local face-to-face groups and national/international online groups and will probably experiment with well-tried models such as Carbon Conversations and the Transition Leicester Footpaths process. We will provide spaces for holding feelings, and sharing information, dilemmas and progress in action – in our own lives, our Meetings and the wider community.

Sign up to the Living Witness e-mail list for news about the project and how to be involved.