Do you? Are you worried about air pollution in our cities causing premature deaths among children and the elderly? Are you concerned about the rising tide of plastics filling the seas? Concerned enough to get your own reusable drink containers? Have you watched in horror as tropical storms have devastated the Caribbean while floods have driven millions from their homes in Asia and drought has brought further millions to the brink of starvation in East Africa?
Something needs to be done! But whose responsibility is it? Is it the job of environmentalists and ecologists? Will governments act? Or businesses? Or is it down to individuals? What about the church? Do Christians and the church have a duty to act, or is the environment beyond the responsibility of an organisation whose primary purpose is the glory of God and the care of souls?
The exhortation to look after God’s creation has been with us since the beginning of humanity. The way the heavens and the earth display the glory of God is woven throughout the Bible. Our responsibility to ensure we manage our resources so there is enough for everyone is shouted in the voices of the prophets. And the Biblical principles of Sabbath and Jubilee demonstrate how we should live in harmony with the earth and its seasons, not exploiting it for every last grain or drop.
When we care for our world, we care for its people too. Or, conversely, if we want to serve our communities, we must also be concerned about the environment in which they live. And that includes our sisters and brothers in the poorest communities in the world, bearing the brunt of the dramatically changing climate caused by the carbon emissions of the rich.
So, now that I’ve convinced you that action to tackle climate change and take care of the planet is part of the church’s mission to love God and all his people, what are we going to do about it?
I spent last Saturday at A’Rocha’s Northern Eco Church conference, with a bunch of other people with a desire to green the church. A’Rocha is a Christian conservation charity at heart, and out of this passion it has devised a toolkit to help churches do what they can to become more involved with care for the environment. The Eco Church scheme provides a structure to help churches act and the award recognises and celebrates what has been achieved.
The award covers five areas. Worship and Teaching encourages churches to include climate and environmental themes in its songs, prayers and sermons across all ages and groups. Management of buildings covers issues of heating, lighting, renewable energy, insulation and energy efficiency. Management of land considers how churchyards are managed for the benefit of wildlife and the people in the surrounding area. Churchyards are now the last remaining homes of some of our most endangered indigenous species. Global and community engagement gets churches involved with wider environmental issues on a national and global scale and encourages them to engage with the holders of power who can make a difference. And the final section, lifestyle, challenges us all to consider our own carbon footprint, what we eat, how we travel, what we buy, so that the whole congregation can act to transform our world.
In the Sheffield area, 6 churches are registered to become eco churches. Christ Church Stocksbridge and St Leonard’s Dinnington are on their way. Bannercross Methodists and Dronfield Baptists have a bronze award, and Holy Trinity Thorpe Hesley and Saint Andrew’s Psalter Lane are silver award holders. On Saturday I met people from St Luke’s Lodge Moor, St Thomas Crookes, St Thomas Philadelphia, Crowded House church and the Cathedral. Along with my church (All Saints Ecclesall) I wonder which one will be next. Perhaps it will be yours?
This tweet today from Christian Aid has gladdened my heart. It looks like there is finally some action to change the Lobbying Act, which effectively silences charities from ‘political’ campaigning in the 12 months before a general election, while doing nothing to stop the crushing influence of money and big business on government. I know, it’s odd what makes me happy!
More than 100 charities have signed a letter to civil society minister Tracey Crouch, calling for the Lobbying Act (known as the gagging law) to be overhauled. They call it a “confusing and burdensome” piece of legislation that “weakens democracy, rather than strengthens it” because those representing the marginalised and vulnerable have been “silenced”.
I’ve been on the receiving end of the confusion. In the run-up to the election in June, Christian Aid picked its way through the act and ended up advising members of staff that even their person social media accounts shouldn’t endorse a political party if it could be construed as speaking for Christian Aid. I looked at my Facebook page. It was also the run up to Christian Aid Week and the only posts there were about Christian Aid or the Labour party. For the sake of a fine, I had to choose. So, for the duration of the election I chose politics, feeling, rightly or wrongly, that whoever was in government would have more impact than me on the lives of the poorest wherever in the world they might be. But I was left unable to talk about or promote the fundraising I was doing for Christian Aid Week on my personal threads. I’ve only got a reach of 400 on Facebook, so I’m not making that much impact, but multiply that across all my colleagues in any charity who use social media and suddenly the impact is significant.
So the act is messy. But why should charities meddle in politics, rather than getting on with their core business of helping people? Actually, I believe that their core business of helping people is a political act, because it says that people are worth more than the system or situation that has left them in need. But above and beyond that, charities allow the voices of the marginalised and vulnerable to be heard. They have a unique perspective of how policies have an impact on those they are trying to help.
