The Mt. Toby Method: How to stir up a ton of ideas and enthusiasm for climate action in your monthly meeting

From YAFCWG member Anna Barnett, member of Portland, ME Friends Meeting. Now attending Multnomah.

Last fall I had the pleasure of sitting with a group of Quakers talking about how to take action on climate change — without hand-wringing, guilt, draining diatribes or an existential who-have-Quakers-become crisis. Ideas flew and the room crackled with creativity and life as Friends brainstormed the next steps their Meeting could take toward active witness.

The gathering was the “11:40 Hour” at Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting, and I believe one secret to the energy in that room was a cunning structure and take-no-prisoners facilitation. A few weeks later, YAFCWG tried the “Mt. Toby Method” at one of our own meetings, with similarly rich results. And it’s an easy format to reproduce, with a little planning.

Some background: 11:40 Hour is an event held every few months at Mt. Toby, with the whole monthly meeting invited. It’s organized by a small committee of Friends with a concern for climate change, who meet monthly. By the standards of cat-herding Quakers, they run quite a tight ship — 11:40 Hour is named for the time it starts, and everyone who attends can be sure they’ll be free to head home at 12:40pm and no later.

Peter Blood, who helped run the meeting, told me that previously they’d held more open-ended discussions, but the mood tended to be low and when it came to solutions, Friends mostly focused on individual actions — as in “Well, I recycle,” or “People could do a lot by insulating their houses better.”

Yes. I know this story. I spent the spring traveling around the country and taking the opportunity to talk to people about the way they think the wind is blowing, in global terms. When I asked one friend whether he feels he can be involved in changing things for the better, he said, “Well, I guess I should be driving less. But what a pain.” To many, probably most people, this is what climate action means. And it is a pain, because you have to change your habits and you have to do it alone.

So for this meeting, the 11:40 Hour crew chose to focus exclusively on collective action — things their Meeting could do as a community, not as a set of more or less virtuous individuals. And they used a very structured format to focus people on the collective and the positive.

The Mt. Toby Agenda

(<60 min total)

3-5 min – Silence

10 min – Inspirational reading

In this case, a member of the climate committee read a piece about the spiritual roots of climate witness in Friends’ testimonies.

5 min – Group brainstorm: What has our meeting already done?

“We’re not starting from zero,” encouraged the organizers. This was a fast-paced shout-it-out brainstorm to remind the group that they are already a meeting who care about climate change and take action. The whole list got written on a flip chart.

12-15 min – Presentations on possible “shovel-ready” actions.

Four Friends each had 3 minutes to present a project or campaign that was ripe for support from the Meeting. Every project had already been organized, planned or researched, so there were clear next steps if the meeting wanted to get on board. The options at the Mt. Toby meeting included joining Interfaith Power & Light, working on’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, and creating a certification standard for green Quaker meetings.

10 min – Brainstorm other ideas for collective action by the meeting

Another fast-paced brainstorm. Here the facilitators needed to coach Friends to skip the background and rationale for their idea, and just offer an action — in a few words, so it could be written on the flipchart.

10 min – Final brainstorm: “What would it take for you, personally to be involved in supporting the meeting’s witness on climate change?”

Ahahahaha. This is such a good question. Not just “What should we do?” but “What do you need in order to be able to help us do it?” Such a good question that it was tough to get answers at first — it didn’t seem to come naturally to many Friends to talk in personal terms about their needs and what might be holding them back. Again, coaching from the facilitators was important to direct attention back to the specific question.


Tips on using this method

Based on my own experience and input from Peter…

  • Be formal about it. This is a brilliant structure, and Friends will follow it better if you are obviously taking it seriously. Use a timer for each section. Don’t let presenters go over time. And write down every suggestion.
  • Set a speedy pace. The great thing about the Mt. Toby meeting was how energetic it was from the very start. The secret to this is not talking fast, but quick and efficient transitions between the different sections. In the brainstorms, encourage Friends to let the ideas flow quickly.
  • Interrupt. This isn’t worship sharing (though I also love worship sharing). Have a facilitator who’s prepared to cut off rants and redirect Friends to the task at hand. Here are some examples of interruption techniques used at the Mt Toby meeting:
    • “Thank you, that is a very good point. (look away) Anyone else?”
    • “This is not the time to discuss; it’s the time to brainstorm (look away).”
    • Hold up your hand — “let’s not move into discussion right now…”

Good luck, and enjoy!


