Spending your marbles

Everyone loves a marble run – it must be one of the most enduring toys. Its addictive fascination is evident in the way in which zoos, attractions and waiting rooms around the world raise money by inviting people to watch a small object follow its trajectory and end up at the bottom with a satisfying clunk. Gravity never varies, but the size of the coin or the speed at which you propel it into the opening gives just enough variety to keep having another go – until parental patience or the coin supply runs out.

With a marble run, after phases of patient construction and careful experimentation, the denouement will often come with the irresistable urge to grab a whole handful of marbles to feed in all at once, giving off a panoply of sound as they navigate the different turns, wheels and drops before congregating in a huddle at the finish. And if, as in the best marble runs, there are a variety of destination-points, within seconds of the finish they may well be gathered back together and propelled into the feeder point in a slightly different way to see which destination ‘wins’. And so on and on, until the noise, mess and chaos is declared ENOUGH.

The reason for talking about marble runs is that I think that every time you buy something, it’s like shoving a handful of marbles down a marble run. There are different places the marbles can end up – all at the base of different towers. Let’s label them. There is the ‘social’ base where part of the price you pay goes to the people that made or transported what you are buying and affects the conditions in which they live. There is the ‘nature’ base, which represents the way in which the product was made can either run down or build up a natural resource, for example, the difference between fish caught through trawling or through methods with less of an impact on marine life. And then there is the ‘money’ base. We’ll come back to that.

There are different ways to change where the marbles end up. Most of the time, the speed or combination of marbles fed through the top won’t make much difference. More reliable redistribution of the marbles means making changes to the way in which the pieces are joined together – in our terms that means paying a fairer wage, changing working conditions, or making pollution, waste or carbon more expensive. Some of these changes might not affect the overall number of marbles that need putting in – just their distribution.

Now, back to the ‘money’ base. This is really two bases – one is the profits on your purchase that go to the companies involved – profits that are distributed to shareholders and are the foundation of what keeps the company in business. The second ‘money base’ is the return to your pocket when products are sold at a price below their ‘real’ cost, taking into account aspects that the market doesn’t price well. For example, when awful labour standards drives the price right down- like those that led to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. The money base is important. Profits enable businesses to invest and sustain jobs. They enable more ethical suppliers to generate investment and replicate their approaches at scale. Consumer savings can be less a luxury than a lifeline to supplying families with essentials. Both can be what enables charitable giving. But if the return to the money base continues at a disproportionate rate, it’s the ‘social’ and ‘nature’ bases will be run right down.

Even allowing the marbles to accumulate disproportionately in the money base, and then using donating to charity to try to tackle the lack of marbles in the other bases is like throwing the same marbles down the same run in the hope that they land differently. It is far less efficient and effective than making the changes in the connections that make the marbles end up in different bases. There is no point making millions premised on rainforest destruction and then claiming virtue by generous donations to tree planting. Granted in the event of no other change, the donation is better than no donation but if the desire is to have an impact then addressing supply chains would be much more effective. That often means consumers need to be willing to pay a higher price.

In some cases, changing the connections in the marble run might be price neutral. However, the likelihood is that it will mean fewer marbles ending up either in profits or in your wallet. Many people are naturally wary of inflated prices when companies claim they are putting more marbles in the nature pot, but are actually just trying to justify higher prices or ‘greenwash’ their practices. Others are wary of companies promoting products that are badged as ‘enviromentally friendly’ in the full knowledge that the most environmentally friendly (and viable) approach would be not to purchase any such product.

We cannot consume our way out of the planetary crisis but nor can we cease to produce and consume. The challenge is to identify those companies and products that are asking a price that is perhaps best described as a ‘do no harm’ price that has not been artifically inflated.

I long for the day when ‘do no harm’ standards are the baseline – where there is a price default that prevents both labour exploitation and destruction of the natural world – rather than these products being badged and marketed as the exception. But for the time being, it’s down to us to work out where we want our marbles to end up.