I’ve just spent the weekend at Greenbelt with Christian Aid. While we’ve been there, we’ve been talking about climate change. Actually, it turns out that the rest of the world was also talking about climate change, or trying not to talk about climate change. I didn’t really pick up the news about the flooding in Houston, Texas until I got home. But unprecedented catastrophic weather is a feature of the new world we are creating by pumping carbon into the atmosphere.
At Christian Aid we talk about climate change because droughts, floods and typhoons devastate lives and livelihoods. The work we do to help the poorest communities build their own routes out of poverty is stymied by the changes in the climate caused by the richest countries in the world. Those with the least responsibility for the change feel its impact the hardest and have the fewest resources to cope. If we are going to be true to our ambition to end poverty, then we also have to tackle climate change.
This weekend we’ve been focused on financial institutions especially banks. But we also include government policy and spending in our campaigning. We’ve campaigned to ask the Government to stop burning coal to generate electricity. We want better plans outlining how we are going to reach UK carbon reductions targets. We’d like to see investment in renewable energy technology. All of these asks are political. Each political party approaches them differently, and some not at all. But the Lobbying Act closes down discussion of each party’s offering, leaving Christian Aid to rely on general statements without serious discussion of the issues at stake.
It is not enough for charities to provide whatever services, help or development that are within their remit if they cannot also work to change what causes the problem in the first place. There will be no end to poverty unless the underlying structural causes of poverty are changed.
Here’s an example. We have great debates while we are at Greenbelt, late at night sitting outside our tents. This year we had one about tax credits – complex, unwieldy, but are they really good or bad? Yes, they redistribute money back to those who need it most, putting money in the pockets of the poor. Yet at what cost? The system has become more complex so that work makes you better off, but this leaves people confused, struggling to access what they are owed, and afraid of making mistakes and ending up with large sums to repay. But it has also failed to address the underlying injustice of poverty wages. People have more money, so wages do not have to increase. Tesco can turn a tidy profit and still pay workers a pittance because they are topped up by tax credits and so people can get by. And thus, the tax payer funds Tesco’s profit. I should say, Tesco are not the only culprit, just an obvious one.
Systemic, structural, political changes are necessary to solve ‘bigger than self’ problems like poverty and climate change. It is not rational that charities are not able to speak out about the conditions that create the situations that they are working to relieve. Shelter should be able to campaign for better housing policy and speak out when current policy is unjust. Food banks can see why people are going hungry and need emergency food and need to be able to call out the ideology that puts people in poverty. If we cannot do this, we collude with the causes of injustice and become part of the system that causes the poverty in the first place.
The space available for civil society to act is being squeezed. Dissent is part of democracy, to curtail it is to curtail our freedom. Yet that is what is happening. Public spaces are being privatised, the right to strike is being made more difficult, and in some professions removed altogether, registering to vote has become more complicated. The Lobbying Act is just another way for power to silence its critics, and it’s high time we broke that silence.
I did some teaching for trainee Lay Readers in Sheffield Diocese recently, about discipleship and our care for the environment. The Assistant Principal, Bill Goodman, wondered if I’d read Naomi Klein’s book. Well, to be honest, I’d based most of my talk on her book! I’d thoroughly recommend it, and to help persuade you to read it, here is his book review.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (London: Penguin, 2014)
Naomi Klein is not for the faint hearted: an uncompromising thinker and activist, a compelling communicator. She is clear that we are now in the final decade of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change. She sees much of our current environmental crisis as driven by the rapacious demands of unregulated capitalism – while being equally scathing about the destructive effects of some centralised socialist regimes. The key problem she attacks is what she terms ‘extractivism’ – a desire to extract resources endlessly from a finite planet, while also disregarding their polluting outcomes.
The book is in three major parts. The first section, ‘Bad Timing’, considers how our current climate crisis has developed since the industrial revolution, and how it has accelerated in recent years, fuelled by free-market fundamentalism. She sees an urgent need to rebuild the public sphere (health care, affordable homes, flood defences, public transport), with those who cause pollution – particularly fossil fuel companies and users – paying their fair share of the cost. I found much of this section familiar, but brought to life by her gift for researching and recounting true stories from today’s world which bring the issues vividly to life.
Her second section, ‘Magical Thinking’, critiques some recent proposals for solutions to the climate change crisis: miraculous scientific interventions (such as seeding our atmosphere with sulphates to dim the sun), philanthropic billionaire ‘messiahs’ (such as Richard Branson), and market-based ‘green business’ solutions. She is scathing about all these options, particularly the way some environmental groups have been co-opted and neutralised by the big-business groups they are seeking to work with.
