Quaker communities in a time of crisis

A response to Advices and Queries 18, delivered as a talk at North West London Area Meeting gathering at High Leigh, Hertfordshire, on 24 April 2022.

How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.

Advices and Queries 18

My name is James Brooks and I’m an attender at Finchley Meeting. I was asked to talk today because of my experiences as a relatively recent attender at my meeting, whose attendance was largely spurred by an engagement with environmental activism via Extinction Rebellion, or XR. I think it was felt that my experiences in those two respective communities – Quakers and XR – might give some indication of how we can answer the questions posed in A&Q 18.

I will come onto that in a moment. But I feel it is impossible to give this talk without first acknowledging the present situation. There are two existential crises going on. One is that which brought me into XR but which concerns every human alive today. The other, almost infinitely less important in the grand scheme of things, concerns specifically the Quakers, and so is relevant here.

The first – as you’ve probably guessed – is the climate crisis. Nowadays, the kind of language that XR use to talk about our environmental predicament can be heard from the lips of the most establishment politicians, not least this country’s great leader, Boris Johnson. However, with repetition of this language – talk of crisis and emergency – comes habituation, and I want to cut against that tendency.

So, when the secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, stands behind a lectern to present the latest report summarising the conservative consensus view of the world’s leading scientists and says that – quote – ‘we are on the fast-track to climate disaster’ and ‘firmly on track to an unliveable world’, what does that mean to you?

Perhaps you think that because every government in the world is aware of this crisis that something will be done about it, other than relentlessly fuelling it. But this misunderstands how government power and ever-expanding capitalism works and would run counter to all the historical evidence up to the current day. The leaders of global-north governments have been the best-informed people in the world on climate change for 40 years. In full knowledge of the disastrous effects of their policies, they have encouraged planetarily suicidal lifestyles and subsidised fossil fuel companies to the tune of trillions of dollars. They continue to do so. When was the peak rate of carbon emissions rise in history? It is now, after 26 rounds of international climate talks and when we have never known more about the climate disaster we are on a fast-track to.

Or perhaps you think that these governments will start to act when the situation gets so bad that they are forced to. For one, this is to misunderstand atmospheric physics, but it also ignores the fact that for millions of people living on the Equator, the ‘unliveable world’ is already here. Save the Children compiled data from the UN showing that an estimated 250,000 children had died from famine in East Africa in 2021 after three years of unprecedented extreme weather. A quarter of a million children. One year. East Africa alone.

They haunt me, those children. They should haunt you too.

A group of environmental activists from the African diaspora use a Ki-Swahili word to describe what we blandly call climate change – ‘maangamizi’. It means ‘annihilation’. They see it, correctly, as the culmination of centuries of exploitation of the African continent and its people by the global north, including, of course, the UK. Let us not forget how this country became rich.

Only one thing is certain, that all the destruction we see now will get worse. All the wildfires, floods, disruption of weather systems, crop failures and famines can only get much worse. Carbon dioxide stays for several hundred years in the atmosphere, so on a human timescale, emissions are effectively cumulative. And, I say again, we have never pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere as we are doing now. We cannot imagine the horror we have locked in.

The second crisis I want to address – and it’s almost a relief to talk about this now, considering what I’ve just said – is the Quakers’ own extinction crisis. To look at the 2021 tabular statement is to be confronted with a vertiginous drop in numbers over the last 20 years. Since 2000, the number of all members and attenders has shrunk by a third to around 20,000. But this masks an even more troubling statistic. In the same period, the number of children in membership or attending has dropped by three quarters to just over a thousand. We need to answer the question of how we can make the meeting a community in which, to quote A&Q 18, ‘strangers are welcome’ urgently.

That word – ‘strangers’ – I do not like it. If there is a future for Quakerism, it will be thanks to those we label as ‘strangers’. That’s how most of us start out in Quakerism these days, right? That was certainly my case. I did not grow up in a Quaker home; my parents used to read the Daily Mail, that’s maybe all I need to say.

Moreover, I grew up with no understanding of what ‘community’ is. I am an only child; both my parents were only children and mostly estranged from their extended families. What’s more I grew up along a main road in the hyper-alienated post-war suburban sprawl of South-East England. There was no playground to go to, none of the neighbours had kids. I was barely let out. I grew up with an intense feeling of being an outsider.

My contact with Quakerism came via a scholarship to a Quaker school – Leighton Park in Reading. While never overbearing, the Quaker ethos seemed to seep into almost everything. And it seeped into me.

As I wrote in an essay published in the quarterly Critical Muslim in 2019 (and available in full on this website):

I was one of those young people who, as the fog of childhood clears, start to apprehend adult society as a vast morass of cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy. I lived in a country permanently at war while proclaiming peace, driven by greed while vaunting charity, avoiding all existential reflection while self-congratulating on its intellectual advancement.

Quakerism offered a different path to all that.

Most of the pupils at Leighton Park were, like me, not from Quaker homes. I’ve frequently been asked whether it’s possible to have anything even resembling Quaker community life with a couple of hundred hormonal non-Quaker teenagers and the answer is ‘yes’. Not without difficulty sometimes, but overall, yes. Meetings for worship – once a week – worked particularly well. Of course, there was ministry that was probably not very ‘spirit-led’ but there was much that was. What’s more there was a sense of vibrancy and spontaneity that, for all their qualities, I’ve rarely felt in Quaker meetings since my return. I now wonder – and I’ll return to this idea – if Quakerism is best practiced by non-Quakers.

When I left school I left Quakerism behind for a long while. For several reasons, mostly because growing up in a very non-Quaker home, I didn’t think that I could be a Quaker. However, Quakerism didn’t leave me. It became the grounding for not only my political position, somewhere on the loony left, but also how I lived my life.

When I returned to the UK after living in Paris for a time, I began an 8-year period of active but remote interest in Quakerism. I would often read about it and on two occasions, spaced years apart, turned up to local Quaker meetings. But it never went further than that, for two reasons. One, I am a nontheist and at that time use of the word ‘God’ in ministry put me off. And, two, in my head the people I met at the meeting were not like me, they were nice, kindly Quakers and I am… just not that. Ask my wife. Like Groucho Marx, ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member’. That is partially why I haven’t applied for membership.

