Wednesday, 18 September 2019

A Climate of Conversion

The South East England Faith Forum meeting at the University on Monday was about religious responses to the challenge of climate change. It was all polite enough as a Catholic Christian, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a humanist and a Muslim described their own faith positions’ approaches to the issue, and relatively chirpily outlined initiatives such as EcoSikhs and Green Islam. An elderly rabbi who is on the steering group of Extinction Rebellion changed the tone by asking us to examine our feelings about the prospect of the great changes pending for human society, and he was followed by Dr Justine Huxley, director of the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London, who really led the hall down a dark path. The Centre was studying ‘how we operate within a landscape of approaching social and economic collapse’ and ‘mapping out the journey between “There are no courgettes in the shops” and mass starvation’. Thinking about the spiritual aspects of coming to terms with climate emergency, she drew a parallel with her father’s death from cancer and the way the clarity of his situation changed his whole life for his last couple of years: ‘humanity has had a global cancer diagnosis … Through this breakdown we will come to know our dependence on each other and God, but we don’t get there unless we go through the darkness.’ I was quite favourably impressed that another group of Christians was at least tackling the apocalyptic implications – using the word theologically – of what seems to be happening. At least it’s not just me.

At the XR meeting the other evening, and again on Monday, I was struck by the parallels between the emotional journey climate activists want people to go on (and to an extent which I have travelled too) and a very traditional Christian evangelistic technique – bringing an audience to a place of despair and then offering a way out. This is very explicit: I’ve now heard a whole variety of speakers describing precisely the same transition from grief and anguish to determination and engagement, activism as an antidote to hopelessness. I do question the notion of campaigning as therapy – if it only affects how you feel rather than what’s likely to happen, you may as well take up stamp collecting as a response to Armageddon, so I suspect the people who say that don’t really mean it.

Rabbi Newman and Justine Huxley both cited – independently of each other, because the speakers on Monday hadn’t vetted each others’ contributions first – Professor Jem Bendell’s 2018 paper Deep Adaptation, which predicts the collapse of Western civilisation in as little as ten years' time. Dr Huxley described how she’d taken a group of her staff on retreat into a wood to read it and talk about it together, and had gone through tears and terror before reaching a sense of resolution – exactly the process others are describing. Now she’s concentrating on helping groups take the same journey, she said.

Amazingly I'd never heard before of Dr Bendell's paper, 'the article that drives people into therapy' as it was reported. It’s a sort of confessional narrative, explaining how he took a sabbatical from his chair in Sustainability at the University of Cumbria to read up on the scientific literature around climate change and found himself horrified, and outlining the stages of his grief. I gather its tone, at least, is not universally supported among climate science specialists: Michael Mann, the geophysicist who developed the famous 'hockey-stick' graph illustrating the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, succinctly summarises it as 'crap'. Dr Bendell’s response seems to be to characterise his critics as, for different reasons, 'social collapse deniers' in the same way those who support the climate change consensus term their now-tiny but sadly influential number of opponents. But thinking merely about the scientific element, Deep Adaptation is very open to criticism: it is citation-light in a way that, for instance, the Breakthrough centre's 2018 paper on the risks of extreme climate change, which I did read, isn't. It's really a work of rhetoric, not science. If XR and St Ethelburga's have imbibed their sense of terror and crisis from Deep Adaptation, and I and many others are picking it up from them, might the basis on which we are being plunged into existential anxiety be questionable?

I am no scientist, and therein lies the difficulty. The science of climate change isn't the kind of science which counts molecules and observes what happens when you burn a bit of magnesium in a Bunsen flame. It's about estimating how immensely complex processes will interact over time: an exercise in relative probabilities. I'm an historian by training; Dr Bendell is a sociologist; Dr Huxley, a psychologist. The truth is that we, like most people, have nothing like the necessary scientific grounding to be able to assess the validity of one research paper or another. I could sit Googling reports from Nature until I was blue in the face and it wouldn't turn me into a climate scientist: I did actually skim the 2018 IPCC report and could barely make anything of it apart from the summary. It's a different language and we don't have the apparatus to begin understanding it: so we rely on others to interpret it for us. Even within the scientific community the subdisciplinary knowledge required is daunting. Take one small example: the doomsday climate scenario relies to some extent on the generation of runaway heating as a result of natural processes achieving an escape velocity beyond which nothing human beings do will affect them. One of these might be the release of methane, currently trapped in deep permafrost, as that ice reserve melts, thus accelerating the heating. That was a theme reported several years ago, Jem Bendell talks about it, and the XR meeting I went to last week mentioned it. But I gather that the latest thinking (over the last couple of years) is that this 'feedback loop' is virtually impossible for various complex reasons. To grasp what they are, and to keep up with changing opinion, you have to be not just a scientist, not just a climatologist, but a specialist in that particular field. The rest of us just blink.