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Post on Urban Agriculture from Climate Progress

How Urban Farming Can Transform Our Cities — And Our Agricultural System

By Climate Guest Blogger on May 29, 2012 at 10:36 am

by Adam James

As concerns mount over the accessibility and quality of meals in cities, urban agriculture is becoming a practical solution to give communities more choice — all while helping address greenhouse gas emissions from centralized agriculture.

With over 80 percent of the American population living in metropolitan centers, urban farming has the ability to dramatically enhance economic growth, increase food quality, and build healthier communities.”

Read the rest!

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On the viability of solar power

So yesterday was the first Mid Year Gathering of NEYM, and it went pretty well overall. I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now I wanted to address one thing that came up in a discussion I held on possibilities for the future.

The issue raised was so-called inconsistency of solar and wind compared to fossil fuel and nuclear power. There are a number of problems with this bit of “common knowledge”, ranging from the myth of base-load power, and the fact that there’s no way to anticipate a coal or nuclear plant failure, but I wanted to point out a different thing for this – a solar plant capable of generating power 24 hours per day. 

Spain Solar Thermal Plant

This power plant uses mirrors to concentrate up to 1652 degrees Fahrenheit on the central tower, and molten salt that can be heated to 932 degrees Fahrenheit to store that heat and use it to generate power overnight. The average power generation comes to 20 hours per day, since it’s less in the winter when the sun is weaker, and it’s constant in the summer when the sun is at its strongest.

This is especially notable because the summer is going to be a time of ever-increasing energy costs over the course of this century as temperatures continue to rise, and air conditioning becomes essential for survival for more and more people.

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Doing things slowly

We live in a society that’s built around instant gratification, but a lot of the things that are done quickly, and cost us a lot of money don’t have to. 

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Book review: Toolbox for Sustainable City Living

This book review was originally published in Peacework Magazine, April 2009.  – Katherine

Sustainable Joy: Reclaiming our Energy for Environmentalism

Katherine Fisher is a Quaker with a longtime concern for social justice and environmental issues. Here she reviews Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide, by Scott Kellogg and Staci Pettigrew (South End Press, 2008).

When I was in college studying environmental science, people sometimes asked me, “Isn’t that depressing?” And to tell the truth, it kind of was. I graduated feeling burned out on environmentalism, and eager to do some work in ways where I could see more immediate tangible results. I have felt both sad and guilty about distancing myself from the environmental movement over the last five years. But I just read a book that makes me excited to be an environmentalist again.

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living is mostly a how-to book, with some background information and philosophy tying it all together. The main purpose of the book is to provide people with tools to meet basic human needs as the global climate changes and fossil fuels become more scarce. It contains sections on food, water, waste, energy, and bioremediation of land, as well as an excellent resources section and glossary at the end. The text is full of inspiring descriptions of groups that have successfully implemented these techniques (including the Worcester Roots Project, and Pedal People in Northampton, MA), and almost every page contains a photo or drawing of a working system. The drawings by Juan Martinez of the Beehive Design Collective in Eastern Maine are particularly engaging.

The systems the book describes are designed for urban areas, and include microlivestock (raising chickens and fish), collecting and purifying rainwater, constructing graywater systems, composting (including human waste), passive solar cooking and hot water, wind turbines, and removing toxins from contaminated land using plants, mushrooms, and bacteria. Gardening is noticeably absent, and the authors explain that because gardening is very well covered in other books, they chose to focus here on less well-known techniques. The descriptions are enough to get a good start on a project, and they also point the way toward other resources for more information.