I started attending meetings regularly in 2019, both at Finchley and Westminster, after a profound religious experience at Friends House in a meeting for worship the day after XR’s first major action when we blocked five bridges in central London.

My first meeting at Finchley felt like a homecoming. More than anything else I felt a sense of acceptance that I hadn’t experienced to such an extent before elsewhere. With many of my friends and acquaintances if I ever move conversations on from day-to-day things into wider concerns, and certainly if I start talking about topics like climate change, I feel them backing away or losing interest. With the Quakers, I’ve never experienced anything like that. Such engagement on the topics that really matter was, and remains, a true joy.

On the other hand, I have very little to say about my experiences in the XR community because, even though I join major XR actions and have been arrested with them, I’ve not really been a part of it. This is mostly because of something that Quakers do well that XR does not, and that is: working non-hierarchically. XR claims to be non-hierarchical but doesn’t promote the practices necessary to be so. Without practices of non-hierarchal discipline what tends to happen is that upper-middle-class people – who are self-confident, assertive, very used to being in positions of managerial control, but not used to listening – come to ‘naturally’ assume positions of leadership. I can’t stand this – I am an anarchist in my heart of hearts – and so I haven’t really engaged with XR groups outside major actions.

That changed somewhat last week, however. During XR’s latest series of actions in central London I fell in with a bunch of people, all in their 20s or early 30s, who’d either been on the periphery of XR for a while or who were just joining. Something clicked between us, and we’ve made a commitment to keep the group going. When on XR actions I always wear a ‘Quakers for Peace’ badge in the hope that another Quaker will see it and tap me on the shoulder. This time it functioned as a magnet for all kinds of excellent and curious questions about Quakerism from my fellow affinity group members. Several of them were interested in non-hierarchal ways of working and were also passionate about a way forward for society that did not involve more planet-killing, individualist consumerism.

This echoed an experience I’d had two weeks before when I was on a panel to launch the latest edition of Critical Muslim, the publication I occasionally write for. The audience for this event was mostly composed of people again in their 20s and early 30s, this time from Muslim family backgrounds. They all had the cultural view that often comes from being in a minority group in the country of your birth. They could operate in both the culture of their parents or grandparents and British culture, but didn’t fit in seamlessly with either. As ‘insider-outsiders’, they could make penetrating critiques of both. My being a Quaker came up and again, led to a vibrant discussion. These people were very receptive to the Quaker way.

With all that in mind I want to return to talk of those two crises and attempt a very brief answer to A&Q 18. I want to reply by way of three phrases.

The first is one that you occasionally hear in climate activism circles: there are no non-radical futures. The planetary track that we are on is radical indeed. It literally involves the switching, which many scientists think has already started, from a state which is habitable to human civilisation to one that is not. The alternative is a radical and rapid reconfiguration of human society to one that, in fact, is based upon the Quaker testimonies. I am talking about a revolution, of course. But let’s speak honestly, capitalism can only destroy the planet.

To say that ‘there are no non-radical futures’ and to admit the need for radical system change is to say that if we keep doing the things we’ve been doing for the last 35 years for the next 35, we will meet with extinction. This applies to the Quakers as well. However, the Quakers need to make fewer structural changes than society does. As I say, the Quaker business method is an excellent grounding for genuine non-hierarchal community. Nonetheless, I believe we still need to make major changes to effectively break open some locked doors that exclude many from Quakerism and prevent us from, to quote A&Q 18 again, truly ‘knowing one another in the things which are eternal’. To my mind this involves embracing Quakerism’s status as an anarchist movement, its egalitarian radicalism. It means becoming openly universalist with regard to faith, dispensing with membership, and ensuring there are no pockets anywhere within Quaker organisations that are subject to professional closure by a de facto higher status group. There should be no trustees of Quaker organisations.

The second phrase is one that I first heard at that meeting in November 2018 when I had the experience that brought me back to Quakerism. It is from a passage in Quaker Faith and Practice by Corder Catchpool, from his statement to the Court Martial which sentenced him to jail for his conscientious objection in World War One. In its original form it is a gendered statement, which reflects the language of the time. Of course, I do not want it to carry that meaning, so I have changed it slightly. It is: today a person must act.

We are on a fast-track to an unlivable planet. On all the available evidence if we leave the current system and its leaders in place, a humanitarian cataclysm, the likes of which the world has never seen before, will arrive in the next few decades. I am a science journalist. I have searched and searched for any scrap of evidence to suggest that this is not the case. But it is. Today a person must act. I do not mean everyone should join XR. But we must all act somehow to bring about the system change that the human future depends on.

What makes this a partial answer to A&Q 18 is that collective action builds community. Not only that, it grows it. Looking at the 2021 tabular statement I see that the decline in Quaker numbers slowed in the mid to late eighties and even picked up a bit one year. This was the period when Quakers were very active in the peace and LGBTQ+ liberation movements, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

But finally, and most importantly, I believe the answer to A&Q 18 that is most attuned to our current predicament can be found in A&Q 7. We should stop talking about ‘strangers’ for they are our future. We should ask ourselves urgently: are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?

In Love and Rage

On Extinction Rebellion and the Quakers and my involvement in both, originally published in Critical Muslim 31: Climate (July 2019)

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On 17 November 2018, my life changed.

Until then, for most of it, I’d felt like a spy abandoned behind enemy lines. The organisation I worked for had long collapsed and my contacts had vanished but I was still out there, living in a culture that didn’t apply to me, soaking up the information, waiting for the call when I could tell all and be understood.

My biggest problem was that while this organisation was dead, its ideology remained programmed within my brain, dictating how I saw the world.

You’re programmed too, by the way, but your programming is better aligned to the operating system and you don’t notice.

For example, unlike you, I don’t have a smartphone.

“Why not?” you say when you notice this.

“Because I don’t want one.”

“Why don’t you want one?”

“Why don’t you want an emu on a piece of string?” I want to answer but don’t. “Same question.”

A lot of it, I feel, has to do with wanting things, or in my case, not wanting them. I don’t want a smartphone; I don’t want new clothes; I don’t want a watch that tracks my location and communicates with my central heating to turn it on when I’m five minutes away from my flat.