The final section, ‘Starting Anyway’, looks for effective responses to the crisis. One is to invest our savings and pension funds not in oil and coal, but in firms that positively promote the transition away from carbon to renewable energy – so her antipathy towards our current model of capitalism is not total: she can work within the system to some extent. In addition, she champions the direct action of ‘blockadia’ – passive resistance to fossil fuel extraction and other polluting industries, particularly by the local communities most affected. These need to move beyond ‘NIMBY’ism to a wider perspective: ‘Not In My Back Yard – Nor In Anyone Else’s’. Her inspiring stories often focus on indigenous groups disputing land claims with mining companies in USA and her native Canada (also Nigeria and Ecuador); these stories have less immediate resonance in our corner of the world, although they might inspire us to support the groups described and to think about action in our own context.
For Klein, solutions need to be both top-down and bottom-up. She is convinced that only significant intervention and regulation by governments (of the kind seen in the USA in the 1960s and 70s) can turn the tide, with a kind of Marshall Plan for the planet. But where is the political will to be found? It needs to come from ordinary people, leadership bubbling up from below, with social media helping spread its reach. She draws inspiration and hope from grassroots groups and people movements, often arising from particular crises (such as the Occupy movement after the 2008 financial crash); mass movements are needed now, demanding radical action and initiating it at local levels. I find myself wondering whether this will be enough; I hope so – what is the alternative? She sees one striking example of how this was achieved in the past, in the historic movement to abolish slavery. Despite mockery, outrage and fierce resistance from the powerful, a key foundation of the global economic order – slavery – was eventually abolished (although sadly, with significant compensation paid to the slave owners).
Klein expresses no overt faith stance; but a number of her concerns resonate with mine as a Christian. When so many politicians today resort to self-serving pragmatism as the only way to motivate us, Klein’s moral conviction and passion for social justice is a refreshing change – she sees it as morally self-evident that we need to reduce the glaring inequalities that marginalise many and disfigure our world. The world’s poorest people are those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The urgency of this task for our day which she conveys reminds me of the Kairos Document’s challenge to apartheid at a pivotal moment in South Africa. For Naomi Klein, the climate change crisis is an opportunity to transform and reinvent our cultural values, and so our world; to embrace a worldview of ‘interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy’ (p.462). An inspiring vision, and a tall order to achieve. For me, that will take grace, courage and perseverance which we need God to nurture within us and draw out of us.
Here is a very simple, very quick, discourse analysis on the Labour and Conservative manifestos, with regards to their position on the environment and climate change. It is not in depth, because contrary to appearance, I do have a life and I don’t have time to do more!
Basically I searched for the word ‘environment’ and the phrase ‘climate change’ in each manifesto. This is a pretty crude measure and inevitably misses stuff. But you do get a flavour of the importance of this issue to each party relative to the other. It tells you more about principles and priorities than policy detail. But that in itself is insightful.
One more proviso. When you search for ‘environment’ you get other stuff like ‘the business environment’ or ‘the school environment’ so I discounted those. But that’s also way I haven’t done a word count on ‘environment’.
The first thing that appears in the Conservative manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is support for fracking, or shale gas extraction, as they call it. Then there is some discussion about the landscape and environment in the UK countryside, looking at agri-business and environment, hedges and dry stone walls. The Conservatives give their support for SDGs (sustainable development goals) with regard to sustainability and and preventing environmental degradation.
The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 5 times. The Conservatives are leading the way in international action, though there’s no detail about how. There is discussion about what they have done in the past – the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement but no detail plans for the future.
The first thing that appears in the Labour manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is its own chapter heading. It is a key point that the Labour manifesto has a whole section devoted to the environment, signifying its importance. Then the manifesto moves onto plans to incorporate environmental protections in business, introducing a duty to environment not just share holders. It talks about clean energy, securing environmental protection when we leave EU, investment in a low-carbon economy, getting people out of their cars, sustainable farming and fishing, a policy based on science, and support for the SDGs.
The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 11 times. The first mention is to introduce a ban on fracking. The manifesto talks about how there needs to be a transition, to move to clean fuel and renewable fuel. There is still, however, a commitment to off shore oil/gas.
Finally a search on the phrase ‘low-carbon’ reveals 5 uses in the Labour manifesto and 0 in the Conservatives’. Likewise a search for ‘renewable’ has the same result. You can try your own searches on the issues important to you.
I believe this is my 100th blog post! And to mark this momentous occasion, I’m hosting guest blogger, Hannah Seekings. She’s been volunteering in the Christian Aid office I work in, and was inspired by our campaigns training session on climate change.
