Friday, 4 September 2015

Refugees, Climate Change and Prophetic Vision

Emma Thompson was interviewed by Emily Maitlis of the BBC's News Night a couple of days ago here The interview ranges over a number of topics - arctic oil, climate change, the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the relative merits of the Labour and Green parties. At one point, Thompson is pressed on her priorities by Maitlis - why is she campaigning against the oil companies' plans to drill for oil rather than throwing her weight behind campaigns to help the refugees? Her reply is that the two issues are directly connected. If the arctic drilling goes ahead, its effects will mean that the current refugee crisis 'will look like a tea party,' to use her words. If present global warming continues unabated, and oil extraction in the arctic is not stopped, Thompson says that the prediction is for world temperatures to rise to unsustainable levels by 2030. This will mean an explosion in the numbers of displaced people as large populations attempt to resettle in response to devastating climactic events.

I was impressed by Thompson's clarity in holding together the short and medium term prospects. We live 'on the edge' so to speak. We are rapidly approaching the point where transition from dependence on oil will be forced upon us. The sooner we start to take this seriously, the gentler the transition may be for our generation in the West. However,the reality is that it will not be a period of gradual evolution for many of the populations of the world. Global warming will lead to currently unimaginable levels of war, civil strife and displacement of peoples. 

There is an extra-ordinary passage in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus makes predictions about the destruction of the world order of His day. This material, which includes what is often referred to as 'the Abomination of Desolation', occurs in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21v.5ff. Jesus' thinking and words seem to blur the detail of His contemporary situation in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire with a much more far reaching vision of turmoil in the distant future. This is rich soil for theologians to pick over as they try to disentangle the specific events to which He may be referring. In a similar vein, a friend who had worked in central Africa was on a thirty day retreat at a convent in the UK at the time of the first massacres in Riwanda. She had no access to the news but suffered very disturbed visions of darkness and blood and rivers of people trying to escape some unidentifiable force. These visions, she felt, could not be entirely explained by her own knowledge of the local situation, though she knew of some of the pre-massarce social tensions.

There is something in Emma Thompson's interview that reminds me that intuition and imagination borne of long reflection and put alongside a thorough-going, detailed knowledge of particular situations produce what we might call 'prophetic vision'. It also convinces me that there is 'something in the air' about the changes ahead of us today. The immediate challenges to re-home refugees and establish a compassionate relationship between Europe and peoples fleeing the parts of the Middle East torn apart by violence may, in fact, be birth pangs of a more radically changing world order than we like to think. Hence the resistance in things both great and small. I'm pretty sure that those who heard Jesus' words squirmed at His bluntness and downplayed or ridiculed what they heard. Prophecy can sound out-of-step to the point of bizarreness but it also has that 'won't-go-away' edge and that odd mixture of detailed knowledge and universal relevance. However much we rail against voices that appear to overstate the case, the tectonic plates of our world order are shifting. The relationship between the so-called developed world with its over-powering economic structure and the previously less well resourced countries is changing; the relationship between world faiths and secularism is changing and, above all, the climate is changing more than almost any of us are ready to acknowledge.

Luke's version of the 'Abomination of Desolation' is preceded by a tiny vignette. The first 5 verses of Luke Chapter 21 give us one of the best-known the stories in the Gospels; the widow who gave her mite. She put a tiny offering of two copper coins into the Temple's Treasury. Jesus, ever one to observe the minute detail of a situation, says, 'I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, put in all the living that she had.' It is in response to being moved by the gift the poorest person brings that Jesus' discourse about world events arises. Refugees bring gifts. The poorest and most vulnerable people remind us that we are all vulnerable and connect us to one another and to the vast forces to which we are all susceptible. Jesus' sadness and contempt was for those who behaved as though they were safe, untouchable, secure. 

Emma Thompson on climate change and refugees - Newsnight

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Orthodox Insight

Time to Take Action for Refugees

I didn't vote for the government we have in the UK. Since the General Election, we have quickly seen all too sobering evidence of the direction in which they want to move the country. I cannot support their attitude to border control and I note the fact that legislation is making it easier for human trafficking to flourish. Some of the stories I hear about the changes in benefits and the effect of the 'bedroom tax' demonstrate a bureaucratic disregard for the reality of living with poverty and disability while trying to access work and contribute through volunteering. 

I'm grateful to a friend and fellow blogger, Tim Sorrell, for drawing my attention to the words of Herman Melville, a nineteenth century poet and novelist who was, himself, no stranger to poverty and bankruptcy. He wrote 'Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms of the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.' This accurately sums up my view of the approach taken by the current government to a number of groups of people in this country and beyond its borders. 