I’ve read about the French social theorist René Girard and his theory of mimetic desire; everybody else wants these things so I should want them too. But I don’t. Why not? Because of the programming.

You probably think that I’m a deeply weird person by now and I don’t blame you, but what you’ve got to remember is that I was a spy for 20 years and in all that time, I avoided detection. I look and act very much as someone like me—a white, lower-middle-class, lower-middle-aged man who lives in the London suburbs—should do. There are undoubtedly quirks, like not having a smartphone, but nothing outrageous. I’m normal. You wouldn’t spot me.

But on 17 November 2018, my life changed. I learnt that my organisation wasn’t dead. I began my journey back in from the cold.

Extinction Rebellion flag on 17 November 2018 by Paul Appleyard (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It was billed as ‘Rebellion Day’ by the organisers, a group called Extinction Rebellion that no-one I knew had heard of. Now, after blocking off roads in four major locations in London for over a week, racking up more than 1,000 arrests in the process, lots of people have heard of them. They’re now known, rather snazzily, as “XR”. Back then, though, it was just “Extinction Rebellion” — quite the mouthful.

At 9:45 that Saturday morning I walked onto Westminster Bridge from the southern side, just up from Waterloo station. It was quiet: a fine, chilly but clear November morning. I stepped past a couple of policemen in yellow vests who, happily, didn’t register me. I walked across the bridge quite normally, as if I wanted to get to the other side, with the three-point instructions from the Rebellion Day Facebook page playing in my head.

Now on the bridge, I was up to point two: “Wander innocently up and down the bridge on the pedestrian walkways. Take selfies, admire the view. Don’t congregate in large groups. Wait for the signal…”

I’d come across Extinction Rebellion—how else?—on the internet. I think it was a Tweet from a Quaker account that tipped me off. I wasn’t a Quaker but I’d gone to a Quaker secondary school and had an abiding fondness for this tiny Christian movement best known for its unyielding pacifism. Every couple of years, my fondness would blossom into an appearance at a Quaker meeting where some Quaker would stand up and talk about “God” and I’d decide this really wasn’t for me and not come back. Twitter was safe, though.

I tell people now: “I’d always been concerned about the environment,” but that isn’t quite right. I’d always despaired about the environment. As I saw it, mankind had unleashed this great destructive machine over the Earth gobbling up forests and animals and sea-life, pumping it all back out as toxic clouds of black smoke, and no-one wanted to stop it. This was the machine that made aeroplanes and crisp packets; tennis balls and tins of tuna; laminated ID cards and laptop computers and everything else that we live on, everything that spells progress. What could I—one in seven-and-a-half billion—do about that?

Even the supposed environmental movement was fuelling the great machine. I remember a music festival where Greenpeace had a stand. They had some fancy set-up with virtual reality headsets and a mini-cinema and you could buy t-shirts and get a tote bag. But that kind of needless consumption was OK, yeah?

What wasn’t part of the great machine? Extinction Rebellion, apparently. I couldn’t believe it at first. I went on their website expecting to see logos of NGOs or charities planted in the navigation bar at the bottom, but there were none.

At the centre was a man called Roger Hallam, a former organic farmer and now PhD student at King’s College London in his early fifties. He’d been researching what kind of protest movement would have the greatest chance of success against the odds. Mass-participation non-violent civil disobedience was the answer, he contended, and each component was critical. Mass participation: 3.5 per cent of the population needs to join up (this statistic is actually from highly contested historical research by Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth). Non-violent: violence has much less chance of success. Civil disobedience: disruption, mass arrests and incarcerations are essential, without them power will not budge.

Together with a rag-tag bunch of activists, Hallam was putting his research into practice to achieve three goals. First: get the UK government to tell the truth on the state of the climate and ecological emergency. Second: commit the UK to carbon-neutrality (that is, the UK would produce no net carbon dioxide) by 2025 and halt biodiversity decline. Third: the transition to a carbon-neutral economy should not be overseen by the government but instead by citizens’ assemblies—randomly selected people from all over the country meeting to decide how to proceed.

Clicking about online, I found an article Hallam had written for The Guardian in June 2018, berating the government over its decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport. “CO2 emissions are altering our planet,” Hallam wrote, “and it will lead to humanity’s destruction unless we do something about it.”

Limiting global warming to below two degrees above pre-industrial levels is a central goal of the 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change, but look at the science, said Hallam—two degrees of global warming is already locked into the system.  

As we pass [two degrees], it is no longer possible to grow grains at scale in the centre of Russia and North America, where temperatures will increase twice as fast as the global average. Millions will starve, tens of millions of climate refugees will be heading in our direction, and the world economic system will collapse. We are hurtling towards this moment of truth.

I’d rarely read anything as stark. I felt that Hallam’s prediction of grain crop failures the moment we passed two degrees was too precise to be the whole truth, as climate scenarios always have error bars attached. I understood that he was taking worst-case scenarios to pronounce the under-two-degrees target dead. But I also knew that he had outlined just one of the many scenarios leading inextricably to misery for millions in the coming decades and annihilation by the end of the century. Arctic and Antarctic ice melt, rising sea-levels, salination and desertification of farmland and lethal weather events had all entered my peripheral vision. I just hadn’t derived the equation “CLIMATE CHANGE = MASS MURDER” (an Extinction Rebellion slogan) from those variables, much less apply it to those I loved. Now I had.

Back on Westminster Bridge I was still waiting for “the signal”, whatever that was. People were arriving—some singly, some in small groups—and loitering on the walkways either side of the road. I’d made my way three-quarters of the way across, towards the Houses of Parliament. Next to me three mild-mannered middle-class women, two in their twenties, one in her fifties, chatted about how low-level but wanton lawbreaking wasn’t normally their thing. I silently empathised.

We waited. Traffic on the bridge became patchy. Then it stopped. Ten, fifteen minutes passed. Just when I was starting to wonder if the whole thing was off, a woman in a yellow steward’s vest strode out into the road, swung her arm up over her head and whistled impressively. We all clambered over. People cheered and hugged. By now one of the few, if not the only, person not in a group, I whooped and clapped by myself, self-consciously.