On the first Wednesday in February we met together to hear about “The Big Shift Campaign” from Luke Harman who is part of Christian Aid campaigns team.
The evening started by discussing all the success that we have achieved together so far. Christian Aid is part of a movement which has been advocating for change to be made to help stop global warming getting worse and slow the effects of climate change. Together we have made an impact. The UK government announced that by 2025 it would phase out the use of coal-fired power stations. We also witnessed the historic signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 where countries from across the world came together and agreed to limit the global temperature rise to only 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, Luke mentioned how the UK and its actions have been mentioned in the Washington Post, showing that the UK is a real influencer and leading the way for a change in how we approach the response to climate change. There is such a great momentum for this issue and therefore we should be encouraged and keep pursuing change.
The next section of the evening we talked about the effects of climate change and how we can prevent the financing of the fossil fuel industries. We watched an insightful short video, which I’d encourage you to watch.
As many of you know, the climate is changing and this is greatly influenced by the burning of fossil fuels in industrialised countries. We believe that we must act in order to protect our planet. There should be a shift from industires such as coal, oil and gas to renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels and move towards a zero-carbon world. However, to achieve this we need a Big Shift in the way our economy works. Money is a key factor in influencing whether we lock ourselves into more fossil fuel dependence or build a better world that we know is possible. The UK is a global financial hub. Shifting finance in the UK can create a huge momentum for global change.
“We all want to save for a rainy day but what happens if we are fuelling the storm”
The money that we keep in our banks in the UK collectively is trillions of pounds and is invested into a wide range of things. This includes investing in coal plants and subsiding fossil fuels. Christian Aid has written a detailed report about this titled which you can read here. It summarises why Christian Aid feels that asking banks to take responsibility is a good idea. It looks at individual banks, their policies on the environment and their strategies to help phase out the funding of fossil fuels.
High Street banks and pension fund managers rely on our customers to make a profit. We need to make sure that they use our money in a way that which helps create and sustain a low carbon economy. We need to do this as soon as possible.
Many banks, corporations and companies signed up to the “Paris Pledge for Action”. This is an outward sign that they support the objectives of the Paris Agreement and will actively help to achieve this.
Christian Aid wants to know what steps the banks are taking to achieve their Paris Pledge. Many banks are still financing the building of coal power stations which lock countries into a high carbon infrastructure. Furthermore, they are still financing oil and gas companies much more than they are renewable sources. To add to all this, many banks are reluctant to set up measurable targets to phase out support for fossil fuels. Christian Aid has focused on 4 major banks; Barclays, HSBS, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS, who we have researched and don’t think are doing enough to commit to helping reduce global temperatures.
So. What next? What can we do about this?
Luke laid out 3 easy steps that we can do to campaign as a response to this knowledge:
Step 1: Spread the word – strike up a conversation with your friends, neighbours, colleagues, people in your church about what they think about climate change. Give them a campaigns pack and invite them to explore this issue some more. Explain to them why this issue it matters and why you want to do something about it.
Step 2: Ask people to take action – invite them to come to your next campaigns evening, ask them to join you in writing a letter to your MP, be bold and encourage them to get on board with you!
Step 3: Take it to the banks – go down into your local branch and ask to speak to the manager and ask questions about their environmental policies and how they plan to phase out investments in fossil fuels, alternatively go in with a letter in hand addressed to the manager with this information. Even better, ask a few people to come with you.
We have lots of resources to help you contact our banks and keep them accountable. Be that writing a letter, or going into your local branch. What these banks do with private finances is the public’s business. Are they helping to preserve God’s creation?! Are they doing enough to reduce climate change?
Find out more here. If you are inspired to campaign to help clean up our cash and help reduce climate change then email firstname.lastname@example.org and they can send over relevant resources and information to help you help the world.
On this day of all days, when the unthinkable is about to happen, it is easy to be overwhelmed. The complexities of leaving the EU, the absurdity of the notion ‘President Trump’ coming true, the enormity of global climate change with a climate change denier about to take office. How does an individual have influence in the world in this environment? Is there anything that I can do to make any sort of difference?
Small effort, big gain
Well, it occurs to me that there is one thing you can do which will have repercussions every day for the rest of your life. (Unless you move house, but you’ll be able to do it again with the same effect.) I can’t believe it took me so long to do it. And it was so easy!
What what what!? Stop teasing! What is this magical thing? (I suspect the picture gave it away!)
Change your energy provider. Change to a renewable energy provider. You could choose a green tariff, or better still, an energy company that produces its own green energy. Electricity from wind, solar or hydro and even (in some cases) green gas.
