Tag Archives: narrative

The story of the black stuff

img_1388_2The 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!

Famine, climate change and the BBC

I must protest about the BBC’s portrayal of the impending famine in Ethiopia on the 10 o’clock news on Monday night as being down to ‘God’ and ‘Mother Nature’. Not that I feel I need to defend God. But laying the blame on a rather abstract third party neatly avoids the issue of climate change. The failed rains in Ethiopia are part of a pattern of increasing frequency and severity of droughts in the regions, driven by increasing global temperatures and more severe and unpredictable weather.

You see, if God is to blame, we don’t have to worry about climate change yet. We can ignore the fact it is actually happening now, not in the future, and that its severest impacts are felt by the most vulnerable in the world.

Better still, we can ignore our own responsibility. We are absolved of blame. We don’t have to consider that our carbon output, caused by our rich, comfortable lifestyle, is leading to starvation and death in other places. We don’t need to regret the woeful progress that has been made by our leaders in agreeing ways to limit carbon emissions and help those already suffering the effects. We don’t have to change the way we live, or challenge climate change deniers, or press leaders for proper actions. Plans to change to a green energy supplier can be put off for now, and we will give up flying, but after we’ve been to visit family in California.

In fact, if we give a bit of money, then we’ve done more than could possibly be expected of us. After all, hasn’t Ethiopia been here before? Surely their government has learnt how to manage famine by now? Has nothing changed since ‘Live Aid’?

Well, let me tell you, nothing has really changed. Global markets are still skewed towards the richer nations of the world. More money still flows out of Africa in profits and lost taxes and debt repayments than has ever gone the other way in terms of aid. We’re still talking about global warming but doing nothing about it. We still allow multi-national corporations to avoid tax and hide profits because it suits us not to upset them. And when countries do sit down to talk, as they will in Paris at the end of this month, corporate interests will still influence proceedings and the global South will struggle to get their voice heard amidst the hundreds of professional lobbyists the rich will bring.

IMG_0691So let’s have no more talk about Mother Nature causing famine in Ethiopia and take
responsibility for the climate, for our sisters and brothers who are suffering, and our elected representatives who need to act. The News even had an item later on the programme about climate change but failed to join the dots. Don’t make the same mistake. Start by joining events to call for climate justice as the talks in Paris begin. Here’s the one in Sheffield, there’s one in London, one in Edinburgh, or find one near you!

The value of the Living Wage

living wage logoEveryone has a ‘week’ these days, and every week seems to have been claimed by someone or something. This week is no exception – it’s Living Wage Week. It’s probably lots of other weeks too, but this is the one I’m going for! Monday saw the announcement of the new living wage hourly rate – £8.25 (£9.40 in London), a 40p an hour increase on last year. Based on a working week of 37.5 hours, a living wage should provide enough to have a minimum acceptable standard of living.

I’m so keen on promoting the Living Wage because it tells a different story to the clamour in the popular press suggesting that cause of all our woes is people being dependent on the state and getting something for nothing. Talking about the living wage counteracts this.

Let’s start with the name, living wage. To talk about a living wage makes the case that someone’s wages should be enough to live on. We ask people what they do for a living, yet we seem to have forgotten that working full-time should mean we earn enough to pay the bills. And one huge reminder that this isn’t the case, as the government loves to tell us, is the rising tax credit bill. Please always remember that only the tiniest part of the welfare budget goes on out-of-work benefits. Most of it actually goes on pensions, and the next biggest part is paid to people in work in the form of housing benefit and tax credits. There are two ways to cut the tax credit bill – the devastating but easy route currently going through parliament whereby payments are simply cut. Or the route which actually takes care of people, whereby wages are increased and people qualify for lower or no payments because they don’t need them.

