Dr Justine Huxley, CEO of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation & Peace, reflects on deepening societal divisions, climate breakdown and conflict, highlighting the need to move beyond denial, and tailor our responses for the coming storm.
Over the last 6 months, the fractures in our world seem to be deepening at an alarming rate. The far right attack in New Zealand, the Islamist attacks in Sri Lanka and the antisemitic shooting in California came in rapid succession and shocked the world. The Brazilian elections last year and the rise of populism in Europe show a worrying trend towards intolerance. Within the UK, we have been on maximum alert for terrorist attacks for several months and the European elections show a country polarising ever more deeply.
Alongside this, migrants and BME peoples in Britain are facing increasingly overt racism in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Surveys suggest racists are feeling increasingly confident in deploying overt abuse, with 76% of BME peoples having experienced being targeted by a stranger, rising from 64% in 2016, and racially motivated hate crime increasing steadily every year since 2013. Interconnected with these trends, economic injustice continues to escalate, with the gap between rich and poor widening. In the UK in 2018, the richest fifth of the population saw incomes rise by 4.7%. In contrast, the poorest fifth saw benefits squeezed and incomes shrink by 1.6%.
In this landscape of intensifying calamity, a wave of greater realism around climate breakdown has emerged since the Intergovernmental panel’s report last year, which gave us a maximum of 12 years before runaway climate breakdown leads to widespread social and ecological collapse. This has catalysed David Attenborough to take a much stronger stand, raising public awareness in the mainstream, along with the rapid growth of Extinction Rebellion, backed by prominent figures such as Lord Rowan Williams – and the arrival of Greta Thunberg, and her impressive ability to mobilise youth and speak uncompromising truths to power . Also indicative of this shift through denial into greater responsibility, is the landmark ruling by the Dutch courts, forcing their government to act, sparking a raft of similar cases around the world from Norway to New Zealand to Uganda.
Global and local conflict
The relationship between climate and conflict has been well established for over two decades now, but with a much increased availability of academic and military evidence in more recent years (see David Wallace-Wells, Uninhabitable Earth, for a useful summary or read the Pentagon’s leaked message to President Bush in 2004,which warns of nuclear-scale conflict as early as the 2020s.) Evidence demonstrates that this link does not just lie in the future but is already an exacerbating component of existing conflicts (for example the run of failed harvests that contributed to the collapse of Syria). On a different scale, hot weather has been reliably linked to increases in aggression, crime and violence all around the world.
Although the connection is frequently overlooked within the mainstream, the polarisation in the UK already includes a relationship with climate, as Brexit was partly driven by fears about migration, following the wave of refugees in 2016, many of whom were fleeing countries like Somalia, Iraq and Syria where climate has been implicated as an antecedent to violence. The UNHRC reports that over 21 million people have been forcibly displaced due to climate breakdown alone since 2008 and that number is rising all the time. Where people are displaced and resources are threatened, persecution and intolerance invariably follow or escalate (for example for Rohingya refugees following the Bangladeshi floods).
Climate is likely to generate conflict closer to home via a number of additional routes – food security being primary. Last year, the dry summer lowered our grain production by 10%. Climate scientists in the UK, such as Professor Jem Bendell, see even a relatively short run of two or three successive droughts like last summer as having the potential to lead to serious food shortages. Droughts in other countries regularly lead to bans on export, our global grain stores are extremely limited, and the UK is not food self-sufficient. Food banks have become ubiquitous in recent years due to economic hardship and Britain lacks a resilience plan for our agricultural industry to adapt in order to avert something of this nature. The likelihood of impact on those with fewer resources is very real, and will undoubtedly intensify intolerance and civil unrest. (Indeed civil unrest is already with us in a different way, in the form of XR).
The cost of climate breakdown is already high and is set to rise dramatically. One study commissioned by 20 governments in 2012 concluded climate disruption will cost the equivalent of 3.2% of global GDP, or 11% in less developed countries. The pressure on resources will change the face of our society, leading to the hardening of attitudes, scapegoating and hate-based extremism and creating the conditions for more authoritarian and fascist forms of leadership to gain ground.
Moving forward together
So the complex web of interrelated crises that have been looming in recent years are fast becoming up close and personal. Economic injustice and the climate emergency we have been sleep walking into, are closely bound up with the deepening divisions at both local and international level. Those two factors – reflecting a worldview way past its sell by date – are set to become the drivers of conflict in a way this world has never seen before. That requires us to put naive optimism aside and tailor our responses accordingly.
At St Ethelburga’s we are reviewing how each of our areas of work can adapt to this landscape and make a meaningful and realistic contribution. In September we will be launching a programme aimed at building capacity for greater resilience in community influencers and faith leaders. We want to prepare individuals and communities by fearlessly mapping the trajectory of different aspects of potential collapse (such as food shortages and escalating extremism) and making practical action plans to strengthen local community relationships. And, as the challenges get more frequent and intense, engaging with a process of ‘deep adaptation’, which is about preparing inwardly, rooting ourselves more firmly in the values by which we want to live.
We’ll also be inviting cross-faith collaborations to tender for a small funding pot to deliver work around the themes of power, privilege, hate-crime and extremism, in the context of making allies for the marginalised. We will announce this very soon.
We recognise and honour the commitment, dedication, solidarity, leadership and hope that all of our contacts and collaborators are showing in response to a darkening landscape. This is not a work any of us can do alone – we need each other more than ever . If you feel drawn to reach out or partner with us on those themes, or share your own strategies and stories, we welcome your responses and connection.
As Rebecca Solnit said, “When things fall apart, we find out what binds us together.”
Racist behaviour: Opinium survey, March 2019.
Gap between rich and poor: The Office for National Statistics, reported by the BBC, Feb 2019.
IPCC report: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45775309
Conflict and climate: Chapter 4, Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells, 2019.
Pentagon message: Leaked report to the Observer, Feb 2004
A series of droughts and collapsed harvests in Syria led to mass migration of rural people to cities, contributing to civil unrest and vulnerability to extremism. See the Economist, May 2019 for a summary.
Displacement: UNHRC report, 2016.
Food shortages: Professor Jem Bendell, University of Cumbria, Deep Adaptation, 2018
Impact on GDP: David Wallace-Wells, 2019.