Once you’ve done it, every time you switch your lights on you know that you are spending money on a company that is investing in our future, not polluting it. You are no longer giving money to people who want to drill in the arctic and who will carry on burning fossil fuel until Bangladesh is under the sea.
And it really is easy. You can just choose a green energy company and go with them. You might want to do some price comparisons. You could investigate and compare tariffs on the internet by yourself, though that is a bit more hard work. Or, as I write, you can sign up as an individual to the Big Church Shift. A procurement company working on behalf of a group of charities including Tearfund and Christian Aid will find the best tariff for you, and facilitate the switch for you. And yesterday someone showed me another company, Big Clean Switch, who work with Ecotricity, Good Energy and Bulb and will do the comparison for you.
I went with the Big Shift. It was painless. I can’t understand why I didn’t do it before! Now Bulb is our energy provider and we’re paying less than before, although we are still in the early stages of settling down what our actual usage is.
Taking it further
And if you are attracted by the idea of taking your money away from fossil fuels and spending it on renewable technology, you can take the idea much further. It’s called divestment, and it can be applied to any company which invests money in other companies. Quite often it’s your money they are investing.
Ever thought about your pension? That money that you are saving up to provide for your future? Not much point in giving it to people who are damaging the earth and spoiling the future. So ask your pension provider whether they are investing in fossil fuels or clean energy. And if you can, ask them to invest for the future, not the dirty energy that belongs to the past.
Or your bank. High street banks are still investing in and giving loans to fossil fuel businesses in far greater measure than to green energy. Ask them to stop. There’s a really handy email campaign up and active here. Ask them to plan for the future and build a better world. We will all be glad they did when the fossil fuel business realises it cannot extract and burn all the oil it has in reserve and the market collapses. Much like it has already done in many countries for coal.
You could even move your money yourself. This one requires a bit more thought and effort. But you save in an ethical fund or with an ethical bank. Maybe the words ethical and bank could never go together, but you could start by looking at Triodos and see what you think.
So, on a day such as today, when it seems that the world is becoming a scarier place, it’s a good day to do a small thing which will go on making a difference every day, long after Trump has left the White House.
The roots of the devastation that is climate change lie in the same roots as the industrial revolution – in the discovery and burning of coal. Leading to steam engines, capitalism, colonialism and the British Empire. Without coal, none of this would have been possible. And we have merely been postponing the consequences.
It has been clear to me for a while that in order to stop rampant global warming, we will need to consume much less. There may be some technological fixes, and it will help if we switch to renewables. But at the end of the day, the earth’s resources are finite, and we need to stop using them up at the current rate.
But this using up of resources is what our economy is based on. We depend on perpetual growth to make the world go round. If people stop buying so much stuff, then we won’t need to make as much stuff, so there won’t be as much work to go round. There will be less money being spent and less profit being made. I can see some easy solutions – shorter working hours, but with a decent minimum wage so everyone can manage, and capping of wages at the top. But all of this is a great departure from our current system of how we measure progress and success.
So far, this is challenging, but not too difficult to conceptualise and imagine how we might get there. What I’m struggling with today is not what the future might look like, but how we interpret our past. The coal that built the world we live in is the cause of its destruction. The rapacious appetites of capitalism and empire have created gross inequalities between people and countries north and south, and stored up in the atmosphere enough carbon to finish us off.
But coal built the world we live in. As I walk to work through Leeds city centre, I admire the beautiful buildings that coal built. And I live in Sheffield, a city built on steel. To regret the industrial revolution feels like betrayal. The wealth created by capitalism transformed our lives – warmth, comfort, health, leisure. There’s no way I want to go back to subsistence farming, or even working in a Lancashire cotton mill. I like the life that I lead, but how do I process it?
Does it even matter? Do we need to develop a new narrative to come to terms with our past in order to move on with our future? Is the reason that we seem to be failing to face up to climate change anything to do with the fact that it means owning up to our responsibility? That the life we lead has caused climate change. Not just our current lifestyles, but 300 years of history on which our country is based.
We are already facing up to the realisation that progress is no longer inevitable, that our children’s lives will not necessarily be better than our parents’. But now I think we have to face up to the idea that what we call progress is not all it seems, certainly not all progress is for the better. There is much about our past that we have cause to regret – slavery is but one example that springs to mind, and having lived in Liverpool I have admired the beautiful buildings there built on the back of slaves. But until now, I have never stared down the whole edifice of capitalism and wondered if it should ever have happened at all.
