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.

5 thoughts on “Exceptionalism”

  1. Thank you Laurie this speaks exactly to my condition. Maybe I will now find the strength to share my discomfort with my loved family and friends and try to take more actions; but I also know that in some areas by desire to conform with our normal ‘prelidged’ lives remains strong. So I’m conscious but remain a factor in not doing enough and will try harder to show my commitment by example.

  2. This also speaks strongly to my condition . Every small decision I make is subjected to tests for its sustainability which can become exhausting. My partner and I cry together often and feel tides of sadness overtake us. I struggle with my anger with people who seem not to be struggling the same way in spite of sharing the knowledge which further adds to my guilt and shame. However, the visits to the school of my Sheffield grandchildren by their love new Green MEP who they call Magic ( Majid Majid) have enabled fabulous conversations with them and their parents about how we live. Exceptional! Being aware of every green shoot of progress (there are lots) has been really helpful and focusing on nature in a practical way (gardening) helps as well. We live in the present as much as we can, and In these ways the bad days get balanced out.

  3. “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.”

    A big ‘Yes’ to your conclusions above Laurie and to the suggestion that sharing our dilemmas is helpful. However, firstly, whilst agreeing that we are in a climate crises, I don’t agree this is a planetary disaster. From the planet’s point of view, I see it as a re-balancing process, which might create challenging experiences for those who have lived out of balance with our God given natural planetary resources for too long. There have been 5 major extinctions before and the planet has re-developed the life that was lost. Whatever happens the planet will survive and re-balance itself with or without us, however long it takes. Secondly, I do find the ‘right/wrong’ language unhelpful in this discussion and would rather say something like :’Perhaps it is natural to be uncomfortable’ – also the term ‘behaving badly’ doesn’t sit well with me – after all, who is the judge – how about ‘behaving unawarely’?

    I’d also like to suggest that, in the name of waking this discussion up even further, we follow the increased mainstream use of the term ‘climate emergency’,or climate chaos’ or climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’, which doesn’t have quite such a challenging ring about it.

    I wonder if friends have come across the Deep Adaptation Forum, https://deepadaptation.ning.com/ – This is a space where those brave enough to face the very real possibility of near-term collapse, due to the climate catastrophe, despite all our sustainability and mitigation efforts, can connect, support one another, and share a comprehensive set of resources.

    “Only together might we extend the glide and soften the fall. If you are starting on integrating your awareness of likely near-term collapse into your personal, professional and political life, then this forum is for you.” Jem Bendell – Professor of Sustainability and Leadership, with 25 years experience in sustainable development

    Yes – as you say: “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.”

  4. As Quakers, we have many concerns and it isn’t always simple to separate them. What about using a car to deliver a load of spare bedding to a centre for the homeless? The bedding would otherwise have gone in the bin, and will now help someone who has finally got accommodation.
    Many of us are aware that we are enormously privileged. We live in complex societies that don’t make decision making simple.

  5. Hi Laurie. Thanks for your blog I came across as part of my research (linking Climate Crisis to Consciousness). Aside from Exceptionalism as an implicit denial of Climate Change, it too provides the relief valve to the dissonance from having to participate in carbon activities to live your life while making the Climate Crisis worse.

    I think Exceptionalism has another benefit. It allows us to distance ourselves from a deeper but uncomfortable truth: we see ourselves exceptional to the natural processes of life where chaos, unknown, and destruction do not discriminate.

    I believe the inspiration for this favored position is because we are compensating for the disbelief we arise through the web of life rather than come onto it (our images and perception affirms the latter).

    I would like to correspond with you if possible as I am working on a project that links Climate Crisis with (Spiritual) Consciousness so as to find synergy. My project partner and I are in the middle of creating a website (OneTinyDrop.org). I did see your 2009 and 2015 papers but wanted to correpond over your latest iteration of thoughts. I am Tao Centric with Buddhist leaning, while my partner is the latter.

    Thank you Laurie for keeping the flame burning.

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