We gathered and sat down on the cold tarmac for the speeches, delivered from a small platform with the help of a single loudspeaker balanced precariously on top of a stand. After about 20 minutes four police officers picked their way through the huddled mass, doing their best police officer impressions: “OK, we need to clear the bridge now. You all need to move on.” Nobody moved. Soon after we were told that Extinction Rebellion had blocked all five bridges as planned. Another hour went by and we learnt that the police would concentrate their arrests on London’s other, less populated, bridges. That meant we were able to stay on Westminster Bridge for the afternoon.

I was silent the whole time I was there. I’d dropped into a mood of attentive detachment, in a reverie that somehow did not shut out what was going on. There was a queue to speak on the platform, and anyone could join it. Someone read out their own Kipling-esque poem lamenting the destruction of nature. Another talked about alternatives to gas boilers. Several people did little more than express their exasperation at the endless abuse of the living planet.

The speech I can’t erase from memory was from an old man, not so steady on his feet. This was Mayer Hillman, whose name I recognised as one of climate science’s elders. “I’m here to give my support for what you’re doing,” he said croakily but confidently. “But I’m asking you to be realistic.” By which he meant accept defeat. India and China are developing and carbonising, he said, and there was nothing to do about that. Try and minimise your carbon footprint, he advised, but don’t imagine you can buy the Earth much extra time. The game is up.

After two or three hours of sitting in the cold I decided to stretch my legs. There were about three or four hundred of us on the bridge and it was largely empty. Once out of earshot of the speeches, all was calm but for the tourists streaming down the pedestrian walkways on either side. I joined them, bobbing along like a cork in a river of humanity towards London’s Southbank, where I joined thousands more people, all oblivious to what was happening on the bridges, all buying and buying and buying from the shops, bijou market stalls, chain restaurants, fuelling the great machine.

An obscure record I’d come to know during the time I’d spent in Paris in my twenties started playing in my head. Over a snaking double-bass figure tracked by a hoarse saxophone, with African percussion clattering all around, the French-Togolese actor Alfred Panou laid out where he was at with French society.

Je n’ai plus le moral nécessaire de penser gauche et d’agir droite.

(I no longer have the moral fibre to think left and act right.)

I headed back to Westminster Bridge. I no longer had the moral fibre to stay undercover.

Protestors and police on 17 November 2018 by Paul Appleyard (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The next morning, I felt an overwhelming desire to go to a Quaker meeting. It had been three years since my last visit. I felt this desire at a purely emotional level, as a force acting somewhere in my chest. I rationalised it. It would be good, I reasoned, to reconnect with the movement that had shaped me so that, 22 years after I’d left school, I ended up among the few hundred on the bridge and not the many thousands at the Southbank.

I’d spent the night at my in-laws and, as it happened, they lived five minutes from a Quaker meeting house. Yet instead I followed a magnetic pull towards central London and Friends House, the Quakers’ imposing administrative centre in Euston, 45 minutes away.

If people know one more thing about the Quakers, other than the pacifism, it’s normally that their religious services take place in silence. In fact, meeting for worship isn’t just about sitting in silence. When someone, anyone, feels strongly moved to speak, they can, and on any subject whatsoever. This spoken ministry tends to be brief, and it’s rare that more than a handful of people will minister during a meeting.

That morning, the first speaker was on her feet after five minutes, also a rarity. She spoke about Extinction Rebellion. The time for signing petitions, for going on marches, for concentrating purely on individual lifestyle choices had passed, she reckoned. The world that sustains us is on the verge of collapse. It is time for more direct action. She hoped that Extinction Rebellion would “continue to be Spirit-led” and could deliver the action needed. She sat down.

Wow, I thought. Whenever I’d brought up Extinction Rebellion with people I knew, they’d never heard of it. The previous night on the TV news, the bridges protest was given 30 seconds. Would anyone else who wasn’t on a bridge yesterday be talking about it right now?

A man stood up minutes later, reminiscing about walking through the woods with his mother who told him that the natural world itself was God and, in a way, he had never left that view. And then every five minutes or so, people stood and talked about the desecration of the planet and their hopes for Extinction Rebellion. I was astonished.

It was the most vocal meeting I have ever attended. In the gaps between the ministry I wondered if I was willing to be arrested for this movement, face time in jail even. The criminal justice system was utterly unknown to me and I feared it.

With the meeting nearing its end someone stood up and began reading from their phone:

Corder Catchpool served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War, but on the introduction of conscription he returned to England to give his witness as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for more than two years…

We heard Catchpool’s statement from his trial. He longed to return to the ambulance unit.

By the feverish activity of my hands, I might help to save a fraction of the present human wreckage. That would be for me no sacrifice. It costs far more to spend mind and spirit, if need be, in the silence of a prison cell, in passionate witness for the great truths of peace. That is the call I hear.

He honoured, he said, those who followed their conscience and had gone to fight.

In a crisis like the present it would be unbecoming to elaborate the reasons which have led me to a course so different. Today a man must act. I believe, with the strength of my whole being, that standing here I am enlisted in active service as a soldier of Jesus Christ, who bids every man be true to the sense of duty that is laid upon his soul.

Wow again. Normally when I’m reading or listening to someone speak, I have my guard up against anything that even comes close to referencing a higher power, let alone a specific deity or son thereof. Any mention of divinity means I can safely knock the whole argument down. The deities were man’s attempt to make sense of the world before science came along and showed, definitively, that there was no sense to the world, that everything was just stuff. I didn’t do God.

But my guard was down and these words hit me hard. They had somehow answered my questions without addressing them directly. They had, to use a Quaker expression, spoken to my condition.

On my way out I was asked if I’d like to stay for tea. I gave some dry-mouthed, garbled reply about having to be somewhere and left. What had just happened?

I still don’t quite know. I have learnt, though, that the support for Extinction Rebellion given voice at that meeting was no fluke. It’s not just that lots of Quakers cottoned on to Extinction Rebellion in the early days. XR is, I’d argue, the latest in a line of secular campaigning organisations including Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam in which the formative impact of Quakerism was essential.