Reminding ourselves that work should pay and the worker is worthy of his or her wages (Luke 10:7) should restore our respect for workers. We hear the treasury talk a lot about ‘wealth creators’ and how we should nurture them. But I don’t mean rich business executives who hid their money in off-shore bank accounts, creating wealth only for themselves. The real wealth creators are the workers in industry and business, as no-one can make money if there is no-one to do the work. Even workers in public service contribute to wealth creation as they build the stable society in which business flourishes. Over the last 30 years there has been a steady transfer of wealth away from workers’ wages and into the hands of shareholders. The Living Wage is a small way to rebalance this and make sure that work and workers are valued.

One of the best things about the Living Wage for me is how it is calculated. The rate is set annually by an independent research body at Loughborough University. The level is not set by Labour or Conservative, but the Living Wage does enjoy cross-party support. The rate is calculated to enable people to have an acceptable standard of living. What do you need to be able to afford to provide for your family and belong to society? The answer to this question determines the rate, and the answer is not given by politicians or university academics. The research asks members of the public, who decide what is an acceptable standard of living. In an age of suspicion generated by the Tory narrative setting up false divisions between so-called ‘workers and shirkers’, this means the Living Wage is rooted in social consensus. This is what ordinary people think other ordinary people need to live, no-one is taking advantage of anyone else.

Finally, I think it needs to be said that the Living Wage is not the same as the so-called ‘national living wage’ announced by George Osborne in the summer budget. The government rate, which comes into force in April 2016, is based on the labour market and what other people earn, and does not bear any relation to what is actually needed to live in society. It is set at £7.20 an hour, so is lower than the Living Wage, it does not apply to under 25s, unlike the Living Wage, and it is compulsory. It is, in effect, just a raising of the minimum wage, but only for over 25s. The Living Wage is voluntary, aspirational wage, a measure of best practice for employers. Employers can be credited as Living Wage employers when measures are put in place to pay all staff (included contracted out staff) the Living Wage rate.

The Living Wage Foundation says that the Living Wage is good for business, good for families and good for society. On top of this, I believe the whole concept is good for us. It says that people are the most important part of how we build society, that the work people do is valuable and those who do it are shown value accordingly. It is decided on by the people for the people, it is a truer representation that we are all in it together than anything we’ve seen from the Tories. Join the movement here!

Climate Change: walk on by

P1010633I listened to the Bishop of Sheffield telling a story the other day, a story about why Christians should act to challenge climate change. The story went like this:

‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

You’ve probably heard this story before, it usually goes by the name of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Rather a surprising choice for a seminar on climate change and the church. But Bishop Stephen is in good company. Apparently this story is one of two key passages for Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical about climate change. The other passage is the creation story in Genesis. If the Genesis story shows us our responsibility to the earth, then the Good Samaritan story shows us why we find tackling climate change so difficult. After all, in the story, 66% of travellers saw the problem but failed to take action.

We must no longer pass by on the other side. Climate change is real, it is happening now, with a human cause, and real consequences for people now. And yet it is not a political priority or even a priority for most people. How can we motivate people to action? The Good Samaritan acted because he saw the need and was moved by the robbed man’s plight.

Climate change is not a vague or distant prospect for the poor but a present reality. People are suffering because of rising sea leaves in Bangladesh and islands in the Pacific, crops are failing for farmers in Malawi and Ethiopia, glacial retreat in Bolivia is causing water shortages, and increases in extreme weather conditions lead to the kind of devastating destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The message is not getting through. We need to tell these stories, so that people can see their plight and be moved to action.

The Parable of Good Samaritan is not the obvious choice for a theological reflection on climate change. It does show that people find it hard to respond, but if people can be moved to have compassion then they can be moved to act. But this could be true for any issue. The parable is Jesus’s response to question “who is my neighbour?” It is when we recognise that our neighbour lives in Bangladesh and Malawi and Bolivia and the Philippines that we recognise that by doing nothing about climate change we are walking by on the other side.

 

Who benefits from benefits?

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It’s time to tell a different story about where public money goes and who benefits from benefits. We need an alternative to the current narrative from the government about “hardworking people” who “do the right thing”, who end up paying for those who aren’t working. However, the chart above shows that the spending on people on the edge of society who are working hard looking for a job is a very small part of social security spending. And the changes to Job Seekers Allowance means that it can be very hard to do all the right things required of you to avoid a sanction. (I took the chart from this blog and the information in it comes from this government paper on page 57).

