5 Oct 2008

My speech for Harvest Festival

A wee while ago I was approached to do a speech on the environment at the Harvest Festival at Whiteshill Church - I wasn't sure - not done that sort of thing before - but agreed after giving myself a wee bit of time to think about it - anyhow this last week I have been thinking up what to put in the speech and scribbling notes - yesterday evening I put it together - wished I'd given it more time but it seemed to go very well this morning - some 50 plus people attended including many familiar faces.

Photos: Church leaflet advertising event and photo below of the church in the Village hall as the roof is being fixed in the church itself

Indeed quite a number of folk spoke to me afterwards to thank me - it was an honour to address the congregation - and I have to say that a couple of the ideas below come from Caroline Lucas Green MEP, a couple of other bits from Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation and the bit about the 'gathering storm' from a Margaret Becket speech last year.

It was interesting looking at how Harvest Festivals have developed over time - of course humans have celebrated since they took to farming several thousand years ago, but the modern British Harvest Festival in churches only began in 1843. That was thanks to the Reverend Robert Hawker, a vicar in Cornwall who invited his parishioners to a special thanksgiving service for the harvest. Anyway here are the notes I used although I didn't quite stick to them all the time...

Harvest Festival speech

I must start with a big thank you for inviting me here to speak. Many will know me as a local resident, a local councillor, a green campaigner or perhaps as a member of the Gloucestershire Churches Environmental Justice Network?

I've not had the privilege of addressing a congregation such as this before, so I hope that what I am going to say is appropriate - it is certainly from the heart.

Harvest time is our opportunity to give special thanks for the abundance around us - to celebrate the food and riches of the land. In Britain where food and clean water are plentiful for most people, many Harvest Festivals in recent times have included in their celebrations an awareness of less fortunate people across the globe. Many of us have taken action or given money to try and tackle the injustices that people face - the damaging policies imposed on poorer countries, crippling debt, war, deforestation, child slavery and poverty.

How can it be right that there is a child dying from hunger somewhere in the world every 5 seconds. How can that be? And now linked to all that, we are starting to grasp the enormity of climate change.

I don't find this easy. Every new bit of news seems more terrifying than the last - the Greenland ice sheets are melting, the Great Barrier Reef is dying, the Arctic ice could have disappeared within 5 years, a third of species face extinction and millions face drought and famine.

These reports fill many of us with fear. I certainly feel scared by these reports. Indeed, one could argue that if you don’t find it scary, you haven’t really understood it. However we mustn't let this fear paralyse us - or trigger some shut-off mechanism that stops us from taking actions. We need to find room to digest the realities and also to see that despite the horrors there are many signs of hope - real hope. We can stop irreversible climate change - but we need to act fast - and time is running out.

Many of you will have read in the national press in August, that based on conservative estimates, a group of global warming experts have said that we have only 100 months to avoid disaster. 100 months to avoid disaster.

Many people have reacted asking: 'how can we be sure these scientists have it right? There are countless computer models and scenarios and isn't this just part of some natural change? Temperatures have gone up and down in the past?'

Of course it is not an exact science but the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and it's in-depth analysis by 2,500 of the world's top climate scientists is in no doubt that we are responsible for climate change and that we need to act with all urgency. Every new piece of research confirms the need to act with all haste. This change is quite different from anything seen on the planet before.

Indeed in 928 articles on climate change published in peer-reviewed journals in ten years, not one of those articles doubted the cause of global warming - yet more than half of articles in the popular press have done just that. It is no wonder if our press keeps questioning the science, that many of us may still have doubts about how dangerous climate change might be. But even if we do have doubts can we really take the risk of not acting?

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, is the highest it has been for the past 650,000 years. In just 250 years, as a result of the coal-fired Industrial Revolution, and changes to land use such as the growth of cities and the felling of forests, we have released billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The science shows that if these gases accumulate beyond a certain level - often termed a "tipping point" - global warming will accelerate, potentially beyond our control. This would be catastrophic for life on Earth.

It is time to act. We have less than 100 months before we could reach such a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change. Everything we do now matters. And, possibly more so than at any other time in recent history. Let us not be remembered as the generation that monitored it's own demise so minutely and did so little to tackle climate change.

So what can we do? What must we do?

Archbishop Rowan Williams has said "For the Church of the 21st Century, good ecology is not an optional extra but a matter of justice." Yet as individuals we cannot realistically change the nation's energy, food and transport systems on our own. As the Archbishop has said, it is for governments to be prepared to take difficult decisions on climate change.