The same is true when we turn to what should be the more concrete matter of what human beings have actually managed to do to mitigate the crisis so far. For many climate activists, this amounts to 'nothing', and you can see why they say this. Despite decades of supportive words from governments and international conferences, global carbon emissions are still rising, forests are still being felled, pesticides are still killing off the very insects that keep the ecosystem going. European governments obscure the facts with statistical flannel, Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro rubbish the whole thing. On the other hand some point out that the Indian economy (covering a significant chunk of the earth’s population) is already compliant with a 2o rise in temperature and set to reduce that further, while China is likely to achieve its goal of peak emissions by 2030, and so on with more encouraging statistics. Neither side of the balance is untrue, and most of us don’t have the time or knowledge to be able to critique each position effectively. Which we might pick is, dare I say, a matter of faith, or of predilection. As a moderately conservative Christian I am predisposed to spot apocalypses, and if, like Jem Bendell, you're a leftish academic who's spent your entire career arguing that capitalism is about to implode, you are also liable to leap on a scientifically-underpinned narrative that seems to offer more justifying evidence than the elevated guesswork you usually deal in. On a human level, you might have to ‘go through the darkness’ on the way, but what you win is validation.

So as a slightly bitter entertainment en route, I can't help but see the religious instinct poking through the surface of the secular and the scientific. See what’s happening. For some, it’s not enough to accept that anthropogenic climate change will cause great social disruption and that it would be a good thing to mitigate it as best we can. It isn’t even enough to accept that there is a chance, maybe a substantial one, that such disruption would be civilisation-breaking and perhaps even threaten human survival. Believers now insist that this is not just a possibility but an inevitability, and outline a process of conversion by which people can accept the truth. Religious movements, too, tend to express their truth in a progressively more extreme fashion to raise the emotional stakes and generate commitment. ‘You’ve got the facts but you’re not feeling the truth, you’re not internalising it’, XR founder Roger Hallam told a BBC interviewer a few weeks ago. It’s a statement of the same sort as ‘you haven’t really repented’ or ‘you don’t really have a living relationship with the Lord Jesus as your personal saviour’. The way Dr Huxley and others have found their own engagement with climate science being shaped by what Jem Bendell underwent exactly parallels how conversion works in evangelical Christianity. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or irrational, but it does make it something other than straightforward.

So this one specialist in nothing attempts to weigh up all the conflicting claims and concludes that the direction of travel is certain: what's debatable is how far we've gone, how far we have yet to go, how fast we’re moving, and how feasible it is to turn aside from that trajectory. This would in itself justify facing at least the possibility that our diagnosis might turn out to be terminal. I recognise the developing pattern – shaped by a religious impulse based around one emotional response to one interpretation of a set of data – too well to swallow it whole. But perhaps it’s the thing people need to open up their thinking; which is what conversion is.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Hesitation, Repetition & Deviation

I led the usual Taketime meditation time on Sunday evening. People listened, shared their thoughts and impressions, and appreciated the quiet. We remarked on the contrast between the descriptions of tumultuous gathering around Jesus and quiet withdrawal in the narrative, and how this linked to our own lives. I congratulated myself, very mildly, on a job well done, especially as I was coming down with my first cold in a year and didn't feel at all well.

Former Lay Reader Lillian was the last to leave. 'Has anyone told you? Obviously not. That was the same meditation as I used last time. It didn't seem to make any difference. Thank you anyway. Good night.'