The church and climate change

I have been wondering about why, despite the facts, are we not seeing a strong, distinctively Christian response to climate change? Perhaps our sense is that that the problem is so vast and so intractable, we acknowledge it is important, but focus our limited time and energy on where we see more of a connection between what we do and the outcome. Christians are not alone in that. It feels like much of the rest of the world is doing the same. So here are some thoughts about how we might think about it differently. I am not claiming anything original or definitive. I am sure there is lots out there.

My growing feeling is that every year we don’t act, we not only exacerbate the physical problems but I think we also miss the point. We can’t pursue our individual relationship with God without reference to the bigger picture. God’s heart and vision is for the whole world to be redeemed and restored. His Kingdom is where all people live in harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbour and with creation (credit to Tearfund for the four relationships). In our broken world, our job be part of his work to bring about wholeness in ALL of these relationships, and all of them are interdependent. If we are not in harmony with our neighbour or creation, we can’t be at peace with God. When we share the ‘peace’ before taking communion, we symbolise that we know our relationship with our neighbour is important. But, in a reflection of our society and culture, the church along with everyone else, has taken creation for granted and it has not been a big part of the story. Now we are being given a wake-up call.

At it’s heart, climate change is a symptom of the broken relationship between people and creation. It has resulted from an arrogance that says we don’t need the natural world other than for our own exploitation; we can insulate ourselves from the seasons, consume only according to our taste and convenience, engage with wildlife only as a tourist, and experience distance only as a change in time zone. Climate change proves that to be the biggest lie of our time, as our children and their children’s generations will find out to their cost. In contrast, the Biblical picture of our relationship with creation is one of wise stewardship, of awe and reverence towards the way in which God’s power, majesty and creativity are displayed. (This is a much bigger theme in it’s own right and is well described in Tearfunds “The Restorative Economy” report from 2015.)

Not only does our arrogance towards creation have a catastrophic effect on the natural world, it also breaks our relationships with our neighbours. Air pollution, rising sea levels, changing rainfall, desertification, water scarcity are all problems from which we in the UK are relatively protected but are proving life and death issues for our neighbours in poorer countries. Ruth Valerio argues passionately in ‘Just Living’ that we cannot claim to love our neighbour whilst living unsustainably. In the past we might have been less aware of the consequences. Now we cannot pretend to be anything other than wilfully blind to them.

And our broken relationship with creation also affects our relationship with ourselves. Not only are we dependent on the natural world for our life support systems as a species, but also our personal wellbeing is profoundly affected by our relationship with nature. It seems like a statment of the totally obvious, that we feel better in ourselves when we experience the natural world. But yet, our society seems to be doing its best to live counter-productively. Even the way we talk of it as ‘the environment’ posits the natural world as something separate rather than something integrated.

So if our broken relationship with creation destroys the natural world, hurts our neighbour and undermines our personal wellbeing it is of core relevance to our relationships with God, not an optional additional ‘issue’ or ‘outreach’, for Christians with a particular interest. God cares passionately about it and so should we. There shouldn’t need to be EcoChurch, we should just have Church.

So then the question is what next? If it’s core to our faith, it can’t be a question of adopt ‘meatless mondays’, tick that box and move on. Like giving financially, it’s not something we should do out of guilt. Our passion to see the wholeness and harmony of God’s Kingdom on earth needs to change our worldview and how we make decisions, how we spend our time, what we buy, what we mean by living, sacrificially. There is plenty of advice out there on how to live more sustainably or call for broader change. What’s lacking is not the ‘how’ or the ‘what’, it’s the impetus to do it. Yes it will be inconvenient and counter cultural, so we wont do it unless we get inside the way God sees it. And we didn’t sign up for an easy life, right?

As a post-script,  I can’t have been the only Christian to have watched Amazing Grace in 2006 and wondered what was the equivalent struggle in our age to anti-slavery in the 19th century; where passionate advocacy and commitment by Christians, as a result of their faith, could make a real impact in rectifying a deep wrong. Surely there is no systemic injustice underpinning our economy and society that is more pressing and more fundamental for our generation than climate change.