So how can we support - and challenge - our politicians to do this? To take those difficult decisions? To make the radical changes we need? We must tell them - write to them, meet with them and let them know that we cannot accept their business-as-usual approach. We cannot accept their plans to expand air travel or build more coal-fired power stations. Former US Vice President Al Gore has even called for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of anymore of these coal plants as he sees them as so damaging.

There are signs that politicians are listening, Gordon Brown this week created a new department for climate change and energy. This is a great step and I sincerely hope that it will lead to the decisive actions on climate change we need, but I know we have much more to do than this. It is for example unacceptable to still argue that because we are under pressure economically we cannot address climate change. As Bishop Browning said at the recent Lambeth conference: “This is a short-sighted position because we will pay...the price we will pay if we don’t act is so much greater.”

Of course Britain cannot act alone but it is delusory to think that developing countries will fundamentally change until wealthy countries take a lead. Let us not forget that a significant share of those CO2 emissions from countries like China and India are to make products that we consume here. And already it is the poorest who are paying for our CO2 emissions. Oxfam show that the average Somali is about 100 times more likely to die from events caused by climate change than the average American, despite emitting roughly 16,000 times less carbon.

But apart from getting our politicians to act there is much we can do locally. We have already seen many actions. Individuals, businesses, councils and organisations are all starting to play their part.

Randwick Village Hall which opened last month, is the country's first carbon neutral village hall. Some 12 eco-homes also opened locally last month to encourage others to take similar pioneering measures - like adding to their homes solar thermal systems, wood pellet boilers, rainwater harvesting systems or extra insulation. Indeed one of the most important measures we can all take is to cut our carbon emissions by seriously insulating our homes.

What else can we do? Save on the food miles by growing more foods locally and supporting local producers. We have two excellent local farm projects which people can join for a weekly box of local organic food. Stroud Farmers market won best Farmers market in the UK award and has now been shortlisted for the BBC food Oscars. We also have our own wonderful village shop - and in the Playing fields the Parish Orchard. Some in the Parish are working to ensure we have some local allotments.

What else? Eating less meat - 70 per cent of the world's agricultural land is now used for rearing farm animals - and many are inhumanly factory farmed - if we all ate less meat that would mean less CO2. The University of Surrey suggests this week that too avoid runaway climate change we need to all ration meat to 4 modest portions a week and one litre of milk.

What else? We have to think about how we travel and whether travel is necessary. Enjoy the beauty of our local Cotswolds rather than travelling further afield. We can switch off our TV and other equipment rather than using the stand-by mode. We can recycle and compost. Support the charity shops and car boot sales. We can look to buy the most energy-efficient products. Best of all though is to consume less.

So there is more that each of us can do - and there is plenty of advice available. I would urge people to take the actions they can - better still take those actions together with others as we are stronger together.

We cannot now avoid significant climate change so while we must work to avoid that 'tipping point' of runaway change we also need to build resilient communities that will cope with the coming challenges like the floods we saw last year. The credit crunch is already hitting the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities. More than ever we need to look out for each other and strengthen our communities.

This summer in Bread Street over in Ruscombe we had a wonderful street party with music, food children's games and even a bread competition - we put it on to get to know each other better - sadly in many of our communities many of us are either alone or leading such busy lives that we hardly know who we live next door to - yet caring for our neighbours and fellow human beings goes hand-in-hand with looking after the planet.

Tackling climate change may seem impossible.

Yet history is full of examples of things happening that previously seemed impossible. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union or the ending of apartheid in South Africa. Indeed Britain achieved astonishing things while fighting and recovering from the second world war. In the six years between 1938 and 1944, the economy was re-engineered and there were dramatic cuts in resource use and household consumption. We consumed less of almost everything, yet were more healthy.

It was Churchill who perceiving the dangers that lay ahead, struggled to mobilise the political will and industrial energy of the British Empire to meet those dangers. He did so often in the face of strong opposition. Climate change is the gathering storm of our generation. And the implications - should we fail to act - are even more dire.

The best way to avoid the things we fear, is to get on with the job of stopping them happening. If enough people lead the way then the politicians will be forced to follow. These are difficult times but I am confident that we can see them through if we all work together.

I'd like finish with a verse from the poem 'Providence' by George Herbert in 1633. I heard it on the radio this week when the Bishop of Liverpool discussed how Herbert's image of the bee is a suitable one for a sustainable economy. Here's nature showing us how to make a profit without there always having to be a loser: a truly sustainable harvest.

Here it is:

'Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their master's flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
So both the flower doth stay, and hony run.'

Thank you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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