Collective Action

The authors are founding members of the Rhizome Collective in Austin, Texas. A rhizome is an underground root system that sends up a large network of above-ground shoots. Similarly, the Rhizome Collective is a growing network of people who are working to build an underlying culture of sustainability and justice. In 2000, the Rhizome Collective acquired a warehouse and turned it into a community center and a place to try out urban sustainable designs. Currently, they provide space for community organizations such as Bikes Across Borders and the Austin Independent Media Center, and recently they were given a 10-acre former landfill and a $200,000 EPA grant to turn it into an ecological justice park.

The underlying philosophy in the book is not confined to environmental concerns, but also encompasses the politics of anti-racism and economic justice. The Rhizome Collective operates from a perspective of “dual power anarchism,” which they define as “working for social change within today’s society while at the same time building functional alternatives to oppressive dominant institutions.” For example, the consequences of waste disposal systems like incinerators and landfills have been disproportionately placed in low income neighborhoods and communities of color, and the book cites this injustice as a reason for developing autonomous waste disposal systems. Similarly, the concept of climate justice acknowledges that the burdens of global climate change will fall disproportionately on people in the Global South, who bear the least amount of responsibility for fossil fuel abuse. The Rhizome Collective uses this perspective to inform its work on sustainable energy, and cites Rising Tide North America and the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative as other organizations working on climate justice.

The authors apply their philosophy to the projects in the book through a set of characteristics of autonomous systems. Autonomous systems must be affordable; made of salvaged or locally abundant materials; simple; repairable by the user; replicable; and decentralized. These characteristics help to make sure the systems will increase community self-reliance, and decrease dependence on large resource monopolies. It is clear from these characteristics that the authors are not just imploring people to drive less and change a few light bulbs. They argue that the current fossil-fuel-based system will never be sustainable, and that radical change is necessary.

Don’t Be Scared

Scott Kellogg and Staci Pettigrew offer a refreshing perspective on the timing and urgency of environmental issues. They don’t hold back in their descriptions of what is happening, but they don’t fall into a trap common among environmentalists: the assumption that if people can be convinced of just how horrible the threat is, they will be scared into doing something about it. (See Getting a Grip by Frances Moore Lappé for more about this pitfall and how to avoid it.) Rhizome’s perspective is that environmental problems are real, and urgent, and more serious than most US Americans will let themselves believe, and that this is exactly why we need to focus on finding life-affirming ways to take action. Rhizome isn’t just talking about climate change; they’re modeling what we need to do about it.

A practical application of Rhizome’s perspective on the time-sensitive nature of environmental action is the idea that we should experiment and make mistakes now, while we still can. In the future, when we do not have access to cheap energy from fossil fuels, acquiring and transporting materials will be much harder. This is a hard truth, but the best way to deal with it is to face it, and use the resources that we have available now to refine techniques that we can use in the future. Rather than scaring us, Rhizome invites us to experiment.

This book made me excited to be an environmentalist again because it’s not just about environmental issues. It also addresses social justice in a real, radical, substantive way. It makes sustainable technology accessible to the majority of the world’s people (rather than just super-educated “experts,” or people who can afford hybrid cars). Rather than getting bogged down in fear and grief about what is happening to the earth, Rhizome invites us into a joyful, proactive response. I’m done researching the details of how bad things are. I’m ready to start building the solution.

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New Roroyare Climate Action Project

Friends, we have exciting news!

We are thrilled to announce that we are involved in an agreement to make forty acres of land in western Massachusetts available for use for climate action. This land will become a resource for YAFs to engage in research and development of agriculture, construction, energy generation – any project aimed at taking action on climate change, either to mitigate the damage we are doing, or to prepare for the the changes coming in this century.

Land is an expensive resource, and difficult to get access to, especially for a group of people of few means. This project will enable us to make that resource available to a group of people with energy, enthusiasm, and real motivation to invest in a better future for all of us!

For more information, periodic updates, and ways you can support the project, go to the New Roroyare Climate Action Project page.

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This is worth 42 minutes of your time.

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