Huge amounts are spent on pensions, but I’m not going to go there…

Four times as much money is spent on housing compared to unemployment benefits, and the housing benefit bill has been steadily rising. Housing benefits pay rents which people would otherwise not be able to afford. But this safety net means that rents can rise as they are not held back people’s ability to pay. This is the logic of capping housing benefit, so that it doesn’t continue to fuel rent rises. But who suffers the most with this policy? Those who can’t afford to pay rents. This takes power away from the already pretty powerless, and cedes more power to the powerful. Those with little power or money have little choice and are at the mercy of uncaring landlords providing poor accommodation. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is being paid to wealthy private landowners, making the rich richer, as this article explains.

Capping rent not benefits would cut the benefit bill but this time the change to the balance of power would be in favour of the weakest. I don’t believe that we should kneel before the altar of the market, but if we want to use market forces, a better way of reducing prices would be to increase supply, especially as rising prices can’t diminish demand of what is an essential rather than a luxury good. This means building more houses, which would also increase employment. And as it would be a good idea to make sure these houses were affordable and not susceptible to soaring rents, why not let them be council houses?

We need to join the dots. Giles Fraser writing about why the church should be angry about welfare policy, says that homelessness in London has risen by 60% in two years. We do have choices, and I believe we need to make choices which don’t just make economic sense, but choices which protect the most vulnerable in our society. So in this case, that is the tenant and not the landowner.

And while we’re on the subject of public money going to already wealthy private individuals, lets join some more dots up and widen it out to private companies. Take another look at the chart above and the figure paid out to families and children. Some of this will be child benefit, a universal benefit. There are good reasons to keep benefits universal, not least so we all have a stake in our society, but that’s another subject. The rest includes child tax credit and working families tax credit. This is paid as a “top-up” to ensure low-paid families can still afford a reasonable standard of living, and tries to ensure being in work pays more than not being in work.

This is somewhat at odds with the government’s narrative. Hardworking families who are doing the right thing still need to claim benefits, because they are not earning enough. Maybe this is to do with working part-time because of issues around childcare. Or maybe because there are only part-time jobs available (I talked about underemployment in my last blog). But plenty of these benefits are paid out to people working full-time but still considered to be earning too little for a decent standard of living. How can this be? How can it be that it is possible to work full-time and still not be able to afford to pay the bills and feed your family? Surely that’s why we have a minimum wage? But sadly, since its introduction in 1999 its value in real terms (taking into account rising prices) has been declining since 2010. An independent body calculates the hourly rate required for someone working full-time to earn enough for a decent standard of living, and this is know as the Living Wage.

Meanwhile, non-Living Wage employers are paying minimum but inadequate wages, which need to be topped up out of public funds. Some of these employers may be small businesses struggling themselves, which is why the Living Wage is a voluntary scheme. But plenty of these businesses are large firms making large profits. Supermarkets are a classic example. A quick scan of the list of living wage employers did not reveal any supermarkets to me, and yet they are posting huge profits. Profits built on low-paid workers subsidised by public money.

I don’t know what difference my little blog will do. But we need to talk about these things. We need to challenge anyone who says we cannot afford our welfare bill. Protecting the vulnerable is a key function of a civilised country. Our spending needs reform, but reform should protect the interests of the weak not the powerful. We are all stake-holders in a system which protects us when times are tough. The powerful have the capacity to protect their own interests, and they are doing very nicely at this thank you very much (Church Action on Poverty estimates tax dodging costs the UK at least £45 billion a year). A lot has been said this week about the morality of welfare reform. The Bible is full of exhortations to support the poor and the weak, to be a voice for the voiceless, especially the Old Testament. But I came across this the other day. Right at the heart of his plans to spread the message about Jesus, Paul says this: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10, NIV)