Summary of 2017 Conference and AGM

The conference was held in the beautiful surroundings of Minster Abbey near Ramsgate, Kent, where fourteen of us gathered to consider the theme,  ‘Difficulties and Rewards of Leading a Simple Life Style’.

In the first session on Friday evening, people gave their personal responses to the theme.  Comments that came up more than once were the pressure people feel from family and friends to spend on non-essential items; the difficulty of dealing with unwanted gifts; the need to travel greater distances for basic shopping than in the past and the problem of family members living in different parts of the world.  Everyone did what they could to re-use or recycle goods and to minimise energy consumption.  There was interest in living in commnunity and John Gamlin spoke of his satisfaction at being able sometimes to repair appliances at his Old Hall community.  Hank Eynatten spoke of his spiritual motivation to live more simply which led him to retire from social work.  Initially he missed all the social contacts that went with work, but found that by volunteering to work with various organisations his life was as full as ever and he felt that his lifestyle and his beliefs were in closer agreement.  Annie said that the extra time that she enjoyed enabled her to be more creative.  Several members of the group recognised that they still had much to do if they were to live more sustainably, and the challenge to live in less space and to reduce one’s possessions, notably books, still remained.

Laurie Michaelis introduced the session on Saturday morning and told us that while all his work had been involved with sustainability, he was now less concerned with technology and put more emphasis on human psychology and life-style.  This had led him to start the Living Witness Project which aimed to discover whether Quakers could demonstrate change towards sustainable living through community action.  Progress so far had been slower than he had hoped.

He said there were no simple solutions to the problem of climate change, but in his experience, human interactivity was more effective than trying to arouse guilt feelings.  For most people, what is important is what people around them are doing.  Laurie suggested that change in lifestyle comes from people finding for themselves the need to reduce consumption rather than being persuaded by statistics.

It has been claimed that climate change might cause the deaths of up to 1 billion people annually if deaths from all related causes are taken into account.  Total emissions of greenhouse gases are currently about 1,000 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually; so that at worst, 1000 tonnes of CO2 emitted can be linked to the death of a human being.  This happens to be approximately the total emissions caused by a long-haul flight by a wide-bodied jet; so Laurie suggested that those taking such flights might consider which of their fellow passengers should be sacrificed to make the flight possible.

The talk gave rise to a lively question and comment session.

On Saturday afternoon, the AGM took place and our constitution was amended to conform to changes in the laws concerning charities.  Members of the LSM Committee who wished to continue in office were re-elected. Minutes are available by phoning 020 8505 7652.

After the AGM, we were interested to hear from a member of the Benedictine community of nuns at the Abbey, about her life in the Abbey.  She spoke of her difficulty at first in coping with the demands of the Rule of St. Benedict – it was hard to give up her lively social life and her valued personal possessions.  Gradually, however, she came to terms with the new lifestyle, and now had no regrets about the life commitment she had made.

The interest in community life, as a way of living more sustainably, was further stimulated by John Gamlin, telling us about the Old Hall Community at East Bergholt, Suffolk.  This is notably different from the nuns at Minster, in that residents are allowed private ownership and do not have to make a lifetime commitment.  John said his father had died when he was 10, and this led to a conviction that the nuclear family was too small.  When he and his wife, Brenda, saw an advertisement in 1974, inviting people to invest in the old buildings of a former friary and form a community of like-minded people living together, they responded and became founder members.  Brenda felt immediately at home and John said that men often find the transition to community life more difficult and take longer to settle.  The early years of the community were turbulent because there was no unity of ideas on how to live together.  A major split occurred after  18 months, but the remaining group resolved their differences and developed viable ways of running the establishment.  The Old Hall community now manages 80 acres of land and has a waiting list of applicants for memberships.

Referring to the theme of the Conference, John said that one reward was the satisfaction of eating home-grown organic food.  Old Hall was largely self-sufficient – except for coffee, oranges, etc.  John paid £60 per month for three meals a day, making the cost about 60p per meal.  Consumption of energy from the grid was minimised by a 30kW solar array and a heat pump that preheated water before reaching the Dragon wood-powered boiler.  Another advantage of community life at Old Hall was the amount of space available.  It was easy for anyone to get away on their own.  One could be a hermit, family-centred or community-minded, provided the responsibilities of membership were fulfilled.

The main difficulty about living in community was getting on with other people.  For John, other members ranged from those who were close friends to those with whom he had little or no communication.  Another problem was dealing with those who didn’t pull their weight.  Everyone was expected to do 15 hours of work for the community every week, with the elderly doing what they could.

John ended his talk by recommending the book, ‘Where the Wasteland Ends’, by Theodore Roszak.  This emphasised the importance of myths and called for the restoration of ways of thinking that existed before the Renaissance.  In particular, the industrialisation of society and the need to follow work, had largely destroyed the fellowship of the extended family, to our great loss.  John posed 3 challenges to members of the Lifestyle Movement:

  1.  How can we spread the message of the need for sustainable living?
  2.  How can we educate our children?
  3.  How can we develop a sense of community in the residential areas of our cities?

In response to other questions, John said that another advantage of living at Old Hall was that a single Council Tax payment and TV licence covered all the buildings with over 100 rooms.  Payments for repairs and maintenance, and each member’s accommodation depended on the space occupied as personal living quarters.  This was measured in terms of a unit for the largest suites, and fractions of a unit for those requiring less space.  The price moved up or down with the housing price index nationally, so a unit costing £10,000 in 1974, was now valued at £265,000.  Key decisions concerning the running of Old Hall were made by meetings of the community every Friday, but other specialist meetings took place as required.  Any member could attend any meeting.  Decisions were made by consensus and could be vetoed by a member on no more than two occasions.  After that, the majority view prevailed.

The rest of our time during the weekend was spent in being taken on a tour of the Abbey buildings, informal conversations and eating the excellent meals provided by the nuns.

Graham Davey

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