Friday, April 16, 2010



Compromised and incomplete it may be, but working to reduce our carbon footprint to sustainable is one way of starting to live a more subsistent life style. Without government or UN encouragement, Geeta and I have worked for close to a decade to reduce our footprint. We're halfway there, now reduced from four times the world average to double. Twice we signed a pledge card from NC Interfaith Power and Light to reduce my footprint by 10% within a year. We fulfilled it each time (cutting out flying, installing photovoltaics for 85% of our electric needs). We preceded these pledges by getting rid of our second car. But after these three big shifts, we've hit a wall.

After a year's hiatus, I have started flying again. Was I going to refuse the invitation to have my expenses paid to go lobby my senators and representative in DC on climate legislation? And because we didn't work it out for my mother to come live with us, I now drive 4500 more miles a year to visit her continuing care facility in Pittsburgh. George, I'm actually going the other way, and there's no cap on carbon to stop me, only the still small voice. What about the voice of family and friendship, as well as the pure pleasure of going South for the winter? Wendell Berry has this fine idea of taking family vacations in your own bioregion. I feel very fortunate to inhabit the Southern Appalachian Highlands, and parts of them remain unexplored for me. But what if your son and his wife, your sister and nephews now live permanently on the West Coast? George, I dont' know how all this goes for you and your children, but “love miles” (Monbiot) really pull me. Hard. As for Christianity's inaccessible ideals, do you recall Jesus' admonition to cut all ties with family? How many of us are prepared to do that?

George, you ask us to change. However, accepting that human beings are flawed, greedy, undisciplined, self-interested, I've worked to get the government to insure change by passing climate legislation. Not just any legislation, but damned good legislation, because I know we will do whatever we can to game the system – not just the corporate giants and Bernie Madoff , but all of us. Create limits for us all, including progressives with willing ideologies, but weak spirits and flesh. My friend, you ask us to dig down and live our Quaker values. That's splendid George, but I want the government to insure that if I fail, if my community fails, we're still covered. Maybe I want them to do the dirty work. Unfortunately, our leaders and representatives are just as fundamentally flawed as I am, and under far more pressure to deny or ignore what's facing us.

Students of human nature, now advisors in the White House schooled in behavioral economics, say we change by increments, when we understand that the changed behavior brings us something we really want. Carbon footprinting involves calibrating our behavioral changes, rewarding incremental change with “good” scores. Legislation to cap carbon emissions would also involve calibration, keeping score. The assumption behind this is that we won't do what's difficult, no matter how principled we are. Race relations are far from ideal, but the Civil Rights Act created a legal baseline to support ongoing change in folks' behavior. Wouldn't strong, enforcable climate legislation perform the same role?

But George, you speak the language of the heart, which says, surrender. To repeat your words: “My belief is that if we feel the consequences of our actions deeply enough, we will radically change our lives.” Or as Arne Naess put it, “We won't save what we don't love.” Perhaps measurement is something love will never do.

George, I know I can do better, which would involve both pain and creativity. But when I've done all I can, I'm still going to come up short. We are complex creatures of multiple motivations. Greed and comfort are built into a system in the US where even a street person has a greater footprint than the world average. Reason says that changing the world one community at a time when the Titanic is already headed towards a huge iceberg dead ahead is not going to be sufficient. But those who have surrendered, who have undergone transformation because they so loved this world, are an inspiration to the rest of us, as long as we stay with them and remain aware, rather than turning away in denial and fear. Ultimately our life is about metanoia, radical transformation, and dedicating ourselves to this even in the face of certain cataclysm is ennobling.

Meanwhile in future exchanges, I trust you can give some concrete examples of how your community is starting to transform according to our Quaker values. Thank you for the occasion to really dig into this challenge.

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My response to George Owen:

I have previously written about the excruciating challenge of living Quaker values on this blog, when I reluctantly embraced nuclear power (see April 13) as the lesser of evils (vs. coal) for maintaining the grid to preserve “civil society.” My chief point was that those who railed against nukes without examining their own complicity in modernism and globalism were hypocrites. We live in a world deeply, perhaps fatally, compromised by our industrial choices.

When I go back and read my arguments about the (relative) morality of nuclear power, I am uncomfortable, though I thoroughly endorse my statement about simplicity: “I have no response other than shame to the challenge around simplicity, which does not exclude me even though I built a passive solar house from salvaged and local material, and now have added photovoltaic panels. So much that we take for granted in modern life is anything but simple, both materially and spiritually.” The assumption in all of this is that I dont' believe our society can extricate itself from modernity, entailing using resources far beyond their availability, until suddenly forced to by economic and ecosystem collapse. I don't say this cynically, simply realistically.

What George calls us to, though, is not economic or political realism, but a Quaker version of the purity of values which we like to think the early Christians lived. I recall a critique of Christianity which said that it was an unrealistic religion, virtually impossible to live up to. Obviously the critic was not speaking of mainstream Christianity, which has been captive since Constantine to empire, and is virtually a state religion as practiced by the religious right in this country. Rather, he was talking about the spiritual values taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

“Realistic” folks say we can't just drop our way of life; and we certainly can't go back to a previous level of existence. But realism is not going to be suffcient in these desperate times. Realism is what guides Barack Obama, or any politician, in working to get what is achievable over what is “right” or required by the facts. The fact is that nature does not compromise, and we have so far compromised the earth that she (Gaia) holds all the cards now. On the other hand, I know that two billion people on this planet, close to a third of humanity, are living a subsistent lifestyle, and a sustainable one. It does not require “going back” to an unrecoverable past to live like them.

With care, love, and sacrifice that is less painful because undertaken communally, we could do the same, though our lives would be vastly different, in ways that few are willing to contemplate. Yes, as I argued in my February post, we would end up living a lot more like our great-grandparents, and with a few carefully-chosen exceptions (like an internet decentrally powered, but with global reach), we would need to let go of the myth of progress.

Christianity seems to be impossible to embody when we respond from our individual flawed natures. But early Christians succeeded in living their values because they undertook the task of becoming a “peculiar people” communally. This was also true of early Quakers. When someone traveled in the ministry, often entailing great risk, they traveled in pairs, with an elder. The family left behind was supported in every way necessary by the greater Meeting family.

Fortunately, we live on a land-trust, Celo Community, which includes a thriving, caring Meeting. We have lifetime leases on personal housing and manage the 1100 acres and a few common structures through a consensus process. But though there are many common enterprises, we do not live communally, nor share incomes. We participate in a robust, but small community garden (4 families). In Celo Community, with a large percentage of Friends, we at least have a basis for the kind of transformation George calls us to.

But there are huge challenges. Anticipating a need for distributed energy, Geeta and I sought others to buy into a small photovoltaic facility on community common land to supplement our rural electric cooperative. We ran into many challenges about the business model, especially what to do when a shareholder left, and reverted to installing the panels on our own house. I agree with George that local communities need to be as self-reliant and resilient as possible, but who's going to pay for the distributed generating systems, and housing (if centralized) for the elderly, to give two examples?

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