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.