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Just Don't Go There

About thirteen years ago I walked through a gap in a hedge beside a fairly busy B-road and along a track at the edge of a field that led to a wood, where, to my surprise, I found one of the most spectacular holy wells (using the term loosely) that I've ever seen. A great Gothic archway set into a bank led to a inner chamber where a gargoyle's head spouted water into a basin. It wasn't in very good condition and looked for all the world as though nobody had set eyes on it in years. I'd certainly never seen a picture of it, though I'd read its name a long time before: it appeared on the map simply marked as 'spring'. In fact, while the well had had a healing reputation recorded in the 18th century, the site as it now appears is a Victorian folly and quite possibly the grandest thing of its kind in the UK, rivalled only, perhaps, by St Bernard's Well beside the Water of Leith in Edinburgh

I was so astonished that no record of this site had ever appeared, anywhere, apart from those brief antiquarian mentions, that I popped it on my website. I was aware that technically I shouldn't have been there and felt a bit uncomfortable about this, so I was always very reticent about where the well actually was. I only returned once, a few months after my initial discovery, to show Dr Bones whose clergyman father also had a habit of ending up where he had no legal business being in pursuit of some interesting or unusual feature of the landscape. I didn't know who might own the site though I guessed it might be the farm a little distance off, and decided that if I ever went back it should be more legitimately. A couple of times I called at the farm gate; I phoned; I think I even wrote a letter. I was never able to contact anyone, and in the end let it go. Some years later I noticed that the gap in the hedge had been filled in, and coupled with some new business ventures beginning around the farm I concluded it might have new owners who were a bit more active than the old.

Nevertheless that slight sense of discomfort didn't quite go away, and was justified when I got an email this week from the farm - the farm business, not from an individual - pointing out that I had been trespassing, that my photographs had been taken illegally and requesting I remove any reference to the well as it had suffered unwelcome attention from vandals. They were clearly quite annoyed. I got the sense that I might not have been the only person they'd contacted, and sure enough other online references to the well have disappeared too, a local history website now pointing out that the site is private and inaccessible. I do take the line that the kind of property rights involved in the ownership of land for production (of whatever) is different from that implicated in property for personal use, and though I have sometimes found myself in places where I am not technically entitled to be I have always prepared my defence of a) doing no harm and b) delusion. But it was a fair cop really. I wrote to apologise and the email I received in acknowledgement was much friendlier.

I first became captivated by hidden and historical places of interest in the landscape when they really were that. You only found out about them by accident, from stray references on maps and things like books. I realise now that I still inwardly inhabit that period, not taking account enough of the fact that now, after decades of attention by similar souls, all this information is everywhere, all the time, part of the wonder and the woe of the internet. It was a different world back then.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Levels of Concern

Although Extinction Rebellion gets stick from some commentators for its supposedly narrow rent-an-activist base, the crowd at the  meeting yesterday was moderately diverse for Surrey, at least in terms of age and race which are the most obvious characteristics. They seemed to be exactly what the group says its supporters are, an agglomeration of concerned citizens of various types most of whom have never been involved in politics of any sort before, let alone anything that contemplates illegality.

The talk was the standard one XR delivers, and delivers again and again, laying out the science of climate change in an accessible way (and pretty much exactly as I've done in a leaflet about the spirituality of climate change for this coming 'Creationtide', which I did because nobody else seems to have done), and introducing its politics and approach. We finished with a call to 'go out from here and get involved'. 'And stop eating meat!' a woman called out to the support of a flurry of voices and applause. One of the spiritual aspects of the climate emergency that occurred to me is the everlasting tendency of human beings to excuse their own vices and condemn those of others: I've regularly come across misanthropy dressed up as environmental concern, for instance, and it's always a misanthropy addressed towards other people, not oneself. How could it not be? It's not what motivates me: I have a great fondness for human beings and think it would be a shame if we ended here, just as we were beginning to get somewhere as a species.

XR's commitment to non-violence is absolutely right and morally impressive, but discussions around this always miss out the way the standard examples of change driven by non-violent direct action took place within a context of violence. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both able to point out that if the authorities they confronted did not heed their demands, others would adopt more extreme measures, and in fact in both those cases some did. At the meeting the example of the Suffragettes was raised more than once, the speakers perhaps unaware of the campaign for women's suffrage's resort to bombs and arson, acts which, while certainly not intending to hurt anyone, couldn't be guaranteed not to. But you might argue that the violence threatened if XR is not listened to is the harm which the planet will inflict on us.