Both of the ideological architects of XR—Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook—were strongly influenced by Quakerism: Hallam via an engagement with the peace movement in the 1980s and Bradbrook as someone who first attended Quaker meetings as a child and remained a Quaker well into adulthood. Rupert Read, the University of East Anglia philosophy professor and XR spokesperson, is a Quaker. So too is Molly Scott Cato, the Green MEP who was one of XR’s earliest political supporters.

And unlike its Quaker-driven forebears, which are mostly conventional organisations acting on matters of Quaker concern, XR has Quaker precepts baked into its operational DNA. They’re everywhere from the non-negotiable commitment to non-violence to the non-hierarchical structure and collective, consensual decision-making.

Back in November, walking shell-shocked out of the meeting, I didn’t know any of this. I just knew that I’d had what could best be described, even by a person as irreligious as me, as a religious experience.

I returned the following Sunday. Soon afterwards I started attending meetings closer to home and now I’m part of that small community. In the months leading up to the April protests, my local meeting was the one place I could go and talk about the climate crisis and XR and be immediately understood. I could also voice my willingness to be arrested and for that not to elicit looks of incomprehension and mild horror. Non-violent civil disobedience is an accepted way for Quakers to live their faith.

What has provoked more curiosity among Quakers, bizarrely, is my status as a former pupil of a Quaker school. “Quakerism must be at the core of who you are, then,” a Quaker friend suggested one morning before meeting for worship. At the time, I rubbished the idea. My parents weren’t Quakers and didn’t know much about Quakerism when they sent me to the school. My school wasn’t even that different from any other, most of the time; we sat in class, we did homework, we messed around when we could. I wasn’t spending my free time poring over Quaker Faith and Practice (the movement’s defining text). I was listening to rock and rap music on the radio, vegging out in front of the TV, chatting teenage inanities with my friends. Those were my formative influences.

But, no, this wasn’t right. I was one of the many young people who, as the fog of childhood clears, start to apprehend adult society as a vast morass of cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy. I lived in a country permanently at war while proclaiming peace, driven by greed while vaunting charity, avoiding all existential reflection while self-congratulating on its intellectual advancement.

Having held fast to its central commitments to peace, equality, simplicity and integrity for 350 years, Quakerism resonated deeply with me. I knew, though, that if I hadn’t gone to a Quaker school then some other dissident worldview would have captured me. Marxism and far-left politics might have appealed. Or, if I’d been born about 20 years later, I could see myself going from YouTube sermon to fundamentalist chatroom, along the path of radicalisation to who knows where.

My Quaker friend made her comment about Quakerism being at my core in February 2019, when Shamima Begum, the young British woman who left the UK at age 15 to join ISIS, was back in the news asking to be allowed to come home.

The following week in meeting for worship I wanted to stand up and say: “I am Shamima Begum.”

Westminster Quaker Meeting House by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On 16 April 2019, I stepped once again onto a London bridge occupied by Extinction Rebellion and into a very different experience. It wasn’t the same bridge—Waterloo Bridge this time—and I wasn’t the same man but other factors accounted for that difference.

In November when I returned to Westminster Bridge after my trip along the Southbank, I had the sense of rejoining a sideshow—the kind of minor protest rally you might come across in London on a weekend, look at for a few minutes and then move on. This time I was joining London’s main event.

It was the second day of the protests, a Tuesday. I’d spent the morning at the Marble Arch roundabout, normally a choking sink-hole of traffic fumes, but now occupied by XR and entirely traffic free. My XR ‘affinity group’ (a team of around 10 people who undertake civil disobedience actions together, with each person fulfilling a different role) had been assigned to the triumphalist monument called Marble Arch before the week began.

According to the affinity group rota we were supposed to be on shift, manning the roadblocks, but weren’t really needed. ‘Section 14’ orders had been issued for the three other sites—Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Oxford Circus—meaning that protesting at those places was an immediate arrestable offense. Marble Arch was not under Section 14 and was therefore relatively safe. Groups of protesters still blocked the roads branching off from the roundabout but only enough were needed to ensure the police didn’t try to push us back and shrink our territory.

I’d come to Waterloo Bridge with Rob, a Quaker who I’d first met at Westminster Meeting House, not far from Trafalgar Square, which I’d also started visiting. Rob was the only member of my affinity group to have turned up on shift that morning. The others had mostly taken up other jobs within XR: one as a driver, another on first aid, and one person had joined the Samba band. As an ‘arrestable’ (someone willing to be arrested) I hadn’t volunteered for any extra jobs. I saw my job as blocking roads and getting arrested at Marble Arch. Unlike some other arrestables, the idea of walking into the arms of the police wherever the need was greatest didn’t appeal.

I’d started the day in a sour mood. XR’s efforts the day before, which included blocking off the terminally congested crossroads at Oxford Circus by planting a bright pink boat complete with DJ booth in the middle of it, had garnered relatively meagre coverage, including another 30-second slot on the night’s BBC News bulletin. What would it take to get the greatest threat to human existence ever encountered a little higher up the news agenda? Wasn’t that stunt impressive enough?

The high spirits at Marble Arch were infectious, though, and my mood soon lifted. The previous night XR had held on to Waterloo Bridge despite a concerted effort by the police to clear it. The police had run out of holding cells after making 122 arrests and were shipping arrestees as far afield as Brighton to be booked. A conversation with a police officer that morning was relayed around the site. “You broke us last night,” the police officer had apparently said. Ha! We broke the police!

Really though? As Rob and I stepped onto Waterloo Bridge, my mood suffered a sharp reversal. A row of police vans lined up along one side of the bridge attended by a sizeable pack of police officers. After a chilly morning, London was now roasting under an unseasonably intense sun and the police officers’ yellow vests appeared oddly, painfully garish, like a detail from a nightmare.

There were cheers and whooping from the crowd further up on the bridge and four police officers came into view carrying a young man by his arms and legs, his face red from the heat. He was dumped down on the pavement by the side of the bridge, looking distraught. The police officers regrouped. They chatted and then another pack strode up the bridge, their faces hardened like masks, to where about 40 XR protesters sat in the full glare of the sun.

Hundreds of other people were gathered nearby on the south side of the bridge, many of them around a lorry trailer that was doubling as a stage for impromptu performances and speeches. These people—Rob and I would join them—were all breaking the law, but the police returned time and time again, always moving in packs, to fish someone out at random from the area in front of the lorry.