What story do we need to tell ourselves about who we are, what we have done, and where we are going? We need to acknowledge the good things that capitalism has brought. There is progress that we can celebrate. But we must also acknowledge the cost, not just the fact of it, but the enormity of the price. Was there a better way? Could we have transformed our lives to this extent without the same rape and pillage of the earth? We can never know, and we cannot change what we have done.
But we can learn from our mistakes. When we tell our stories, we must tell them with humility. We enjoy so much about what progress has brought, but this progress has come at great cost, and that cost is not being borne equally. Our history is not a history of learning to tame the earth, but thinking that we have learnt to tame the earth and now finding out that we haven’t. And now these lessons need to inform our future, and a new understanding of what progress looks like.
I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s ‘This changes everything’ and this train of thought was set off by chapter 5, which I’m currently half way through!
As Diocesan Environmental Office for Sheffield Diocese, I went to my first DEO day yesterday, feeling very green. Green in the sense of feeling inexperienced, rather than in the environmental sense! I’ve had the role for a few months, but with only a day a week to devote to it and school summer holidays taken over by family illness (all better now) I feel I’ve hardly got started. It certainly showed up what I don’t know – do we even have a diocesan environmental policy? Any eco-congregations? Any churches or parsonages with solar panel? Lots to discover.
But most of all, the day seemed to keep coming back to one word – ‘embed’. How do we embed our creation care into our everyday church life – our liturgy, our spirituality, our mission, our social justice, our discipleship? How do we make sure it is the warp and weft of who we are, what we do?
We finished with the Rt Rev Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston, and so I will too. Creation care and tackling climate change flow directly from the Gospel. Right now, creation is groaning (Romans 8:22), but through Christ, all things have been reconciled to God (Colossians 1:20). We have been given creation as a gift (Genesis 1:28-29), but it is not ours to exploit (Leviticus 19:9-10) much less to destroy. It is entrusted to us for future generations until creation is restored and renewed. As we live out our calling to be the body of Christ and to be Good News for the world, our commitment to the care of the world is central to our identity in Christ.
With 5 days to go to the EU referendum, this may be a perhaps a little late. But it no longer seems tenable to host a blog about politics without commenting on the biggest political issue of the day. Indeed, the biggest political decision most of us will make in our lifetimes.
Despite knowing for months how I was going to vote, I’ve put off writing a blog because I felt I didn’t have all the answers or the expert knowledge. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped most people who have got involved in the debate. And the nearer the vote comes, the more I realise how important the issues are. So the time has come to stop hiding behind excuses. It’s time to say I’ll be voting to Remain in the EU and to untangle the arguments to show you why.
I’ve never really understood why the call to leave the EU should come so strongly from the Conservative party. Our modern neo-liberal capitalist society is epitomised in the EU. A free market unfettered by trade barriers and tariffs. A place where the price of goods and services are set by the market, just as wages are. Where jobs are created by the supply and demand of the market, and people are free to move to where the jobs are. The capitalist free market works only where you have free movement of goods, capital and people and the EU is a massive free market zone. If that’s what you believe in, why on earth would you want to leave it?
Actually, I suspect most of those on the Leave side don’t really want out of this neo-liberal paradise. They have other reasons for leaving, and are busy trying to make sure that we will still be able to be a part of this unfettered market by negotiating our own individual trade deal when we leave. However, if we really want to continue with a tariff-free trading arrangement for our goods and services into the EU, we are going to have to agree to stick with the free movement of capital and people too. That’s how it works. That’s how it works for Norway, and for Switzerland. We’re not going to get a better trade deal with the EU by refusing to sign up to all the rules of the club.
Running close alongside this argument, is the idea that leaving the EU will free us up from the EU’s bureaucracy and red tape. Now, this is something I have dealt with in a blog. In short, if we want our goods and services to be acceptable to an EU market, they will have to comply with EU regulations. And most of this red tape is more like gift ribbon, protecting workers’ rights, quality assurance, our health and safety and our environment.
I’m really not a fan of neo-liberal capitalism, but we’ll still be stuck with it even if we leave the EU. So that’s not the argument for me.
Somewhat paradoxically, the EU is also the source of much that has a left-wing feel about it. I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with the French. Things like the Social Chapter, protecting pregnant and part-time workers, and the European Working Time directive, protecting over-time pay. Not every flavour of government in this country would work to bring about these kinds of protections, so I’m glad of the EU in this case.
