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written by Stuart
November 2008

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website updated on 18 September 2016

Merry Global Warming
Quakers, families, work and international travel in the twelfth and first months

This time last year I had to inform one of my local Quaker co-workers that I would be out of action for a month because I was going to Australia for Christmas and New Year. The response took me a little by surprise: "MERRY GLOBAL WARMING", he said (it sounded as though it was in capital letters). Although surprised, I didn't feel guilty — because the purpose of my travel was to visit my mother (just before her 102nd birthday) whom I had not seen since her 100th birthday.

One of my professional interests has for many years been public health ethics, one of the big issues being sustainability, so I share the concerns of many about the (inappropriate) use of carbon-based fuels. An important dimension in the ethical analysis (and the Quaker perspective) around sustainability is justice — specifically, intergenerational justice.

Is it overstretching the argument to propose that actually keeping in touch with our preceding and succeeding generations is part of intergenerational justice? Here lies one of the typical dilemmas of ethics — when important principles or values seem to or actually do conflict.

Now you may reasonably ask how it comes about that my mother and I live on opposite sides of the world. Clearly there are both long answers and short answers to that sort of question, so let me for now offer a rather short answer - it's because my work brought me to this country (yes, I have been through immigration and visa checks and health checks etc. — a long time ago, I'm pleased [for my sake] to say). And my work led me (not forcibly, I admit) to live in Hong Kong for most of the 1980s, flying regularly between Hong Kong and Europe and Australia.

Let me briefly mention two couples (living in the UK) whom we have known for years and see regularly. One husband works collaboratively in leading international research (and regularly on site) with colleagues in the USA and Europe; his wife likewise with colleagues in Australia. Another is an international researcher whose fieldwork is in the north of the Nordic countries. She and her husband have family including grandchildren in Australia and in Europe. We all can't live and work as we wish without very large numbers of air miles. But I guess it's still a fair question to ask whether this is the way we should live and work.

What do we think about the early Quakers? Many were committed travellers, throughout the British Isles and to and from North America. They certainly didn't consume much fossil fuel in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries — but what if the concern of British Quakers for wide outreach (or support) in the 21st century matched that of the early days? Do we find ourselves thinking that the purpose of travel (especially of flying) might be morally or environmentally relevant? Is outreach OK, work possibly OK, tourism not OK, family commitment a bit iffy and possibly an excuse?

I'm sure I should pay more attention to carbon offsetting and encourage my friends to do so too. I can't help thinking that my Friend's response last year (the title of this piece) was meant to make me feel if not guilty then at least admonished. However, my commitments haven't gone away — my mother will be 103 any day now. But I know that in the old days — even when I first arrived in the UK 43 years ago — moving around the world meant giving up on seeing family for a long time or for ever. Is that what we really should do now?

Written for The Friend magazine
by Stuart Donnan
Southampton Quaker Meeting