Over the preceding month I’d signed up to a range of online updates from environmental campaign groups and news services. I’d had all the gruesome details of environmental collapse drip-fed into my consciousness and now, watching these arrests, they started overflowing: the studies on Arctic ice melt (14,000 tonnes per second), the mass extinctions of wildlife (60 per cent drop in wild vertebrate populations in my lifetime), desertification (12 million hectares of arable land lost annually). Everything pointing towards inevitable human suffering and death on a scale never before witnessed.

What did the police think they were doing, exactly? Was a survivable future an unreasonable demand? Was there any other way to achieve it? Didn’t the police wonder if they might be in the wrong, arresting that young man barely in his twenties for whom a criminal record would be a longstanding blight, but was still sitting there patiently? How about when they helped that grandmother to her feet and carted her off to the police van? Aren’t these the people they are paid to protect?

A sense of injustice overwhelmed me and I wasn’t keen to stick around. Rob and I returned to the underground station and said goodbye. He went home to nurse a throat infection and I headed to Oxford Circus.

There the party was in full swing. House music thumped out of the pink boat plonked at the intersection of two of London’s busiest shopping streets. All around people threw up their arms and danced in the sunshine like revellers at an all-day rave in a remote field in Gloucestershire. Except this was Oxford Circus and tourists were streaming in and out of NikeTown, H&M, TopShop carrying plastic bags shining slick and oily in the sun, staying on the pavement even though the road was clear, hitting the shops like normal, as if a bright pink yacht with “TELL THE TRUTH” written on the side and a 40-foot mast was something you saw every day in Oxford Circus—maybe part of some megabucks promotional event and we were all happy to party it up with our favourite brand.

A man in his twenties stood up next to the boat DJ, fiddled with his mic and the music came down a notch. I can’t remember the exact words, but they went something like this:

We need to remember why we’re here. We’re here out of love for the living world. Which is being destroyed. We act in solidary with those peoples all around the world who are already suffering and dying because of this. We are now in open rebellion [cheers from the crowd] against governments around the world, and our government, for failing to protect us, the people, from this catastrophe…

In the shade, under the hull, sat the ‘barnacles’—people who were joined to each other via ‘lock-on’ tubes or stuck to the boat, or the trailer it sat on, with glue.

I’d arrived during a lull in arrests and only a few police were present. Had it not been for their hi-vis vests and flak-jackets, they could have been mistaken for bystanders, looking on and wondering what all the fuss was about.

With no-one to talk to, I sent a text to see if any of my affinity group were around and headed down to Marble Arch. Once there, I met up with Laura, the group’s Samba band member. Both abuzz with what we’d witnessed over the last two days, we sat and talked a-mile-a-minute while a folk band played on the lorry-trailer stage. Her phone pinged with a message from the site chatgroup. The police had increased their presence at the roadblock on Edgware Road and reinforcements were needed. We headed over.

A crowd of 20 or so XR protesters were blocking the right-hand lane of the road while four or five officers stood around a police car immediately on their left watching them. I recognised a couple of people I’d met that morning holding up a long vinyl banner with the slogan “LIFE OR DEATH” in fat white letters on a black background. I joined them and we started chatting like work colleagues catching up after a long weekend.

More XR reinforcements arrived. We chanted some slogans and tried to learn some XR songs. At some point someone brought over a Bluetooth speaker and we sang along with Bohemian Rhapsody instead. As it turned dark, one of the site coordinators doled out hummus sandwiches to the banner-holders. People introduced themselves and struck up conversations without awkwardness, as if in a movie-fantasy London. Many of us had never been part of any movement or political party or activist group before. All of us, I think, had stared into the abyss that was claiming lives all across the Equator and could well claim ours, too, or our children’s. We’d not spoken of this to many people before; it had been our secret shame. But now, incredibly, we’d found each other. We hugged when we said goodbye.

I divided my time over the next two days between Marble Arch and Oxford Circus, which also became a site for mass arrests. A pack of police would walk up from the vans parked on Regent Street, move through the crowd, who may be dancing, standing or sitting, and surround someone at random:

Can you hear me? Do you speak English? OK. There is a Section 14 order served on this site, meaning that if you stay here you will be arrested. If you want to protest, go to Marble Arch but you will be arrested if you stay here. Do you understand?

Fear tightened my throat each time they approached. Would I be next? Would I keep my cool if I was? Would I fold and head down to Marble Arch? Or would I draw on my bubbling reserves of anger and resentment and start getting testy, aggressive even, as all the arrestees before me hadn’t?

I never found out. I didn’t stay at Oxford Circus for much more than an hour at a stretch. I wasn’t arrested.

My ‘Rebellion Week’, as it had originally been billed, ended early on Friday afternoon as family commitments called. I returned to central London on Sunday for meeting for worship at Westminster Meeting House.

Taking my place in the large wood-panelled meeting room, I felt jittery with excitement, as if at a concert and waiting for a favourite singer to appear and belt out the hits that had wowed me a few months before. I should have known better; no two meetings are ever the same, and the first half hour passed in silence. Then, one of the meeting’s regulars rose to voice their support for XR. This was hesitant, careful ministry, and all the more affecting for that.

It was followed by ministry from a Quaker visiting from Italy, similarly enthused by XR and, after that, from an XR activist attending his first Quaker meeting. Five minutes later a rangy man with close-cropped hair and a Northern accent stood up and observed how the injunction “attend to what love requires of you”, a phrase much beloved by Quakers, had been at the heart of everything he’d witnessed during the XR protests. He had seen XR protesters acting out of love for the police and their families, even as they were arrested. Thanks to this, he said, he had come to a deeper appreciation of non-violence. It meant more than “just not hitting the police”. Acting non-violently, with love, allowed for much greater possibilities than that.

We got chatting over tea after the meeting. During the previous week, coverage of the XR protests had grown steadily so that climate change and ecological collapse were occasionally being discussed in honest terms in the mass media. This was an incredible feat in such a short space of time, I said. He replied that XR had exceeded his expectations, too, and he almost felt overtaken by events. How long had he been involved? “I’m one of the co-founders,” he replied cheerfully.