During the debate, there has been a lot of talk about the amount of money it costs us to be
part of the EU. The figures have been hotly disputed and like has not been compared with like. But it is clear that the amount of money that leaves the UK and goes to Brussels is a very small percentage of government spending (less than 2%). And a lot of it comes back. A lot of it comes back to things that I don’t believe the current government would spend it on, and things I know for sure that previous governments of the same type wouldn’t have spent it on. Having lived there for 14 years, I saw transformation in Liverpool through EU money, as Capital of Culture and other projects. And we also found out that one Mrs T’s preferred option for Liverpool was one of ‘managed decline’.
Now I’m in Yorkshire, where the local news compared money leaving the region for Europe to money coming in. Pound for pound (or euro for euro!) more money goes to the EU per head for Yorkshire and Humberside than comes back in inward investment. But financial benefits of the resulting jobs from that investment is harder to quantify. Would the same money have been spent in the region by the UK government if it hadn’t got to Europe? It seems unlikely, as the region received 3% less government spending than the national average. It seems the EU is more likely to deliver than any so-called Northern Powerhouse.
Leave campaigners can suggest all kinds of things they would like to spend money on which is saved by leaving the EU. But only whoever is in power if we leave will actually decide where that money goes. Economists predict our national income will shrink if we leave. If so, any savings will be swallowed up in a smaller economy. But even if there is some left to spend, George Osborne doesn’t have a strong track record of generosity to the needy, and in this arena, I trust Boris Johnson and Michael Gove even less.
Do I really mind giving money to the EU? Actually, no. I’m sure there are inefficiencies and wastage. (Is it really a good idea to decamp to Strasbourg every few weeks?) But just as our money comes back to us in funding for research, and investment in deprived places etc, so our money is spent on even more of these projects in other EU countries where the need is even greater than ours.
There are complaints that the EU is undemocratic. Only one of the bodies involved in legislating is unelected – the European Commission which proposes and drafts EU legislation. It functions rather like our civil service. EU heads of government (the European Council) set EU priorities, and the EU parliament and council of ministers debate and vote on legislation.
I’m afraid I can’t get too worked up by this argument, when we live daily with our own ‘democratic deficit’ in the UK. A system which returns governments elected by only around a third of those who voted and less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote has a democratic deficit of its own. Both need reform, but that’s never going to happen from the outside.
Perhaps there is an EU democratic deficit, but mainly on our part. How many people know who their MEPs are? Have you ever written to them, asked them to intervene on your behalf? I’ve had a great response from my MEP, Linda McAvan, when I’ve contacted her. She’s been involved in bringing about legislation to regulate the mining industry (top culprits in sucking resources out of poor countries) and making sure minerals used in electronic technology are traceable and haven’t been used to fund wars (so-called conflict minerals).
I’ll admit this is a bit niche, but it is the kind of the thing the EU can do, which countries on their own can’t. Which finally, after two pages of this stuff, brings me to the real reason why I’m in. Maybe we could do this on our own, but we can do it much better together.
Immigration has coloured and clouded this debate from the start – as it has UK politics for a while. We haven’t debated this issue wisely or well. There is a lack of clarity but plenty of shouting.
I’ve done quite a bit of shouting myself, mostly at the telly, mostly about words. But words matter, and lots of words in this debate are used interchangeably, when they shouldn’t be. So I’m actually going to start with the word ‘refugee’. The crisis facing Europe at the moment is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis. The streams of people desperate to enter Europe are fleeing violence, war, persecution and starvation. Mostly they come from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Their homes have been destroyed, they are not safe because of their religion or their politics, or because their government is attacking them or is unable to prevent others from attacking them. Their children cannot go to school, they cannot access medicines or food. By any measure, these people need our help, they need refuge, the country they call home is no longer safe, and they have a right to ask for safety elsewhere.
There is not one country which could help all of these people, though it looks like Germany has tried. But the EU could and should act together and provide refuge and safety. I want to stand in solidarity with my European neighbours to act in support of those who are fleeing. But actually it feels like we have already left Europe on this issue, refusing to agree to welcome our share of needy people, opting out of agreements to help. The EU has not handled this situation well. But I believe in the UK we have handled it even less well, and it is this lack of solidarity and sense of humanity which has made it worse.
All of this is quite different to people moving to the UK to look for work or opportunity. Most of this is pretty well regulated, certainly when it comes to people from outside the EU. And I think I’ve already dealt with EU migration in the discussion above. I don’t believe for a minute that the EU will give us any kind of trade deal without including the free movement of people. So if we want to trade with the EU – in or out – it won’t make any difference.
