A Queer (Quaker) Response to Climate Change

‘You call them interesting times, I call them scary!’ Elaine is 92, volunteers at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and is a veteran of many a march for peace and environmental issues. Unable to walk in the People’s Climate March in NYC, she was delighted that we’d managed to be there. Never, in all her time as a social justice campaigner, has she seen such a dangerous right wing political shift in the US. ‘You gotta save the world!’ were her parting words to us. This was the day after the march, and we were exploring the woods and wetlands of the Bay. Elaine explained that when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, the wall of the freshwater West Pond was breached, leaving a shallow swamp surrounded by blackened reed beds and dead trees, a sadly appropriate reminder of the need for action on climate change.

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Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Queer responses

On the Friday night before the March, we headed to the NYC MCC Church to see an event called ‘A Queer Response to Climate Change’. Hosted by quirky queer Quaker performer and theologian Peterson Toscano, and featuring musician Joe Stevens, the spoken word artist J. Mase III and MCC Moderator Nancy Wilson, we were invited to reflect on the unique contribution queer people could make to activism around human-made climate change. Peterson began by humorously reflecting that exhortations to save the polar bears and to ‘think of the children’ don’t quite do it for him. How many of us have met a polar bear, and aren’t we the children that everyone was thinking about? Climate change is as immediate and humdrum as your morning coffee. The fact of failing coffee crops and subsequently rising price of his favourite cup o’ Joe engages him in the issue more readily than the bears. The planet is changing faster than we realise. It’s not the same one we were born into, so what’s our role on a new planet?

Nancy spoke of her experience as a queer person amidst the ravages of the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis in the US, when HIV/AIDS was originally referred to as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). Queer people faced a government with the power but no will to help them. It was a gay disease and gay people were perverts who deserved it. Those queers learned how to fight back, documented in the recent film ‘How to survive a plague.’ Can that passionate spirit of stubborn defiance now fuel climate justice activism? Can our glitter and fabulousness make climate change sexy? Now that same-sex couples can get married in certain US states and the UK, we’re at risk of becoming complacent. In Nancy’s words, we could end up ‘rearranging the wedding chairs on the deck of the Titanic.’ Another film out recently, ‘Pride’, charts the unlikely alliance between gay activists and striking Welsh mining communities in the 1980s. Can our experience of discrimination inspire solidarity with other marginalised groups? The effects of extreme and unusual weather stir the ooze of human enmity, bringing to the surface prejudices and inequities we’d prefer buried deep. People of colour, the poor and marginalised are those who suffer the effects of climate change most acutely.

J. Mase III, in his poem ‘Jospehine’, reflected on the story of Joseph and his ‘kethoneth passim’, his ‘princess dress’. This familiar story is turned into a fable of violent trans-phobia (the beating of Joseph and the polluting of the offending garment), trans empowerment (Joseph’s rise to power) and queer action on climate change (Joseph’s prediction of and preparation for a seven year famine). Peterson reminded us afterwards that, ultimately, it was Pharaoh who benefitted from the famine, as starving people sold him their land for food. Climate change immediately benefits the rich and powerful, but dooms us all in the long term.

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Bee-themed protesters at the People’s Climate March. ‘Praise Bee!’ ‘Bees on Earth!’

Apocalyptic repentance

A key theme of the evening’s discussion was that climate change is a spiritual issue. Noel Moules, in his book ‘Fingerprints of Fire, Footsteps of Peace’, writes of three signs that God’s shalom (translated poorly into English as ‘peace’) is fully present: everyone’s material needs are met, all are in right relationship with one another, and each individual has inner integrity. Climate change’s most obvious impact is on our material wellbeing. Crops are failing and food prices are rising. This scarcity of resources affects our relationships with others, causing wars over water access and increasing socioeconomic inequality. Our complicity in the use of fossil fuels calls our integrity into question. Climate change denial is fuelled by profit and our lust for convenience and efficiency. We need to repent of our oil addiction and irresponsible living.

Repentance involves change, and change always involves loss. With loss comes grief. If we are going to repent, we need to allow ourselves to grieve. Marvin Bloom, a recurring character in Peterson’s shows, described Axelrod’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Might those who deny climate change know in their heart of hearts that climate change is real? Might they one day move towards acceptance and action? How many of us accept climate change in our rhetoric but deny it in our lifestyles? How many of us are hope deniers, foregoing activism as futile? Peterson feels that what need to move us from denial to action is nothing short of an apocalypse. That’s apocalypse in its literal sense – a drawing back of a curtain, a revelation of the true nature of things. Moses had his when he met a burning bush. Early Quakers spoke of passing through the flaming sword of the angel who guarded the gates of Paradise. Fire, transformation, illumination. Painful but necessary change. We all need a personal apocalyptic moment.

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Communities of hope

My adventures in intentional community continue to affirm my calling to this way of life. What might the role of ICs be in this time of climate crisis? Diane Leafe Christian reflects on this question, writing that ‘Most ecovillages and intentional communities are embedded to some degree in the greater economy – whether we intend it or not – and the greater economy is completely driven by fossil fuels… While living in an ecovillage or other kind of intentional community may make us less reliant on the typical energy sources and commercial products of mainstream life, it is not automatic protection from the coming energy decline… Those who already enjoy a measure of self-sufficiency, such as ecovillages and other kinds of sustainably organized neighbourhoods, will already have the skills and experiences needed for re-localization… In Powerdown, Heinberg notes that small, self-sustaining communities may become cultural lifeboats in times to come. “Our society is going to change profoundly – those of us who understand this are in a position to steward the change. We are going to become popular, needed people in our communities.”’

Can we be patterns and examples? Can we let our lives preach? Can we be living embodiments of hope? Can we be conduits of God’s apocalypse, shining light into dark places and revealing the injustices that fuel climate chaos? In a shared statement by Quaker groups, ‘Facing the Challenge of Climate Change’, Quakers have put themselves on the side of hope: ‘We recognize that catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is not inevitable if we choose to act… We seek to nurture a global human society that prioritizes the well-being of people over profit, and lives in right relationship with our Earth; a peaceful world with fulfilling employment, clean air and water, renewable energy, and healthy thriving communities and ecosystems.’

Have a look at Peteron’s new website and podcast http://climatestew.com/ for more information on a queer response to climate change.

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2 thoughts on “A Queer (Quaker) Response to Climate Change

  1. Brilliant post! It must be said that self-sufficient lifestyles and ecovillages are not well known for ‘glitter and fabulousness’ – surely time to shake up those stereotypes a bit!

    Is that the Rev Billy in that Resist Extinction photo? He’s a legend!

    Looking forward to exploring more via your links.

    1. Thanks Jonathan. It may be Rev Billy, I didn’t get to talk to him. The Bee people where so much fun. They had a ‘waggle dance’ to teach everyone when the crowd was getting bored.

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