His name was Ian Bray, a Quaker from Huddersfield. He had met Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam in one of the activist groups that preceded XR when Bradbrook and Hallam were in the early planning stages. “I didn’t have to try and import Quaker values into XR,” he told me. “They were already there.”

I’d found myself, quite unexpectedly, at the centre of something very big. For the last 20 years I would mention the Quakers and elicit only vague recognition or jokey references to porridge. For the last six months I would drop Extinction Rebellion into conversations and draw a blank. Now these two groups’ values and ideals, which are so closely linked, were setting the agenda.

I left the meeting house carrying the intoxicating feeling I was riding a great wave which would build and build until it carried the whole world along with it.

The pink boat at Oxford Circus, 19 April 2019 by Steve Eason (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The following week, it broke. By Monday all of XR’s sites apart from Marble Arch had been cleared of protesters. On Tuesday, I returned to my computer at work and heard again the steady drip, drip, drip of dismal environmental news as it landed in my inbox or Twitter feed.

On Thursday, the day after the last protester had been cleared from the roadblocks at Marble Arch, I left work to join the closing ceremony, which was quickly rebranded a ‘pausing ceremony’, for the Rebellion Week, which had lasted 11 days.

It was a beautifully clear and slightly chilly evening. Several hundred XR supporters sat on the grass by Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, just across from the Marble Arch roundabout. I arrived late and joined the standing circle of people at the edge of the seated crowd.

The powerful solar-powered PA rig that XR had used at Marble Arch had vanished and, in an echo of the Westminster Bridge protest, had been replaced by a single speaker, which three people held above their heads. A woman spoke in a calm voice about feeling grateful for everyone who had joined in the XR protests, for the police, for the patience of the Londoners who’d had their lives disrupted. She spoke of her love for the world and how we had to rebel to protect it and just as it all became a bit New Agey, the woman next to me pointed up at the sky and a plane on its descent into Heathrow with another behind it visible in the distance.

“Every ninety seconds,” she said sadly. “Every ninety seconds.”

A young Muslim woman led the crowd in a trance-like repetition of two elements of the Adhan, the call to prayer, before Helen Burnett, a Church of England Deacon who I’d met at Marble Arch on Tuesday morning, delivered a sermon, and a Rabbi gave a short speech.

Rebellion Week had begun with a multi-faith service—led by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, outside St Paul’s Cathedral—and now it was ending with one. This seemed right, considering the crucial role that religious groups had played throughout. Churches and meeting houses and temples (and doubtless other places of worship I was unaware of) had hosted XR protesters from outside London and many kept their doors open to activists in need of a rest throughout the day.

After the religious speeches, things turned vague and New-Agey again and I headed off, feeling intensely sad. Above me the planes continued their descents, pumping untold tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air. Every ninety seconds, like my neighbour said, every ninety seconds.

Had XR made any difference? Would people stop buying all the mountains of crap they didn’t need now? Ditch their cars and business trips and smartphones? Would they stop wanting these things? Would the rainforests no longer be burnt to make way for oil palms and livestock? Gas pipelines be turned off? Plastics factories shuttered?

I reached the pedestrian crossing leading to the Marble Arch traffic island and my sadness gave way to anger. A week ago, I stood here when it was traffic-free and the air was clear. Now it was thick with fumes. There are up to 64,000 premature deaths a year in the UK due to air pollution, one recent study estimated. Sixty-four thousand people, each year!

I crossed the road and felt the rage welling up inside me and wondered if I could contain it. This sometimes happens as I walk up the long main road leading to my flat on my way home from work. I think about these public health and environmental studies and the human misery—both present and future—they express in cold data and yearn to get even, to commit some outrage.

The main road is always chock-a-block. Always. And there’s normally just one person in each car. Maybe they make the same journey every day, and don’t care that they are contributing to 64,000 early deaths a year, or 14,000 tonnes of Arctic water per second flowing into the sea, or carbon dioxide concentrations reaching levels not seen since the Pliocene era when forests grew at the South Pole and sea levels were 20 metres higher than today.

How do these lone daily drivers think all this will pan out? How will we escape the catastrophes—the heatwaves, the floods, the food shortages? Do we expect the laws of nature will bend to accommodate us? That we can throw our children off a cliff and they will not hit the ground?

What? Were you expecting a happy ending?

Glial Club

Sometime in 1997, two slightly rumpled academics (who’d rather be in the lab) are standing in a classroom introducing a unit on the “Physiology and Pharmacology of the Central Nervous System” to 30 rumpled undergrads (who’d rather be in bed).

Glee
A still from the hit musical neuroscience show, “Glial Club”

The lights are dimmed and a transparency is slipped on to the whirring projector. A bit of fiddling with the focus and the spartan text appears on screen:

What are “brain cells”?

Two types:

As a member of the rumpled mass I copy these words onto my notepad, adding “- around 90% of all brain cells, from Greek for ‘glue’, provide nutrients for neurones, other housekeeping functions” to the “glial cells” bullet point, in accordance with the words of the lecturer.

And so it came to pass that glial cells feature at the top of the page of the first notes I ever took in the first class I ever took on neuroscience. They didn’t get another look-in at any other point during my brief and unglittering academic career.

No, when it came to the brain we were interested in the 100 billion neurones that, we were told, send all the information buzzing around the brain and make us who we are. Glial cells were viewed by neuroscientists as, at worst, the cranial concrete into which the neuronal wiring is laid and, at best, neurones’ housekeepers.

How times change. Over the last 15 years scientists have realised that glial cells hold considerable sway in how the whole house is run; there hardly seems to be a decision taken where they don’t have some influence. Continue reading “Glial Club”

The Importance of Alternatives: Critical Psychiatry and Narrative Therapy

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. But, still, people in the feline flaying business can get so accustomed to the accepted techniques they forget there may be alternative approaches available.

That this idea can be applied beyond the delicate art of cat skinning has been the subject of a couple of the articles I’ve written during my three month long absence1 from My Last Nerve. Both of these articles relate to psychiatry and our approach to mental illness and I’m going to build on them here.

