Visalia MM Looks at Climate Change

Visalia, CA, near Sequoia National Park, is the urban center (pop. 100,000) of Tulare County, a rural, agricultural region with a population of nearly 400,000 people. Transportation is a major issue in this region. People typically drive long distances on a daily basis at high speeds on 2-lane farm roads. The Visalia Friends Meeting (Quaker) is on property donated by the generous (and very friendly) Lovetts, Bill and Beth. Adjacent to the Lovett farm is an experimental community with a decidedly “green” attitude. One home is made with thick straw bales, another with adobe, and another with rammed Earth walls which make air conditioning unnecessary – or less necessary – in the hot summers. (Since nights are relatively cool in the dry Central Valley, windows and attic vents opened in the evening help overcome daytime summer temperatures that frequently rise into triple digits.

The retreat met from Saturday morning through Sunday noon. We started with a PowerPoint presentation and discussion covering the basic facts of Global Warming. In the afternoon we divided into small groups and looked at the questions “What is Mine to Do?” as related to educating oneself and others, changing our personal behavior, and laboring with politicians and environmental groups, to move climate change higher on their lists. (Even environmental groups often ignore Global Warming in favor of issues more popular with their donor base.)

The retreat was long enough that attitudes had a chance to shift. One person made statements early on suggesting that the real work had to be in the policy arena and anything we as individuals could do, which might help us feel good, wouldn’t accomplish much. By the end of the retreat, he was recalling how the personal practice of early Friends refusing to doff their hats to royalty actually helped lay the foundation for more egalitarian attitudes in society. In the end there was a general feeling that witnessing to deeply held beliefs on the individual level can have significant effects on the society as a whole.

Others tapped into emotional obstacles to shifting behavior. Does living a consciously different lifestyle make one feel like a freak? Does it give us a sense of joy in the midst of crisis? Exploring feelings like these is a necessary part of changing consciousness. Almost no one, in this rural area, talked about giving up the car, but people did consider the witness, and concrete conservation implications of driving the speed limit, or even slower, and bicycling short distances. Many saw that exploring their feelings towards change, and teaching others what they learned, is an important part of the solution.

The members of the Visalia Friends Meeting sensed that it was important to make a once-per-month commitment to meet and discuss aspects of climate change. Several short books were mentioned as possible discussion starters, such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe and Brower and Leon’s The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. (There was a request for a useful guide to making choices after someone in the group complained about the set of suggestions being distributed that included everything including the kitchen sink, with no sense as to which changes are most important. There are many such lists available, not all useful.)

There was also interest in looking at their own behavior, and at least one small group talked of committing to a 10% personal reduction. The starting point for this kind of commitment is a questionnaire to assess greenhouse gas emission implications of current travel and household practices. This questionnaire was circulated beforehand, but few responded before the retreat. With the heightened consciousness of the retreat there was renewed interest in this exercise.

For me, the discussions were rewarding. Most participants searched for changes they could make personally and actions they could take that might make a real impact, rather than focusing on pie-in-the-sky technological fixes. Two teenagers met with me to give feedback on how young people might respond the PowerPoint presentation and what changes would make it more accessible to young people (Many thanks!).

During the weekend I visited old friends and made new ones. This retreat brought together a committed group of people around a topic they had previously considered interesting, if somewhat distant, and resulted in an elevated sense of urgency for this issue. The results were far different from what would have been possible after a one or two hour talk. In the retreat setting they had the time, and took the time, to make climate change part of their own work. I hope that Friends in Visalia Monthly Meeting keep us informed about what they are working on, their successes and difficulties.

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