But Melville's cri de coeur also resonates with personal challenge.

The news in the last week of people losing their lives while attempting to find refuge in Europe has shocked and upset many of us. How can we make a meaningful response? One way is the political path. Germany has set its face to welcome 800,000 refugees and migrants this year and friends report seeing posters saying 'welcome to refugees' in places like sports stadiums and bus stations. Britain, by contrast, has grudgingly taken 220 of the 4.1 million Syrians who have fled their country since the start of the current crisis. We have given Syria financial aid and sent a ship to the Mediterranean but these are not adequate solutions to a growing refugee situation. Contact your MP and speak to your local councillors. Is your town/city one that welcomes asylum seekers and refugees? Find out about and share the stories of refugees in your own area. Good places to start are car parks ('Can I wash your car?'), refuge tips and laundrettes where it's often possible to get into conversation with people who have recently come to the UK or who are in contact with those who have. Churches and Mosques often have asylum seekers and refugees in their congregations. As we have seen in the reaction to stories in the press this week, there is power in real life stories to shake us up, shame us and motivate us to begin to turn the culture of suspicion and fear around.

Refugee Action here has comprehensive information about volunteering, campaigning, donating and fundraising and can put you in touch with what's happening in your local area. 

A charity that I think is inspirational is Musicians Without Borders. Their strap-line is 'War Divides, Music Connects'. Their work allows people of different cultures to come together and share on an equal footing the joy of music making. Music is really powerful because, for the duration of performance, it dissolves the preconceived power relationships and allows for a deep psychological meeting place. You can find out about their work and join in here

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Local Pound, Local Punch?

I notice that Exeter is the latest city to launch its own local currency here. Similar ventures have happened in Brixton, Lewes, Totnes, Stroud and Bristol among other places in the UK. This set me thinking about the purpose and feasibility of 'local money'.

Economics as practised globally are designed to attract money upwards; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Large corporate chains extract money and siphon it away from the community where it is spent. Sometimes there are small schemes to invest a tiny proportion back into the local community. I'm sure we can all think of the supermarkets that present us with a token so that we can choose which local charity to support. I'm not knocking this - it certainly makes you more aware of local charities - but it's a mere drop in the ocean.

A local currency is an intervention that can help reverse the trend. Used in conjunction with Time Banks (where the currency is hours), LETS (Local Exchange Trading Scemes) and Credit Unions, a local currency encourages investment into the community, into local jobs and businesses and into the skills of local people. As we all know, paying off the UK's debt (and I'm not making a party political point here) will continue to require reductions in centralised public spending and this, in turn, is going to require local communities to be more  resilient and self-reliant. So the time is right to consider the impact a local currency might have on your neighbourhood.

How does it work? Well, there are lots of different models world-wide and in the UK some of which have been in operation for over 20 years. Generally, a local currency operates alongside the national currency. It stimulates custom for local shops and businesses, encouraging them, in turn, to use local suppliers. This raises the acquisition of gardening, agricultural and small scale manufacturing skills among the local community and improves the range and profile of the local job market. It encourages life-styles that combine national and global work with local activity. Besides setting up a local currency, communities often make it possible to invest in local share schemes, to contribute renewably-sourced energy into locally owned energy schemes and to borrow from community controlled Credit Unions. All money systems are meaningless without trust; local schemes enable the building of a deep level of trust and understanding between individuals and businesses serving the same area with its common needs. Often the result is a flowering of co-operation and creativity in terms of local projects. One business's waste may be a valuable resource for another, one business's skill requirements may overlap with another's and so on.

The aim is not to abandon global currencies but to move gradually toward a healthier and more sustainable relationship between global, national and local control of economic organisation.  What is sought is to create a diverse system of alternative currencies and financial institutions that are able to function robustly alongside the current energy intensive, globalised, corporate systems that dominate our vision of the economically possible. Over time this will lead to more human-scale, locally appropriate solutions to the challenge of providing and distributing essential resources. Local communities will have more influence in deciding what goods and skills they need and there will be a reduction in the transportation of goods. Low carbon solutions to energy demand can be sourced and one big result is what has been called 'the mindful use of money' where cause and effect are more locally controlled and there is a corresponding focus on local priority and need.

Naive and unrealistic or the only way to survive global warming and the peak oil crisis? To find out more, an interesting read is Peter North's Local Money: How to Make It Happen In Your Communitypublished by Transition Books, 2010. As well as looking at the philosophy and history behind local money, he examines in detail some of the schemes in operation and outlines the kinds of context in which local currencies have emerged and flourished through a process of committed learning-on-job.