Critical psychiatry: Thomas Szasz and an alternative to the disease model

Dr Thomas Szasz

The idea that psychological and behavioural problems are diseases of some description is now firmly embedded in the popular psyche.

We’ve all heard about depression being some sort of neurochemical imbalance, or how attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is likely caused by faulty genes. In this view, people with schizophrenia are wired wrong and need to be dosed with heavy meds (whether they like it or not) to keep those buzzing live wires from shorting out.

It might not enjoy the same level of publicity or acceptance but there is an alternative approach to mental illness. Many of its proponents belong to the “critical psychiatry” movement and some of them go so far as to reject the legitimacy of the phrase “mental illness” outright.

The best known of these is Thomas Szasz, one of the fathers of critical psychiatry, and a man for whom the words “radical”, “controversial” and “maverick” could have been invented (some of his critics might be inclined to add “mad” to that list). Continue reading “The Importance of Alternatives: Critical Psychiatry and Narrative Therapy”

Radiohead’s ‘Bodysnatchers’ / the Mind-Body Problem

From the album “In Rainbows” (2007)

Listen to “Bodysnatchers”

No warning, no shuddering to life, no reason why, the riff just begins. It’s mechanical yet fluid, terrifying and irresistible, a circular algorithm cycling ineluctably to Point A, barely contained by the blistering speakers. Soon enough, harmonics are flying off like sparks from a pinwheel.

Trapped within, a voice:

I do not

Understand

What it is

I’ve done wrong

Who does? Who honestly deserves to live like this? As an invisi-mini-me, a homunculus, locked inside a skull, wired up to all these bewildering inputs, riding around in a fleshy container? Continue reading “Radiohead’s ‘Bodysnatchers’ / the Mind-Body Problem”

Memory in Autism: Interview with Dermot Bowler

Flaking Seaside Mural (Essaouira, Morocco)
Flaking Seaside Mural (Essaouira, Morocco)

Take a minute out from whatever you’re doing, close your eyes, and think back to your last holiday.

The minute’s up. Done it? Of course you haven’t: nobody takes orders from online text. In which case while I’m rambling on here try to imagine closing your eyes and remembering your last holiday.

But trying to imagine remembering something is quite a feat of dissociation; you might have to close your eyes to achieve it. So close your eyes and try to imagine yourself closing your eyes and…

You get the point. Hopefully by now there are little stories and images from your last holiday bobbing around in the back of your mind. How lovely. The way that will have happened, that little exercise in memory recall, probably seems completely “normal” to you.

But many people would remember a moment from their last holiday much in the same way that you remember, say, the boiling point of water in Kelvin1: as “an isolated fact without much self-involvement”. So, your way of doing things (so ego-driven! why do you always put yourself at the centre of everything?) isn’t that normal after all. Continue reading “Memory in Autism: Interview with Dermot Bowler”

“Forever Unfulfilled”: Belated Postscript

Two months later, I’m picking up where the last post left off. If you read all 5,500 words of it, congratulations – you don’t have ADHD1. If not, then its starting point was the fact "Mama Weer All Crazee Now"that we’re – yes, that’s right: me and you – spending more and more time pressing buttons and keys, clicking mice and gawping at the result on LCD screens. Then clicking and pressing again. And again. By doing this, I wrote, we’re rewiring our brains so that they resemble “those in the skulls of ADHD patients”. Mama, weer all crazee now.

By a curious twist of fate the very thing that prevented me from blogging for so long also provided the material for this postscript: I enlisted in an experiment to test my own hypothesis. Continue reading ““Forever Unfulfilled”: Belated Postscript”

Forever Unfulfilled: Attention-Deficit, Addiction and the 21st Century Brain

This was written back in January but is, I hope, still relevant. I welcome all comments or e-mails on this topic – please do get in touch.

Photograph (C) 2007 James Brooks

The disconcerting background noise rumbling under the crystalline digital audio of the internet age is intensifying. The unsettling idea that our use of modern technology is somehow rewiring our brains has found increasing expression over the last couple of years. And from the titles of the (mostly American) books propounding this hypothesis it would seem that the neural re-fit is a bit of a botch job. There’s Mark Bauerlein’s thundering The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry Gary Small’s iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind and Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

Attention, and our decreasing ability to pay any, is a key issue. You don’t have to look very far to see the harbingers of Jackson’s “Dark Age”. Just witness the crisis in publishing as we’re unable to give books – those weighty slabs of text with all their snaking, idea-laden prose – our undivided. Newspapers are similarly too much. We substitute with skim-read internet articles and the inane volleys of YouTube. Blogs look overlong and unwelcoming. Twitter, with its 140-character-per-post limit, would seem to be about as much many of us can handle. Continue reading “Forever Unfulfilled: Attention-Deficit, Addiction and the 21st Century Brain”

Self-Appreciation

On deciding last night that I’d like to kick off this blog by revisiting and deconstructing a work of feature science journalism I admire1, I re-read Will Self’s “Head-hunting for Eternity”, published in Esquire magazine in 1993. The historians among you will recognise this as a date from the long and arduous pre-internet age and the artefact in question hasn’t yet been excavated from its paper bed for online display. In short, I can’t link to it and you’ll just have to take my word that it is what it is.

Will Self
Will Self

The 4000 words of “Head-hunting…” can be found nestled in Junk Mail, a collection of Self’s early  journalism and Self-lovers would do well to buy a copy if only to see how far he’s come as a writer in the last 20 years. Here we catch him in the throes of devotion to his master, William Burroughs, and The Great Junksman plays a lead role in at least a third of the articles2.

Self’s usual satirical conceit is to twist, amplify and distort the mundane through the prism of his sesquipedalian prose. As such he performs the reverse manoeuvre to Burroughs, who depicted his obscene fantasies in a matter-of-fact voice descended from hard-boiled crime fiction. In “Head-hunting…”, however, Self is called upon to investigate a real-world phenomenon straight out of the Burroughs lexicon: cryonics – the “preservation of legally dead humans or pets at […] temperature[s] below −2000F/ −1300C […] in the hope that future technology can restore them to life, youth and health” (as the Cryonics Institute has it). Accordingly, he reins in the prolix, makes like Burroughs and keeps the lunch naked. Continue reading “Self-Appreciation”