Another commonly repeated theme in XR's thinking is the vanguard model of social change, that it takes, roughly, 3 1/2% of a population to effect a shift in its attitudes. I hope that's true. Today I went walking to the north of Guildford and the sheer quantity of rubbish in the verges of a quiet country road struck me more forcibly than ever. What does someone who chucks a plastic bottle out of the window of a car think is going to happen to it? There is here, surely, both an insensitivity to aesthetic ugliness combined with an unconcern with anything which isn't immediately around you, a sort of lacuna in imagination. I wonder whether anyone has ever studied it.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Children Small and Large

If this year's assemblies at the Infants School include nothing more humiliating than the first one I shall be delighted. Talking about learning new things, I described my attempts to torment the piano I look after, and then despite having practised it perfectly at home, at church, and in fact on the piano in the school hall scant moments before, I positively wrecked a simple setting of Brahms's 'Cradle Song', much to the amusement of the assembled six and seven-year-olds. That was just the prelude (ho-ho) to recounting the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax-collector, someone who also found himself doing something new. Now, to tell that story with any depth you simply have no option but to outline the tax system of the Roman Empire, even with small children. 'Buildings and roads had to be repaired, and the Emperor needed a big palace to live in -at least, he thought he did'. People having money taken off them to pay for the Emperor's palace is a pretty easy concept for anyone to grasp. 'I like the stories you tell us,' said Carey on the way out of the hall, oblivious perhaps to the undertones of anarcho-syndicalism but another little glimpse into the spontaneous affection little souls have for their parish priest.

In the church porch later on I met three rather older children, part of one of the various groups who have been orbiting around causing problems. I was able to have something approaching a reasonable conversation with them (there being only three of them helped). 'I saw you on your bike!' said Evie gleefully, 'You were outside the café!' Despite being nine or ten years older, she sounded exactly like the children from the infants school do, just the same sort of surprise that I should exist out of one context. That's a successful bit of interaction, I thought. Good work.

Later I came by and found they, or someone they knew, had smashed a candle, scorched the door with a lighter, and had a spitting competition up the windows of the porch. 

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Disorder and the Public

The occasions on which more than 200 people fit into Swanvale Halt church are not usually liturgical ones. With the exception of the Crib Service and the Infants School Christmas Production (liturgical only in the very broadest sense of the word) they tend to be concerts; or, as it turned out on Friday night, a public meeting about antisocial behaviour in the area. The Mayor of Hornington, one of our congregation, having called the meeting, sat up front with a variety of councillors, officials, and police, laying out the context, receiving comments from the floor, and answering questions. 

A lot of people were very hurt, angry and upset, but thankfully the keyboard warriors who demand that various teenagers be strung up from lampposts around the village did not make their presence felt. Instead while there was clear and unmistakable frustration at the sense that an entire community is being held to ransom by what amounts to about ten naughty teenagers about whom nobody seems able to do anything, there was much sympathy for the anguished parents of some of those young people and a recognition that action has to be slow and multifaceted, rather than there being a single, clear course to take. Quite a lot of people volunteered to assist the local church-supported youth work charity and some of the outreach schemes the police are thinking about, and the Borough Commander appealed for residents to communicate the information they had rather than just keep it to themselves and fume. After all, not reporting on the grounds that 'the police won't do anything' is a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one. 

This is not the first episode of disruption I've seen in ten years here, nor the first one I've told you about on this blog. I'm convinced much of it is cyclical and dies away come the dark nights and cold weather; not that we should be complacent, as although vandalism and abusive talk are low-level evil, evil is what they are and they can be the seeds of worse things. I do question my own resolution at dealing with it. I think I suffer from exactly the same sort of moral uncertainty and paralysis as everyone else, even when we tell ourselves we don't. 

I cycled down the hill the following evening at 11 to see whether there was anything going on. There was no one about at all, and the worst evidence of disruption I found in the churchyard was a crisp packet. Defending community values could be deferred to another night.

Friday, 6 September 2019

St Martin's Blackheath

Not far away from Swanvale Halt and up a steep hill from Wonersh lies the village of Blackheath with its small and highly unusual church of St Martin. Blackheath was originally part of Wonersh parish and became separate only after Sir William Robert-Austin, Deputy Master of the Royal Mint and Lay Reader at Wonersh, paid for it to be built in the 1890s. The church was designed by Charles H. Townsend, the architect of the Horniman Museum and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and while it's not as striking in pure architectural terms as those remarkable buildings, it certainly cuts a dash in the Surrey hills, looking for all the world like an Italian wayside chapel. It was decorated with frescos showing episodes from the life of Christ and an image of St Martin, and later on lined with alabaster as a memorial to the man who founded it. The great gold chancel screen only increases the impression of foreign-ness, but not in the baroque style of Anglo-Papalist taste.

As you can see the Sacrament is still reserved at St Martin's and although it is now once again part of Wonersh Parish, which has a broadly evangelical stance, its style remains distinct. Long may it be so!