There are other global issues where we need to continue to stand together to make a difference. The biggest crisis facing the world right now is climate change. We will make much more progress in cutting carbon emissions and halting global warming if we work with the EU than if we work alone. We’ve already benefitted from the EU’s work on the environment now that we have clean beaches to enjoy. So we know we can make a difference. I guess the EU could carry on this work without us, but we have a crucial role to play within the EU. We can be leaders on this issue in terms of technology and our grassroots movements of activists. If we stand alone, we are both poorer for it.
Who are we?
I think we have forgotten that we are in the EU not just for what we can get out of it, but also for what we contribute to it. And here, I’m not talking about money. What does it say about us if we decide to stand alone? I think we already know a bit how it feels because we have been so ambivalent about the EU for so long already. We already know we are unloved because no-one votes for us in the Eurovision Song Contest! To leave is to shut the door on friendship, partnership and working together. Sure, we can still work with our European partners, but what is the message we are giving off?
To leave is to say that we don’t belong, that Europeans are different, foreigners, other, and we don’t want any of that over here, thank you. Where is our famed British tolerance when we turn our backs on our neighbours? To remain is to say that we want to be part of a European future together. We do belong, we have shared history, shared ambitions for peace and stability in the future of our continent. We need to choose to stay, and we need to choose to embrace Europe. To give of our passions, of our wisdom and yes, of our wealth. To support parts of Europe where poverty stubbornly digs its heels in. To stand firm with our neighbours against the rise of hate-filled, racist far-right ideologies. To remember that we are a country of compassion and take care of frightened people looking for a safe place to call home. To get our hands dirty and get involved and be prepared to say we are European.
If we leave, both the UK and the EU will be diminished, as the poem below expresses so well. I hope and pray that after next Thursday the bell will not be tolling for us.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
How long has changing to a green energy supplier at home been on my to-do list? Too long! So having someone do all the hard work and find a good deal for me was too good an opportunity to miss. So at last I’ve made the switch.
But the trouble when you want to change the world is that it is all too much for one person. I can’t tackle global climate change on my own. So I was determined to do what I could to persuade our church to join in with Christian Aid’s campaign and make the Big Church Switch to clean energy.
As a family, we’ve only been going to our church for a couple of years and it still feels fairly new to us. It is a big, busy church, with lots of services, home groups and a myriad other weekly activities. Many, many things compete for attention, and Christian Aid is only one of them. I wouldn’t like to guess where climate change fits in!
I bided my time – I needed to find the right moment, when climate change would be recognised as a priority. And here was my chance. We held a series of lectures through Lent with theological reflections on contemporary issues, including one on the topic of climate change! It was a thought-provoking evening exploring how contemporary materialistic measures of success and what makes for a good life drive consumption and the exploitation of the Earth – our shared home.
How much impact could the church have if we truly valued a good life based on relationships and community? Our values are revealed in where we spend our time and money, so it’s time I thought to put our money where our prayers and hopes are; with our neighbours suffering the devastating impacts of climate change, both around the world and in recent times closer to home too.
Perfect! Immediately after the lecture I approached our vicar. Would the church review where it bought its energy from and consider switching to a renewable tariff? Thereby taking our money away from dirty fossil fuels driving climate change and towards something that builds a brighter future, something that can help all God’s people to flourish.
Apparently this would be a matter for the church’s Executive committee, which happened to be meeting the following Monday! “Write me a briefing paper,” the vicar said. I knew I wouldn’t need to do that, because the perfect thing was already in Christian Aid’s Church Contact Pack! I could put it in his hand on Sunday morning. I told him it was a joint initiative between Christian Aid and Tearfund (that helped as the church supports Tearfund too). At this stage, all we would need to do would be to register our interest, and when the quote came back it would be up to us to accept or decline. It might even be cheaper than our current bill, though our vicar was confident that the committee would be happy to pay a little more if it felt it was doing the right thing.
On the Sunday, I gave the briefing papers to the vicar and the treasurer. On the Monday, the matter was discussed by the Exec committee. By Tuesday I got an email asking me to register the church’s interest, copied to the Finance manager who deals with the bill. We’re nothing if not efficient once we’ve made up our mind! Unfortunately we’ve come to a bit of a standstill for now. I’ve registered our interest as a church, but I can’t complete all our details just yet as the Finance manager isn’t well.
Despite this minor delay, I’ve had a really positive response from everyone in the church who has been involved so far, summed up by the sentiment ‘thank you for taking this forward’. We believe that looking after the creation is a part of our faith and ministry, but it’s not always easy to express that as a church. And it’s not always easy for a church full of busy people to find someone who wants to make this a priority. It was great to be able to take a very practical step as an immediate response to our Lenten challenge. I hope we can hold up our corporate action as a church as an example for everyone to follow as we find ways to work out in practice our ministry to care for our creation.